Saturday, November 7, 2009

New Wave for the New Week #36

[All throughout the month of November, all NW4NW entries will be based on requests made by you, dear readers. Because of the amount of requests coming in, there will often be more than one entry per week during this month - I recommend signing up for email alerts on the left-hand side of the screen so that you don't miss any of the fun! If you wish to make a request, you may do so either in the comments section of this post, or on Twitter by tweeting your request to @berutt. Don't be shy - tell me what band you want to see featured!]

Virgin PrunesVirgin Prunes via

NW4NW All Request Month continues with the first non-Twitter request, courtesy of my brother Marcus. His request also is the first entry in the entire NW4NW series that ventures into the Goth subgenre; in fact, in making his request he points out that "kids these days have NO IDEA what Gothic is until they've experienced these guys," and i daresay I am in full agreement. This ain't The Cure, kiddos...

A group of kids growing up together in 1970s Ireland formed an insular gang of sorts, and gave each other new identities - nicknames by which they would forever be called. Eventually, they all found themselves drawn to musical expression, and from their clan two bands were formed: one band would go on to worldwide fame and global pop-chart domination while the other...well, the other is the band we feature here.

"The Other" is also a pretty good place to start in trying to describe The Virgin Prunes. Going by their adopted names Gavin Friday, Guggi, Dave-Id, Dik, Strongman and Pod (and later involving the equally oddly-monikered Haa-Lacka Binttii and a male drummer/guitarist calling himself Mary), The Virgin Prunes began performing around Dublin in 1977. Their approach was a wildly unconventional mix of performance art, noise, imagery, music and shock theater. Their purposeful blurring of the lines of melody, vulgarity and gender sent many away from their early shows with heads reeling and stomachs churned. By the time the released their first recorded work in 1980, a self-produced single called "Twenty Tens (I've Been Smoking All Night)," their reputation was set as confrontationalist performers. The single was more listenable than most expected, but definitely difficult sonic territory (think of a rougher version of Metal Box-era Public Image Ltd.) Given their name, their sound, and their style, The Virgin Prunes were not going to be a mainstream band by anyone's definition!

A follow up single, "In The Greylight," followed in similar fashion. A bit more structured, it was still far enough out there as to be pretty much inaccessible to anyone not already accepting of their quirkiness. In 1981, the first attempt to capture the live performance aspect of the band in a recording resulted in what one reviewer likened to "a party in Hell." The four-part A New Form of Beauty series (initially released as four separate recordings on 7", 10" and 12" vinyl and a cassette, respectively, then combined as whole for a double LP released in Italy) built on a tense counterpoint between bizarre/ugly and charming/beautiful. Even their quickly growing cult following had difficulty sitting through the whole thing.

Commissioned by the French L'Invitation au Suicide label to create a work based around the theme of insanity, The Virgin Prunes delivered Heresie in early 1982. A boxed set containing two 10" records and half a dozen or so booklets with unsettling prose and imagery that would have shaken Salvador Dali, Heresie is a masterpiece. The first record finds the band making a horrific racket, playing out the roles of lunatics escaped from the asylum and finding themselves in a recording studio, culminating in the majestic and frightening "Rhetoric" and interspersed with childlike sing-songy vignettes and an odd recurring flute; the second record finds the band performing five of their more straightforward songs live in front of a Parisian audience. Stunning, and again difficult, but highly recommended.

Later that same year, The Virgin Prunes released their first formal LP, ...If I Die, I Die. In some ways, it's hard to believe this record came from the same band. It's downright danceable in places! This is The Virgin Prunes at their most accessible, with some of their most well-known songs found within it's grooves: "Baby Turns Blue," "Caucasian Walk," "Sweet Home Under White Clouds" and more. For anyone unfamiliar with the band, this is the place to start, even though it does not contain their biggest single, "Pagan Love Song."

"Pagan Love Song" was also released in 1982, and quickly became a dance club staple in Europe and among the hipper clubs in the US. The unsettling quirks that were the hallmarks of the band's sound are still there, though now buried deeply beneath a chugging bass line and wobbly guitar riff.

After their creative explosion in 1982, The Virgin Prunes began to falter. A second album, Sons Find Devils, was worked on but never released; a collection of rare tracks called Over The Rainbow appeared in 1985; a year later their final studio album, The Moon Looked Down And Laughed, was pretty much panned by even their most ardent fans. A remarkably good live album, The Hidden Lie, was issued in 1987, and The Virgin Prunes were no more. Gavin Friday has since released several solo works in a very non-Virgin Prunes vein, heavily influenced by cabaret music in the tradition of Kurt Weill.

Oh, that other band that was formed from the same group of Irish kids? Well, two of them kept their nicknames as well: one was the brother of Virgin Prunes guitarist Dik, who was given the name The Edge; the other was initially given the name Bono Vox, but he shortened it to just Bono. You may have heard of them. They're called U2.

Marc, I thank you for this request - a great call! For your listening and viewing pleasure, this week's NW4NW is a live clip of The Virgin Prunes performing "Pagan Love Song." Additionally, for those of you feeling particularly adventurous, I'm including the full seven-and-a-half minute "Rhetoric" clip. Enjoy!

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