A New Form of Beauty, Heresie, … If I Die, I Die, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed and Over the Rainbow (Mute)
Gavin Friday, leader of the long-defunct Virgin Prunes, is nothing if not a goth-punk version of Bryan Ferry. Like Ferry, Friday helped slowly transform an incendiary and daring band into a sadly average vanity project, emerging at the end as a schlocky crooner. And, in the same way that Ferry's ego has managed to collectively taint all of Roxy Music's work (including the best, early work), Friday's later music (film soundtracks, vaguely cabaret-like solo albums) manages to blight the excellent and shocking early output of the Virgin Prunes. A recent reissue campaign by Mute of the group's three studio albums, the New Form of Beauty project (originally released across multiple formats) and a rarities collection may serve to reorient the group's reputation; taken as a whole, the recorded output of the Prunes is formidable and impressive, despite Friday's best attempts to sabotage it with lace and hairspray near the end.
Emerging from Dublin's small late-'70s punk scene, the Prunes were part of a collective that included members of U2 (Prunes guitarist Dik Evans is The Edge's brother). But while U2 wound up taking up the rock-as-revolution ethos of the times, Friday and the Prunes were much more enamored with the revolution-as-art ideas that came along with the genre's "anything goes, so fuck all of you" attitude. The group's early gigs were pretentious, confrontational and well-conceived bits of performance art, a bit of which is captured on early singles like "Twenty Tens" (released in 1981 and available on the Over the Rainbow set). But the Prunes' obsession with artful punk is most eloquently presented via A New Form of Beauty, which was originally released sequentially as a 7-inch, a 10-inch and a 12-inch in 1981 and a cassette in 1982. (The project continued, with Parts 5, 6 and 7 being a show, a book and a film, the latter two of which remain unreleased.) Dense, dark and a bit difficult, the four parts of Beauty that are presented on Mute's double-CD reissue constitute an intimidating musical presence. While many goth kids wound up digging the Prunes, the band's sound here is much more in line with experimental shock troops like Throbbing Gristle and Coil, albeit with a decidedly more theatrical bent.
The 1982 follow-up, … If I Die, I Die amplifies the lavishness Friday was dying to incorporate, but production by Wire's Colin Newman and a thick current of abrasive sonics keep the album firmly on contrarian grounds. Similarly, Heresie (originally released in 1982 as a double 10-inch boxed set) is a brutally dark record; despite an obvious attempt to streamline the group's sound, cuts like "Rhetoric" are assaultive and harsh. After this flurry of audio activity, however, the Prunes took their show on the road, touring until the 1984 sessions for The Moon Looked Down (released in 1986). By this point, Friday's want of a good love song got the best of the band and the album is a mushy mess of lipstick, soppy ballads and bad dance music. Unbelievably, Friday would push his own solo material further into this territory.
Although it's hard to square primal and invigorating cuts like "Sandpaper Lullabye" with tripe like "Our Love Will Last Forever Until the Day It Dies," fans of the Prunes are well aware that the former is far more indicative of the group's ideology. Thankfully, it seems that Gavin Friday realizes this too; although he's still quick to jump into atmospheric soundtrack work, his hand in remastering and producing these reissues shows that he hasn't like Bryan Ferry turned his back on this vital music. Neither should you.