ROCK / File under formative: Long forgotten, now revered: Ben Thompson meets the Raincoats

'THE RAINCOATS are so bad tonight that every time a waiter drops a tray we all get up and dance . . . I die so many times during their set that in India they think I'm the fourth prophet.' Such was the verdict of the NME in 1979. The reviewer: Danny Baker, en route to becoming a chat-show host and Daz Ultra's representative on earth.

So not everybody liked this group. Other critics raved about them, but they never came within spitting distance of a hit single, and broke up in 1984. The three albums they released have been more or less unobtainable ever since. Their music might have been expected to vanish without trace, but instead it camped out in the back of people's heads, and over the past year or so few names have been dropped more widely. Now comes a long-overdue reissue of their defiantly strange and ultimately enchanting trio of LPs.

Formed in west London in 1977, by two women - Gina Birch from Nottingham and Ana da Silva from Portugal - the Raincoats were inspired by punk rock exploding all around them, especially its profusion of female voices: Patti Smith, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, and most of all the Slits, whose Palm Olive would provide the bracingly Teutonic drumming on their first album. They went through a couple of line-ups before violinist Vicky Aspinall became a permanent member, and The Raincoats was recorded as a four-piece.

This record still sounds extraordinary. Not so much for the individual elements - the churning violins, clattering drums and defiant voices, the exceptionally catchy tunes - as for the overall sense of something new and bold taking shape. In the anxious rhapsody of 'In Love', the compressed fury of 'Off Duty Trip' and the great laughing hijack of the Kinks' 'Lola', the Raincoats were heading somewhere no one had been.

'Our structures were never traditional,' remembers Gina fondly, sitting with Ana in Rough Trade's Ladbroke Grove office, 'the fact that our songs had a beginning, a middle and an end was basically down to the fact that we started, we went on and then we stopped.' Untutored playing was nothing new, but the Raincoats' refusal to confront their audiences - 'we were all quite shy by nature' - combined with their feminist beliefs to evoke a novel reaction from those who didn't like them. 'We were both ball-breakers and too self- effacing at the same time]' Gina says proudly.

As time passed and the other two Raincoats (they never got another permanent drummer, and still want Mo Tucker to know they have work for her if she's interested) joined Vicky on speaking terms with their instruments, their music evolved. It became softer and suppler, but even more unusual. The polyrhythmic mysteries of 1981's sparse and spiky Odyshape take time to unravel even now, and the courtly pan-global chamber music of their 1984 swansong Moving is even harder to get to grips with. On first hearing, it's a nightmare of whimsical community-centre folksiness, but if you stick with it a formidable strength emerges.

The Raincoats were the product of a time of millennial excitement; when men and women were able to play in bands on equal terms, when music seemed to be tugging at the bricks of the wall that keeps them apart. When they split up, kindred spirits like the Au Pairs and Delta 5 had faded away too. Women would play a leading role in the pop music of the next few years, but more as glamour-queen vocalists than worker bees. Why did this happen?

'It's got a lot to do with the way the music industry is organised. There's definitely a male- bonding thing in major record companies.' Gina shoots me a jovially accusing look - 'you should know about this. If you're a woman in a band, you're treated in a different way; you're never going to be in the club. Well, you might if you're not careful - but not in their club.'

It's not surprising that the current wave of noisy, woman-fronted bands cite Gina's band as an influence. What else are these people trying to do but secure the bridgehead that the Raincoats helped make a decade ago? Not that they were aware of it. 'Not at all,' says Gina. 'If I mentioned to anyone that I used to be in a band, when I said which one they wouldn't have heard of us.'

Last year Ana was working in a Portobello antique shop when she had visitors: Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Hole's Courtney Love - grunge's royal couple. Long-term fans, they had come looking for Raincoats LPs at the Rough Trade Shop and been sent round the corner to meet one of the makers. Ana wasn't sure who they were.

Subsequently Love's band Hole covered the Raincoats' 'The Void', and Cobain wrote sleevenotes for the reissue of the first album, his enthusiasm for which secured a large-scale release on mighty Geffen Records in America. His description of how listening to this band makes you feel is probably as good as any. 'We're together in the same old house,' he writes, 'and I have to be completely still or they will hear me spying from above, and if I get caught everything will be ruined, because it's their thing.'

Do they have any worries about benefiting from the patronage of a male rock star? 'No,' says Gina, 'I think it's brilliant.'

'The Raincoats' (Rough Trade CD/LP) is out now. 'Odyshape' follows on 10 Jan, 'Moving' on 7 Feb.

(Photograph omitted)