On paper they couldn’t seem further apart. The stadium straddling echoplex anthems of U2 and the claustrophobic cabaret of Virgin Prunes seem inked on opposite ends of the spectrum, an anathema to each other, irreconcilable. And yet…
Dublin, Ireland in the 1970’s was a dour place, even if Phil Lynott had escaped to blaze a trail with a silver scratchplate, leatherclad crotch and a jar full of whiskey. The twin bleak fields of the factory floor or the dole queue were equally uninviting prospects, far better to invent a parallel universe, parallel identities.
Thus begat Lypton Village and its inhabitants. Bono Vox, Guggi, Gavin Friday, The Edge et al. More a state of mind than a geographical certainty, as a concept Lypton Village allowed ample room for fantasy and reinvention. Coupled to the liberating strains of punk rock, it sowed the seeds for something unprecedented.
The local urchins rechristened each other to usher in this new dawn. And so Paul Hewson became Bono Vox(lifted from Bonavox of O’Connell Street – a hearing aid shop); Derek Rowan became Guggi (because of what Bono describes as a hiccup in the shape of his face, imagining a dribble of spit hanging of his lower lip going gug-gug-gug); the handbag-bedecked Fionan Hanvey bacame Gavin Friday; due to his sickly constitution Guggi’s bother Trevor became Strongman; David Watson’s slow enunciation dictated he become Dave Id and the angular David Evans became The Edge.
“We were just teenagers with nothing to do – most people thought we were eejits, but there was a spark there: we knew we were on to something. We were a group of artists and we didn’t know it,” recalled Guggi in The Sunday Times.
“We didn’t go to university,” said Bono. “U2 and the Virgin Prunes became our university.”
Rechristened and reborn, it was time to tread the boards. Early Virgin Prunes shows verged on performance art as the band felt their way towards their sound behind a curtain of greasepaint and provocation. U2 initially played covers and changed their name frequently, from Feedback, to The Hype before eventually settling upon the moniker that would go on to become the uninvited scourge of a million iPhones.
Sharing stages throughout Dublin and environs throughout the end of the 70’s, both groups experienced mixed reactions, with audiences becoming particularly polarised by the Prunes, one early review noting: “Prunes music now passes far beyond their first antic thrashabouts. There are moments when it sounds like a hybrid between the Pink Floyd and The Gang of Four but really that’s just an indicator to emphasize it possesses greater warmth and colour than the usual modern staccato manifestos. Their music won’t allow them membership of The Cold War….The Prunes motifs are ancient, perhaps Egyptian or obscure Asian or even Teen Masonic”
Both bands would debut on vinyl in 1980, with U2 dropping the embryonic debut ‘Boy’ (with Guggi’s brother Peter gracing the cover) and the Prunes kicking off with debut 7” ‘Twenty Tens’ which squeezed four tracks onto wax. U2’s pop sensibilities and ear for the anthemic were almost fully formed, whilst the Virgin Prunes in contrast were here to parade and provoke.
U2 had follow-up LP ‘War’ under their belts by the time The Virgin Prunes sharted out their masterpiece, 1982’s ‘If I Die I Die’, a grand summation of their many shades encompassed together in a mostly coherent sense for the first time. From the brooding and hypnotic “Ulakanakulot” and “Sweet Home Under White Clouds” to the cloying intensity of “Caucasian Walk” and the dance floor glam stomp of “Baby Turns Blue,” the album was brimming with ideas and positively dripping with theatrical mongolism. It was a high watermark they would never scale again.
By this time, the trajectory of the two acts had become wildly skewed. U2 seemed poised to stride into stadiums and had their gaze firmly fixed over the Atlantic to the gaping continent of Mammon that is North America, whilst the Prunes were set to spin in cult circles, name dropped and revered by a selective few.
It’s inviting to ponder what a cross pollination might have thrown up, or perhaps an alternate universe where it was the Prunes, not U2, who were inexplicably invited to throw shapes to a global audience at Live Aid. Funny as shit to imagine as well. Middle America were probably just about okay with Bono’s mullet, but to be hit between the eyes with the homoerotic hammer horror and amateur am-dram stylings of a conjoined Gavin and Guggi? I’m pissing myself just pondering it now. But by 1986 the Virgin Prunes were no more, the moon looked down and laughed.
And then U2 visited the Joshua Tree. The rest, as they say, is history.