Baking tapes – the Virgin Prunes re-release interview

After the work on the re-releases had been completed, caught up with Gavin in late August to find out how the project had progressed from initial idea to final execution.

Keen to explain the process, in this first installment of the interview Gavin takes us through the building of the relationship with Mute Records and explains the detailed thinking behind the sleeve re-designs. Mute Records has struck me as the ideal home for the Virgin Prunes’ back catalogue for many years. In fact, in 1986 I heard through the grapevine that they had been interested in releasing The Moon Looked Down And Laughed, though this never came to fruition – is this true?

Gavin: Mute are the perfect resting place for Virgin Prunes. In 1986 as far as I can remember there was interest from Beggars Banquet, but they only wanted to release an EP. I rejected the idea and foolishly went with New Rose.

How did the 2004 re-releases come about? For example, who contacted who, when did contact begin, what were the stages of the process from initial contact to final versions of the CDs in your hands?

It was about four years ago I discovered that the band had very slowly over the years got back the masters of most of our recordings. I contacted Daniel Miller at Mute Records, who said he was very interested, but Mute was far too busy at that time. About a year later Daniel contacted me saying he wanted to go ahead with the re-release of the back catalog, so roughly over the last three years.

Why so long? Many reasons. Mute went to EMI [via acquisition] which held things up at bit. Then legal affairs, missing artwork, re-mastering and digital restoration took a long while. Then my illness [Gavin underwent back surgery in February 2002] and my own work held things up. So, it took about three to four years.

Did you experience any major problems or delays while bringing everything together?

The case of missing artwork and tapes that I was told we had, but then could not be found??? The most distressing thing was that ALL THE ORIGINAL ARTWORK FROM ALL THE SLEEVES HAS GONE MISSING, along with many many pictures, not to mention some multi-tracks. I am still searching. Who mislaid them? Somewhere between Mary, Strongman and New Rose? I tried so hard, it held up things for close to a year. I finally decided to go to my own ‘small’ stash of VP images and work from them.

Tape transfer was complex. A lot of the tapes had to be ‘baked’. Don’t want to go all serious on ya, you would be better off asking an engineer. In short, the getting together of this took a lot of time – it was at times like shitting a football. But then all good things take time… isn’t that right?

What is the expected audience for the An Exhibition promotional compilation – is it for the press, or will it also be released for fans to buy? Who chose the tracks and how were the choices made?

Press/promo at the moment. Yes, I understand it will be ‘available’ to fans and not at £250. We decided on two tracks off each album. I couldn’t choose, so Olivier, Our Blessed Curator, did the deed.

Mute is calling these re-releases the first “official” releases on CD. Does this mean that the Rough Trade and New Rose CDs were released without your permission?

Rough Trade released only …If I Die, I Die and it disappeared almost as quickly as it was released. It never was distributed as far as I could see, so a half-hearted effort is not an official release in my mind. New Rose… these re-releases had nothing to do with most of the band except for Mary and Strongman. Once again they almost disappeared as soon as they came out. Were they actually released? No distribution as far as I can tell, a total joke. Then within a month or so New Rose went bankrupt and the back catalog disappeared up the arse of God knows who…? As for the artwork and sound quality on the New Rose effort, don’t get me going… shameful. So yes, I see this as the first ‘official’ re-release of Virgin Prunes.

The most initially striking aspect of these re-releases is the new sleeve designs. Only “… If I Die, I Die” is faithful to the original release and the others have changed quite radically. For some long-term fans it has been disorientating to see “the Pagan Lovesong cover” used for A New Form Of Beauty and “the Baby Turns Blue cover” used for Over The Rainbow. Of course there’s a logic to this – the picture used on A New Form Of Beauty is of Guggi in the Pig Children performance, for example, which is clearly relevant to A New Form Of Beauty – but why redesign in the first place rather than just use the original covers?

All the original A New Form Of Beauty artwork is gone/mislaid/stolen/destroyed – who knows? I have seriously spent the last two years searching. It breaks me heart. I had to resort to a small collection of photos I had kept. My hands were tied – the original drawing by Guggi was badly damaged and sadly, as we say here, ‘fucked’. So where could I go? ‘Pig Children’ was my first thought, which lead on to the Guggi shot a la Pagan Lovesong. The original shot looked too glossy for the feel/sound/vibe of the music, so it was treated.

Why orange??? Maybe it has got something to do with the Catholic in me, I don’t know. It just felt right and we did tend to over-do the Blue vibe. Believe me, I am a purist at heart… The inner shot was taken at Futurama 1981, the only time we ever performed Beast (well, what we were allowed to, as they pulled the plugs after five minutes, etc.) So that shot was in context. Also, I wanted all the sleeves to have their own unique look.

Pagan Lovesong ended up on the …If I Die, I Die CD, so I felt the picture of Guggi was too strong to be completely lost. The only other option was a plain white cover – we tried that and it felt all wrong. I am talking weeks of trying out covers – I broke Slim [the sleeve designer] Smith’s heart. What we ended up with is GREAT in my mind and so far it has blown a few minds. Sorry if it offends…

We never felt the 12″ ANFOB sleeve which was used by Strongman and Mary for the New Rose CD looked right, it just didn’t transfer down to CD size very well. That’s not to mention the unbearable quality of the transfer from 12″ cover to CD cover that New Rose did. Jesus, talk about bad artwork… Anyway, this the first time the complete musical side of ANFOB has all been released on CD. So it is ANFOB. The typeface was hand done, and rather beautifully I must say, by Slim Smith

For …If I Die, I Die, once again the original went missing, this was the closest image I could find. The blue border may have worked on the original, but we decided it was stronger without the border on CD format. I tried to re-create the Brown/Blue vibe within the booklet using many never before used photos. Slim did a wonderful job on the booklet. Thanks man!

On Heresie, the photo of me and the photo of Guggi walking up the stairs, these photos we had originally planned to use on the cover, but the French label L’Invitation au Suicide went with the still from a Gothic 20’s movie. We never liked it and when it came about to re-use it – even way back when it was released on vinyl in the late 80’s by New Rose – we were not allowed the rights to use the image. We had no ownership of the copyright of the writings in the original boxed set, so we had to re-invent. I used photos in the booklet that tried to capture the mood/intensity of the music and the image of the Kettle Woman [in the centrefold of the CD insert booklet] sits perfectly along side the vibe of Deirdre and Memory Lane. Most are photos never before used.

As for The Moon Looked Down And Laughed, this was ALWAYS from day one the cover for the album, originally to be called Sons Find Devils. When Guggi left, followed by Dik (Evans, brother of U2’s The Edge), chaos and confusion followed. We had such legal and money problems way back then. A nightmare… The album was released in 1986. My spirit was broken… We did a photo shoot with four remaining members – The Butlins Session, I now call it – a mistake, but I wanted the album released and the struggle to finish it was murderous. The end was nigh!!! As with some of the mixes and the running order, I tried to make the visuals into what the original line up had originally planned. Now, tell me what cover suits the music better? The Butlins shot or the G&G lace shot?

The Over The Rainbow art work for the vinyl version was a shot used from the original Moon/Devils sessions. As I made the choice to go back to the G&G lace picture for the Moon re-issue, it meant we could not use the original image – they are way too similar. I also took into context that this is a very different album to the Original Album. It has never-before-released-on-CD remixes etc. Also, it’s a double CD. A lot of the recordings on Over The Rainbow were recorded in the Beautifull House and that’s where the front cover photo was taken. Yeah, it was the cover of Baby Turns Blue, but it’s a great shot and I didn’t want it lost forever, I wanted people to see it. We tried the ‘Girl with Rabbits’ image on the front [from the Twenty Tens EP] but it didn’t feel right alongside the other four CDs. In the booklet I used images that are natural and unstaged and unused. There ya go…

Sorry if any offence has been taken, but to quote the band… ‘Nothing is ever the way they say it is… Nothing is ever the way you want it to be…’

In this second part of the interview, Gavin explains more about the process of remastering the recordings and takes us through some of the other changes in the format of the material. For Virgin Prunes completists, one of the most exciting things about the new CDs is the appearance of the previously unreleased track Fádo. It seems to be similar to the track Apologia that you recorded for RTE’s Dave Fanning show in February 1982. Why was this originally not on the album and why have you chosen to include it now?

Gavin: Yes you are right, it is similar to the track ‘Apologia’ from the Fanning session. We planned to record it fully but never completed the words. It was performed only once at The One Show, Project Arts Centre, with the line ‘Heaven holds a place for you’ repeated numerous times. In the studio we even tried to get Dave-id to sing over it but all he came up with was ‘A long time ago…’. We mixed the track in a ‘dub-like’ manner and put it out as the B-side to Baby Turns Blue. When I was working on the restoration of the tapes, I found this mix. I thought it was beautifull [sic] and renamed it Fádo, which means ‘a long time ago’ in Irish. To me, it bookends the start of the Blue side and the album ends with Yeo.

Apologia as mentioned above has nothing at all to do with the Friday-Seezer song of the same title… Blame Oscar Wilde!

The sound quality is excellent, which I presume is down in part to the re-mastering and in part to more modern compression techniques. Sometimes older recordings sound disappointing on CD when played alongside newer material, but this all sounds great. For example, even allowing for the poor quality of the original cassettes, Din Glorious sounds much sharper than expected. How much work was put into polishing up the recordings and was this a fairly standard process with today’s technology or did you have to employ any special techniques?

I spent about six to eight weeks on the restoration and re mastering. Most of the tapes were damaged; seemingly a lot of 1980’s recordings are so because of a bad batch of multi-track tape. So you gotta ‘Bake’ – as I said, talk with an engineer… I wanted them to sound as fresh as the day we recorded them. Andrew Boland is the man who I put through the mincer to restore and what a great job he did – thanks Andrew. Not sure if he has recovered yet from spending three days working on Din Glorious… The Guys at the Exchange also did a great job at mastering. Brilliant Guys. Also THANKS to Mute, who went the whole hog regards the restoration and mastering. Not many care… they do.

There is some noticeable tape hiss on several tracks. Was there a conscious decision to leave this in place, or was it technically impossible to remove without compromising the clarity of the material?

It drove us fuckin’ crazy. It was technically impossible to remove the hiss. The early recordings were made so quickly and cheaply and in the strangest of ways – you wouldn’t believe if I told you… I had the choice of making them sound big and bold with hiss, or small and dead with a tiny bit of hiss. I went for the former. I was told by a cutting engineer once that if you hear the hiss you are not getting lost in the music. So… what hiss?

Out of interest, where were the original master tapes of the material stored – is it somewhere as basic as the top shelf of your wardrobe, or are there specialised storage facilities for this kind of thing? Did you have any difficulties locating any of the tapes?

Most are stored in Dublin, some with Mute. They are in a safe place. Some multi-tracks I am still trying to locate, along with the missing artwork. Yes, there was difficulties in getting them all together.

In Rolf Vasellari’s book The Faculties Of A Broken Heart, Dik explains that the band was unhappy with Colin Newman’s production of the tracks on the “blue” side of the original vinyl album version of …If I Die, I Die. Why choose him, of all people, to remix Baby Turns Blue if you hadn’t been happy with his original work for you?

Yes, at the time we were unhappy with some of the Blue side, especially Walls of Jericho and Caucasian Walk. We always loved Baby Turns Blue, as we saw it as a pop song. We all loved his production on it. The brown side is magic. It was the band’s aggressive vibe we felt was tamed down. Still, listening to the CD today, it’s pretty vibey. Colin did an amazing job all those years ago. It was no easy task working with the six of us way back then. Theme for Thought sounds amazing. So as regards the re-mix, he did a great job then, so better the devil you know… And the new re-mix is fantastic – simple, very stripped down and addictive. I love it.

On the re-release of … If I Die, I Die the “blue” tracks sound much stronger. Did you make a conscious effort to change the sound of these specific tracks, or was this just a side-effect of the overall sound enhancement process?

I wanted all the music to sound strong. It’s all down to the restoration and mastering. In many ways I feel the work in general was never properly mastered in the first place. To me, making the music sound the way we wanted it was by far my biggest goal with the re-issues.

Who is the “ILOVEYOU” woman in the Heresie CD insert’s centrefold?

Her name is Alice. She worked in the Iveagh Markets. Myself and Tommy the Bottle of Milk [a fellow Lypton Village member] befriended her. We used to buy second-hand clothes off her. We christened her ‘The Kettle Woman’. And yes, the only-performed-once (at The One Shows) ‘A Song for Alice’ was written about her. She is what we call in every sense a true ‘Virgin Prune’.

There was an early version of I Am God played in a 1983 BBC Radio One interview that included Guggi’s vocals rather than Lady Blennerhassett’s, did you consider using this mix or was that always just a demo version of the song?

Don’t know what interview that is, I’d love to hear it??? WOW? Burn us a copy? This was the only mix remaining that I could find. Guggi was no longer with the band when we got to [the] mixing stages. A very difficult DIVORCE album was the Moon…

Why rename “Don’t Look Back” to The Tortured Heart? It sounds slightly different, is this just down to the remastering or is it actually a different version of the song?

It’s a slightly different mix, only very slightly. It was originally called The Tortured Heart and for some stupid reason I changed it to the other. When I found the master tapes, written on the cover of the box was The Tortured Heart. So like the [album] cover, I went back to how we originally wanted it.

Why use the 12″ of Love Lasts Forever on the re-release of The Moon Looked Down And Laughed and put the 7″ single version, originally on this album, onto Over The Rainbow?

‘Our love will last forever until the day it dies’ was never a 12″ mix, it was the first and original mix Flood did for the album. It was how it was written. We loved it. Regards the ‘Moon’, this is the closest to how the whole album was to be before the band started to implode. I truly wanted the music to be as we as a band – a six piece band at that time – wanted the album to be. When we were finally putting the album out – and at that time not only Guggi had gone but also Dik – it was decided to put the edited version/more standard version on, for what fucked up reason I don’t know. Maybe the same fucked up reason that has me in a Butlins uniform on the cover. This was a very difficult time for the band. So ‘Our love will last forever until the day it dies’ is back where it really belongs, like Guggi on the cover – where he really belongs. And it sounds fantastic, don’t ya think? I put the single version on Rainbow in case anyone missed it.

Who is the girl/woman in the white dress in the centre spread of the Over The Rainbow CD insert booklet?

It is Guggi and Strongman’s sister Gwen, taken on Cedarwood Road. The event, her reaction to first hearing Twenty Tens…

Some of the titles of the Din Glorious tracks are different to the titles given on the Italian vinyl re-release of Din Glorious from the 1980s (e.g. Bo-prune as opposed to Bodhran). The original cassette never contained any titles on its insert. Were the Italian album’s titles inaccurate, or have you chosen to rename certain tracks due to the fluid nature of the performance?

To be totally honest, I couldn’t get my hands on the Italian version. Anyone out there want to give Gavin a copy? [Before a million offers start flooding in, has subsequently obliged.] So all the titles came from memory. Put it down to me getting old, sorry about that. I was tempted to have no titles.

The baby’s face that you used as the logo for the Baby Records releases also appears in the Over The Rainbow insert. Is this a picture or a drawing? Where is it from?

Virgin Prunes ‘BABY’… It is an original Victorian painting I bought twenty-five years ago. It was first used as a flyer to promote early Project Arts Centre performances. We called our one off label after it. Basically it was the band’s mascot, it was always with us, on our stages and in the tour bus and in the recording studios. It survived a very extraordinary and difficult youth and now happily lives on the wall of my hall and it hasn’t aged at all.

What do you understand to be the commercial proposition for Mute re-releasing Virgin Prunes material in 2004? Is it expected to make a profit in its own right, or it is more a case of bolstering their overall brand value by enhancing their back catalogue? (In other words, are they doing it for love or for money?)

Who knows if the re-releases will make a profit or not. I am just so happy we found a true resting place for this work and that it looks and sounds GREAT and that it is available to all who want it. I am very proud of our past. Mute have been fantastic, it has been a true pleasure to work with such a professional team WHO LOVE MUSIC. Olivier, the project’s curator, has given his fair share of blood, sweat and tears. He’s a saint, a hero. Huge respect! A LABOUR OF LOVE. I think we fit in fairly comfortably with the Mute catalog. The rest is in the lap of the gods. If it does make money, well and good… and that will be a first for Virgin Prunes.

In the final part of the interview on Friday, we find out more about some of the characters and the “bo-prune” language in the songs, talk about what might happen next and ask Gavin for his thoughts on the band with twenty years’ hindsight.

If you’ve ever wondered about Jennifer and Mary Coote, or puzzled over the difference between a nisam lo and a vibe-akimbo, today your prayers are answered as we get stuck into the wonderful and frightening world of the Virgin Prunes’ songs. Time for some rapid-fire questions about the content of the songs. What was the argument about in Abbagáll? (It sounds like some kind of concern about harsh treatment of a glockenspiel.)

Gavin: It’s a row between myself and Strongman. As I was playing the glock, he kicked it over – on purpose – so the glock got thrown in the direction of his head… I missed… and Dik caught it all on tape. Strongman used to get off on making me lose the head in them days…

What was the “Emancipation Act 72/3/4” mentioned in Caucasian Walk?

A date/quote a good friend/mentor of the band used very frequently in conversation. We never knew what it meant and still don’t. The late and great Bill Graham. We dearly loved that man. A true genius.

[ suspects that it might be influenced by the infamous Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.]

Is Jennifer/Mary Coote (from Down The Memory Lane) a real person?

Yes, they are both sisters. They live in an area called Bonnybrook, next door to Mrs Phillpots. Myself and Guggi were, and still are, massive fans of the Cootes and the Phillpots.

What does “Bau-dachöng” mean (and why the umlaut)?

It was part of a language myself and The Bottle of Milk invented, the language of the Beautifull People. Bo-Prune, we called the language. Bau-dachong… It means having the ‘knowledge’, a prune/village invention/ism. Very very complex, so can’t really go there.

What does “Ulakanakulot” mean?

This is the name of the ‘land’ where the Beautifull People first came from. An imaginary land, our Atlantis.

Was Abbagál the name of someone specific who you knew?

No. It means ‘curse’, or to put a spell on someone.

What does “Yeo” mean? (I note that it’s been used as the basis for the re-release CD catalogue numbers.)

Yeo was a phrase Dave-id always used and still does, especially if he is/was greeting you. Way, way before Hip Hop.

Was Deirdre the name of someone specific who you knew?

Yes, she was the little sister of Sean d’Angelo. Someone myself and Guggi took very fondly to, was little Deirdre.

What does “Nisam Lo” mean?

This means to have a dream or a ‘trip’.

While the meanings of “vibe” and “akimbo” are well-defined, can you offer any help with interpreting “vibe-akimbo”?

It is what it is: a vibe – akimbo.

Is Loved One named after the Evelyn Waugh novel of the same title, or is that just coincidence?

Coincidence. Didn’t read the book till the late 80’s.

The Mute biography says that Come To Daddy is “a frightening tale of incest”, but one of your interviews of the time seemed to suggest that it was about a housewife instead (“Come to Daddy looks at the things a woman has to go through – women who have had loads of kids and who find that love is now gone”)? Can you clarify this?

Not really about incest, more about sexual/mental abuse, but I like and always encourage people to think what they want.

I believe that the spoken section at the end of True Life Story is Fabienne Savoff, Mary’s wife. Which language is she speaking and what is she saying?

Yes it is Fabienne. She is speaking and singing in Chinese, a language in which she is fluent. The singing is an old Chinese love song. The angry narrative is pretty profane, like ‘your mother is a whore and she sucks dogs’ cocks’. Can’t remember exactly, but that type of thing…

The most obvious omission from the re-releases is the live album, The Hidden Lie. Why was this not included? Is it likely to be released in future?

Most of the band had nothing to do with this album. It was put out against my will. It is, in my mind, not really a Virgin Prunes album. Guggi and Dik had gone and the rest was dying on its legs.

Do you have much currently un-released material left from the original recording sessions? Would you consider releasing any of it?

Some unfinished works, some demos, various live recordings. Don’t know… Let the re-released albums spread their wings and see what happens. Time will tell…

Do you have any access to the tracks that you recorded for the Dave Fanning show on RTE, some of which have never been released in any form? Would you release them if you could, or were they works in progress that were never intended to be preserved for posterity?

As above. Maybe… Not negative. Not sure if RTE will let us have them. We’ll see.

It’s really great to see A New Form Of Beauty 4 (Din Glorious) being released on CD at last. What happened to parts six and seven of the project, the book & video? Were they ever completed or do they remain unfinished? Are they ever likely to be released (finished or unfinished)?

The film may see the light of day, it was never finished. We have all the footage. We handed over to Mute a lot of visual footage of the band. There is talk of DVD release. Time-wise, I couldn’t say. There is a lot to sort out. There will be a DVD, just don’t know when.

The book… Never finished and may never be. Jesus, that’s a frightening thought??? Who knows…

What is the situation regarding the Sons Find Devils CD and video/DVD? Do you anticipate the rights for this transferring to Mute in time?

No comment, the affair is in the hands of our solicitors.

Was any material ever recorded after the Sons Find Devils / The Moon Looked Down And Laughed sessions? I’m thinking of songs performed live, like She, My Dependence On You or Song For The Heartless. If so, would you consider releasing this?

‘Song for the Heartless’ was an unfinished song from the ‘Moon’ sessions. Not sure if we would release demos. We’ll see. Demos/work in progress, I see as very private affairs. The other songs were only ever played ‘live’, never demoed or recorded.

Are there any plans for Mute to release any post-Prunes work (e.g. Gavin’s & Dave-id’s solo albums, The Prunes’ albums)?

No plans at the moment. That’s not to say I don’t like Mute. Mute have been amazing, a real joy to work with.

Most of the pictures and video footage of the band are now over twenty years old. How do you feel, looking back at them?

OLD… A difficult one, very personal, lots of memories. I am a romantic fool. Surprised by the music, it has aged well. Visually I think we look pretty GREAT, especially when I see how most bands nowadays look…

Earlier this year, the team behind purchased on Ebay the paperwork for a development deal contract that you and Guggi signed in 1979 with an organisation called World Showplace Music, Inc. Can you tell us more about this? What was the proposition and did it lead anywhere or was it a blind alley?

Yeah, we signed some bullshit proposition way way back in ’79, I think. The guy was a con man, it led nowhere. We didn’t get ripped off, actually I have a memory of myself and Guggi being treated to a very posh dinner in the Shelbourne Hotel.

What do you think were the Virgin Prunes’ best and worst moments?

Best? Don’t know, not for me to say? Worst? The fucked up way we all dealt with the band breaking up.

What are the various ex-members of the band doing these days?

Guggi paints. Dik works with computers and makes music. Dave-id makes music. Mary teaches and makes music. Strongman works with antiques.

Where, if anywhere, do you perceive the Virgin Prunes’ legacy and influence on contemporary music to lie?

In an Irish context: the most important band ever to come out of the country. As for the rest, not for me to say.

Complete this sentence: everyone should buy the Virgin Prunes re-releases because…

No, no… can’t do that???????????

Gavin, thank you.