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Subtle Subversion: how I learned to love The Raincoats (a bit)

2011 September 29

So, I’m supposed to buy her some noodles and a book and sit around listening to chicks who can’t play their instruments, right?

10 Things I Hate About You

As a twelve-year-old in a post-industrial backwater, I discovered punk a long time after the fact, but when I did I took to it like a mohawked and safety-pinned duck to water. With the snobbery and omnicognisance of youth, however, I quickly developed a doctrinaire approach whereby if ‘punk’ songs weren’t short, sharp, and shouty, I didn’t want to know. Man, did London Calling fuck with my head, with its rackety punk take on reggae and soul and funk and lovers’ rock and, god forbid, jazz. When I first heard London Calling I swore never to listen to a good two-thirds of it again because it clearly wasn’t Real Punk. Like all teenage girls, I was insufferable.

black and white image showing three white long-haired women (the raincoats) in casual clothes leaning against a wall. However narrow my definition of punk, part of my love for it stemmed from the women involved. From The Slits, Gaye Advert, and X-Ray Spex to Debbie Harry’s pop-punk perfection, and I even liked some of Siouxsie’s dubious proto-goth warbling. But the Raincoats, a London-spawned collective built around the partnership of Gina Birch and Ana da Silva, never crossed my radar.

As I got deeper into exploring music in its socio-political context (told you I was an insufferable teenager), my compulsive reading of Greil Marcus and Simon Reynolds and the 90s music press made me aware, to a grudging extent, that it was what came after punk that really shook things up – the fragmented, untrained, scraps of mad genius that formed the postpunk movement, in which punk’s long-term revolutionary potential really bore fruit – or so I read, suspiciously. One of the most lauded of postpunk bands were the Raincoats. So I tried, but at the age of thirteen or so I never could click with them or their kind of folk-punk-gypsy-jazz-spoken-word-world-music tapestry. What was the relationship this band allegedly bore to punk? Where were the tightly-wound two-minute blasts of guitar scree and rants about boredom, alienation, nihilism, concrete and bad sex? The Raincoats’ hesitant, eerie, self-effacing, gentle and loose-knit stylings were something I had no patience for and no sympathy with. I didn’t get it, and the suggestion that this was music which, as a female, I should get, I found frankly offensive. It said nothing to me about my life.

I don’t really know anything about The Raincoats except that they recorded some music that has affected me so much that, whenever I hear it I’m reminded of a particular time in my life when I was (shall we say) extremely unhappy, lonely, and bored. If it weren’t for the luxury of putting on that scratchy copy of The Raincoats’ first record, I would have had very few moments of peace.

– Kurt Cobain, 1993

A couple of years later, as contemporary grunge and riot grrrl joined vintage punk in my affections, Kurt Cobain’s referencing of the Raincoats made me give them a second chance, or at least a second listen. This time around I could discern something I could identify with, something that was tangled up with the altered territory of adolescence. The burgeoning horror of growing up, the all-encompassing anxiety over my looks, my body, my clothes, was something the Raincoats now spoke to. There was an obvious prototype for riot grrrl’s anatomising of feminine neurosis and feminist analysis of the personal and political. The struggle to occupy public space with confidence rather than fear, the baffling revelation that falling in love can be more nauseating angst than fairytale bliss, the terrifying tricks that biology and psychology can play on you – it was all here, just expressed through suggestion rather than stridency.

Being a woman is both feeling female, expressing female and also (for the time being at least) reacting against what a woman is told she ‘should’ be like. This contradiction creates chaos in our lives and, if we want to be real, we have to neglect what has been imposed on us, we have to create our lives in a new way. It is important to try and avoid as much as possible playing the games constantly proposed to you.

– Ana da Silva, vocals/guitar, The Raincoats

The untried, experimental nature of a lot of postpunk music seemed particularly suited to the Raincoats’ female-centred concerns. Punk did a great deal to remove barriers of precedent and technical expertise, creating a space for musical and lyrical uncharted territory. The Raincoats had sounded so off-puttingly alien to me at first because they were– their tentative, unfamiliar steps towards music were a groundbreaking way of doing things.

Sure, women had been singers and musicians before now, but even Patti Smith remained reliant on male musicians and male-defined musical styles to back up her creative ambition. By contrast, the Raincoats’ self-titled début was described by Vivien Goldman as the first ‘women’s rock’ album, its deconstruction of traditional forms pioneering an arresting and persuasive form of rock without the cock. Their song writing was fresh and original, and so was their mode of dress and performance – a refusal of showbiz glamour which saw the band perform in outfits which clashed colours and styles, deconstructed fashion and female aesthetics, and certainly weren’t put together with an appreciative male gaze in mind.

It was The Raincoats I related to most. They seemed like ordinary people playing extraordinary music… They had enough confidence to be vulnerable and to be themselves without having to take on the mantle of male rock/punk rock aggression or the typical female as sex symbol avec irony or sensationalism.

– Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth

In a sense, I’m still getting into the Raincoats – they aren’t a go-to listen for me, they feature on few of the playlists I throw together, and I rarely want to stick them on at parties. They’re not a band I often want to listen to, but occasionally they’re a band I feel I need to listen to. At any rate, they’ve inspired bands, particularly women in bands, from Sonic Youth to The Gossip, and there’s little doubt of their significance, interest and influence. If further proof were needed, their version of the Kinks’ Lola stands alongside the Slits’ recasting of Heard it Through the Grapevine as one of the best boundary-blurring covers ever. It’s taken me a long time but I’m happy to admit that The Raincoats are, very gently, punk as fuck.


Rhian Jones also blogs at Velvet Coalmine.

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