“When I listen to the Raincoats I feel as if I’m a stowaway in an attic, violating and in the dark. Rather than listening to them I feel like I’m listening in on them. We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still or they will hear me spying from above and, if I get caught – everything will be ruined because it’s their thing.”
– Kurt Cobain
If the ethos of punk rock was to rip up the hit-making rulebook, strip back the gloss and the excess, and value raw fervour over technical accuracy, then the Raincoats, formed in 1977 by then novice musicians Ana da Silva and Gina Birch, were perhaps the punkest of the punk. Their band took the homemade aesthetic to extremes, constructing songs on cheap instruments they had only just bought. But with their open, sparse assemblage of lo-fi rock and folk instrumentation, they were misfits amongst the clamour of angry, macho punk.
Birch and da Silva formed the Raincoats while they were both unemployed and living in squats in London. They had seen the Slits, another group of punk rockers who formed with little technical ability, play their first concert and were inspired to form their own group. Birch told She Shreds Media in 2017, ‘It was as if suddenly I was given permission. It never occurred to me that I could be in a band. Girls didn’t do that. But when I saw the Slits doing it, I thought, “This is me. This is mine.”’ Da Silva had learned some basic guitar technique , while Birch had never played bass before but decided it was her best shot.
The two began writing songs together, learning to play their instruments by ear. They were joined by various other musicians during their first year as a band, but it was alongside classically trained violinist Vicky Aspinall and former drummer for the Slits, Paloma Romero, better known as Palmolive, that they played their first gigs and released their eponymous debut in 1979.
Chaotic, raw and impressionistic, The Raincoats is a rough collage of 10 wildly imaginative songs (11 on the 2009 reissue) that abruptly shift between fast and slow, loud and soft, tuneful and dissonant. The album has an intangible spontaneity to it, as though the ideas and visions of each band member are falling together in real time as you listen to it, as if it could never be recreated and sound even remotely the same.
Birch has compared the band’s song-writing process to creating a dress out of different scraps of fabric. And on The Raincoats, they are not afraid to let the stitching show, with some songs barely hanging together by a thread. Unlike a lot of punk acts of the day, the Raincoats didn’t fill every bar with noise, instead treating the space between sounds as just as important as the sounds themselves. Their instruments intermingle without ever blending and losing their identities, with Birch’s scattered bass-line often exposed, and Aspinall’s scratchy violin lending a distinctive rawness and sense of unease.
Given their use of open space and their distant, hushed vocal delivery, writer Jen Pelly aptly dubs the Raincoats’ debut album ‘introversion as punk’. This is perhaps best demonstrated on the threadbare cover of ‘Lola’ by the Kinks. The lyrics are sung so low as to almost be incomprehensible, which, along with the fumbling clatter of instrumentation, makes room for a sense of clumsy shyness within the song’s narrative. As Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth wrote in her liner notes for the Raincoats’ second album, the band ‘had enough confidence to be vulnerable and to be themselves without having to take on the mantle of male rock/punk rock aggression.’
In their lyrical themes, however, the Raincoats are anything but shy, with their debut tackling consumerism on ‘Fairy Tale in the Supermarket’, sexual violence on ‘Off Duty Trip’ and suicide with ‘Life on the Line’. In an interview with Greil Marcus, they explained that they wanted to carve out a space for themselves outside of the white male-dominated world of rock music: ‘The basic theme in rock’n’roll is what goes on between men and women…Rock’n’roll is based on black music. And it’s based in the exclusion of women and the ghettoization of blacks. Which is why we want to put a bit of distance between what we do and the rock’n’roll tradition.’
The band’s interest in heavy subject matter grew for their experimental second album Odyshape. The title track critiques feminine beauty standards, while ‘Baby Song’ discusses the undervaluing of motherhood throughout history. But perhaps most damning of all is the heart-wrenching ‘Family Treet’ which contains the lyrics, ‘So you succumb / to the dumb processions / of acts of faith, / of woman born, / of man slain. / Do we have the power to will any other way?’
As well as a sharpening of their socio-political commentary, Odyshape also saw the band push the boat out further with their sonic palette, using an array of sounds rarely heard within rock music, including Indian instruments, the shehnai and the shruti box, as well as the kalimba and the West African balophone. The album also features multiple different drummers, Palmolive having left the band, and sees the band experiment with different percussive instruments, from claves to timpani.
For their third album Moving, the Raincoats changed up their style once again, this time drawing on their work for both previous albums, as well as other contemporary genres to assemble a delightfully odd mix of tracks. The 1993 reissue begins with the single ‘No One’s Little Girl’, whose raw sweetness, sparse instrumentation and straightforward feminist message make it a perfect encapsulation of the Raincoats as a musical project.
Then there’s much more refined tracks like ‘Overheard’ and ‘Rainstorm’, which see the band’s instruments really cohere for the first time, creating a sense of tension and atmosphere. Perhaps the strangest cut on the album is ‘Animal Rhapsody’, which is essentially a disco track, but, the Raincoats being the band they are, they add a Celtic fiddle solo and vocals so weirdly high-pitched you’d be forgiven for thinking the song was recorded after the invention of Auto-Tune. The album closes with ‘Running Away’ which is the closest thing to pop the band had made thus far. From this cheerful, delicately arranged track, it’s easy to see the influence the Raincoats had on twee indie pop acts like Belle and Sebastian, whose lead singer and songwriter Stuart Murdoch listed the band’s self-titled album as a personal favourite.
The Raincoats would dip into the realm of pop once again for their fourth and final studio record in 1996. After Kurt Cobain’s praise for the band and the Riot Grrrl movement had reignited interest in the underground feminist punk scene, Birch and da Silva recruited violinist Anne Wood and drummer Heather Dunn to create Looking in the Shadows, a darker, more mature album than any of their previous output. Producer Ed Buller polishes the record with warm synths and crisp electric guitars, giving it a gloss that would have taken long-time Raincoats’ fans aback. There are some definite triumphs on the album, however, particularly the zestful Birch-penned tracks ’57 Ways to End It All’ and ‘Love a Loser’.
At every twist in their unconventional career path, the Raincoats have been driven by their passion for their art form, choosing to be vulnerable and obscure, where trends told them to be fierce and clear-cut. But to measure their achievements as a band in terms of their commercial success, their critical acclaim, or even their prowess as musicians and composers is to overlook the fundamental joy and care that underpinned everything they created.
With the young Birch and da Silva’s minimal musical experience and lack of finances, and their complete disregard for conventions and sensationalism, the Raincoats remind you there is no better reason to do something than because you love it. They made music that could soothe as easily as it could alienate, music that neither tried too hard to shock, nor to please. Most of all, they made music that was painfully, earnestly, jubilantly human.
I hear the music outside,
And I am the music inside.
– The Raincoats, ‘No Side to Fall In’
Cobain, Kurt. Liner Notes for The Raincoats. Rough Trade, 1993
Gordon, Kim. Liner Notes for Odyshape. Rough Trade, 1993
Jamal, Nazmia. ‘Biogrpahy’ in ‘About Us’. The Raincoats, http://www.theraincoats.net/aboutus.html
Marcus, Greil. In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-1992. Harvard University Press, 1999, available at: https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/In_the_Fascist_Bathroom/1UqP73-KGDYC?hl=en&gbpv=0
McDonnell, Evelyn. ‘The Raincoats: Looking in the Shadows’. Rolling Stone, 1996, available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20080726014651/http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/theraincoats/albums/album/222415/review/5945745/looking_in_the_shadows
Murdoch, Stuart. ‘Stuart Murdoch – Observer Music Monthly’. The Observer, 2004, https://www.theguardian.com/observer/omm/story/0,,1241217,00.html
Neyland, Nick. ‘The Raincoats: Odyshape Album Review’. Pitchfork, 2011, https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/15802-odyshape/
Pelly, Jenn. ‘The Raincoats’ Debut Album Is a Classic DIY Document’. Pitchfork, 2017, https://pitchfork.com/features/article/the-raincoats-debut-album-is-a-classic-diy-document/
Power, Chris. ‘Review of The Raincoats – Odyshape’. BBC Music, 2011, https://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/9dhf/
Schemmer, Cynthia. ‘40 Years of Fairytales: A Retrospective of The Raincoats’. She Shreds Media, 2017, https://sheshreds.com/40-years-fairytales-retrospective-raincoats/
Scott, Hayley. ‘INTERVIEW: The Raincoats’. The Quietus, 2016, https://thequietus.com/articles/21281-interview-the-raincoats