first round game
(5) dead can dance, “the ubiquitous mr. lovegrove”
(12) virgin prunes, “baby turns blue”
and plays on in round 2
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 5.
sarah einstein on “the ubiquitous mr. lovegrove”
We were always hoping for magic.
Jeffrey made masks of pagan spirits and wore crystals on embroidery-thread rope around his neck. Sally built an altar and covered it in river stones and beeswax candles. The old woman whose name I can’t remember—the one with the frightening drinking problem and the unsettling habit of showing up even when she’d been specifically asked not to come to the party—read Tarot and tea leaves. Marybeth drew pentagrams in menstrual blood on the doors of our ex-lovers when they wouldn’t leave us alone, and Jackson whittled whistles shaped like phalluses and pitched to minor keys.
There was also a lot of acid, which might explain the whole thing.
The soundtrack of those years was varied, but always included Dead Can Dance. We danced in dervish circles to “The Arrival and the Reunion,” spun around fires to “Black Sun,” came down to “Wilderness.” But we fucked to The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove. We called it World Music then, not Goth, but we wouldn’t have called anything Goth because Goth seemed to a watered-down version of who we were, the sort you could buy at Hot Topic for nineteen ninety-nine.
It’s the tabla that makes The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove such a great fuck song; it beats a slow tattoo at just the right speed for approaching and retreating. The sarod weaves in and out, languid and seductive. The synth hooks is catchy, but not disruptive. Things speed up, slow down, in a circular pattern. If you put it on repeat, you could fuck for hours. Or could have, when you were as young as we were then, which now seems younger than anyone has ever been.
It’s also a bitter song, more suited for hate-fucking than for the passion of new love, and by this time we had all slept with one another at least once—in interesting but ultimately doomed combinations—and were so familiar with one another that hate -fucking was all we had left. And that was okay, as we were just at that point in adulthood where the tiny community of misfits we had formed was atomizing as we all left our little college town for real jobs, real relationships, real ways of changing our lives and the world. Or, at least, those of us who made it out at all made it out then. I hear there are still one or two of us at the old bar every night, but that’s too sad to think about.
Brendan Perry manages both to be wounded and condescending as he croons the vaguely threatening lyrics. (Why might she never wake up from this sleep?) The song has a strong pop sensibility; we would sometimes see people dancing to it in clubs instead of around bonfires. Perry’s voice has always been more pedestrian and glossy than Lisa Gerrard’s, and “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” lacks the soulfulness of the songs on which she sings. It was, we said with some derision, one of their more commercial songs. And so maybe, if we had thought of it, we would have called it Goth, but we’d have said it as if we were spitting something nasty from our mouths.
Now, I play Dead Can Dance only on winter afternoons, when I want to feel nostalgic. But it’s almost always their older albums I play—especially Aion—because I want to be nostalgic for the magic, not for what came once we realized there wasn’t any.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and The Tripart Heart (Sundress 2019).. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK and other journals. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is the founding editor of Signal Mountain Review.
keith pille on “baby turns blue”
0. YOUR UNRELIABLE NARRATOR
I should open this with a disclaimer: I come to this song and this band not as a fan or an antagonist, but as a guy interested in taking a closer look at something that’s been on his radar for a couple of decades now, but out at a distance. What I’m lacking in familiarity, hopefully I’m balancing out with perspective. Or rank dumbassery. You decide.
1. THE SONG ITSELF
We start with the primary source, the object. To hear the song is to experience a bunch of very distinct instrumental sounds running at the same time. The bass guitar, pushed forward in the mix with the treble jacked way up to make it punchy so that you can hear it janking around. The discrete quanta of raw noise that emerge from the gated reverb snare drum. The guitar with the bottom so thoroughly removed that it takes a few listens to ascertain that it’s actually a guitar. From a production point of view, “Baby Turns Blue” sounds like an attempt to recreate the sound of the songs on David Bowie Let’s Dance without either Bowie’s production budget or Nile Rodgers’ production skills.
You could use that last sentence describe a double-digit percentage of music recorded in the 1980s, so we can’t look at that as a fatal judgment. In this case, we have to throw in the observation that the elements that don’t sound like they came off of Let’s Dance sound like they came off of Scary Monsters. Conclusion: the Virgin Prunes liked Bowie, or at least wanted to sound a bit like him.
The vocals elevate the song. The mechanistic repeat of the “Oh what to do…” chorus gives the song the sound of a lumbering, faintly groovy machine; the counterpointed “give me money, give me sex” lines liven up the machine, and make it sound unstable and interesting. Listening to the song, it makes absolute cultural-history sense that it came out in a time period when mania for transforming robots would sweep the culture. “Baby Turns Blue” sounds like what you’d hear on the car radio of one of the Transformers, probably an Existentialist Autobot who transformed into a French racecar and smoked the Cybertron version of Gauloises.
There are worse musical niches to own.
2. THE BAND
If you know who the Virgin Prunes are, there’s a good chance that it’s because of U2, at least on some level. In my case, it was direct. I heard of them during a phase of Achtung Baby-era U2 superfandom (it was pre-internet rural Nebraska; don’t judge, we had to take whatever culture we could get). My friend had taped some preposterous U2 special off of the radio, and it included the band’s version of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love,” and the breathless hype on the show mentioned that the background “oh oh ohs” were done by Gavin Friday of the Virgin Prunes (weird circularity: Reed’s version, which introduced the “oh oh oh” part, was produced by Bowie and Mick Ronson). My friends and I thought the name was hilarious.
I’ll never stop being amazed and fascinated by the random, contingent ways that we used to be exposed to new music.
“Satellite of Love” wasn’t the only musical collaboration between Friday and Bono/U2, and there’s a reason for that: the two were childhood friends. Friday, born Fionán Martin Hanvey, actually made up his stage name in the same miasma as Paul “Bono” Hewson. (The collaborations went beyond music, too; the two also later shared a painting studio.) And the band entanglement goes much further than Bono and Friday. Dave “The Edge” Evans’ brother Dik later joined the Prunes on guitar.
The point of which is: I can’t pretend to know the exact process through which the Virgin Prunes formed and were signed. But I know enough about the music industry to be comfortable saying that being deeply intertwined with U2 from the very beginning certainly couldn’t have hurt. I don’t mean to take anything away from the Virgin Prunes, or to accuse them of riding coattails; I just mean that music is a harsh, brutal game, and any advantage helps, and god knows how many music directors and DJs decided to give this promo disk a try because this is that other band from Dublin, you know, the one with the Edge’s brother. The band that’s not afraid to get a lot weirder than those flag-wavers.
Which leads to an interesting, if imaginary, duality. Can we look at the Virgin Prunes as a Mirror Universe U2? Kind of an experimental control to establish what U2 might have been like without the messianic vision/savior complex? Was Bono’s desperate “I drink wine and smoke little cigars” posturing in the 90s and 00s (or the proliferation of oral sex references on Achtung Baby, which I once pointed out to one of my high school English teachers, simultaneously horrifying her and getting independent study credit) an attempt to prove that he was cool enough to hang with his friend who was asking for money, sex, and cigarettes in songs ten years previously?
Adding on to that last point: what were the dinner-table conversations like at Evans family get-togethers? What was it like inside Dik Evans’ head? Like, how does it feel to be the central musical force of a cult-favorite band when your brother is the central musical force of one of the biggest bands in the world? If Dave ever offered up a word of complaint about the difficulties of being in U2, did Dik just roll his eyes and make the wank-wank gesture at him?
3. THE GENRE
To drag myself onto the stage again: I’m an old punk. In fact, I drifted into punk not too long after first hearing about the Virgin Prunes (these two events are not directly related). As an old punk who talks to a lot of other old punks about punk and its antecedents, I’m fascinated by the three-way entanglement between Goth, postpunk, and punk itself. Acknowledging that Goth and postpunk are already kind of a Venn diagram (and to ground this, I’ve heard the Virgin Prunes be called both), my anecdotal experience is that most people who loved punk when they were young eventually developed a fondness for either postpunk or Goth. Or both.
Let’s pick at that Venn diagram. If postpunk and Goth are progressions from / descendants of punk, where’s the boundary (and where do the Virgin Prunes fit in)? This isn’t a question that’s really directly answerable, of course; years of conversations along these lines leave me with the conclusion that it all eventually winds up in “you know it when you see it” territory. Punk was fundamentally a case where people looked at a musical paradigm where Led Zeppelin was doing shows with 20-minute drum solos and Yes was doing whatever the fuck Yes was doing, and after taking all of this in, said “we need to strip this back down to the basics.” In my extremely simplified mental model of the antecedents, postpunk is the music made by the people who listened to, appreciated, and absorbed the first wave of punk in a formative way. It’s still stripped down, but a few more elements brought back into the mix, especially synthesizers and aggressive production techniques. (I think there’s a good case to be made that somewhere in the process of making London Calling the Clash edged from punk to postpunk).
This is all a grotesque after-the-fact oversimplification of a complex process, of course, but that’s cultural history for you. And it works in broad outline, at least.
Goth, in my model at least, is postpunk with an additional layer of emotional theatricality added on (and probably some black clothing and makeup)—
—with the actual in-music elements not always clearly defined one way or the other. Which does lead to another weird little knot: if punk was (theoretically) about stripping back to basics and removing pretense, and theatricality and heightened emotion are what distinguishes Goth from postpunk, then is this a case of the child movement explicitly rejecting the parent movement?
I can’t say for sure if I’d call the Prunes postpunk or goth, or both. They’re certainly emotionally charged and theatrical. In fact, if I have a personal knock on the Virgin Prunes, it’s that they sound kind of tryhard at times; ironically, in the same way I think Bono was clearly trying too hard in the 90s to establish his coolness. I’ve mostly cleaned the punk-purity rules out of my mental music filters, but you can never completely eradicate that stuff, and to my old-punk ears the Prunes sound a little bit self-consciously Xtreme. But that’s not really fair, and it’s also probably hypocritical coming from someone who thinks that Gwar is a thing of genius and that that The Cybertronic Spree are hilarious.
At the end of the day, does it matter where exactly the Virgin Prunes fit? I submit that it doesn’t (basically, every time I write about music or art these days, I end up quoting noted philosopher / Motorhead mastermind Lemmy Kilmister’s take on the matter: “There’s two kinds of music—music you like, and music you don’t”). It doesn’t really matter what I say about them, unless maybe it fills in a little bit of cultural or emotional context. What matters, really, is what this song does in your heart and your brain when you hear it. So see if you can get the French transformer to change into car mode, and go out for a spin, and give it a listen. Maybe he’ll let you borrow one of his robo-Gauloises while you’re out.
Keith Pille is an old punk living in Minneapolis. He has a mountain of music and culture writing online [link to http://www.keithpille.com ], and a couple of podcasts: one about art [link to http:www.artpalpodcast.com ], and one about the music of Uncle Tupelo [ http://www.weve-been-had.com/ ]. He also vomits words and opinions more or less constantly on Twitter [ https://twitter.com/keithpille ]