An introduction to Virgin Prunes

“There is no other group in the business doing what they’re doing at the moment,” announced Gay Byrne to his Irish television audience in 1979, introducing the Virgin Prunes. “What it is they’re doing I’m not too sure, mind you, but there’s no one else doing it.”

His response was fairly typical. The Virgin Prunes provoked many questions, but seldom provided answers. Fuelled by the claustrophobic atmosphere of late 1970s Dublin, inspired both by the glam rock excesses of Bowie and Bolan and by the DIY punk ethos, their often bewildering stage performances won them praise, condemnation and above all, notoriety.

“The Virgin Prunes are a mirror to you. To look in that mirror or turn away is your choice…” they declared in an early song. They frequently repeated the point that their music contained no particular message, just their interpretation of, and response to, the world around them.

As a group of young men searching for an identity and purpose beyond the conventional humdrum nine-to-five existence, it may have been inevitable that they would adopt a confrontational approach. Where they differed from other artists was the extent to which they took their ideas and beliefs.

“The Virgin Prunes are a mirror to you. To look in that mirror or turn away is your choice…”

Their performances were a mixture of punk anger, theatrical performance, surrealist art and rock ‘n’ roll. The Dadaist tag was attached to them on several occasions (probably resulting from the title of one of their performances, The Dada Sitting Room) and this label seems more appropriate than any other. A Virgin Prunes show could include men in dresses clinging to decapitated dolls, two “pig children” scrabbling in the mud, a birthday cake slowly being smashed to pieces with a crowbar, the horror of a mock abortion, a family tea party slowly turning primal, poetry and chicken bones, an insane candlelit waltz, bloody pigs’ heads on sticks, plates full of faeces, pseudo-religious ceremonies, or rabbits playing on a bed to the sound of a pornographic film soundtrack.

A mixture of high art and high camp, grand masterplan and simultaneous lack of agenda, the Virgin Prunes could not be pigeonholed and thus could simultaneously alienate and intrigue an audience. The extremity of their approach led to many ironies. Supporting The Clash in 1978, they shocked even the supposedly rebellious punk audience when Gavin’s crotch split open, revealing that the two “women” on stage were actually men. In 1979, immediately following one of the angriest musical performances ever broadcast on Irish TV (an impassioned version of Theme for Thought on The Late Late Show) they pre-empted any knee-jerk stereotyping by distributing sweets to the audience. When the plug was pulled on them by the promoters of the 1981 Futurama festival, they remained squatting on stage, “vibing out” the audience, refusing to move.

Fifteen years later, it is hard to convey the impact that they had on their audiences. They were working in roughly the same experimental post-punk field as The Pop Group, The Fall, Pere Ubu, Public Image Limited, Throbbing Gristle and possibly Crass. Nevertheless, at the time of the release of their first record a few days into 1981, the Virgin Prunes were genuinely unique. They subsequently influenced several Gothic bands, although in their appropriation of the Virgin Prunes’ props and trappings most seemed to miss the whole point – individuality. A longer-term legacy might possibly be found in the work of bands like Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy or Christian Death. However, none of these bands has covered the wide range of ideas and musical styles that characterised the Virgin Prunes.

It is perhaps their Irishness which distinguishes the Virgin Prunes from other superficially similar groups. The Irish sense of humour is obvious in Down the Memory Lane, but also present in Moments and Mine and Baby Turns Blue. Gavin Friday has acknowledged the influence of the sean-nós style of singing in songs such as Sweethome Under White Clouds. The work of Wilde and Beckett is consciously used in Theme for Thought, but a vibrant Irish literary tradition which had produced writers such as the groundbreaking Joyce could also have subconsciously fed the band’s desire to go beyond the “daily retch” of Dublin’s suburban life.

Musically, the group were intuitive rather than accomplished. Despite this, much of their recorded legacy survives the passing of time. The themes which they covered in their exploration of the human condition are universal – the search for identity, the fragility of love, the sexual minefield, the nature of beauty, the inevitability of death.