Virgin Prunes – ‘When art and anarchy collide’
Irish music magazine State.ie interviewed Gavin Friday about the Virgin Prunes for their most recent issue. The article, ‘When art and anarchy collide’ is available to read online.
The Virgin Prunes
By Phil Udell on Tuesday, 21 July 2009
From coming up from the same inner city Dublin streets as U2 to defecating on plates, urinating in wine glasses, getting bottled off stage supporting The Clash and generally getting right up the noses of 1980s’ Ireland – of all the bands to come out of this country in the past 30 years, few have been shrouded in such myth as The Virgin Prunes. Much of it may have built up outside of their control but, as Gavin Friday would be the first to admit, they were also responsible for much of the whirlwind themselves, acknowledging that the band never made it easy for either themselves or their audience.
“The second gig we ever did was just me and Guggi,” he recalls, “with U2 as our band, when they were The Hype. I worked in a slaughterhouse and I got a load of white coats and mesh which we used to cover them up. We did a 20-minute version of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, slowed right down so that it would take a minute and a half to get one sentence out. It was totally provocative. After that gig, Dik Evans, who was Edge’s older brother, left The Hype and came to work with us.”
No matter how inauspicious it might sound, that gig led to a third live outing for the Prunes and a slightly more high profile one at that – supporting The Clash at The Top Hat in Dun Laoghaire in October 1978. For Friday, it was a memorable night. “We came on: Guggi was wearing a tiny skirt and I had a plastic suit made out of raincoats, no jocks underneath, and a pair of Docs. We’d only played two little gigs before that. Steve Averill from The Radiators From Space played synthesizer with us. The crowd just went apeshit. They thought Guggi was a chick.”
“The adrenaline of all these people pogoing kicked in and I started jumping around, the next thing this plastic suit that my ma had made me split completely. I was standing there totally bollock naked, except for a pair of Doc Martins. I turned around and Guggi’s skirt had come off and you could see that he was a bloke. All hell broke loose, there were bottles flying, they were setting the curtains on fire. We were reefed off the stage by The Clash’s tour manager and fucked out the door. We had no money and had to walk with all our gear, back from Dun Laoghaire to Ballymun.”
Such was the world of The Virgin Prunes, a world where art and chaos collided, a world where you would do anything to break the boredom of living in mid-‘70s Ireland. “We were like a Third World country”, Friday remembers. “If you go back to parts of the Eastern bloc of Europe now, that’s what Dublin was like in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Grey, dull, mass unemployment and complete poverty. Music became a lifeline to escape for kids. Punk gave you a licence to form a band with just an attitude. I turned 16 when punk kicked in and had plenty of attitude.”
There was a fair bit of attitude kicking around Ballymun in those days, as a group of teenage friends formed their own strange society (Lypton Village) and gave each other nicknames – Guggi, Gavin Friday, Bono, The Edge. These guys were a band before they’d even picked up an instrument. “The name Virgin Prunes had been hanging around for a while”, says Gavin, “since the early ‘70s. You’d see odd people walking around and we’d call them prunes. Virgin prunes were quite innocent. We always said if we ever had a band, we’d be called that. The name was there. I was a big, big music fan. Guggi was more a visuals person. When punk happened, it was a godsend. It was like we were two bands just waiting to pick up an instrument. We weren’t really into football, we lived in a wasteland, the only release was music.”
That release would lead to the formation of not one but two bands, as has been well documented. Were the Prunes and U2 two sides of the same coin? Friday takes a sip of tea. “U2 formed at the same time but there were no similarities whatsoever,” he muses. “There was a link between the two and still is but because they’ve become so successful, the myth has got bigger. There’s nothing weird about a group of mates hanging out together, forming bands, having ideas. It’s when all the ideas become reality, that’s when the myth gets bigger.”
So the story that they made some sort of commercial vs artistic pact isn’t true? He laughs. “We didn’t have a fucking clue. It’s down to what people are. Bono’s far more diplomatic, I was far more angry and using music as a way to get through that anger, getting rid of it.” Plan or no plan, it can’t be denied that The Virgin Prunes were as artistic as they were musical. “Guggi painted, I painted; one of the few things I was good at was art. We were always called pretentious pricks simply because we were into the avant garde. I remember when we were 16, it used to be a big deal to come into town and hang out at McDonald’s. One day we walked in and saw the performance artist Nigel Wolf naked with paint all over him and a huge stream coming off his mickey pulling these rocks. We were going, ‘What the fuck was that?’”
Perhaps unexpectedly, The Prunes did start to attract record company interest, although more predictably, they weren’t prepared to play ball. “Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis said it was time we made an album but we said no,” grins Gavin. “He said it was time we worked with a producer, we said no. We told him that we wanted to do a 7”, 10”, 12”, cassette, do a gig, release a film and publish a book (the ‘New Form Of Beauty’ project). This was in 1981 and we had no money. We almost did it. We have the film but it was never released and the book never happened, but we did it. We released something on the first of each month: it was quite a strategy.”
Surprisingly, Rough Trade weren’t put off and still The Virgin Prunes continued to lead them a merry dance. “They gave us £10,000 for an overall budget for the album – producers, studio, everything. We went out and spent £6,000 on photographs and they went fucking insane. We were saying, ‘But it’s really important’. There was a certain amount of shooting ourselves in the foot going on.”
How did the band get on with their Dublin contemporaries? “Not particularly well,” admits Friday. “We were very arrogant. I was, certainly. There was that cockiness you have when you’re 17 or 18. A lot of bands were just playing jazzed up r’n’b. Everyone talks about The Boomtown Rats: they were a great pop band but they were never fucking punk. The Atrix were, Stiff Little Fingers were, The Radiators were. The Virgin Prunes were fucking punk. We were arty, we were visual, we were avant garde, but when it came down to it, we were punk. U2 were a new wave rock band. We were there from the start. We never would play and never did play The Baggot Inn ’cos it was for old hippies. That element of arrogance was allowed.”
Somehow, though, this bunch of cross dressing, make-up wearing punks found themselves appearing on The Late Late Show, the epicentre of traditional Irish values at the time. How the hell, we wonder, did that happen? “They asked us on”, says Friday simply. “We were never afraid of publicity but I think we were set up in a naive way. Gay Byrne knew what he was doing, I mean it was the same weekend that the Pope was in town. We were banned from RTÉ after that, although it didn’t help that we were robbing costumes from the dressing room. When we went in to sound-check in the afternoon, we didn’t wear the make-up, I didn’t scream. I just read the Oscar Wilde poem and that was it, we didn’t even bring the chicks in. Then when we came back that night, we went hell for leather. They weren’t expecting it but we were definitely set up. Gay Byrne had a massive response on his radio show and we had massive queues at our next show. The song basically said ‘why should I be like you, be yourself’. That was our whole stance.”
A huge element of their visual style was the cross dressing element, guaranteed to cause a stir in early ’80s Ireland. Gavin laughs. “It was fun. When people say The Virgin Prunes wore dresses, it was never like Boy George wore dresses. I remember going to the Blitz Club in London in 1981, where the whole Steve Strange /Boy George movement was kicking off, and they wouldn’t let us in. We looked more like Rasputin: you weren’t sure if we were going to kiss you or kill you. It wasn’t like we were trying to look like girls.” Or indeed, lock you in a room full of faeces?
“We did some extraordinary shows in Dublin, they were more like art exhibitions. We set up a big dining table and each one of us did a shit on a plate and pissed in a glass, then we left it there and turned up the heat. The smell would kill the audience then we walked in: then we locked them in. There were pieces about abortion, one saying all women were pigs, stuff just to provoke people. We were called anti-feminist so we did that to wind them up. It was childish and it wasn’t thought out but we wanted to provoke a reaction.”
Despite their image, the hassle, the music industry, despite everything the Virgin Prunes enjoyed a level of success with their If I Die, I Die debut and soon found themselves caught up in the traditional method of promoting a band at that time – constant touring. It wasn’t a good move.
“It basically killed the band. Without even knowing it, we became this machine. We started getting freaked when we would play gigs and you’d see all these Gavin and Guggi clones in the front. That was happening everywhere. There was nothing solid in the band. My brain was jumping around, Guggi was into the visuals, Dik was quite avant garde. The rhythm section wanted to be in a straight rock ‘n’ roll band and Davey was from Mars. Things like girlfriends started to become an issue. People got people pregnant. We were drinking too much, there was too much shit going on. It just imploded.” The end was nigh. Guggi and Dik Evans were the first to go and although Friday would keep it going long enough to release a second album, The Moon Looked Down And Laughed, by this point he too had had enough. By 1986, The Virgin Prunes were no more. Regrets? Not for Gavin Friday.
“It always had to be a short lived thing,” he admits. “There was a total purity there, which often was construed as arrogance. We were always shooting from the hip, blindfolded to reality, just going for it. I love that. I think we were one of the purest bands ever to come out of this country.”