The Raincoats - Biography
In his definitive study of London punk, England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage describes The Raincoats as “rigorously feminist.” While Savage is perhaps the only writer to assign the word rigorous to The Raincoats’ music (a 1980 Village Voice piece contained the line, “The Raincoats say they rehearse”), it is rigorous nonetheless in the way it creates its own aesthetic space and in the way it pursues fun. “They seemed like ordinary people making extraordinary music,” Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth wrote. “Music that was natural that made room for a cohesion of personalities.”
Ana da Silva moved to London from Portugal in 1976. Once in London, she met Gina Birch who had just moved from Nottingham. Da Silva writes in the liner notes to the reissue of The Raincoats (1993 DGC), “Gina and I got our initial inspiration in 1976/77 from the groups we used to go and see — The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Subway Sect, Talking Heads, and particularly the women involved — Patti Smith, The Slits, Poly Styrene…” In the summer of 1977, at the crest of London punk, da Silva and Birch formed The Raincoats with drummer Nick Turner and guitarist Ross Crighton. The band made its live debut in November of 1977. In the following months, Da Silva and Birch played with a changing lineup of drummers and guitarists until one of these drummers, The 101’er’s Richard Dudanski, suggested they ask The Slits’ original drummer, Palmolive, to join the group. Palmolive had recently left The Slits because she did not want to work with former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren or to be photographed, topless and mud-caked, for the cover of The Slits’ Cut (1979 Antilles). With the addition of guitarist, violinist, and singer Vicky Aspinall (who had answered an ad Palmolive placed in the radical journal Compendium), the all-female lineup of The Raincoats that would record the band’s first single and album finally crystallized in 1978. Additionally, photographer Shirley O’Loughlin, The Raincoats’ long-time manager, joined on in 1978. She has been credited as a member of the band since 1981’s Odyshape (1981 Rough Trade).
Their first single was 1979’s “Fairytale in the Supermarket” (1979 Rough Trade), a thrilling punk endeavor written by da Silva that opened up an objective world charged with significance and fun. “Fairytale” became the first song on their debut full-length album, The Raincoats (1979 Rough Trade), which was recorded at London’s Berry Street Studios. Vicky Aspinall’s violin is prominent on the album and calls to mind early Velvet Underground at times. Palmolive left the band after the album was recorded, taking a religious journey to India. Years later, once Palmolive established herself as a faithful Christian living in Massachusetts under the name Paloma McLardy, she told interviewer Mike Appelstein: “A friend of mine told me that this guy in India was a god, so I thought, let’s go and check him out.” The Raincoats auditioned a number of drummers and chose Ingrid Weiss, with whom they performed in New York in 1980.
After Weiss left, The Raincoats began to rehearse at the Brixton space used by the experimental band This Heat with that band’s drummer, Charles Hayward. But Hayward too had left by the time The Raincoats returned to Berry Street Studio to record their second album. The Raincoats recruited Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine to drum on “And Then It’s O.K.,” while Hayward and Weiss returned to drum on the songs they had worked up. The resulting album, Odyshape (1981 Rough Trade), departs almost entirely from punk sounds, incorporating a number of non-European instruments such as the shehnai (or “Indian oboe”), the Indian scruti box, the Nepalese ektare, and the West African balaphone. Also in 1981, Birch contributed to Kangaroo? (1981 Rough Trade) by The Red Krayola with Art & Language.
In June of 1982, The Raincoats recorded the song “No One’s Little Girl” with Tom Morley of Scritti Politti on drums, along with two trumpet players and a percussionist. Da Silva, Birch, and Aspinall formed a new Raincoats lineup with drummers Dudanski and Derek Goddard, and bassist Paddy O’Connell. This two-drummer lineup recorded at Regents Park Studio in London in October and November before touring the United States’ East Coast. The ROIR cassette release The Kitchen Tapes (1982 ROIR) is a live recording of The Raincoats’ December show in New York. According to ROIR’s website, “In 1982, after a brief national tour, The Raincoats were stranded in New York City without money to return to England. Perhaps this is the main reason Shirley O’Loughlin, The Raincoats’ long-time manager, and the ladies themselves agreed to the project.”
In August and September of 1983, The Raincoats recorded at London’s Berry Street Studio once again and released the single “Animal Rhapsody” (1983 Rough Trade) and 1984’s Moving (1984 Rough Trade), which was The Raincoats’ last album for a very long time. After the band split, da Silva formed the short-lived Roseland with Charles Hayward. Aspinall and Birch collaborated as Dorothy, a pop duo that covered Prince’s “Still Waiting” (1988 Chrysalis).
In the liner notes to Nirvana’s Incesticide (1992 DGC), Kurt Cobain wrote about a search for The Raincoats’ first LP in London that led him from the Rough Trade store to the antique shop where Ana da Silva was working. Cobain wrote that the package he received from da Silva through the mail, with a copy of The Raincoats and a letter, “was one of the few really important things that I’ve been blessed with since becoming an untouchable boy genius.” The following year, DGC reissued The Raincoats’ first three albums. The Raincoats was reissued with liner notes by Cobain and da Silva; Odyshape with liners by Kim Gordon and Birch; and Moving with notes by Anjali Bhatia of Voodoo Queens, Delia Sparrow of Mambo Taxi, and Vicky Aspinall. Birch and da Silva reunited The Raincoats in 1994 with violinist Anne Wood and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. Shelley’s label, Smells Like, released the EP Extended Play (1994 Smells Like). The Raincoats had been scheduled to open some Nirvana shows in the UK in 1994, but Cobain committed suicide shortly before the tour was to take place.
Heather Dunn, formerly of Tiger Trap and Lois, drums on The Raincoats’ 1996 album, Looking in the Shadows (1996 DGC). The Raincoats have continued to perform together intermittently since their 1994 reunion. Gina Birch formed The Hangovers, who recorded the 1998 album Slow Dirty Tears (1998 Kill Rock Stars). Ana da Silva released a solo album called The Lighthouse (2005 Chicks on Speed) in 2005.