The latest installment in Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series — short books devoted to individual albums — tells the story of the debut LP from the Raincoats. Formed in 1977, the Raincoats were the first all-woman punk band to actively call themselves feminists, paving the way for the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s. Here, author and Pitchfork editor Jenn Pelly reflects on how she came to write the first book about their influential work.
I had just turned twenty when my friend Neil sent me a mix of music that changed my life. It was not in the romantic manner of a hand-packaged cassette tape delivered by mail but rather in a more modern way that somehow feels quaint already: a Mediafire link shared via Facebook messenger. There, on this 18-track mix — which consisted mostly of aggro music like the Blood Brothers, Black Sabbath, and the screamo band Saetia — was, quite fortuitously, a bracingly raw recording that gripped me with a rare intensity. It was a cover of the Kinks’ “Lola,” reshaped by a women’s punk band from England called the Raincoats. They didn’t change any of the original lyrics to Ray Davies’s 1970 song, which lent their rendition a brilliant queer twist. But what I loved most about this unvarnished cover was how, among its brittle guitarwork and delightfully off-kilter drumming, women were shouting out loud together. In the words of Kim Gordon, “They seemed like ordinary people making extraordinary music.”
The rest of that .zip mix dissolved from my memory. But “Lola” and the album it came from, the Raincoats’ eponymous 1979 debut, immediately became a fixed part of my life. The band formed in the blaze of 1977 punk in London, but they sounded more eclectic and poetic. The Raincoats’ version of punk — introversion as punk, an inspired amateurism — felt profound to me. They wrote great lyrics about essential truths, too, like “In Love” and “The Void.” The Raincoats seemed to present a whole new paradigm for what music could sound like, and by extension, an entirely new way a person could be: Shambolic? Joyful? Scrappy and shy? Punk but not uniformly, and especially female, somehow? And kind of mysterious …
As a city-dwelling, fairly introverted, sometimes-dour girl outsider, I felt like the Raincoats were speaking directly to me, traversing time. But I struggled, back then, to articulate why this post-punk band felt automatically like an extension of me, of how I relate to the world. My relative bewilderment over the Raincoats’ existence led me to write the first book on the history of the band, published this fall as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series. I wanted to investigate what made the Raincoats’ music feel so monumental to me. I also, in a sense, wanted to better understand myself.
By the time the Raincoats’ released their 1979 debut, the lineup consisted of original members Ana da Silva and Gina Birch on guitar and bass — who had met at art college and had never been in a band before — along with classically trained violinist Vicki Aspinall and impressionistic drummer Palmolive. They all contributed lyrics, and everyone sang (except Palmolive, because she didn’t want to). Vicki joined the Raincoats after she found an ad on a wall in the radical Compendium bookshop that said “Female Musician Wanted: Strength Not Style.” Ana, from Portugal, was infatuated then by the poetry of Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, while Gina was studying conceptual and performance art. Palmolive, originally from Spain, had been the founder of the first all-female punk band ever, the Slits (she was kicked out of that band for failing to keep time — not a requirement for the Raincoats). Three-quarters of the Raincoats lived in squats, or, as Gina put it to me, “We lived on fresh air.”