She Plays Her Bass Loud: Gina Birch

Gina Birch has just released her first solo album, 44 years after the Raincoats’ debut.

Marshall Bowden

People forget that British punk, even at its most dour and political, always bristled with a sense of humor: the humor of the damned, perhaps. Punk music was deliberately anti-poetic and, for many, anti-musical, but it quickly morphed into a DIY movement among Britain’s disaffected youth. There were always performers and bands who were more concerned with the statement of putting out their own records and getting their own gigs than with maintaining any kind of unified ‘punk sound.’ 

The Raincoats were one of these bands, and it is worth noting that several of the groups and performers who most pushed punk beyond the three chord hyper bash, nudging it towards advanced textures that would later be labeled ‘post punk,’ were female. The Slits crashed the party early, and former X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene moved towards a more experimental sound informed by pop on her solo records. Through the years, the contributions that these women made towards the development of punk/post punk/indie rock/riot grrrrl and, of course, grunge, has been recognized by a legion of female musicians who followed in their wake as well as by writers and film makers who have documented their work. 

The Raincoats bassist/singer Gina Birch cites The Slits, along with The Sex Pistols, as bands that made her want to start creating music in the first place. But The Slits, particularly, lit her fire, as she recently told The Quietus’ Elizabeth Aubrey: 

“Up until seeing The Slits, it never occurred to me to form a band. I had no inclination to form a band either, but once I saw them and I saw that kind of rebellion, energy and excitement – and just the way those songs spoke to me in a way that no other song had spoken to me before so directly – well, it spoke to my sense of adventure, rebellion and mischief. It was everything a young woman could want from music at that time. It was a eureka moment.”

The approach that Birch and Raincoats co-leader Ana da Silva took was similar to some of the other punk bands in that they learned to play their songs (indeed their instruments) on stage as they went. But they never sounded like any of the other bands out there at the time, sometimes using acoustic instruments, including violin and exotic instruments the group purchased on tour New York City to create textures that most would find difficult to identify as punk. They also avoided the political broadside and the easy slogan a la The Clash. It’s true that they were feminists, but songs like “Off Duty Trip” and “Fairytale in the Supermarket” were personal narratives that its target audience (women) could relate to rather than policy screeds. 

Gina Birch has just released her first solo album, 44 years after the Raincoats’ debut. Titled I Play My Bass Loud, it bristles with the same anger and, yes, humor, that made the band a huge influence for women in the nineties alt-rock and grunge scenes. And like each of the three Raincoats releases, it feels like a missive from its very own universe. The Raincoats records sound timeless because the band didn’t appear to attempt to play music like anything that was happening at the time. For that matter, they didn’t play in a style from the past, nor did they try to present a futuristic vibe. 

What we learn on I Play My Bass Loud is that Gina Birch considers that her job, and at age 68 she is still full of both the creativity and the anger of her younger self. She’s enraged by the fact that women are still oppressed, ignored, and violated all around the globe just as when she came on the scene. She spits in the face of  the fascism of Putin’s Russia, pointing towards the heroism of the all female punk band Pussy Riot in her song of the same name.  She talks, in the monologue-with-music “And Then It Happened,” about being so stressed by the state of the world on top of a health crisis that she just ‘stopped trying/almost stopped caring’ before being swept up and carried on a breeze of inspiration that carries us into the muddy alt-rock of “Wish I Was You” and “Big Mouth.” 

Birch’s extra sharp sense of humor is on full display in “I Will Never Wear Stilletos” as she asks women who are out late ‘tripping along/showing your legs/slightly drunk/slightly stoned,’ ‘Can you run in those? Sometimes you just gotta run.’ Women who are living on the margins prefer ‘blue suede shoes/they love white Polish waitressing shoes/Never wear Jimmy Choos.’

“Dance Like a Demon” recalls The Raincoats’ 1994 album Moving in its mesmerizing energy, adding a touch of shoegaze frosting that merely serves to remind me that every random alternative female act I can think of–Kim Gordon, Throwing Muses, K’s Choice, Lush, Letters to Cleo, The Breeders–was influenced by The Raincoats, not always so much in how their music sounded, but because there were women who saw that it could be done. It was being done, against all odds and with little fanfare. “Digging Down” is the somewhat obligatory dub influenced track, but it brings things full circle nicely, acknowledging again the influence of The Slits. 

On the penultimate track, ‘Feminist Song’, Birch again breaks out her sly wit as well as her ability to make the political personal with sharp focus:

When you ask me if I’m angry

I say I don’t go ranting in post offices

or point my gun out of my bedroom window at strangers

I just walk along the street quietly imploding inside my own head

So when you ask me if I’m angry

I say why the hell would I not be

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