A knot in my heart: The Raincoats at the Feminist Library Summer Benefit, London, 2 July 2016
Photo by Amber Bateup.
It’s hard to talk about The Raincoats. I’m writing this from a teahouse in London, trying to figure out why that is. I can’t find the right phrase to describe the knot in my heart that tightens when I think about them. It’s the kind of knot that holds you together. It’s a knot that forms when you’re about to fray and glue isn’t the right descriptor. It’s a knot that formed a long time ago. It’s like a cheap gift from a childhood sweetheart. It’s a pretty band-aid from the school nurse. It’s a lolly from the dentist. It’s a friendship necklace that means forever. It’s the antidote that came when I was sad and didn’t know who I was, and it grasped the loose ends in my heart and tied them together with the simple words, “You are a Raincoats fan”.
I won’t lie – I came to The Raincoats via Kurt Cobain. I was one of those obsessive Nirvana fans (who wasn’t?) who came across his ’50 Favourite Albums List’ and thought, I have to listen to every album on there before I graduate. The Raincoats’ self-titled debut was number 21 on the list. I went to it first because I liked their name. It was a great name for a London band. It was appropriate. It was unassuming. I hunted down a copy in Perth institution 78 Records, and I turned it up loud one morning in my Discman as I caught the bus to school. When I arrived at the green gates, I was not the same person who had left the house. I felt distinctly changed. Was I taller? There was definitely a sureness that hadn’t been there before. I was now a Raincoats fan, and even if I didn’t know what I would do after school, that was all I needed to know. The scrappy, portentous drum roll at the beginning of ‘Fairytale in the Supermarket’ heralded the birth of something new and exciting for me, even though the song had come out 25 years ago, and The Raincoats had long disbanded.
The album wasn’t trying to be grand. It was just real, and genuine – words that mattered a lot to me in an era of vapid pop. It seemed to say, we don’t care if we don’t play our instruments real good or stick to 4/4 time – we have something to say and we have a racket to make. The opening lines – “It makes no difference, night or day; no one teaches you how to live!” ricocheted in my brain. It was true. Every day my head was crammed with facts and algebra and words but there was no instruction on how to negotiate the scary world outside. And here were four timeless girls from the seventies who acknowledged that you never really learned it, but they knew what they were doing anyway. They had conviction. It was my induction into lo-fi, grassroots punk, the kind of punk that made my cold heart melt. I had discovered punk a few months earlier through records by The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Patti Smith and The Ramones, and I loved them all, but I’d never heard anything like The Raincoats. This wasn’t marketable in any sense – even I knew that. Suddenly the ideals of punk made sense to me. This new understanding fitted into my head like a missing puzzle piece.
Punk was never about making songs for the radio. It was about rejecting standards, things that had come before and were no longer sufficient; it was about demolishing established structures and hierarchies; it was about the idea that anyone – even four eccentric girls who hadn’t been playing their instruments for very long – could play a gig or make a record if they had something to say and a particular way they wanted to say it. The Raincoats, along with their counterparts The Slits, were that band. They were the ultimate punks, being women, being un-marketable, being semi-proficient, and desiring to go against every rock and roll cliché that opened the seventies. The Raincoats were making music for themselves, and they were having fun, and they were expressing themselves, and they didn’t care if anyone liked it or not. I was entranced by them and by the defiant, odd and unconventional songs they invented, and they made a knot in my heart that has stood the test of time ever since.
So when I clattered up the steps of the Feminist Library, just off the South Bank in London, I felt like a teenager again, all nerves and butterflies and sweaty palms. Finally, after more than ten years of fandom, I was going to witness Ana de Silva and Gina Birch of The Raincoats in a tight, intimate space headlining the worthy cause of saving a library. It was the Feminist Library’s Summer Benefit, and the packed program included writers, artists and musicians such as literary darling Ali Smith, and Rachael House, the graphic artist. There were feminist zines, vegetarian food, and plenty of friendly faces. I shuffled from one narrow corridor to another, taking in as much as I could of the history and the role of the Feminist library. I kept thinking that this is exactly the sort of place you’d expect The Raincoats to play. The library is struggling to survive as the council intends to boot them out of a space they occupied since the seventies. So, who else to headline but the pioneering, candid and bravely weird women who carved out a space in seventies DIY punk?
I was nervous as I finally filed into the modest performance space with my friend Amber Bateup, a music photographer from our hometown with her camera primed and ready to capture a special moment for both of us. It was seven fifteen – I was half an hour early. I filed into a seat at the front and tried not to stare as Ana and Gina mulled around in front of me, tuning up their instruments and chatting to each other in between appraising grins, with the air of people who are just humbled and chuffed to be at such an event. I couldn’t believe that they were a few metres in front of me, and so unmistakably them, despite the years and a few grey hairs and extra lines on their faces. I was struck by their energy and their easy confidence that filled up the whole room. I was in the presence of the women who inspired me to keep doing my art no matter what anyone thought, and no matter how bad I thought it was. I was in front of my teenage heroes, right in front of them, and I never thought time and space and distance would part for me at this exact moment in 2016.
Mike Powell wrote for Pitchfork that, upon seeing The Raincoats for the first time: ‘The excitement of seeing a band you’ve never had the opportunity to see before gets leveraged not only against your own high expectations, but against the idea that you were never supposed to see them– that you had come to love them as something distant and finite, part of a past that felt more precious because you assumed it would never happen again.’ In this way, Amber and I knew we were lucky. It seemed impossible that two girls from sleepy Perth would one day get to see a band that set in motion a lot of what independent music now revolves around. I could stifle the sadness of never seeing Ari Up or Poly-Styrene, who had passed away years earlier, and just thank the stars that two of The Raincoats were now leaning into their microphones, guitar and bass jutting from their hips, and with a smile at each other, jumped bass first into the defiant strains of ‘Fairytale in the Supermarket’.
My heart jolted. Suddenly it was 2004 again and I was sitting on the bus in my green tunic listening to this song change my life. And somehow it’s still 1977; Gina and Ana are yelping, chanting and shouting as though forty odd years is still lying in wait. My eyes well up as they elongate the lyric that first captured me. “NO ONE TEACHES YOU HOOOOW TO LIIIIIVE!” The Raincoats taught me how to live. I’m in London during the fortieth anniversary of punk rock, watching the women who made Kurt Cobain’s knees go weak, their voices passionate and strong and unchanged. I could close my eyes and they would still be the awkward, gangly girls they were in 1979. Like Patti Smith, age has made no difference to their power and presence. The vocals are unfaltering, and the song is as familiar as their own flesh. Amber and I join the sing-along, tentatively at first, and then with loud joy: “Honey don’t worry, this is just a fairytale, happening in the supermarket”. We look at each other and grin like little kids in a lolly shop, our ‘Riots not Diets’ badges gleaming on our coats. We look around and see the stupid grins of sixty or so women and men (mainly women), a mixture of older and younger. The Raincoats, like many much-loved bands, attracts fans from all creeds and generations. Such is their impact.
After ‘Fairytale in the supermarket’ and the whoops and happy shouts and claps, they launch into Everett True’s proclaimed favourite, ‘No Looking’, and my second favourite song on the record. Oh God, it’s so true, I think. It’s so true when you’re looking at someone wishing they would just look at you, and they don’t. They build up the tension like it’s catastrophic. First Gina spits the lyrics, then Ana bobs forward to continue – it s a back and forth of the phrase ‘No Looking’ that outshines The Libertine’s infamous and most popular refrain ‘Can’t stand me now’ (and I am also rather a huge fan of those boys). The crowd is overjoyed that they are playing these songs from the first album. Granted, they’re not as complicated as the second album, for which they would definitely need a full band, but they’re the ones everyone loves most, because that album is usually how you’re introduced to The Raincoats.
So they play ‘You’re A Million’. Ana plays her droning chords while Gina frenetically fingers her bass over the top of it and then they pause suddenly, shouting STOP HERE. My heart stops. Right now, I would listen to anything those women told me. I feel dangerous. The song is dangerous. “stop here and go away. Take your time with you. I haven’t the time for you.’ It’s technically a love song, but it’s got an ominous air because nothing about The Raincoats is ever straightforward. There’s always a tension, there’s always a bipolar retraction. The music speeds up as they tone down their voices to an almost whisper: “You’re a million and I’ve loved you. You’re a million and I’m yours.’ The Raincoats highlight the messy reality of relationships, the push and pull, how uncertainty can turn into conviction in minutes and vice versa. They’re not afraid to be contradictory.
The rest of the precious half hour set is given over to recent songs they’ve played at gigs since 2008. The Raincoats reformed in 1996 to release a new album called ‘Looking in the Shadows’, a postscript to the disappointing cancellation of their 1994 April tour with Nirvana due to the devastation of Cobain’s death. That was the tour that could have made them “famous”, but The Raincoats don’t care. They saw it as an excuse to make a new record, but they don’t play any of the songs off it. Instead they play ‘Pussy Riot’ a tribute to the outspoken Russian feminist band whose leading members ended up in jail for performing their polemic songs in a church, and it’s obvious Ana and Gina feel strongly about this. Pussy Riot are heroes to them, as they are to many people in the room this night. The Raincoats remind us that sometimes it’s dangerous to be a feminist, but their song is an ode to survival and the beautiful persistence of art.
Then, after a few quibbles between themselves about what tuning the next song is in, and an embarrassed laugh, they play the cacophonous “No Love”. Their energy jumps about the small room in sparks – there is no point at which they seem tired, or bored, or ready to go. The Raincoats revel in the moment, and time seems to stop when they play. Ana de Silva takes centre stage for “Disco Ball”, leaving her guitar while Gina creates an assortment of sounds behind her. The plaintive refrain “I shine like a disco ball” could be a critique of female cosmetics, or it could be about inner beauty, depending on how you look at it. It’s a slow song, and puts us in a blissful trance, as both Ana and Gina sway ever so slightly. The strains of ‘I keep walking’ follow as a surprise – it’s from the B-side off their single ‘Don’t Be Mean’, released in 1996. It’s one of their most straightforward guitar songs, and as far as guitar songs go, it’s a beautiful gash in their oeuvre. It’s a surreal landscape of observations – it’s a romantic look at London life and the joys of wandering alone.
I whisper to Amber, “it feels like we’re walking with her”. The repetition of I keep walking towards the end, with that familiar Raincoats build up of intensity, the back and forth between both vocalists, becomes a desperate ode to survival that ends with some beautiful harmonies to assure us that all is well again, and can be. It’s been nearly forty minutes, I realise, and with a sinking feeling, it’s time to let The Raincoats go. But not without some fanfare – with conviction in their faces, they scuff their shoes on the carpet of the Feminist library and look at all of us self-professed feminists, male and female, and launch into the song ‘Feminist’, a rousing, passionate, and defiant monologue by Gina, first presented at MoMa in 2010.
“When you ask me if I’m a feminist
I say to hell with loneliness
to hell with powerlessness”
The room is hushed. Gina is looking us all in the eyes and her gaze burns bright.
“Yeah there are people in positions of power and women in positions of power
but so many more left in drudgery, powerless
Invisible in history”
Gina pauses, and then when the instruments jerk up again, she raises her voice:
“When you ask me
if I’m a feminist
I say WHY THE HELL WOULD I NOT BE?’
She shouts the last line and everyone in the room cheers.
“Why the hell / would I / not be” She elongates the lines and etches them in my brain. I’m in England suffering from a recent betrayal and The Raincoats are saving me all over again. The knot in my heart that had come loose by an influx of pain is deftly tied back together by their voices, and their presence in this room, in this library, in this city, in this maelstrom, in all the various encounters and happenings that have brought all of us here to relive 1979 in 2016. I think, The Raincoats are still relevant. I think, thank you Kurt for your 50 top albums list.
The Raincoats always had something to say and they have something to say now, as we start to file out past them and they watch us with keen eyes in between packing up their instruments.
They say, your work is not done. They say, go out and make your own racket.
They say, teach yourself how to live.
When I get up in a daze to procure the set list, give my thanks and shuffle towards the door, I almost salute them.