Monday, 5 October 2009

The Raincoats play the National Portrait Gallery

This is also posted at the F Word blog.

For just over three months, the National Portrait Gallery has been celebrating Gay Icons. This impressive exhibition features photographic portraits of people deemed iconic by some of the most famous and influential gay figures alive today. Alongside the main exhibition, the gallery has hosted a number of events designed to explore the meaning of the words ‘icon’ and ‘iconic’. On 25 of September, The Raincoats played as part of ‘Icon-i-coustic’, a series of concerts, held at the gallery, by iconic musicians and bands including Patrick Wolf and Beverley Knight.

Ana da Silva and Gina Birch formed The Raincoats in 1977, in the midst of the boy-dominated punk scene. By 1978, they were joined by Vicky Aspinall on violin and the legendary Palmolive, of The Slits, on drums. Their eponymous debut album, released in 1979, has rightly achieved iconic status. The Raincoats is the sound of women finding their own way of expressing themselves through music. Its off-kilter rhythms and feminist subject matter combined with Ana and Gina’s incredible vocals are like nothing else that came out of the macho punk scene. Their strictly DIY, lo-fi approach has been admired by other iconic musicians including Kim Gordon and Kurt Cobain, who wrote the liner notes for the 1994 re-release of their debut.

It’s easy to see why The Raincoats were chosen to perform at this event, then. But this was much more than a gig. All of the musicians in the ‘Icon-i-coustic’ series were invited to present their own icons before performing themselves.

Shirley O’Loughlin, the band’s manager, went first. There was a fantastically sinister reading of some choice passages from Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto and an equally creepy performance of ‘Blue Moon’ as well as a poem about, well, shoes.

Next up was Ana who had decided to present her icons to us in the form of illustrations; there was one for every member of the audience to take home. Peeking over other people’s shoulders I saw drawings of Pure digital radios and Telecasters. I got Raincoats lyrics, “My feelings were killed by laws, The walls that surrounded my city”, with a picture of two love hearts and barbed-wire.

Gina showed us a film in which she talked candidly about her icons, from the hippy movement to Tracy Emin, Enid Blyton to Vivienne Westwood.

There were few surprises here, except maybe Enid Blyton, but their icons reflect absolutely who they are as a band; dedicated to music, art and punk aesthetics, as well as being openly and unapologetically feminist.

And then it was time for them to play. They rattled their way through a 10-song set, which included favourites like ‘No Side to Fall Into’ and ‘No Looking’.

One of the most charming things about The Raincoats is that Ana and Gina have never been technically brilliant guitarists or bassists. They’ve found their own way of playing, one which is far more interesting than the three-chord punks or air guitar inspiring rock gods.

More than 30 years after the release of their first album, The Raincoats are as vital as ever. Their vocals, which range from lush harmonies (‘No Side to Fall Into’), to yelps and barking (‘Babydog’), represent women empowered by their creative freedom.

Watching women collaborate in this honest way is an intoxicating experience. After their final song (their excellent, queer cover of The Kinks’ ‘Lola’) I left more desperate than ever to be in a band with other grrrls. The fact that they continue to inspire in this way makes them more than worthy of the accolade of ‘Icons’.

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