The punk icon Gina Birch is surprised to hear that John Lydon recently competed for the honour of representing Ireland at Eurovision. She is even more shocked that his song was publicly critiqued by the noted alt-rock connoisseurs Jedward. “Did it go nowhere?” she asks. Told that Lydon’s song Hawaii finished fourth and that Jedward judged it “not quite right” for the contest, she shakes her head. “That is weird.”
Back in the days of the Sex Pistols and early Public Image Limited, Lydon was a vocal backer of Birch’s group. “Rock’n’roll is s**t,” he declared. “Music has reached an all-time low – except for The Raincoats.”
The all-woman four piece, with their woozy, wispy sound, were elsewhere dismissed as amateurish and unlistenable. There was some racism too: two of the original line-up were from southern Europe, and you’d better believe the music press picked up on that.
Lydon, though, saw the genius of songs such as Fairytale in the Supermarket, avant-garde wonders that gave off a magical-realist shimmer. As he recognised, The Raincoats seemed too gentle to exist in the gobby world of punk, the lyrics possessing the half-formed aspect of hazy thoughts drifting through on a cloudless day (“cups of tea are a clock, a clock, a clock, a clock”). These qualities likewise define Birch’s wonderful new solo album, I Play My Bass Loud, released on Jack White’s bespoke Third Man Records label.
“John Lydon was what made the Sex Pistols, and what made early punk interesting,” Birch, who is now 68, says, Zooming in from her kitchen in London. “He wasn’t going in there just to be, ‘Aargh!’ He had very interesting ideas. He was a cross between Richard III and Albert Steptoe ... But he’s complicated, isn’t he? He’s not one to be put in a box. He’s a contrarian a bit as well.”
Lydon was the first of many high-profile admirers of The Raincoats, which Birch founded with Ana da Silva, a Portuguese expat, after they attended a concert by the feminist trio The Slits and saw in punk a genre where women artists could follow their own rules.
They would later be championed by the Riot Grrrl movement, the early-1990s explosion of feminist alternative rock that saw itself as building on the foundations laid down by The Raincoats – and by the New York noise band Sonic Youth, whose guitarist Thurston Moore appears on I Play My Bass Loud.
“They seemed like ordinary people playing extraordinary music,” Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon would write in the liner notes to a reissue of The Raincoats’ 1981 LP, Odyshape. “They had enough confidence to be vulnerable and to be themselves without having to take on the mantle of male rock/punk rock aggression.”
All of these cheerleaders would be eclipsed by Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who wrote a gushing valentine to The Raincoats on the sleeve of Incesticide, Nirvana’s B-sides compilation. Listening to The Raincoats, he wrote, “made me happier than playing in front of thousands of people each night, rock-god idolisation from fans, music industry plankton kissing my ass, and the million dollars I made last year”.
Birch never met Cobain. But her bandmate da Silva was surprised when he strolled into the London antique shop owned by her cousin with a worn copy of The Raincoats’ 1979 self-titled debut. Cobain then invited them to support Nirvana – a plan that turned to ashes with his death, by suicide, in 1994.
“We were in New York. We were playing on a bill with Liz Phair and Cat Power. Cat Power signed to Matador that night, I think. When they came to tell us Kurt had died, it was such a sad moment – and it wasn’t, ‘No, we aren’t going to be touring.’ It was such a sad thing.”
The Raincoats didn’t think of themselves as feminists. Yet even to exist as an all-woman punk outfit in 1979 was, in itself, a feminist gesture. Today Birch embraces the term, as made clear on the new track Feminist Song: “When you ask me if I’m a feminist / I say to hell with powerlessness, to hell with loneliness / Damn all those people putting women down.”
“We weren’t a feminist band,” she says. “We were a band who mentioned the word feminism a couple of times. Suddenly it was as though we were holding the banner. What happened was we were doing things our own way – doing our own art, writing our own songs, sorting ourselves out. Vicky” – Vicky Aspinall, The Raincoats’ violinist – “was a bit more political. She said, ‘Well, you may not call yourself feminist, but what you are doing is a feminist act.’”
During punk, “feminism” was regarded as a pejorative, she says. Only much later, with Riot Grrrl and groups such as Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill, did it take on a positive connotation.
“The Riot Grrrls took the feminism ideology and made it fun. In the 1970s, it was a plot of the patriarchy to make feminism unappealing. ‘Don’t bring that stuff into our happy family – we don’t want all that nonsense.’ In the 1990s, they made it fun. They were talking about very serious things – but in such a way that was very vibrant. It didn’t have any of the dreariness to it.”
Birch had been working on and off on solo material when Third Man Records approached her about putting out a single to coincide with the opening of its store in London. One thing led to another and soon she was recording a full-length album for the label, with production from the U2 and Depeche Mode collaborator Youth.
The reviews have been uniformly positive. “This mix of scrawling guitars, frank lyricism and brazen dub ... is a joyfully empowering inversion of the girl group sound,” said Mojo magazine. “A celebration of her status as a godmother of feminist rock and a furious protest against the persecution of women,” agreed Pitchfork. Such raves contrast with the early years of punk, when Danny Baker of NME wrote: “The Raincoats are so bad that every time a waiter drops a tray we’d all get up and dance.”
“We always laugh about the Danny Baker one. We put it on our album sleeve. I thought it was so funny. Clever, isn’t it? He puts his foot in his mouth – apparently, he has done some very daft things unintentionally.”
Baker’s broadside was mild, she says, compared with a lot of the vitriol – much of which came with a xenophobic tinge.
“Some of the ones in Sounds” – the long-shuttered music weekly – “were more racist. Some were pure idiocy. They’ve been proved to be idiots. What can you say? We tried to move things along, make something that was a voice from us, that had a heart to it, and was a bit feisty, a bit courageous. We were doing our thing.”
Gina Birch plays Whelan’s, Dublin, on Saturday, March 25th. I Play My Bass Loud is on Third Man Records