“Like a crazy singer in a band that’s lost the words.”
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think the Virgin Prunes are THE most underrated group of the post-punk era. Go ahead and do your worst. What about _____? Or ______? Or _____?
What about ‘em? Sorry, but I’m right. No band with their theatrical power and musical genius has been so wrongly overlooked as the Virgin Prunes have been for the past 30 years.
The main reason for this gross miscarriage of cultural justice is simply because their albums were extremely difficult to find until seven years ago. Unless you bought the expensive limited edition import vinyl pressed in France and Italy when they actually came out in the early to mid-80s, you were pretty much shut out of enjoying the din glorious of the Virgin Prunes. You probably weren’t going to encounter much, if anything, of the Virgin Prunes’ output in a used record store, either. People who owned those albums, even those who slimmed their record collections down considerably over the years (like me) held onto them. They were not common on Limewire or Napster. Not only were they rare and coveted albums, they were glossy, darkly glamorous and obscenely weird objects d’art in their own right.
I think another reason for their obscurity has to do with the (mostly) misinformed notion that the Virgin Prunes were a goth band due to their “Pagan Lovesong” being a big dancefloor hit at places like London’s Batcave discotheque (which is admittedly where I first heard them myself). Being lumped in with bands like The Specimen, Danse Society, Gene Loves Jezebel and Clan of Xymox hurt their credibility with rock snobs, but their scary, intimidating noise/art rock had more in common with Faust, The Pop Group, The Birthday Party, Public Image Ltd. or Throbbing Gristle, certainly, than it did with Sex Gang Children. The goth label was, and is, an unfortunate one for the legacy of the Virgin Prunes to bear and is still a barrier to proper critical re-appraisal of the group’s work. The goth label didn’t exist when they started.
Another excuse that they’re still so unknown and underground after 30 years have passed is that their work is simply not for everyone. Motherfuckers are evil sounding. If you don’t like an evil-sounding racket, get back to your Carpenter’s albums—quick—and just keep moving. These guys might damage you for life. If Satan himself had a band, they would sound like the Virgin Prunes.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall. Mirror, mirror, I’ve seen it all…”
It’s been remarked often that the Virgin Prunes are the reverse image of U2. For those of you who don’t know it, Dik Evans, original Virgin Prunes guitarist, is the brother of The Edge and the members of both groups grew up as friends in Dublin. Quoting from the Wikipedia entry:
The band consisted of childhood friends of U2’s Bono. Lypton Village was a “youthful gang” created by Bono, Guggi (Derek Rowan) and Gavin Friday (Fionan Hanvey) in the early 70s, where every member got a new identity and where they could escape from dreary and predictable Dublin life and be anything they wanted to be. It was both lead singers Friday and Guggi who first gave a teenaged Paul Hewson his alter-ego and world-famous moniker “Bono Vox of O’Connell Street,” later simply “Bono.”
U2 were the good boys, the Christians. The Virgins Prunes were feral and downright demonic.
And did I mention the whole smearing “chocolate” on their faces and simulating sodomy onstage thing? The ritualistic, fetishy transvestite infantilism of the live act put a few people off, too. Below, meet the “Pig Children.”
The music heard on their albums New Form of Beauty and If I Die I Die (produced by Wire’s Colin Newman) can perhaps best be described as “insane” and “disturbing,” yet it’s always somehow still “beautiful” (in a very broad definition of the word, I grant you). The best comparison to the Virgin Prunes sound would have to be Bauhaus, although that’s just getting you into the ballpark, so don’t make too much of it. The Prunes exist in their very own, very singular continuum. Theirs is the sound of tightly controlled chaos. Rubbery, almost metronomic bass. Pounding primitive drums. Eerie tribal percussion effects and trippy tape loops. Bone-crunching guitar riffs. Dark, apocalyptic lyrical matter and three wailing weirdo singers including a mentally handicapped young man. Their music was the stuff of nightmares. The perfect soundtrack to a bad trip.
Aside from their louder, more violent music, the band could make Eno-esque instrumentals like “Red Nettle” and “Mad Bird in the Wood.” As freaky as these dudes were, they were also great musicians with a lot of range. They were capable of recording profound and subtle tone poems like… “Suck Me Baby”:
Throughout the 90s, the only common Virgin Prunes product, at least in America, was a cheap live CD that Cleopatra Records put our that was merely the audio portion of a concert video that was once sold as a VHS tape. Finally, in 2004, Mute restored the damaged master tapes and released their catalog on CD, with a nice sonic scrubbing. Although the profile of the group was raised for a while, it’s not like those reissues won a MOJO award or anything, as they should have. There’s nary a mention of them in Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again which set the record straight on so many other bands. Sadly, the Virgin Prunes remain relatively obscure to this day.
Below, the studio recording of “Come to Daddy,” from New Form of Beauty, one of their finest, darkest moments:
Below, “Theme for Thought” on the Whatever You Want TV program.
Below, “Decline and Fall” on Whatever You Want.
“Walls of Jericho” on Whatever You Want.
A live “Come to Daddy” from the Sons Find Devils home video:
The final proper Virgin Prunes album (although it was already minus Dik, Guggi and Dave-id) was 1985’s Moon Looked Down and Laughed. Gone was the dark guitar onslaught, replaced by a positively evil, campy cabaret sound that foretold of Gavin Friday’s solo style. The Moon Looked Down and Laughed featured a distinctly new sonic polish (strings, wind chimes) courtesy of producer David Ball (Soft Cell). The best song, for me, is the chilling “I Am God”: