Photo courtesy of Gina Birch
Gina Birch interview
by David Gavan
"Since there's been what people call a postmodern crisis - i.e., language doesn't work like we thought it worked any more, identity doesn't exist, reference doesn't work,
truth doesn't obtain, everything's adrift - then perhaps what music does against that relief is quite significant."
- Green Gartside, to Chris Roberts in Melody Maker, 1991.
Green Gartside's description of Scritti Politti's music as "scratchy collapsy" might also be applied to the Raincoats' sonic bricolage approach to songwriting. The two art student groups were label mates on Rough Trade Records in the late seventies/early eighties, and shared a left-wing squatters' co-op mentality. Members of both bands were exposed to art and language concepts at college, and it shows. The Raincoats' self-titled debut - which spliced folk, the Velvet Underground, psychedelic drone music, and more besides - thrillingly documents a band whose creative ideas exceeded their musical chops.
Listening to the way these natural tune-makers solve the problem of what comes next is a constant delight. That the disparate elements cohere so well shows how fine ears for composition can trump technical ability. As with Wire, the album's proto-mash-up, patchwork approach seems to presage the blending of genre that flooded our culture, as postmodern pluralism took hold. Hence, by 1992 the punk-loving Nirvana's tune "Come As You Are" features a heavy metal-tinged vocal alongside Colin Newman-inf(l)ected guitar effects, playing a riff that sounds like "Eighties" by Killing Joke (1984), among other riffs.
Another intriguing link between Scritti and the Raincoats is the way they were affected by the surge of post-structuralist thought in the early-to-mid-eighties; something that is touched upon in David Wilkinson's astute book Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain (2016). Here, Wilkinson refers to Green Gartside's assertion that the list of attributes and possessions intoned in "Lions After Slumber" (1982):
Sample lyric: "My thoughtlessness, my gracelessness, my courage and my crying.
My pockets, my homework.
Like lions after slumber in unvanquishable number."
...highlights the way in which the singer's personality is composed of many intersections. Identity is overlappy in a Venn diagram-esque way. You could argue that the binary oppositional model of ourselves and the world- where you get a black and white pie chart take on things, rather than grey-shaded overlapping circles- results from capitalism's gain or deficit model; something that emerged with the evolution from a feudal to a capitalist economy. It may be that the true/false approach to knowledge both reflects and tacitly endorses the profits and losses fiscal set-up. It also tends to oversell the scientific mentality. You might also argue that the burgeoning of "non-binary" sexual identity is a sign of the ongoing postmodern fragmentation.
Wilkinson argues that Gartside's constant use of the possessional word "my" in "Lions..." would seem to negate the idea of our identities consisting of various overlaps of quirks and preferences. But perhaps the word "my" is being used ironically-is bracketed by imaginary inverted commas. So, maybe Gartside really is asserting the pick and mix nature of selfhood.
This audit of the fragmented self (Gartside called it a "little relativistic hymn") ends by quoting from the final quatrain of Percy Bysshe Shelley's evocation of working class solidarity in The Masque of Anarchy (1918):
"Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
You are many - they are few!"
Wilkinson suggests that Gartside's watershed ideological change - his withdrawal from Marxism and embrace of postmodern new pop acquisitiveness ("Jam today," rather than "the golden tomorrow") - reflected the wider context of post-structuralism; an intellectual movement which inadvertently led to the yuppification and atomisation of wider British society. The author highlights how Gartside acutely divined how the revolutionary austerity of Marxism was being outflanked by post-structuralism, which was soon to branch out into its populist form; a philosophical strain which now does business as "postmodernism." There are ludic (playful) and oppositional (politically-engaged) types postmodernism, but some opponents regard this philosophical development as the metastization of verifiable knowledge.
Some also argue that the fragmentary and pastiche aspects of postmodernism - which echo the personal pluralism that Gartside expresses - led on to a profusion of identity politics tribes, a division of the workers through selfish desires which prevent us from unifying against the ruling elite. This point that is well made in Mark Lilla's The Once and Future Liberal (2017), which outlines the way in which contemporary identity politics and culture wars bickering militates against class solidarity. So, Gartside's depiction of the fragmentation of self chillingly predicts the splintering of his society.
Gradually, in the early '80's, Marxism was being seen as a hair-shirt ideology, while reality-dissolving post-structuralist texts primed initiates for the playful world of postmodern relativism that was flickering into being. The rock writer Paul Morley pointed musicians towards Roland Barthes texts, in the hope that ecstatically self-reflexive music would result. The word "jouissance" was self-regardingly retailed by music journos angling for Continental philosophy cachet. It's a French term made famous by Lacan and Barthes, which describes the frisson resulting from the reconciliation between cultural language and history. This has its place, but things became slightly pretentious from around '82 onwards. Scritti's Cupid and Psyche 85's publishing company was called Jouissance LTD. Moreover, everyone seemed to be reading existentialism and glumly sporting secondhand overcoats from Camden Market. Now, here's the rub: in spurning communism, and taking postmodern dissolution (of "grand narratives" like truth/politics/religion) and jouissance to his heart, Gartside may have allowed himself to be invaded by aspects of Thatcherism. After all, the mid-eighties was when ludic postmodernism inadvertently performed the role of Trojan nag for elements of neoliberalism, duly trotting through many people's ethical defences. Nobody reaped more from the melting away of the old truths to which Gartside refers at the top of this piece than Thatcher and Reagan. A latter-day parallel of this would be the way in which Donald Trump's cronies hijacked Continental philosophy and critical theory in order to push their "the-truth-is-what-we-say-it-is" propaganda.
The Raincoats were subject to the same social forces as Scritti Politti. While Odyshape (1981), with its norm dismantling lyrics, is a mind-stretching experimental album - one that's earned similar levels of respect as esteemed '81 offerings such as This Heat's Deceit or The Durutti Column's LC - the superbly eclectic jamboree bag of an album that is Moving (1984) effectively atomised the Raincoats. Gina Birch has stated that the band was sundered by its increasingly disparate influences. My impression is that, while Ana Da Silva wished to maintain the Raincoats' experimental rock aesthetic, Birch and Vicki Aspinall wanted to entertain a more new pop approach. Interestingly, Ana da Silva's visionary psychedelic drone hymn "You're A Million" (1979) appears to cherish the profusion of possible selves that reside in a human psyche, quite beyond the reach of fiscal considerations.
As with Gartside, this is ironic, given how the cancerous multiplication of postmodernism's pick 'n' mix voracity was about to consume society. Da Silva's repeated exclamations of "stop here" suggests a freeze-frame plea to a society accelerating out of control. Moreover, da Silva's humanitarian song, along with Birch's quietly devastating adaptation of a Jacques Prevert poem detailing human isolation on "No Looking," make Dave McCullough's assertion that "The Raincoats is an album...void of love" seem obtuse. As Wilkinson points out, McCullough seemed to feel that the Raincoats' rebellious questioning of accepted political "realities" showed a lack of love, but he also criticized them for expressing their views too timidly. They couldn't win.
Another hostile male journalist, Ian Pye, denigrated the Raincoats for what he saw as their sub-hippie dowdy austerity. According to Pye: "The grass roots worthiness of their image probably hasn't been helped by their long-running association with Rough Trade." It seems obvious that Pye, who prized Duran Duran over the Raincoats, was seduced by the glossy sub-Thatcherite appeal of new pop, and found the socialist democracy of their record label to be wholly passe.
As Wilkinson perceptively writes, the title track of Odyshape fairly demolishes McCullough and Pye's criticisms. Over Bunnymen-like twanging guitars and one of the best Velvet Underground-esque riffs in the history of rock, Birch sings affectingly of how looking at magazines makes a depicted young woman feel embarrassed by her physical flaws. Canny word play such as: "Oh! It isn't fair: she isn't fair"" invites the listener to wonder who is being unfair to whom.
Meanwhile, a self-hating first person voice sourly makes comments of the "I'm not glamorous or polished...I wonder if I'll ever look right" variety. The song's poetic climax arrives when Birch sings reasonably: "Do I measure up to your expectations? Am I owed any explanations?" Suddenly, the judgmental eye is swiveled towards the owner of the appraising gaze, and the earlier question of fairness is answered. That Pye noted the Raincoats' awkwardness when he interviewed them is fairly ironic. And, when we recall the irony-soaked glamour which Birch and Aspinall essayed in their next band, it does seem as though they had been stung by those dowdiness gibes.
Birch and Aspinall went on to form the "total pop" new band Dorothy, sadly succumbing to the stress of hit-chasing competitiveness. As Birch told Helen Reddington in The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era (2007): "I turned the screw in my own destruction, really. In 1985-6, Vicki and I formed Dorothy and did the total pop bit. It was quite a trauma, though, 'cos I thought I could handle pop culture, that we could have some kind of control over it, and be whatever we wanted to be. In fact, you get very consumed by it, (the idea of) selling records. It was a nightmare." It's noticeable that Birch and Aspinall sought to question media-sculpted identity in a way which evokes the photographic work of the American artist Cindy Sherman. Once again, we see artists processing the profusion of identities in a hall of mirrors postmodern world. Meanwhile, Gartside was happily bagging hits, but soon found that performatively servicing the corporate machine made him sad and ill. Punk prepared the ground for the experimentation of post-punk, but between 1983-85, many of the sparkiest bands, such as Orange Juice, the Associates, the Comsat Angels, etc., became enervated or extinct. The early eighties seemed to be the zenith of avant-garde rock. Then we had acid house/rave, which could be seen as an MDMA-medicated celebration of the end of manufacturing industry in Britain. A Bakhtinian carnival of unearned euphoria.
This led to the lockdown of a new retro- loop culture, in which the pop-historical iPod became jammed on shuffle mode. Forever now, as the Psychedelic Furs had it in 1983. Instead of innovation, we had enervation; a continual rehashing of past cultural moments. An evolving pop vanguard, was replaced by a retrograde - garde. Many hard-up folk were beguiled by yuppie values, and, certainly, most of us were seduced by aspects of the postmodern mid-eighties.
Gina Birch's sensitive cultural antennae was in evidence when she told the Washington Post in 2011 that the fact that the Raincoats were an all-female band may merely be "part of a historical progression." Certainly, if you look at how the social wave of what became punk gathered momentum - the Enlightenment; the romantics; Marx; World War 1; Dada; Freud; Surrealism; Lettrism; Situationism; hippieism; post-structuralism; punk; and on into postmodernism - this gives today's valorisation of all-female seventies/eighties bands, such as the Raincoats and the Mo-dettes, a wider context.
To wit, we could argue that, now we've changed from having an extractive, manufacturing economy (which needed male workers to be serviced by subservient females) to a digital services economy (which women are now serving very efficiently) we can explain women's valorisation in the mass media in cynical economic terms. The Marxist feminism of seventies writers like Sheila Rowbotham has been overwritten by the identity politics-tainted neoliberal feminism of women who are keen to "lean in." The latter brand of feminism - in which feminism is harnessed for financial and egotistical gain - suits big business very well.
There is also an essentialist, oppositional strand to third/fourth wave feminism, wherein women, beguiled by the media's tokenistic "girl power" blandishments, extol a chauvinistic belief in female superiority. Arguably, you could see this during the riot grrrl movement in 2003, which often featured musically conservative tunes and Madonna-esque self-empowerment of a sub-neoliberal kind. Some latter-day Raincoats admirers are evangelizing the band in terms of women versus men jockeying; an undialectical mode of thought that reverses the political solidarity that seemed blinkingly feasible back in 1981. "Sisters before Misters," girls against boys. Now, "there's another marketing ploy."
If years of capitalist welfare education - which accidentally educated the working class beyond happy wage slavery - partly laid the groundwork for post-punk culture, then the Thatcherite "rationalization" of art colleges, the postmodern lockdown and neoliberal hegemony that followed, explains why contemporary popular culture seems to be so artistically and intellectually inert.
As Siouxsie and the Banshees' Steven Severin observed in 2009: "..We can talk about the cultural impact that punk had, but...it ushered in Thatcherism...I liked Joy Division; why bother with these karaoke versions (such as Editors and Interpol)?...I'm absolutely ready to embrace the next new thing. I just can't hear it yet."
As Siouxsie said to Vivien Goldman in 1977: "Maybe there's a new ice age coming on." Prescient.
Gina Birch painting, "Kitchen Loneliness"
PSF: Colin Newman from Wire, and the American writer David Shields have both said that anyone can come up with creative material, but the vital factor is having the skill to edit your ideas into a coherent piece of work. What's your view of this, with regard to your music, film making and painting?
GB: Yeah, editing can be a heartbreaking problem. When I was making the Raincoats' documentary (Stories from the She-Punks), it kept having an added ending-it had about five potential endings. I'd be saying: "Oh, it's ending. Oh, no, I'll just add this bit. Then it's ending-but I'll just add that bit. Then, I'd think: " For God's sake, just end the bloody thing!" Editing is a skill that you develop, and you learn to be a bit brutal. You want to keep everything you like, but things are stronger, work better, when they are not drowned in too much goodness!
But editing can be a problem when you want to do things that are a bit unexpected. Editing shouldn't constrict your output; it's a question of deciding what to keep. This applies particularly to my painting practice. I'm aware of trying to use subject matter in my work that people haven't seen in painting before, and I think Marlene Dumas does that, to some degree. But I'm trying to take aspects of my life, my friends' lives, and the workaday world of life and politics, and depict them as something that hasn't quite been painted before.
For example, a humorous painting, Three Girls Dissecting Frogs, is a scene from a school biology lab. The Three Girls series had a lot of serious fun: sex education, HIStory lessons, learning how to roll a joint. I have also made a serious series about sexual assault. So, although I don't censor myself, I DO try to edit out the extraneous crap. I definitely want to fish down holes that haven't been fished into before.
PSF: On the subject of originality, it may be a young man's tendency to diligently learn the work of idolised musicians before joining a band. Why didn't you go through that worshipping musical mentors phase?
GB: Well, I had a worshipping experience of sorts - when I saw the Slits play - but it was very immediate. I just thought they were staggering!
I came to London from Nottingham, and moved into a squat in a little cul-de-sac. And living there was Palmolive's sister Esperanza, who was married to Richard Dudanski, who had been the drummer with Joe Strummer's band the 101ers (he later played with Public Image Limited). So, Esperanza and Richard were great mates with Joe Strummer. Of course, for me, the Clash were like megastars; I was so embarrassed when Joe was around; I just wished the earth would swallow me up. I was absolutely in awe of him. I decided that being a fan was a really exciting thing; to have these people that you look up to. But, when you get to know famous people, you learn that they are as good or boring as anyone else.
Years later, I was sitting with Mick Jones and Viv Albertine, in this glass box, where Mick had this kind of museum exhibition (Rock 'n' Roll Public Library at Chelsea Space in 2009), and Viv was doing a bit of recording. And there were all of these little kids' faces pressed up against the glass, all of these kids who were looking in with such longing and excitement. And I thought: "Bloody hell, the feelings that they have, being out there looking in, are much MUCH more magical than the feelings that I have while sitting inside this hallowed box!
So, although I didn't have many musical type mentor idols that I'd study, punk did engender this surging sense of excitement in me. My friend Alex, who I came to London with, ended up making clothes for the Clash, and she was so in awe of them that she barely spoke to them, even while she measured their inside legs! So although these people were my peers, I was so shy that I felt them to be more significant than me.
Many years later, when Helen Reddington had a party to celebrate the publication of her book The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era (2007), many of the women from that era met up. After a while, we all went: "Blimey, why weren't we friends?!" We weren't friends because we were all petrified of each other and were, in some cases, pitted against one other by the media.
PSF: I recently read a Women In Rock interview piece by Deanne Pearson (1980), in which yourself and some contemporaries - such as Lesley Woods from Au Pairs, Barbara Gogan from the Passions and Viv Albertine from the Slits - participated. Apart from Gogan and Pearson, many of you showed an interestingly wary attitude towards feminism; something that may be due to second-wave feminism losing momentum by the early eighties. Why the wariness, if that's what it was?
GB: I think I was very naive, so I didn't see the big picture. But I wasn't utterly apolitical. I think that punk carried on some of the hippie ideals, for example, squatting. This provided housing for those of us with little or no money. My fellow squatters and I eventually formed a housing co-op. Also punk engendered an "anyone can have a go" kind of attitude, which we did when we picked up noisy instruments and wrote songs from our own perspective. I became more aware of the theory of feminism when Vicki Aspinall joined the band. She said that what we were doing was a feminist act, taking control of our own music, and our art work, and our own decisions around the band. And she brought books and ideas to do with feminism into the group. When I did try to come to terms with it all, I felt quite down, because, at that point, if you looked at the world from a feminist perspective, everything seemed to be against a progressive view for women. The patriarchy had things sewn up, and it was quite a difficult leap for women to break things down. We had contrasting experiences in the Raincoats. Ana's mother was a teacher and was more in control of her life, had more say in the family's household than many women at the time. In our house, my dad was the boss, and my mum, having gone straight from being under her father's control, married my Dad and didn't have much confidence in her ideas and abilities. Vicki was a lot more politicised, from her time at York University, and having also been in Jam Today.
PSF: You said that when you moved from Nottingham to London, you were slightly innocent...
GB: I wasn't innocent: I was naive! In Nottingham, I hung around with the speed freaks and the chemist raiders. They seemed to be more exciting than than the pupils from Nottingham High School For Boys. So I'd had all sorts of colourful experiences before I came to London. I wasn't a big reader; I Iived things out, and I tried to find exciting things to experience. But I don't think I had a broad perspective on the world.
PSF: What sort of family did you grow up in? I'm guessing that you come from a lower middle class background.
GB: Yeah, but both my parents grew up in working class families with outside toilets. The thing is, my dad went to a boys school in Leicester, where there was a male equivalent of Miss Jean Brodie [a character from a Muriel Spark novel: an eccentrically dedicated teacher], and ended up studying history at Cambridge. But World War II had broken out, so he went off to India as an officer in the army, because he had a deferred place at university. Anyway, England was very classist then, so he didn't have posh pals at Cambridge (I'm sure it still is: the rich boys stick together). He hung out with his mates from Leicester, who were part of his cohort from school, and were also studying history. My mum left school at sixteen and went to secretarial college. She didn't apply for any jobs, but then the bursar at Christ's College, Cambridge phoned up her college and said: "We need someone to come and work here-do you have any secretaries?" So my mum ended up working in the bursar's office, where she met my dad. So there was a middle class aura of respectability surrounding my parents, but neither of them were privileged. We used to go on holidays in the UK, and were one step up from the outside loo. My dad worked for John Lewis and earned a low salary. He had to pay back some of that sum, so we lived on very little money [John Lewis is a trust, run on behalf of its employees].
See Part II of the Gina Birch interview
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