Filed under: feature, special | Tags: 2009, gina birch, music, the raincoats, val phoenix
re:generation #3: gina birch
Re:Generation is a monthly column about yesterday’s heroines today, revisiting some of the women who have helped map out musical history but have since, for one reason or another, fallen out of the spotlight. Over the coming months, Wears The Trousers will be speaking to these influential figures, as they make their way back into the public sphere. For our third piece, Val Phoenix speaks to Gina Birch of art-punk rockers The Raincoats.
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There must have been something in the water in 1979, giving us two awesome debuts, The Slits’ Cut and The Raincoats’ eponymous album. This autumn, as The Raincoats gets a reissue in the UK and USA, it’s surely time for a Raincoats revival to rival that of The Slits. For bassist Gina Birch, this means a period of renewed activity after taking time out from musical pursuits to raise two children. But she is raring to go and working on new material, as she revealed when we shared a couch at a Soho venue back in July for the launch of The Slits biography, Typical Girls?. Eyeing up a passing tray of canapés, she explained she had just been working on a new song and was thrilled to be teaching herself GarageBand. For her, digital is the new punk.
I first met Gina in 1995, when she was preparing for the release of The Raincoats’ comeback album, Looking In The Shadows, and over the next few months we had two long conversations about punk, its implications for women and about her role in The Raincoats. She was excited about riot grrrl, contrasting it with the unsisterliness of first-wave punk, in which artists as disparate as The Slits, The Raincoats, Siouxsie and The Mo-Dettes were often lumped together, though they were mutually suspicious and actually slagged each other off. It was amusing, then, to see Viv Albertine from The Slits (see Re:Generation #1) and Jane Crockford from The Mo-Dettes pop up in Gina’s documentary, ‘The Raincoats, Fairytales – A Work In Progress’, a rough cut of which screened during this year’s London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in March. And such nice things they had to say about The Raincoats! Viv admitted to being jealous of the songwriting and Jane was also complimentary; both women were present at the screening, too, and it really felt like a first-wave women’s punk reunion. Something is clearly in the water. And the air.
Gina herself has not been slacking. Over the years she has been making music and film in parallel, including scoring a theatre piece for The Handsome Foundation and directing music videos for artists like The Libertines and New Order. She also released an album called Slow Dirty Tears, under the name of The Hangovers, in 1998. But her solo output is not prolific. Partly this is because of personal considerations. As she explained to me in a recent email: “After the release of Slow Dirty Tears, I was writing new material with Ida Akesson at a fair speed, but then I adopted my first child. It was something I had yearned for, for a very long period and all my attention went into working with a baby who was unable to make eye contact and who hated her skin to be touched. It was the most incredible journey and I spent my time learning about sensory issues, attachment issues and I studied at, and filmed a great deal for, the Post-Adoption Centre, where I got amazing support and garnered great knowledge which has led to my daughter, now 9 years old, being the most wonderful bright lovely girl. I also adopted a beautiful second daughter.” Her two girls made a guest appearance with The Raincoats at their LLGFF performance, and surely a visit to a Girls Rock Camp cannot be too far off for the young ‘uns.
Slowly but surely, though, Gina is amassing a body of work. The day before the book launch, she had a solo gig at Barden’s Boudoir in London. A vision in Bet Lynch tartiness, she played guitar and sang, accompanied by backing tapes and Super 8 films, some of them 30 years old. Whereas her early Raincoats’ recordings feature a very undeveloped voice, which she acknowledges was quite timid, Gina now has a very strong on-stage persona, with a voice pickled in bitterness. “I can’t stand this bottling things up,” she told me years back. A teller of tales, she takes situations and spins them out into absurdity, such as on Raincoats track ‘Don’t Be Mean’ from Looking In The Shadows, in which the narrator sees an ex-lover who runs away. She told me she is keen to write new Raincoats material, as she is tired of playing just the old songs, but her bandmate Ana da Silva is less enthusiastic. So, it looks like the new songs will be saved for Gina’s next record.
After her solo rendition of ‘Don’t Be Mean’, an audience member asked: “What sort of guitar do you play?” “Badly!” she retorted. (Actually, Fender Jaguar.) It was a knowing riposte; when they first emerged in the late ’70s, The Raincoats were often chastised for their perceived ineptitude, being rough and ready players more interested in experimenting than perfecting. When we spoke in the ’90s, Gina acknowledged the band had grown into better players, having honed their craft over many years. “There are definite qualities that come with age,” she said with a smile.
Embraced by riot grrrls, Ladyfesters and grungers alike, The Raincoats have been adopted as godmothers for feminist musicians, as one of the few bands who really embraced the label. Cardiff’s Young Marble Giants have previously spoken of being slightly intimidated by the band, having met as newly inked labelmates on Rough Trade Records, as they’d never met women who didn’t shave their legs. But The Raincoats took the newcomers under their wings and the two bands became friends. Perhaps such tales will make their way into the doc, still in the making, which includes much archive footage, as well as new interviews shot with an array of figures from the music world, including Peaches, Geoff Travis and No Bra. Gina hopes to collect more interviews during the band’s upcoming US tour, which starts next week. Only four dates, it includes stop-offs in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where, incredibly, the band has never played. The most intriguing bill, though, finds them sharing a stage in New York City with an up-and-coming singer-songwriter, one Viv Albertine. Lucky New Yorkers.
That said, American audiences will be lucky to get the multimedia treat served up by the band at a recent show at the National Portrait Gallery in London, which accompanied a photography exhibit called ‘Gay Icons‘. Ahead of the gig, Gina, Ana and band manager Shirley offered their own interpretations of the theme: Ana’s in drawings handed out to each member of the audience (mine included lyrics from 1979’s ‘No Side To Fall In’), Shirley by reading poetry and Gina in an eye-catching split-screen film. The untitled piece featured Gina reclining on what looked like a car bonnet and speaking languidly to camera about Enid Blyton’s girl-school fiction, artist/filmmaker Derek Jarman and The Slits, while the second screen offered alternate views of her, interspersed with footage of said icons. Stylishly made and highly revealing, the film included Gina’s recollections of her Nottingham youth. It was a topic we had discussed in 1996, when she said that at age 13, she was drawn to hippies and other “highly undesirable” people. But, as she revealed in the film, the downward spiral into drug addiction that she witnessed in these early countercultural figures revealed the dark side of rebellion. Luckily for her, in punk she found something to grab her but not destroy her. The film finished with her dancing in slo-mo with her two young girls to Sylvester’s ‘Mighty Real’.
The gig had to be good to top that. Here was a mature, confident, highly professional, but still affecting, band running through a ten-song set that included material from their original incarnation in the 1970s as well as from the reunion record. Playing in the salubrious setting of an art museum makes some kind of sense since Ana and Gina first met as students at Hornsey Art College in 1976, and the whiteface make-up all the players wore added to the theatricality of the occasion. A Camden toilet circuit gig this was not. Accompanied by Anne Wood on violin and Jean Marc Butty on drums, songwriters Ana and Gina, the yin and the yang, traded lead vocals and instruments, Ana’s plaintive love songs countered by Gina’s growled revenge fantasies. Of course, they finished up with the cross-gender fave ‘Lola’, which found its natural audience. Most likely in 1976 nobody foresaw punk being invited into a museum, but The Raincoats carried it off with aplomb.
The Raincoats is reissued through We ThRee Records on November 9th.
Top and bottom photos by Val Phoenix; middle photo courtesy of Gina Birch.
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Is there someone you would like to see featured in future Re:Generation columns? If so, please send your suggestions to email@example.com
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