“We had the most amazing gig,” enthuses the bass player with the Raincoats, the band she co-founded almost forty years ago with guitarist and co-vocalist Ana da Silver. “What a night! It was fantastic! I'm still flying high.”
Birch is talking about the show the Raincoats did the night before at Islington Town Hall as part of the fortieth anniversary celebrations of Rough Trade, the record shop and label that became the social hub of London's post-hippy, post-punk underground in the mid-1970s. Back then, the Raincoats were part of the first wave of artists to release their records on Rough Trade in a way that would come to define a state of independence in the UK music scene.
On a label diverse enough to include releases by Belfast agit-punks Stiff Little Fingers, Sheffield electronicists Cabaret Voltaire and reggae legend Augustus Pablo, the Raincoats stood out alongside Swiss band Kleenex and the saxophone-led skronk of Essential Logic for being women in a still male-dominated world.
The Raincoats sound was primitive and scratchy, with Birch and Da Silva's voices owing more to multi-cultural folk traditions than rock and roll posturing. Their first single, Fairytale in the Supermarket, was a primal yelp of self-determination augmented by the scrapings of the band's original violinist, Vicky Aspinall. The debut Raincoats album featured a version of the Kinks' Lola which subverted Ray Davies' already mixed-up trans-gender rites of passage even more. Over two more studio albums, the band introduced rhythms and beats from around the world into an increasingly eclectic musical stew wrapped around stark lyrical concerns drawn from female experience.
After splitting in 1984, the Raincoats reformed a decade later after Kurt Cobain named them as a major influence. With Cobain's band Nirvana at the height of their fame, Cobain invited the Raincoats to support them on a tour of America, an event that was destined never to happen following the troubled singer's suicide. The Raincoats recorded a fourth studio album, since when they have enjoyed a sporadic existence inbetween pursuing non-musical artistic projects.
The Rough Trade fortieth anniversary was a celebration of everything the Raincoats and fellow travellers such as the Slits opened the door for, from Riot Grrrl in the 1990s to a new wave of female-led bands that includes Sacred Paws, who support the Raincoats when they play at the CCA in Glasgow on Sunday night. In Islington, on a night where Birch's daughter sang three songs, the Raincoats were playing alongside Angel Olson, the American singer/songwriter, whose third album, My Woman, was released in September.
“There were six of us women lining the stage,” says Birch, “which was different to the show the other night with the Pop Group, the Cabs and Scritti Politti, and it was all men, which was a bit sad.
We played without a drummer, so there was just the three of us, and because our music is such a tapestry, it threads its own path, so you hear things in different ways.
“We did a cover of Patti Smith's Because The Night. We did it really soft and gentle, and it made the song really quite different. What was great as well was that there was a really big age gap onstage. There were women in their twenties, and there were women in their sixties, and that was great, because we were all equals. But Angel's brilliant. She's the bees knees. I would happily do that show all over again. ”
Birch is in her kitchen as she talks, while long-standing Raincoats violinist Anne Wood and Helen Reddington, aka former Chefs vocalist Helen McCookerybook, sit chatting beside her. It is with Reddington that Birch is currently working on She-Punks, a documentary film inspired in part by Reddington's book, The Lost Women of Rock Music, and which aims to reclaim the largely undocumented history of female musicians who came out of punk.
“I'd been making a Raincoats documentary that I started filming over ten years ago,” says Birch, “and I'd been filming lots of women, because I didn't want it to be a sycophantic thing that was just about ourselves. I had this treasure chest of stories, and Helen and I were friends anyway, and she kept on getting approached to do a film based on her book, so we thought that, rather than get some old blokes taking it over that we'd rather do it ourselves and make it more grassroots.”
This is an attitude that Birch and the Raincoats picked up during punk's original flourish of energy.
“It was an incredibly special time for young women to find a gap to express themselves in the way that we did with the Raincoats and other women did,” she says. “It was actually quite bizarre, because it had never occurred that any of us could do it until one of us did it. It was like when a Blue Tit learnt how to peck into the silver milk bottle tops you used to get delivered on your doorstep. As soon as one learns how to do it, they all want to do it.”
Birch's epiphany came after she moved to London to study at Hornsey College of Art, and ended up living next door to the sister of Palmolive, original drummer with all girl band The Slits.
“Palmolive was round all the time, and she was the coolest,” says Birch. “I was going to all the gigs, and I went to the first Slits gig, which was crazy. It was like a punch to the gut. I couldn't believe my eyes and my ears, and I knew I wanted to do that so badly, but I didn't believe I could.”
A few weeks later, Birch had sloped off from an art and politics conference and went to the pub with some people. On a whim, and possibly emboldened by Dutch courage, she went to a nearby music shop and bought the cheapest bass they had. Having formed a loose alliance with da Silva, drummer Richard Dudanski, who would go on to play with Public Image Limited, got wind of it, and two weeks later the first incarnation of the Raincoats supported Dudanski's then band with Joe Strummer associate Tymon Dogg.
The Rough Trade connection came through a friend of da Silva's, who had a market stall selling records, and struck up a friendship with Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis.
“Ana tells this story about how when Geoff opened Rough Trade he said to her that he really wanted her to work in the shop because he wanted boys to learn how to talk to girls about music. Geoff really wanted it to be a mixed gender thing in that way.”
As pop music was smoothed out in the 1980s, things turned out slightly different.
“In the eighties it felt like a candle had been snuffed out,” Birch says. “I love Boy George, but the music industry at that time seemed to prefer boys pretending to be girls rather than girls being girls. It felt like we'd been put back in the cupboard.”
It wasn't until the 1990s Riot Grrrl revolution that things became interesting again.
“They brought us back to life,” Birch says. “They resuscitated us. When Riot Grrrl came along it was a shot in the arm, and boy did we need it.”
Since then, the Raincoats influence on younger bands has grown to the extent that when they played the Stewart Lee curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival earlier this year, Birch could be spotted at the back of the hall on Saturday afternoon watching all female band, Shopping, with a palpably protective air about her.
“We are definitely becoming the grand-mothers,” says Birch, “and every grand-mother is fond of their grand-children and worries about them. They have other issues to us, but you want to see them flourish and to find their own voice. If we can be mentors or collaborators in some way, that's brilliant.
“I am amazed at what I suppose is our legacy, if you like. Ana and I, we play in our own shambling way, and we write in our own trying to ignore conventions kind of way, and I think we've found a way of doing things that seems to chime with people, because we do things in a different way. But I don't take it for granted. Part of me wonders why anyone would get excited about what we do in the Raincoats, but then another part of me thinks 'Yeah!'”
The Raincoats play with Sacred Paws, CCA, Glasgow, November 13th.www.cca-glasgow.com
The Herald, November 11th 2016