THE VIRGIN PRUNES
40th Anniversary of Irish Performance Artists' Debut
by Brian F. Cousins
I was fortunate to see the Virgin Prunes live in the summer of 1980 in a small performance art space, The Project Art's Theatre in Dublin's Temple Bar. I still have a visceral memory of Gavin Friday and Guggi, the two gender fluid performers/vocalists ripping a fetus-like prop from a clear plastic bag and nearly spewing a red fluid over the entire front rows of the audience. Forty-two years later, this piece seems as relevant today as ever with the recent over-ruling of Roe vs. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court. But what of the band and music? How has it matured over these years?. I'm happy to find that the debut album, produced by Colin Newman of Wire fame, still holds up remarkable well all these years later.
It is hard to describe the Dublin and Ireland of the late '70's/early '80's that produced the Virgin Prunes and which they reacted so forcefully against. This was a society with a stagnant economy, national low self-esteem and still dominated by the morality and control of the Catholic Church.
The Prunes as they were always called, were the complete antithesis of the pervading mores of "dear old dirty Dublin." In many ways, Ireland had yet to transform itself into the modern, international, fully functioning democracy it is today and was still as provincial and compromised as James Joyce had described 80 years previously.
The Prunes created their own tribe in "Lypton Village," giving themselves new names and identities. The other band to emerge from this creative friction with dull Dublin was U2. While U2 always saw themselves as a rock band, the Prunes were performance artists with a flawless post-punk aesthetic. Their early performances were all one-of-a-kind events where the audience was to be confronted and provoked into thought and action. This was not passive entertainment.
There was an element of art-school coolness about them (often described as "Poseur") which was the great Dublin put-down at the time for anyone daring to be dress out of the norm. With Gavin nearly always dressed in smock-like dresses with Doc Martin boots and Guggi in pencil skirts and heels, they were decidedly different. The most common comment was "they're nothing but a bunch of poseurs" and "they're just making a show of themselves." There was a complete intolerance for anything as original and uninhibited as the Prunes in Dublin. This was a town, not like New York or London that recognizes creativity and celebrates it, but rather one that wants to crush it or at the very least, ignore it. There are still many music fans there from that time that cannot accept the Prunes' creativity or U2's success This intolerance was what drove the Prunes in Dublin and propelled them to find a more open-minded audience in the UK and Europe.
Of course when they started to release records on their Baby label in '81 they were distributed by Rough Trade and their debut is a full Rough Trade release. Gavin was friends with Mark.E. Smith and would stay with the Fall on visits to Manchester and later work with them.
The Prunes embarked on perhaps an overly ambitious series of recording and releases in the months leading up to 1982's ...If I Die, I Die. In keeping with the spirit of their performances, where they strove to make each show unique and an event, they embarked on a series of recordings called A New Form of Beauty, which consisted of a 7", 10" and 12" records and finally a cassette-only recording taken form the live performance of the material that was the culmination of the series.
In addition there was a second album Heresie (two 10" records) released in France in '82 (almost simultaneously with their official debut), which was a commissioned soundtrack for a French film with additional live recordings from a Paris show.
The Prunes were clearly eager to disregard conventional record company morns, perhaps to their peril. Few bands release such a plethora of music in such short order, however, like other acts on independent and free-thinking labels like Factory and Rough Trade, this was all considered an act of defiance against conformity and careerism.
After this huge burst of recording activity, the band then attempting "to tour" but in their own uncompromising fashion. They still wanted to make each show a performance, every performance an event. And the energy required for this became too draining for the individuals involved and the original band started to burn out as they attempted to become a touring act. And much to the chagrin of Gavin & Guggi, they were most often considered to be a Goth Act, and attracted an audience that was coming with preconceived expectations (which was everything that the Prunes were against). This attempt to pigeon hole the band was demoralizing and the original band sadly never recorded extensively again.
Now on the 40th anniversary of the original release ...If I Die, I Die, the album has been reissued as a lavish limited edition vinyl record, with a double CD version also available with outtakes and rarities.
On the album, mental illness, sexual abuse, family disfunction and contempt for conformity are the shards of truth that emerge in the chanted and ritualized vocals that dominate the swirl of noise and energy. Translating this into rage into song structures is no easy task but "Sandpaper Lullabye" "Sweet Home under White Clouds" from "ANFOB" achieve this convincingly.
Expectations had been high for ...If I Die, I Die. Colin Newman does a truly excellent job in refining their sound, introducing space and supporting instrumentation to expand the drum, bass, guitar attack. Guitarist Dik (older brother to U2's Edge) provides stringent staccato patterns, Strongman's bass-lines only carry the melody and drummer Mary's tribal and ritualistic patterns create width and depth but is the vocals of Gavin & Guggi that are the focus. Gavin has a stunning "rock" voice, at once distinctive, emotive and theatrical. It is truly unique and feral. Guggi acts as the re-joiner, the response to Gavin's call without whom the Prunes would simply not work.
Side 1 of the album is hard to find fault with. It's a beautifully-paced 18 mins that highlight all the band's strengths. Side 2 opens with the dance floor friendly "Baby turns Blue" which, along with a standalone single recorded during the album sessions "Pagan Love Song," are great singles but feel out of place on the album. The only misstep, "Ballad of the Man," follows which sung by Dave-ID and is a deliberate mocking of Bruce Springsteen, which sadly served no good purpose then or now.
The album then returns to the intense vocalization of Gavin & Guggi and almost overwhelms the listener- it feels as you the band is goading its audience into reaction to their music as the album climaxes. And this is the crux for the band and their studio recordings as they can never fully capture the intensity of their live performances only because so much of what they did was visual in nature.
However, IIDIE remains the best example of their studio work. In addition, video recording of the band live gives real insight to their power on stage. In one sense, it's a shame that only fragments of their performance's remain but on the other hand, this helps the band retain their mystery and remove them from revisionism. They were never collated, neutered or tamed. They burnt brightly and then moved on.
The Virgin Prunes remain a truly remarkable act, completely original and honest and certainly one of the finest to ever emerge from Dublin. In a culture not known for emotional expression and exhibition, they broke the mold of restraint and conformity and flew the flag for creative freedom and expression like few before or since.
Gavin Friday (Fionán Martin Hanvey) as had a long career as a solo artist and has contributed to numerous soundtracks. gavinfriday.com
Guggi (Derek Rowen) is a successful artist know for minimalistic paintings and sculptural representations of bowls and vessels. https://www.guggi.com
Daniel Figgis (aka Haa Lacka Binttii) was a member briefly in '81and is now a composer, producer, curator and intermedia artist with diverse body of work. https://danielfiggis.com/
Dik (Richard Evans) has a PhD (1996) in Neural Networks from Imperial College London.
Strongman, Dave-id Busaras Scott and Mary D'Nellon continued playing as "The Prunes," releasing two additional albums and an EP without the other founding members.
Brian Cousins runs the incredible clothing and music store Hollander & Lexer in Industry City, Brooklyn
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