Forty Years Later, The Virgin Prunes’ Debut Album Is Still a Gothic Post-Punk Masterwork

Dean Van Nguyen

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.


Picture front rooms across Ireland on the night of Friday 6 October 1979, when the nation’s weekly dose of light entertainment and topical discourse was invaded by a band led by two heavily make-upped male vocalists born of intensity and belligerence, delivering a performance that spliced the DNA of Weimar cabaret, glam rock, Oscar Wilde witticisms, and the occult.

This was The Virgins Prunes’ recital of their song “Theme for Thought” on The Late Late Show. Led by the sonorous pulse of a bass guitar, it was five minutes of shrill guitar lines and corrosive shrieks, watched by two women smoking cigarettes and drinking wine at a table beside the band, and punctuated by extracts from Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. It was radical, it was disruptive, and it nodded to the past while daring terrified middle-aged viewers to consider the future. It was Irish post-punk, which took punk’s scorch-the-earth ethos but rejected the clichés. Host Gay Byrne was perplexed. Only some of the audience applauded.

The Virgin Prunes emerged from grey ground-down Dublin, where too often only a dole queue waited at the end of adolescence. In this mire, young rebellion was not just attractive, but required. The group defined an underground arts movement known as Lypton Village that pursued its own ideas of music, beauty and language. Prunes singers Fionan Hanvey and Derek Rowen became Gavan Friday and Guggi. Another Lyton loiterer, Paul Hewson, took the name Bono Vox, but the demands of destiny placed him in a different band.

The Late Late Show beamed The Virgin Prunes to a national audience, but it didn’t make them overnight celebrities. These urban shamans spent the next couple of years releasing music on various short-form formats and spinning their sermons on stages across Ireland and England. Sometimes The Fall would perform by their side. Friday once appeared with the Manchester band at the city’s iconic subculture hub The Hacienda. “Well I think I did,”he said in 2010. “As far as I know I did.” Such are the limits of human memory in the euphoria of phantasmal surroundings.

By the summer of 1982, the Prunes were ready to lay down a full-length statement. …If I Die, I Die was conjured at the famous Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, and released by Rough Trade Records in November that year (a rush of creativity meant ​​they put out the double 10” EP Hérésie almost simultaneously). The album is a triumph of the urban avant-garde – a blend of gothic gloom, juvenile chaos and post-punk precision.

Now, to mark its 40th anniversary, a new reissue has been released, offering the perfect chance for rediscovery. ​​Long-time Prunes disciples will find this edition adds various rarities and remixes, including unheard rough mixes of a few tracks. You can buy it in a special-finish gatefold sleeve on transparent vinyl, with new liner notes and an art print. Much effort has gone into this extra dressing, giving …If I Die, I Die a deserved sense of historic gravitas.

The recording of the album defined Irish post-punk artists’ determination not to be controlled by rules or convention. Following a couple of line-up alterations, Friday and Guggi were joined by third vocalist Dave-iD Busaras, drummer Mary D’Nellon, bassist Trevor “Strongman” Rowen, and guitarist Dik Evans, who’d left an early incarnation of U2, performing with his brother The Edge. Though the band’s unique proclivities seem resistant to outsiders, a crucial piece of recruitment came in the form of Colin Newman, member of influential English art-punk outfit Wire, serving as the LP’s producer. Few people were born of the same energy as the Prunes but Newman was one of them. “I think in those days you could see the hills around Dublin from everywhere in the city,” he said for the reissue’s liner notes. “The Prunes were like a manifestation of that surrounding wildness brought into the city.”

Newman played the synths on a few …If I Die, I Die tracks, and other musicians were brought in to add instruments such as the bodhrán when required. Drumming was recorded in the hallway and stairwell at Windmill Lane, with mics hanging down from different levels to capture different acoustic effects. At one point an oil tank outside was drummed in search of the appropriate sound. The band layered the dense instrumentals gradually, with loops and pre-recordings added at different speeds.

To the Prunes, the traditional A-side and B-side vinyl format was insufficient. Instead, brown and blue colours were used, signalling earth and sky. Designed by Steve Averill with photography by Ursula Steiger, the artwork on each side of the sleeve was inverted so that both can scan as the front cover. The brown side’s photos featured the band running through woods like a nomadic tribe; on the blue side, they’re performing with fire and mannequins.

​​The brown side is full of enigma, the strange sonic incantations pulling from Eastern mysticism, Iroquois tradition, and Ozzy Osbourne. It stirs into life with “Ulakanakulot”, the title referring to what Friday has called, “the imaginary land where the Beautiful People come”. It’s the kind of music a version of The Beatles might have produced had their Transcendental Meditation in 1968 taken place not in northern India, but underground with the Morlocks. There are muted drums, flutes, the twang of plucked string instruments. And after nearly three and a half minutes, Friday’s haunting voice enters the ether, as “Ulakanakulot” blends into “Decline and Fall”, theatrically yelping “I never smile nor do cry”, like a cabaret Count Orlok.

There is “Sweethome Under White Clouds”, its dramatics mirroring bands like Canadian prog rockers Rush. “Bau-Dachöng” is a highlight – sharp, fluttering noises circle overhead and what sounds to my ear like a didgeridoo rumbles down low. Yet the unbending drums give it a steady, beat music quality, holding the madness together.

The blue side opens with “Baby Turns Blue”, its jaunty melody and highly relatable chants of, “Give me money, give me sex/Give me food and cigarettes” making it an obvious choice for a single. There’s dashes of Joy Division and The Cure in the melodic guitar, bass and drums outline of “Walls of Jericho”. Though they nullified all traditional expectations, The Virgin Prunes weren’t a band entirely out of linearity.

​​The encore is “Theme for Thought”, by this point significantly different from the version the band had unleashed on The Late Late Show. Friday offers a mantra of defiance: “Should I talk the way you want me to talk?/ Say the things the way you want to hear them?” For the downtrodden, rejected, and just plain weird, it surely inspired belief that the last laugh would belong to them.

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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