The Raincoats, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, takes its narrative cues from the album of the same name. In author Jenn Pelly’s telling, the recording’s version of 1970s British punk reflects a utopian impulse expressed in modes of living, thinking, recording, art making, and musical creation at a particular inflection point in cultural and musical history. The Raincoats album presents a distinctly yet non-essentialist female approach and response to making music and being and living in the world, as relevant to the current moment as to the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In her preface Pelly, a contributing editor at Pitchfork whose writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, SPIN, The Village Voice, Guardian, The Wire, NPR and Teen Vogue, among others, jumps off from the observation by author Chris Kraus (I Love Dick) that “every act that narrated female-lived experience in the ‘70s has been read only as ‘collaborative’ and ‘feminist.’” (x) Kraus implies that the individual histories and unique contributions of female artists are erased, a tendency evident as punk history sediments into standard narratives, often tales of masculine rebellion. Pelly’s guiding question is, “Who gets to be a part of history and why, and in what capacity and to what extent?” (ibid.) Pelly does not fit The Raincoats, band and album, into one of the increasingly conventional narratives of punk history, or a vague and totalizing feminism. Instead, she presents the individual members of the Raincoats through their compelling personal stories, locating them in cultural, spatial, and political histories of the mid-twentieth century. Pelly also explores the emotional terrain of their songs and performances, sharing that “my connection to The Raincoats always felt instinctive and visceral… [C]ommuning with its melancholy and humor and resolve, it felt like a mirror, like the record was an extension of me: frankly, a weird and distant woman, scrappy and solitary, shy to quiet the constant loud within. I longed to understand why.” (xii) Pelly’s self-description is recognizable to many female-identified fans of music, then and now.
Pelly secured the cooperation of all five women involved with The Raincoats: bassist Gina Birch, guitarist Ana Da Silva, drummer Paloma McLardy (Palmolive), violinist Vicki Aspinall, and manager Shirley O’Loughlin. In the first chapter, Pelly quotes journalist Caroline Coon’s observation that “[i]t would be possible to write the whole history of punk music without mentioning male bands at all” (5) and then proceeds to do precisely that. Male performers are peripheral to her narrative or occupy positions usually relegated to women, that of supporters or helpmeets. Pelly includes other histories that interweave with and influence the album, including those of: Rough Trade records; the intellectual milieu that inspired and influenced the Raincoats and other bands, including feminism, squatting, conceptual art, art schools, left politics; and the impact of growing up under fascist regimes.
The book’s four main chapters focus upon themes and ideas. Although Chapter One begins with the subhead “Genesis,” it does not tell the story of how the band met and came to be. Rather, it begins by describing the emotions and places conjured by the album, the instrumental textures that constitute its sound, the embodiment of the musicians who perform on it, and its reception by and influence on musicians in the 1970s and in the 1990s. Chapter Two introduces the band members and proceeds somewhat chronologically through the founding of the group by Ana Da Silva and Gina Birch, its several incarnations before enlisting Palmolive, late of the Slits, as drummer, installing Shirley O’Loughlin as manager/collaborator, and recruiting classically trained violinist Vicky Aspinall from a flyer hung in a leftist bookstore. Each member is provided an in-depth biological sketch, focusing on what led them to make music that reflected their inner lives as women growing up under oppressive conditions. Pelly describes how together, the Raincoats embraced the politics of not following musical rules, willful amateurism, and the desire to use the musical tools of rock music differently in order to explore sounds, moods, and textures. The Raincoats, Pelly demonstrates, embraced democracy by always speaking as and for the group while fervently maintaining each member’s individual approach to art, music, and life.
The final two chapters examine the songs on The Raincoats, thematically rather than in order. Pelly thereby links the album’s concerns to the daily and emotional lives of band members and their milieu. She positions the songs as emanating from a variety of influences, including “making do” by squatting in abandoned houses, consumerism, love, conceptual art, sexual politics, nationalism, spiritual searching, experimentalism in recording, navigating urban space, and the community fostered by and around the Rough Trade label and record store. For example, Pelly makes astute observations about filmic emotions conveyed by some of the songs, and the group’s further queering of the Kinks’ “Lola.” Pelly’s epilogue briefly discusses how a couple of popular films have used music from The Raincoats as statements about being triumphantly different in a culture that tends toward conformity. She concludes with personal recollections of attending some recent shows by the group, now finally reaping the acclaim and recognition that they deserved but never truly sought.
Pelly’s The Raincoats honors its subject and its influence on her and, it may be extrapolated, anyone who has been moved by and found a bit of themselves in the album. She did not write a typical rock biography, but a highly textured and in places intimate description of the spaces, places, experiences, and times that the members of the Raincoats came from and lived through. Her book is mercifully light on attributions of male influence on the Raincoats’ music. Pelly’s focus is instead upon how four women (five counting Shirley O’Loughlin) of disparate backgrounds found each other and channeled their life experiences, passions, and emotions to make music that truly reflected being women in a particular time and space yet is increasingly timeless and influential.