The Raincoats – The Raincoats (1979)

The Cobain 50

Janice Headley looks back at the legacy of The Raincoats, whose self-titled 1979 debut album inspired both Nirvana and the ‘90s riot grrrl scene.

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Janice Headley looks back at the legacy of The Raincoats, whose self-titled 1979 debut album inspired both Nirvana and the ‘90s riot grrrl scene. In this episode, we hear from Gina Birch, co-founder of The Raincoats, and Jenn Pelly, author of the 33 1/3 series book on the band. 

Hosts: Dusty Henry and Martin Douglas
Written + Produced: Janice Headley
Mixed + Mastered: Roddy Nikpour
Podcast Manager: Isabel Khalili
Editorial Director: Larry Mizell Jr. 

Support the podcast: kexp.org/cobain


Last week on The Cobain 50, my co-worker Martin Douglas talked about the ‘70s all-female post-punk band The Slits, and about the influence they ignited that still carries on today.

This week, we’re spotlighting one of those very bands who formed because of them. After London art school students Ana da Silva and Gina Birch saw The Slits in concert, they went on to form their own all-female post-punk band, who also landed themselves on Kurt Cobain’s list of 50 favorite albums. They’re called The Raincoats.

Ana and Gina formed The Raincoats in 1977. After a few line-up shuffles, they added former Slits drummer Palmolive to the group, along with classically-trained violinist Vicky Aspinall. They made their live debut in London in January 1979, catching the attention of Rough Trade Records who released their self-titled debut album later that year. 

That album went on to inspire entire generations of musicians. The Raincoats imbued their art school sensibilities into their songs, combining unconventional instrumentation with a cacophony of vocal interplay. 

The band embraced a DIY approach to music that prioritized passion over perfection, as Gina explained to KEXP last year:

GINA: We weren't trying to be perfect. We were trying to be creative and, and in a way, that creativity was on view. And so you could see how it was put together. Maybe, I don't know how to explain it, but it wasn't perfection. It left room for the viewer to kind of be in there, too, somehow. 

This definition of punk is what fueled the ‘90s riot grrl movement, a scene defined not by its musicianship, but by feminism, inclusion, and enthusiasm. For the bands coming out of Olympia, Washington at the time, and for many of the bands on Kurt’s list, the ability to play an instrument was hardly a precursor to starting a band. 

We spoke to writer Jenn Pelly, author of the 33 1/3 series book on The Raincoats about how the band’s so-called imperfections made them all the more inspiring:

JENN: Their music is so unique. I don't listen to them and think, “I could do that, too,” but I think, maybe I can do something of my own. I feel like the sort of allowance of imperfection is just this really profound message. I feel like The Raincoats – and Nirvana, to an extent, too – like, the elements of the music are pretty minimal, but the music is so complicated in ways that are not conventional. 

This all makes me think of, I really love that movie 20th Century Women. There's a scene where Greta Gerwig's character is sort of monologuing about The Raincoats…

In this scene, a mother – played by actress Annette Benning – asks her son, Jamie, and their housemate, played by Gerwig, what record they’re listening to… 

Dorothea (Benning): What is that?
Abbie (Gerwig): It's The Raincoats.
Dorothea : Can't things just be pretty?
Jamie : Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.
Dorothea : Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?
Abbie : Yeah, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?

 

Fun fact: in this scene, they’re actually holding a copy of the single given to them by the band. But, back to Jenn:

JENN: I feel like that gets at this idea of, you know, just prizing passion over technique, and seeing imperfections as virtues rather than as flaws. It all just makes the music feel like it's more alive or something. 

In the summer of 1990, Kurt had begun dating Tobi Vail, who would become the drummer for Bikini Kill later that year. Tobi was the one who wore the Teen Spirit brand of deodorant that later inspired a certain famous song title. Anyway. As Jenn tells us, it’s inevitable that Kurt would’ve discovered The Raincoats through Tobi, or just through living in Olympia at the time at all… 

JENN: My understanding has always been that The Raincoats were sort of “like in the air” in Olympia, and if you lived in Olympia, pretty much everyone knew who The Raincoats were. But, I also remember speaking with Kathi Wilcox from Bikini Kill and her telling me, you could pretty obviously trace this back to Kurt’s relationship with Tobi. And, I believe that to be true, for sure, but again, I think that, it seems like if you lived in Olympia, eventually you were going to find out who The Raincoats were. And that's to do also with, I think, the legacy of a radio station like KAOS, the radio station in Olympia. I mean, The Raincoats’ record would have been out of print in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was never released in the US until the mid ‘90s. So, basically impossible to find unless someone would dub you a tape of it or something. And so the fact that the Olympia radio station even had these records to begin with was a pretty big deal, I would imagine. 

Like the Vaselines, who we covered last month on The Cobain 50 podcast, The Raincoats were championed in the States by local icon Calvin Johnson, frontman for the band Beat Happening and founder of K Records. He was also a DJ for Olympia’s community radio station KAOS, where he played many of the bands who appear on Kurt’s list. 

Also, like The Vaselines, The Raincoats had been broken up for some time before Kurt discovered them. They released their third LP, titled Moving, in 1984. The title ended up being a little ironic, as the band members found themselves moving on to new projects shortly after its release. Gina was focusing on film. Ana was working at an antiques store. 

In 1992, Kurt arrived in London with his then-girlfriend Courtney Love, hoping to find a copy of the Raincoats’ 1979 debut album. As Gina told us, she and Ana had never heard Nirvana before: 

GINA: He and Courtney went into the Rough Trade shop in West London. You know, it was all out of print. No one had a copy of it. And Jude, who was part of the shop, she said, “Oh, I know. Ana’s working in the shop just around the corner. Why don't you go and see if she's got a copy?” So, they went up the road to where Ana was working and walked in, and she didn't know who they were. And they weren't there very long, because Ana actually, strangely, had the one customer in. She’d only get one – maybe no customers – every day. But, they were there for a short while. 

But after that, Jude rang. “Did they come? Did they come yet?” And then we all listened to Nirvana. We were like, Blimey, they're great, they’re brilliant!

Kurt wrote about this expedition in detail in the liner notes for Nirvana’s 1992 compilation album Insecticide. The very next year, Kurt was instrumental in getting The Raincoats’ three studio albums reissued and released in the US for the very first time. He even invited them to open for Nirvana, but sadly, the tour never happened as Kurt died by suicide in 1994.

It’s not overt, but you can hear The Raincoats influence in Nirvana’s music. The opening chords of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are" share a similarity to the Raincoats track “Adventures Close To Home”...

Jenn Pelly shared some of the similarities that struck her as well… 

JENN: I hear a lot of similarities between The Raincoats and Nirvana, actually. And maybe I hear The Raincoats a little bit everywhere, these days. But, I think that there are a lot of similarities in just the music itself. Like when I listen to a song like the Nirvana song "Aneurysm." To me, it gives me such a similar feeling to "In Love," for instance. Like, they are both these visceral, exorcisms of emotion. And I feel like, there's something about both of them that’s so guttural and just reaches inside of me in a way that other music doesn't. 


JENN: I think also you could look at a song like "The Void," for instance. Like the anguish of something like "The Void" is so akin to what Kurt was communicating every time he performed. 

Nirvana would cover The Raincoats song “The Void” live, but his wife Courtney Love took it to the studio, covering the track for the b-side to Hole’s 1994 single “Doll Parts.”


JENN: To draw one other direct comparison, a song like "Polly." I think there's such a clear precedent with the Raincoats song, "Off-Duty Trip." They were both songs that were responding very specifically to news stories of their day, of women who were raped. And I think that that Raincoats song, in particular, is so groundbreaking in being a punk song that was directly dealing with the sort of subject matter and giving voice to a story in which a man committed a horrific abuse of power and was not held accountable. And I have to imagine that had some impact on Kurt. I don't know how much he knew about the context of the song, but I think just listening to the song, you can tell what it's about.

Kurt was an unabashed, in-your-face feminist. He wore dresses on stage, and in magazine photo shoots. In 1991, he wore a fancy yellow ball gown on MTV as a guest on their weekly heavy metal show, Headbanger’s Ball.  

And at shows, he would regularly stop performances to defend women who were being harassed in the audience.

It’s no wonder Kurt was drawn to a band like The Raincoats, who were one of the first bands to declare themselves “feminists” during an era when “feminism” was considered a dirty word. 

By the ‘90s, Kurt was helping to flip the script on the narrative. Throughout the ‘80s, most of the hair-metal bands topping the charts featuring scantily-clad women writhing on sports cars. But as writer Amanda Marcotte pointed out in the Daily Beast, The first human faces you see in the video for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' belong not to the band members, but to a group of heavily tattooed women dressed like anarchist cheerleaders. 

Jenn noted how Kurt’s anarchistic spirit helped introduce bands like The Raincoats to the masses. 

JENN: Something that I think a lot about, when I think about Kurt Cobain uplifting tiny, obscure bands that he was obsessed with, is this sort of anarchic spirit at the heart of Nirvana. To me, anarchy at best is when you disperse your own power, and how that's really what he was doing, was like dispersing his own power by diffusing the spotlight onto all of these punk bands that he was obsessed with. And I'm grateful to him for that.

We are, too. 

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