Culture | Post-punk makes its way to POP

1970s female group still standing strong

The year is 1977.  While The Eagles release “Hotel California,” John Travolta unabashedly shakes his (much skinnier) ass in Saturday Night Fever. Elvis Presley overdoses, Bob Marley and the Wailers are “Waiting in Vain,” and Jimmy Buffett gets hammered in “Margaritaville.” All the while, two girls at the Hornsey College of Art in London flip the middle finger all of it.
While studying at Hornsey, Gina Birch and Ana da Silva formed The Raincoats.  Neither had ever written a song before, and they both had next to no musical training.  They were looking for a creative outlet and were spurred on by the technical accessibility and general devil-may-care attitude that characterized the early punk scene.  “For us, punk was about rebelling against what came before, reacting against pomposity and too much show-offy virtuosity,” wrote Birch in an email to The Daily.  So Gina picked up a bass, Ana a guitar, and they hit the road running.
Yet they stress that they were interested in being more than just contrary–“We didn’t think, ‘Oh, let’s be different to them [more traditional punk bands],’” da Silva told The Daily in a phone interview.  “We just took from that time the fact that you were supposed to have your own ideas; to look for your own path.  This is how we interpreted it.”
Elaborating on this sentiment, Birch wrote, “At the time there were some punks who thought they knew exactly what punk should be, but it was a broad church of people doing things in different ways.  The music of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Subway Sect, The Slits is actually all quite different from each other… Our music was inspired by punk, and an inventive attitude, which was prevalent in the way we dressed, the way we lived our lives and our approach to song writing.”
Not everyone, however, appreciated The Raincoats’ ingenuity.  Joined by drummer Paloma McLardy, aka Palmolive (formerly of The Slits), and violinist Vicky Aspinall, the band assembled an all-female line-up, playing “post-punk” by the end of ’78 before anyone had ever used the term.  Although punk was considered a fringe movement throughout much of its history, it was especially marginal in its earlier years.  The Sex Pistols and The Clash had only hit the scene a couple years earlier, and the emerging genre was met with much disdain by already established subcultures. The fact that a group of ostensibly “renegade” or “delinquent” girls were a part of this movement made The Raincoats that much more of a target.
This surely didn’t make life any easier amongst the socially stratified youth of 1970s London. Those who identified with the “Teddy Boy” style, a revival of the aesthetic of rockabilly-listening Teddies of the fifties, weren’t so keen on the rise of the punk scene.  “When punks started to wear Brothel Creepers shoes, Teds didn’t like it.  They felt their look was being misappropriated.  I got chased and attacked by some Teddy girls in Leicester Square when I was wearing my red Brothel Creepers,” Birch recounts.
All things considered, being an all-female proved a badge of honour for The Raincoats. “Oh you know, life is full of people who think women shouldn’t or can’t do certain things,” Birch explained. “So, inevitably there were moments that were frustrating, but mostly we encountered supportive environments…Funnily, there didn’t seem to be that many young female bands doing stuff… Since we have been playing again, we seem to have garnered a lot of support and interest, probably because we represent a female perspective that crosses generations.”
This isn’t to say that their popularity rests simply in the novelty of being women playing punk.  “It’s difficult to say why people are still so interested,” notes da Silva.  “I think it’s because [the music is] a bit wacky, a bit different. We’re getting older, and people still want to see us, which is funny, because a lot of the audience is really young as well. It’s not just the people from our generation that come to our gigs. I don’t know, maybe you should ask them.”
Her somewhat brusque answer (“go ask them yourself!”) exemplifies the band’s hesitance to mythologize their personal history or overemphasize their legacy. They don’t want to reduce their music to a cultural dipstick, a mark of the times, or any sort of easily-swallowed message short of ‘this is our music and you can like it or lump it.’
“We never really had pressures to be something different from the record label, or from the other bands in Rough Trade [Records], and we were happy with the audiences we had.  We weren’t expecting to sell out big stadiums or anything,” da Silva explains.  “I don’t really follow the whole history of punk or whatever, so much, but to start with, it was a lot to do with energy, and having ideas. It was not about being necessarily good at your instrument.  In fact, things like guitar solos were a complete “no-go” area. And so it was very much about a raw energy. And I think some people still try to do that, in their own way.”
Punk music has, of course, since splintered into many sub-genres, as well as given rise to new genres altogether.  Much of modern alternative music has its roots in the early stages of post-punk, which at the time was referred to as “New Wave.”  Birch writes that, “Punk has certainly fragmented and means many different things to many different people.  To me it still means what it always did.  I wouldn’t have said so until recently, but perhaps we might have left some kind of mark.”


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