Recalling the Raincoats and Grease – and the very different effects they had on my teenage self

Here’s how I described Grease in my 1978 diary: “My God it was so corny. I was really bored cos’ it was so awful. One nice bloke in it (not John Revolta).”

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It’s a Sunday evening in Hackney, I’m at the Raincoats gig with my friend Gina, and tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1979. That was the year they released their first album. A year later, in August 1980 and still at school, Gina and I formed our band the Marine Girls. Well, I say formed a band – what that meant was we sat in my bedroom and, using one guitar and a drum machine, recorded a song about tourists on a Spanish package holiday getting caught up in a terrorist bombing. We were very inspired by bands like the Raincoats.

Tonight, they remind me how much we stole from them. Gina turns to me and whispers,

“I keep thinking about the cover I made for Beach Party [our first cassette] and how it was a complete rip-off of the sleeve of “Fairytale in the Supermarket” (the Raincoats’ first single).

We giggle guiltily. She’s right, though: a scratchy ink drawing of a rectangular window, the figures of four women band members – it was clear to see.

Up on stage, original member Ana da Silva picks up a woodblock and hits it, and Gina and I look sheepishly at each other again. We nicked that too, never having found a drummer. They had a song called “In Love”, and so did we. Years later, Courtney Love’s band Hole would do a cover of the Raincoats song “The Void”, and the Marine Girls song “In Love”. The resonances keep ringing loud and clear in my head.

The band are playing their first album in its entirety and Gina and I are both shocked and moved to find we remember all the words, all the funny gaps and missed beats, all the odd bar lengths. The band still sound punky in the way that makes most sense to me, ie not like a rehash of a 1960s garage band, but something entirely new – defiantly amateurish, passionate, and ignoring all rules. As is often noted, Kurt Cobain loved the Raincoats, and he loved the Marine Girls too. I’m happy when I see our names sitting side by side on his list of favourite bands. They were our big sisters, our spirit guides.

Three nights after the Raincoats gig I’m at an entirely different kind of night out – one that, back in my youth, would have horrified me. I’ve come, with my daughter and friends, to a singalong screening of the film Grease.

Grease came out in the summer of 1978, by which time I was already into punk, listening to Suicide, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, fancying boys with spiky hair and tight black jeans and guitars. All the same, in October of that year I went to see it with my sister, and here’s how I described it in my diary:

“My God it was so corny. I was really bored cos’ it was so awful. One nice bloke in it (not John Revolta).”

I’d love to know now who was the one bloke I fancied. Grease couldn’t have been designed more perfectly to alienate the 16-year-old me, who was full of vitriol and sneer, found everything boring, despised niceness and entertainment and romance and songs with choruses.

But though I still love the Raincoats, some bits of me have changed, which is what happens as you get older. Now I listen to the uplift of that Barry Gibb theme song and my heart soars. How did I not notice back then what a great track it is? How did I not enjoy the film even on a camp level? How did I not love Rizzo?

I wonder whether the character of Sandy terrified me. That journey she makes, from “good girl” to “sexy girl”, was a narrative I was trying to reject, but inwardly the dilemma tormented me. Maybe in some ways I actually found Grease too challenging, too close to the bone. Hah! Wouldn’t that be something?

When the Raincoats came along a year later, they reassured me that there were other women out there like me, or like I wanted to be. Independent, autonomous, self-defined. All I wanted to be was No One’s Little Girl. And
I got there in the end. It’s a story with a happy ending. Which may be why I can now, happily and unashamedly, sing along with “Hopelessly Devoted To You”. (Although I’d probably still rather be singing “Lola”.) 

Next week: Kate Mossman

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question