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The Raincoats Were the Original Rock Gods All Along

Everett True reviews the 40th anniversary tour of a seminal debut album that influenced Kim Gordon and Kurt Cobain, but remained largely obscure itself.

by Everett True
15 November 2019, 12:27pm

Credit: Lorne Thomson / Getty

You have your classic Rock Gods, and that’s fine. Aerosmith. Pearl Jam. That scraggly bloke out of Radiohead who likes to pretend he’s smart and innovative. Good on you. Long may you prosper, propping up the status quo of whatever archaic heteronormative system that treats you like shit and laughs in your fucking face simultaneously. Well done. You’ve passed the test. You will end up watching The X Factor: Celebrity and whining about how music ain’t as good as it used to be.

I have my own Rock Gods, and they’re onstage right in front of me at Brighton’s Komedia – Ana da Silva, Anne Wood, Gina Birch. On drums, the inestimable Vice Cooler. The fabulous Raincoats, ladies and gentlemen. The Raincoats. Scratchy and unbowed and still taking two attempts to start trickier songs on their 40th anniversary, years and years after the band last toured or released anything. Decades on from when Johnny Rotten (née Lydon) announced in 1980 in Trouser Press, “Rock’n’roll is shit … music has reached an all-time low – except for The Raincoats.”

The Raincoats were feminists at a time when the rock press didn’t even know what women were, strikingly original and unafraid and following their own path. With a line-up that included Palm Olive and Vicky Aspinall (violin), their first two albums – The Raincoats (1979) and Odyshape (1981) – sounded like nothing else around; free-form and dub-influenced, a touch of The Velvet Underground perhaps, off-kilter rhythms and happy-sad lyrics which reflected their surroundings, but ultimately so human, so fragile and strong. Their influence far exceeds their fame. As Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth wrote in the sleeve-notes to the 1993 reissue of Odyshape:

“It was The Raincoats I related to most. They seemed like ordinary people playing extraordinary music. Music that was natural that made room for cohesion of personalities. 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."

Not everyone loved them, far from it. Danny Baker memorably remarked of an early show in the NME that “they are so bad that every time a waiter drops a tray, we’d all get up and dance”.

By 1984, two more albums – The Kitchen Tapes and Moving – had been released, and Ana and Gina turned to other projects. It wasn’t until 1994 that The Raincoats performed together again on stage, brought together by fan Kurt Cobain who asked the band to support Nirvana on the European tour that never took place. Since then, The Raincoats have only made rare live appearances, notably at Robert Wyatt’s 2001 Meltdown.

Tonight, the women in the crowd bob and weave and dance deliriously side to side, holding out their nails for inspection, singing lustily and emotional along with awkward pop classics such as "The Void" and heartrending "Million To One" and the rest. Fertile and febrile and resolutely, wickedly alive. Ana and Gina from the original Rough Trade Records line-up, the one that tore my world apart tail-end of the seventies – or, at the very least, made me feel less alone. Laughing and chiding and singing along with the beautiful not-harmonies. My own personal Rock Gods, my Bowies, my Madonnas, my Gene Vincents, my Raincoats.

The Raincoats self-titled album cover
'The Raincoats' (1979) released via Rough Trade

I cannot emphasise too much how The Raincoats’ debut self-titled album shaped me – friendless, frightened, socially awkward me – as I moved to London in 1979. Their sisters-in-arms The Slits held glamour by default, their squeals and shrieks of delight as they nicked stuff from shops making the city seem exciting to me, intoxicating. God, I wished for that. Life is not like that, though – ask Kurt Cobain as he trudged back streets through West London in 1992, searching for a replacement copy of his first Raincoats album. Life was fumbled glances and doomed liaisons, doomed because they never got arranged in the first place. Life was paranoia and uneasy walks back home, sideways glances over your shoulder. Lukewarm cups of tea and stop-start adventure. Life was… the Raincoats.

Tonight, they play the first album in its entirety, straight through. This is followed by four other songs, close. No encores, because punk bands don’t do fucking encores.

Beforehand, in pub near the venue, Gina asks if I can guess which songs – yes, I do get to hang with my Rock Gods, thank you. (Now, why would you choose Rock Gods that you can’t hang with?) “’Shouting Out Loud’, ‘’No One’s Little Girl’, that song you wrote 10 years ago – the ‘Feminist Song’ – and…” I flounder.

She teases me. “It’s the one with the weird instrument [the one that sounds like a tea-bell].” She starts humming it. I work it out. I join in. "Only Loved At Night".

I cheered their long-term manager Shirley O'Loughlin as she set up the mics at Deptford Albany Empire in ’79. I cheered as they turned The Kinks’ wonderful "Lola" on its head, made it even more wonderful, more inclusive. I cheered the scratchy violin, Gina’s dub-fuelled bass runs, the not-harmonies (but oh-so harmonies), Ana’s tricksy guitar, everything. I’d bounce up and down, dance jagged sideways, fuelled beyond euphoria by the build and fade, the crescendos and merry tumult, of "In Love" and "No Looking". And I cheer it all again tonight, limbs unwearied by age. At home, in my safe space. Bounce, Jerry, bounce!

“Are you alright?” Gina asks the worryingly enthusiastic crowd. She catches herself. “I’ve never said that before on stage,” she laughs. “That’s a very rock thing to do,” she says.

My Rock Gods.

On the way into the venue – it’s raining, of course (it’s a Brighton winter evening) – we wander by chance into a reading taking place at The Magazine Store. The founding editor of offline publishing house Analog Sea is reading from his anti-online manifesto, waxing hard about the isolating effect of social media networks, extolling the virtues of physicality and human contact:

“Alexa I am depressed.” “I hear you. You are not alone. Would you like to hear some nice music?”

Cue smooth jazz.

I don’t need therapeutic AI when I get depressed. I don’t need smooth jazz and cherry-peach music, I don’t need your male gaze and rounded-over edges. I have my own personal Rock Gods. And tonight they are in Brighton with me, reassuring, challenging, uplifting. The edges left in, the humanity left in.

On the way out, it was tipping it down. I got drenched, cycling back home from the station. Of course I did. I’d left my Raincoats behind.

@everetttrue

Everett True is a British music journalist and musician. He has published several books throughout his life and released the first record on Creation Records under his stage name The Legend! He currently runs the publishing company Rejected Unknown.

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