- 04 Nov 04
Back in their terrifying heyday, they threw pigs’ heads around on stage, covered themselves in muck, provided Marilyn Manson with a career and wrote ‘Community Games’ for Aidan Walsh. Having escaped the clutches of a sinister born-again Christian turned transvestite, they’re now making movies with Neil Jordan, dining with Damien Hirst and consorting with Tony Blair. All in all, it’s been a long, strange trip for The Virgin Prunes
Pigs. Swine. Muic. Stuck like a pig. Bleed like a pig. Squeal like a pig. Pighead. Piggyback. Piggytails. Pig’s puddens. Pigswill. Pigshit. Pigpen. Pigsty. Piggy in the middle. Pig’s feet and hairy buttermilk. Piggy from Lord Of The Flies. Pig and Runt from Disco Pigs. Frank The Pig says hello. Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig. Trent Reznor singing, ‘Hey piggy-pig’ on Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, recorded in a house whose walls the Manson acolytes daubed with blood. ‘Piggies’ from The White Album. Muic the winged pig, the last creature you see before vanishing into Dublin airport. The Pig Children, the first people you speak to on a Wednesday evening in London at the end of Septicember.
Welcome to Pigville.
The location, a welcoming old thespian drinking haunt sunk underground in the W1 district. Here you will find a pair of ex-Virgin Prunes – singer Gavin Friday, denim-clad and sporting extravagant sideburns, and artist Guggi, who looks like a cross between the lost Stooge and a Franciscan calligrapher – holding court with several of the staff from the Mute label: Paul, Olivier, Zoë and Robert (a Romanian gentleman who, for reasons that have become murky with the time elapsed and the drink taken, has been dubbed ‘Boo-Boo’ for the night – the Lypton Village tradition of rechristening is obviously still in effect). Mute are handling the lovingly remastered and exquisitely packaged reissues of the Prunes’ back catalogue, and it’s a suitable marriage given that the label’s roster also includes Diamanda Galas, Einsturzende Neubauten, DAF, Throbbing Gristle and the Bad Seeds’ extended family.
Gavin and Guggi have been in London for three days now, attending to radio appearances, signings and sundry other promotional duties. Over this time they’ve struck up something of a rapport with Brit-pack artist Damien Hirst, whom they’ll join for dinner in a couple of hours with Bono, himself fresh from addressing the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Neither dining partners should surprise. The Prunes were putting on Hirst-ute animal carcass atrocity exhibitions a long time ago, and Bono for his part capsules his old friends’ legacy by asserting that everything Marilyn Manson is now, the Prunes were in a late 70s Ireland still flinching from the leather strap and the hurley stick.
After midnight, Gavin and Guggi play a half hour DJ set at the Nagnagnag night in the Ghetto, a Falconberg Court club around the back of the Astoria. Backstage before the show, the dressing room is crowded with long time Prunes fans, mostly fabulously adorned gentlemen who thank Gavin for the things he’s said and done over the last 20 years. The guest list includes such unlikely bedfellows as Tony Blair, Shane MacGowan, Tim from Ash and Banshees guitarist Steve Severin (no show from the former, but the latter three will arrive in time to hear Aidan Walsh’s ‘Community Games’, The Stooges’ ‘Down On The Street’ and Siouxsie’s ‘Christine’.) Out front, the red décor is running with sweat, the ambience decadent but benign. Later, the night shudders to its conclusion down the road in the Groucho, with MacGowan and Keith Allen swapping verses on a karaoke ‘Whiskey In The Jar’.
In little more than 24 hours from then, Gavin Friday will suffer a five o’ clock call to be on the set of Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Pat McCabe’s Breakfast On Pluto, playing a showband singer fronting a reconstituted version of The Indians – hence the sideburns. Friday had a cameo role in Kirsten Sheridan’s Disco Pigs a couple of years ago, but this is a more substantial part that will see him vie for billing alongside Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson. Bizarrely enough, there’s also talk of a walk-on from Bryan Ferry, who’ll eschew the gold-toothed lounge lizard act of yore for the part of a rather more unsavoury character with a taste for underage flesh.
The Pat McCabe connection is hardly fresh news; he and Friday struck up a rapport in the mid-90s, the writer supplying the sleeve notes to Shag Tobacco, Gavin and Maurice Seezer returning the favour by scoring the Emerald Germs radio series. More to the point, McCabe’s best known book The Butcher Boy reads like the literary equivalent of a Virgin Prunes show, with its rural gothic gumbo of pigs, abattoirs, faeces, muck, blood and juvenile delinquency.
“What frightens the fuck out of me,” says Gavin, “is Breakfast On Pluto, which I’m acting in, is dedicated: ‘Do Fionan agus R.’”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It might be wise to pause the tape and establish a little retro-perspective before we proceed.
A hybrid of performance art, avant garde and outré rock, The Virgin Prunes were a lurid hairy star that appeared over the medieval landscape of Irish music in that millenarian – if not downright Millerite – post-punk era. If early U2 were Dorian Gray by way of Stephen Hero, the Prunes were Lords Of The Flies daubed by Dali, malformed doppelgangers skulking in German Expressionist shadows. Mind you, there was more correspondence between the two acts than many might have thought (lend an ear to ‘Sandpaper Lullaby’ off the debut, or contrast ‘The Children Are Crying’ from Over The Rainbow with ‘11 O’Clock Tick Tock’.)
The Prunes were Gavin (Fionan Hanvey), the lone Catholic among the Protestants; the Rowen brothers Guggi (Derek) and Strongman (Trevor), the product of a Plymouth Brethren upbringing; Dik Evans, brother of Edge, on guitar; Dave-Id (David Watson) who later released his own recordings in tandem with Pelvis (featuring another Rowen brother, Johnny, managed by Strongman – confused yet?) and Mary d’Nellon, who succeeded Pod and Haa Lacka Binttii on drums and after the band’s demise moved to Paris with his wife Fabienne (who can be heard speaking fluent Chinese on ‘True Life Story’ from the Prunes’ final album proper).
By the turn of the decade they’d signed to Rough Trade and recorded early landmarks like A New Form Of Beauty and If I Die, I Die, and in contrast to their peers and contemporaries, eschewed the machinery of London for Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin. They peaked around 1983, thereafter enduring a painful three or four years of protracted falling apart, culminating in their swansong The Moon Looked Down And Laughed (produced by Soft Cell’s Dave Ball and engineered by a young Flood), much of which telegraphed Friday’s growing interest in splicing Weimar cabaret, Brecht, Weill and Brel with punk and glam. By this point Guggi had already left to pursue his calling as a visual artist.
Listening back to the Prunes’ canon reinforces the received notion that the band had virtually no aesthetic allies at home apart from U2, perhaps Phil Chevron, and later on Kevin Shields (who remains indebted to the band for a list of contacts that allowed My Bloody Valentine to find their own identity in Berlin before moving to London). But viewed through the wide-angle lens of Europa in its entire, they were not entirely in exile. The wailing vocals, primal tribal rhythms and embracing of dissonance and discord (on the live Heresie set, Dik impresses as one of the great anti-guitarists in the Rowland S. Howard mode) placed them in the same postal district as PiL, The Pop Group, Einsturzende Neubauten, The Fall and The Birthday Party – with whom they once endured a gruelling nine-week tour.
The Prunes and U2 of course emerged from the Lypton Village clique/secret society on Dublin’s north side, the product of the progressive Mount Temple School, and later on, the Shalom Christian prayer group, one of many born again and Charismatic organisations that thrived in an era maligned by petrol shortages, economic meltdown, Three Mile Island and the onset of Reaganomics and Thatcherism. These were a precocious and perverse lot, whose obsessions (Bowie, Bolan, punk, Dada, Warhol, the Surrealists) were defined as much by process of rejection as acceptance.
“I have to say, our biggest thing was to get away from football,” Gavin says. “Football was the enemy. Unemployment, the IRA, the civil service, all the clichés. But when I saw Bowie in ’72 on Top Of The Pops, it fucked my head up. I was sitting in north side Dublin at the age of 12, goin’, ‘He understands me. I don’t understand him.’ The first time I saw Bowie live was ‘76 in Earl’s Court, Station To Station.
“That was the great thing about music. You’d pick up an album and you’d go: ‘‘The Jean Genie’, what’s that?’ And then you’d walk into a bookshop and see Jean Genet, and you’d pick up The Miracle Of The Rose and go, ‘I don’t fuckin’ understand anything.’ I remember seeing Bunuel, the opening of ‘Station To Station’ was this slitting of the eye, and thought, ‘Fuck’. And they played ‘Radioactivity’; the first time I heard real German music, Kraftwerk. I’m quite obsessive as a human, so if I get into something I get into it. These were the days when you’d sleep with sleeping bags in tube stations just to go and see someone. Now, the lazy arseholes, if they can’t get it on i-Tunes they’re not interested.
“But the thing is, we’re all revisionists. I mean, I’m not a wanker saying at 16 I was into Sartre, Bunuel and I’d a big philosophy on Dada. Bollocks. I was makin’ it up. It’s like the way you go, ‘Look at his hairdo!’ That’s all it was. We were taking from the visual. And then slowly you start educating yourself. We weren’t pretentious, we were the most honest band ever to come out of our country.”
So how did such a diverse mob of Prothelics and Cathestants and Plymouth Brethren, whose first gig was in a Methodist hall, end up as part of the Born Again movement?
“When we got involved in born again Christianity, we were searching,” Gavin maintains. “We went along with it for a while, but when they decided you shouldn’t be going out with that person, get rid of your earrings, don’t wear make-up, can you change the name to the Deuteronomy Prunes . . . (Turns to Guggi) I mean, you left before I left.”
Guggi: “I got my ass out of there really fast, well before you left I think, Gav. You and Rene were kind of behind me. I had a Christian upbringing and still have, y’know, the same simple faith. But the Christian thing is a situation where they were absolute good people, and they were preaching what I believe is the truth, but they realised that they really did make an incredible impression on so many young kids, and these guys, I guess the leaders at the time, their egos started taking over, they couldn’t believe their luck that they had so much power, and so many ears were cocked for everything they said.
“And I think it’s happened so many times in situations like that, where someone comes out with things like, ‘God said this woman has got to be with me, he told me last night’, and they started sussing things for their own benefit and I smelled that very early. And then when exorcisms started and that kind of stuff, I didn’t like the feel of it. And yeah, I was the first out.”
Gavin: “Hence ‘The Beast’ and all that speaking in tongues stuff which you hear on A New Form Of Beauty. It was fundamentalism, which is an evil. It was power. These guys, suddenly it was like, The Virgin Prunes were goin’ off, U2 were goin’ off, we went to these Christian meetings and suddenly there was a lot of people goin’.”
Guggi: “We left, and it always seemed to happen over the Ha’penny Bridge, this guy, he was one of the leaders, you’d hear his voice screaming, ‘GUGGI, ARE YOU RIGHT WITH THE LORD? IS YOUR LIFE RIGHT?’ Screaming it on the street. He’d pull ya, ask you to explain yourself. And this was the guy who’d handpicked his favourite chick at the meetings to be his wife. She became his wife, they had children.”
Gavin: “But the big, big tale was years later, when I opened up Mr Pussy’s Café Deluxe, Bono’s older brother Norman, who ran the restaurant, said, ‘There’s a few geezers down here who want to meet you.’ I was upstairs with Bono and Guggi having fish and chips. And I come down, there’s a big table of six transvestites – bonnets, bad wedding outfits – and I sit down and go, ‘Howya lads. What’s your name? I’m Gavin.’ And this one guy says, ‘No you’re not. You’re Fionan.’ And then I went, ‘Say that again.’
Guggi: “He had a very distinctive voice.”
Gavin: “You’re talking about someone in his mid-50s with a bonnet and a pink outfit, and he looked like . . .”
Guggi: “Crap make-up. Unshaven.”
Gavin: “Frightening. Yer da in drag. And then he goes, ‘Praise the lord.’ And I went (mimics panic attack), ‘Oh my god, it’s . . . Yer a fuckin’ trannie.’ It was the leader of the Christian movement.”
Guggi: “He’d left his hand-picked wife with a load of kids out in a Corpo house, and he was sitting with all the lads in a pink flowery frock and a little hat. He was always on about changing rooms and don’t get undressed in front of another man. He was talking about his own problems, I think. He’s died since.”
So, in one anecdote, we go from The Deuteronomy Prunes to Breakfast On Pluto. Which is where we came in, talking Pig-English. More specifically, Olivier from Mute was quizzing Gavin about the improvisational section of Virgin Prunes performances known as The Pig Children, a sort of reductio ad absurdum regression pageant, Freudian fairytale and pagan mass involving loincloths, pig’s heads and fake muck.
“It was self raising flour with a bit of food colouring, a bit of blue and yellow, a bit of water,” Gavin explains. “When we first did it we improvised and we used actual clay and muck, but it gets stuck in the hair of your chest and under your arm. The self raising flour and the food colouring actually works better!”
“And indeed, any three colours makes brown,” adds Guggi, ever the artist.
“So what else did you have?” Olivier asks. “Dead meat?
“Dead meat,” Gavin nods. “Raw meat. We always threw leaves on the floor. But I think where it came from, and why, was the fact that when we first used to perform and play live, we used to play very randomly, like every three months, we had so much time in the late 70s and early 80s to develop. But with If I Die, I Die, which was the first produced record, suddenly we started selling records and people were turning up at gigs and we were booked for nine weeks, two weeks off, nine weeks again. It was actually the death of The Virgin Prunes to be honest.
“So we always said at the end of each show we would do 20 minutes of improvisation based around The Pig Children. And that was myself and Guggi letting loose, trying to get through to the honesty, that children and animals are more honest than adults. We took off all the clothes, took off everything. This sort of sounds wanky, but . . . maybe the fact that I worked in a slaughterhouse brought it on. Lord Of The Flies, the book and the film, blew our heads. Imagine stripping yourself of all intellect in front of an audience of one or two thousand and just being naked and vulnerable. Imagine going, ‘I don’t give a fuck about lyrics, I don’t give a fuck about anything, just get your kit off, get a pig’s head between your groin and go for it!’ It was that easy!”
Guggi: “It’s incredible in photographs, the light would make a pig’s head the same colour as you, and it looked like an extension, it always looked amazing.”
Something about the Virgin Prunes’ fetishistic infantilism and regression (see disc one of Heresie) unsettled a lot of people. Did they get that impression from watching the audience?
Gavin: “I dunno. Did you get disturbed?”
I never saw The Virgin Prunes.
“What age are you?”
“You should have. No one at this table has seen The Prunes? Boo-Boo, have you seen The Prunes?”
Robert: “Of course not. I was in Transylvania at that time.”
Gavin: “That’s a quote! Let’s see yer teeth, ya fucker!”
A New Form Of Beauty, If I Die, I Die, Heresie, Over The Rainbow and The Moon Looked Down And Laughed are out now on Mute.