It seems weird now that their name is on trains, cable TV, aeroplanes and even a bank — but there was a time when the Virgin logo was something you’d scribble on your schoolbook to give two fingers to The Man. Back in the days of the Sex Pistols, XTC, Sparks and OMD, Virgin owned a sizeable chunk of punk, new wave and everything countercultural. It was a major label with the soul and unpredictable swagger of an indie.
Virgin Records turns 40 this year. There will be a series of birthday gigs from signings past and current, plus compilation CDs, a retrospective exhibition and an impressive coffee table book (full disclosure: I wrote the chapters on dance music). It’s fair to say that Virgin’s identity is a little fuzzier than it was, after the Rolling Stones, The Spice Girls, Mariah Carey and near-extinction during financier Guy Hands’ slapstick attempts to re-engineer its parent company EMI. But Virgin still did things for British music that no other label could.
Before they were punks, for instance, Virgin invented the hippy capitalist. Branson, a Stowe-educated son of a barrister, opened a beanbag-strewn record shop in 1971. More of a vibey drop-in centre than a music store, it anticipated the Starbucks experience by three decades. To Branson the counterculture was a market like any other, so he and his colleagues launched a record label to release the kind of music they wanted to buy. Their first album, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, set the prototype for future prog rock and ambient electronica, selling 2.6m in the UK alone.
When punk broke, Virgin was the only major label that stood by the Sex Pistols. They released the infamous Jubilee single “God Save The Queen”, funded Pistols stunts like their piratical Thames boat trip, and defended the Never Mind The Bollocks album cover in court (for using the word “bollocks” — the band won). Without Virgin’s backing, punk could well have petered out as a five-minute outrage. Instead it became the template for every tabloid sensation to follow.
Virgin’s sharp-eyed performance with the Pistols made them the go-to label for the post-punk generation (bands such as Magazine, OMD, XTC and Penetration all signed), and all the flamboyant art pop that followed. The Human League, Japan, Heaven 17 and early Simple Minds weren’t just on Virgin. They were Virgin bands: strange and unsettling, visually amazing, as likely to offend NME as the Daily Mail and wildly musically ambitious. It all culminated in Culture Club, where a sharp-tongued, tough-minded London Irish gay became the biggest pop star on the planet.
In the years to come, Virgin took other chances. Few other labels saw any potential in the loose groupings of rappers, producers, graffiti artists and breakdancers that grew up in the late Eighties. Too faceless, too ghetto… where’s the frontman? Virgin and its associate labels gave them space, and the results were first Soul II Soul – British R&B’s biggest export in two decades – and then the majestic Massive Attack, where everything from hip hop to Jamaican sound system culture and new wave came together.
In 1988, Virgin released the first compilation of Detroit techno. In the Nineties, as pop turned to dance and DJs became superstars, they started to sign people who’d grown up listening to Virgin releases: French cosmic wanderers Air, modern acid rock fiends The Verve, and secret prog aficionados The Chemical Brothers (who insisted that their records carried Virgin's original logo painted by the hippy Dalí Roger Dean). Above all there was Daft Punk, who plugged the label’s new dance direction into its head music heritage. They were all different — yet somehow all Virgin bands.
It’s impossible to admire everything that Virgin did. For every Neneh Cherry there’s a Geri Halliwell — music is after all a business. But could any current label hope to repeat a Mike Oldfield, a Culture Club or even a Spice Girls? Probably not. If the Virgin story proves anything, it’s that Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren was right about one thing: cash does come from chaos.
1 | Mike Oldfield “Tubular Bells Part One” (1973)
2 | Sex Pistols “God Save The Queen” (1977)
3 | XTC “Making Plans For Nigel” (1979)
4 | Sparks “Beat The Clock” (1979)
5 | The Human League “Love Action” (1981)
6 | Inner City “Good Life” (1988)
7 | Neneh Cherry “Buffalo Stance” (1988)
8 | Massive Attack “Unfinished Sympathy” (1991)
9 | The Verve “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (1997)
10 | Daft Punk “One More Time” (2000)
11 | Kelis “Milkshake” (2003)
12 | Professor Green “Need You Tonight” (2010)
For Virgin Records' 40th Anniversary, there are events including a book, exhibition and live show. Visit virgin40.com
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