The Raincoats were one of the most innovative, exciting and enthralling bands to come out of the late-1970s London punk scene. They were responsible for 3 classic studio albums in the 1970s and early 1980s, an excellent live album, and a mid-1990s comeback that was, remarkably, equal in quality to their earlier work.
The original line-up was based around Ana da Silva, on guitar, Gina Birch on bass and Vicky Aspinall on violin and guitar. On their first releases, they were joined by Palmolive of The Slits on drums, but later worked with a wide variety of percussionists including Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth, and Robert Wyatt. Ana da Silva, a Portuguese woman studying in London, met Gina Birch at art school.
Their first recording was the single Fairytale in the Supermarket, released in 1979 on legendary London indie label Rough Trade, which went on to release all their records in the United Kingdom. This was followed by their self-titled debut album the same year. Both these releases have an astonishingly fresh and inventive sound, as if they are making it up as they go along, or questioning every note as they play it. As Greil Marcus wrote in the sleevenotes to The Kitchen Tapes:
Early recordings.. did not seem to have subjects; they seemed to be in the way other music was about. Listening you were part of an argument, or an argument struggling to turn itself into a celebration, or a celebration that could without warning break up into unpredictable component parts: whimsy, slyness, rage, for example.
These recordings might seem demanding listening, with irregular structures, odd rhythms and time signatures, and lyrics about prostitution, rape, the military, love, being afraid walking home at night. But they are also thrilling experiences, with a perverse sense of pop, and a constant playfulness. And for light relief, there's a hilarious cover version of Lola by The Kinks (a group of women singing a song from the point of view of a man being seduced by a man pretending to be a woman); despite enough material for a degree course in gender identity, Palmolive's drumming is even funnier than Ana's straight-faced singing.
By the time they recorded their second album, Odyshape, The Raincoats had learnt a lot. They had travelled the world exploring different musical forms and instruments, and moved away from their early amateurism playing. Odyshape (1981), which derives its name from a fortunate decapitation of the word "bodyshape", sees their musical palette expand considerably, with a variety of bizarre instruments they collected on their travels.
The mood of this album is slower, more reflective and tuneful. Dancing in my Head is perhaps the best track, a song about spirituality that avoids falling into any trite new age sentiment. One of Gina Birch's best vocal performances tells how she's "physically feeling tired but my spirit is dancing, dancing in my head and in my heart", over an instrumental backing that seems to shimmy and slouch like a dancing reptile. That it avoids any superficial mysticism or vague metaphysical hand-waving is largely due to the song's keen experimentalism, which is coupled with its sensual, physical feel even as they sing about the spiritual; and the band's keen analytical intelligence that makes every note seem planned yet free. Even what sounds like a watch alarm going off about a minute into the track seems to fit.
Their third studio album, Moving (1984) appeared to be their swansong; they had split before it was released. Although not quite as good as their first two, it still contains a number of excellent song, including their almost-manifesto No One's Little Girl.
Try it out
You can do it if you choose it
Try it out
A year earlier, The Kitchen Tapes was released, a recording of a concert at New York's Kitchen club, released by Roir, with sleeve notes by Greil Marcus. This is an excellent record of their live style, containing great versions of a number of tracks off Odyshape and Moving.
After they split in 1984, it was silence for almost ten years. Legend has it that Ana da Silva and Gina Birch spent the rest of the 1980s working in a Covent Garden, London, antiques shop, until they were interrupted one day by Kurt Cobain who was looking for them to try and get hold of their records. Cobain had been a long-time fan of their music, and was largely responsible for the reissuing of their three studio albums by Rough Trade in the mid 1990s. Cobain also asked the band to reform to support his band Nirvana on a tour of Europe. (He describes meeting Ana on the sleeve notes to Incesticide, although he spells her name wrongly).
Cobain wrote the sleeve notes for the reissue of the band's first album (which also added "Fairytale in the Supermarket"); his notes are a wonderful piece of writing as poetic as any of his lyrics. For the other reissues, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth did similar duties on Odyshape, and on Moving members of British Riot Grrrl bands Mambo Taxi and Voodoo Queens revealed the extent of the Raincoats' influence. (Although sadly it's more The Raincoats' early amateurishness that is imitated than their consistent experimentalism; Vicky Aspinall said in 1994 she saw little in common between the Riot Grrrl movement and the fragility and unconventional approach of the Raincoats' music.)
Ana and Gina picked up their instruments again in 1994, accompanied by Anne Wood on violin and Steve Shelley on drums. As well as some well-received live performances (I saw a magical gig at The Venue, Edinburgh, that felt like a homecoming, a reunion with old friends), they recorded a session for the BBC in London, which was released as the Extended Play EP. This included two new songs "We smile" and "Don't be mean", as well as versions of old tracks "No one's little girl" and "Shouting out loud".
Two years later they followed this up with another album "Looking in the shadows" still for Rough Trade. Although it seemed that every punk band from the Sex Pistols to The Buzzcocks were reforming around the same time, The Raincoats' comeback stood head and shoulders above their old colleagues for its quality and refusal to stand still. Gina Birch contributed a number of very funny, well observed and catchy songs like "Don't be mean" and "Baby dog", while Ana da Silva moved in a more abstract, subtle, atmospheric, ethereal (horrible word) direction.
At the time of writing (October 2001) The Raincoats are still performing occasionally. Meanwhile Birch has her own band, The Hangovers, and also appeared on "Don’t Flake out on Me", a track off The Fidelity Wars, the second album by Hefner, London's kings of male self-loathing.
U.K. Discography (albums and EPs; all on Rough Trade)
The Raincoats, 1979
The Kitchen Tapes
Looking in the Shadows
The Raincoats - album by The Raincoats (1979)
Track listing (1993 reissue):
Fairytale in the Supermarket
No Side to Fall In
Adventures Close To Home
Off Duty Trip
Black And White
Life On The Line
You're A Million
Adventures Close To Home was written by Palmolive, and also performed by her other band The Slits on their debut album Cut. Lola is The Kinks' song.