For all your Mutes, Rough Trades and Factorys, it’s kinda hard to beat Virgin Records as one of the coolest, most iconic record labels in British music history. From a personal perspective, the Virgin name is indelibly linked to my local branch of the record shop that spawned the label. Indeed, I spent many an hour rummaging through the racks of our beloved Central Milton Keynes emporium in the 1980s, starting with my very first pop purchase, Stand & Deliver by Adam And The Ants.
Alas, the insect warrior wasn’t signed to Richard Branson’s label but many, many artists did. From its early inception, Virgin Records pioneered electronic music with acts such as Tangerine Dream, and they would reap the benefits of their influence through electronica and synthpop acts like the Human League, Heaven 17 and, via its semi-autonomous imprint DinDisc, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.
By the eighties, Virgin had also bagged bands and soloists that were more rock influenced, such as Bryan Ferry, Simple Minds and Public Image Ltd. With acts like David Sylvian and Japan also on the roster, the indie major (or should that be major indie?) demonstrated that it was tuned into what was hip and “happening”: acts that had a serious, artistic side with real depth, as well as a commercial, pop side.
After Branson sold the label (much to my and others’ chagrin) to EMI in the 1990s, a whole host of international big hitters came on board — everyone from Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey to George Michael, David Bowie, Tina Turner, and the Rolling Stones, albeit with varying degrees of success.
So, on the 50th anniversary of its first release, a Perfect 10 of albums originally released worldwide by Virgin, starting with that audacious, atmospheric debut.
Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973)
Back in the era of glam and glitter, a largely unknown 20 year-old multi-instrumentalist from Reading called Mike Oldfield released his debut album, the first release on a brand new label called Virgin.
The LP initially sold slowly, but gained worldwide attention at the end of the year when its opening theme was memorably featured in William’s Friedkin’s film The Exorcist.
The placement led to a surge in sales which increased Oldfield’s profile and played an important part in the growth of the Virgin Group. And over time, Tubular Bells became something like a phenomenon, topping the British charts, winning an American Grammy award, and spawning innumerable sequels.
Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977)
By 1976 Virgin Records was going through a rough patch. But, true to form, Richard Branson, a cultural disruptor who knew the power of publicity better than most, once again pulled off something of a coup. After a riotous tour of the Netherlands, stuffy old EMI had released punk pioneers Sex Pistols from their contract, and bassist Glen Matlock left the band to be replaced by the more cut and thrust Sid Vicious.
After a short-lived spell at A&M, Branson offered Johnny Rotten and the boys their third contract. God Save The Queen came out just in time for Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee and it duly rocketed to No. 2 on the singles’ charts, or No. 1 if you believe the conspiracy theories. Boasting the coruscating Anarchy In The UK and the vile Bodies, their only album proper, Never Mind The Bollocks was issued in October 1977, and the legend of the Sex Pistols was duly complete.
Heaven 17’s Penthouse And Pavement (1981)
As the 1970s mutated into the 1980s, the idea that machines helped take over the reins of musical innovation was more than evident in The Human League. With an Electronically Yours manifesto and catchphrases like “beware of sugar-coated bullets”, “real” instruments were jettisoned in favour of two synthesizers, controlled by Ian Marsh and Martin Ware. Bowie was a fan and declared to NME that he “had seen the future of pop music.” Alas, after two acclaimed albums, internal conflict—in part over resentment that Gary Numan was selling more records—saw the Sheffield native’s split into two rival camps, and Ware and Marsh (the British Electric Foundation to you and me) formed the funkier art-rock club collective Heaven 17 with singer Glenn Gregory.
The cover of Heaven 17’s long-playing debut Penthouse And Pavement was designed like some publicity handout for a multinational corporation: next to a BEF motto there were pictures of the trio in businesslike poses straight out of Dynasty. The sly satire on Thatcherism worked and won them the “coveted” Smash Hits Best Dressed Record award for 1981. As for the music, the rival camps were forced to establish a shift pattern when H17 found themselves sharing a studio with the reconstituted Human League, who were simultaneously recording their own breakthrough opus we’ll come to in a minute.
Sneaking a listen to what his former group had recorded, the sense of rivalry only fuelled Ware’s own creativity. Within days, the band had written and recorded (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, followed by Play To Win, songs which would shape their musical identity. Juxtaposing upbeat, dance-influenced rhythms, Gregory’s voice struck a balance between soul-crooner and clinical robot; the perfect vehicle for the arch lyrics which hammered home their political views – issues such as the arms race, nuclear war, religious extremism and the rise of the yuppie, a stance that set them apart from many of their peers.
The Human League’s Dare (1981)
Virgin really stepped out of the prog shadows with this Martin Rushent-produced landmark LP that defined how the synthesizer went into the pop mainstream in the early 1980s.
With a tour imminent, torch song frontman Phil Oakey recruited two cool-looking teens to flank him and sing backup — Joanne Catherall, 18, and Susan Ann Sulley, 17. They looked like budget Roxy Music cover girls come to life, and, happily, turned out to be fans of the group. Phil also promoted his “visuals” guy, Philip Adrian Wright, to keyboardist, who would be joined by sessioneer Ian Burden and Rezillos guitarist Jo Callis. The new aesthetic underscored the sound, and this iteration established what would become definitive Human League — paired male/female vocals with an unburnished, conversational feel, duelling and duetting over dark, dramatic synths with melodic hooks and pancaked looks.
With a quartet of memorable smashes in Sound Of The Crowd, Love Action, Open Your Heart and the master they described as “our sort of Des O’ Connor song, 1981’s Christmas No.1, Don’t You Want Me. No collection of electronic music would be complete with this epochal, essential recording.
Japan’s Tin Drum (1982)*
A reference to Günter Grass’s baroque tale of Poland under Nazism, Tin Drum takes a lead from David Bowie’s Teutonic Low album with Brian Eno, as well as from the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Produced with Steve Nye, Japan’s fifth and final album is an intricate collage of arty soundscapes and exotic sonics crammed with icy electronics, polyrhythmic percussion and traditional oriental instruments, In other words, the band’s take on a fractured Mitteleuropean sound but one overwhelmingly inflected with influences from the Far East.
With Communist China as a loose concept, the trashy glam flourishes and occasionally awkward Bryan Ferry-esque posturing of their earlier work has all but evaporated as David Sylvain finally found his voice. His stoic, graceful vocals flow over the top of evocative synth washes on pieces like Canton and Visions Of China, reinforcing the Red Army concept and drawing you into Japan’s achingly atmospheric world.
On the haunting, ethereal Ghosts, one detects the halting rhythms of Kabuki music and the synthesized re-creations of traditional Asian percussion instruments. Unlike the rest of the album, it’s deeply introspective and finds Sylvian reflecting on past loves. It remains one of the strangest songs to become a Top 5 hit. Though it wasn’t enough to keep the band together, and Japan joined a plethora of pop casualties that split in 1982, among them ABBA, Adam & The Ants, The Jam and the Teardrop Explodes.
OMD’s Dazzle Ships (1983)
For their fourth album, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark had been tasked with following up their undisputed masterpiece, Architecture & Morality, with an equally impressive work. Not an easy task for any act. At the time of its release, Dazzle Ships blindsided many and was savaged by press and fans alike for being too experimental.
Like much of Kraftwerk’s catalogue, it’s a musical statement that’s meant to be absorbed in order to truly get the feel of it, rather than to be simply listened to. The set contained collages of musique concrète and snippets of eastern European radio broadcast snippets strategically placed between the melodically melancholy synth-pop tunes that were interspersed throughout, such as the brilliant Genetic Engineering.
Far too weird for some, but perfectly alternative and provocative for those like my senior schoolmate Paul Day, who played Radio Prague in his dad’s living room to us and really ‘got’ what it was all about, way more than we did at the time. That also goes for OMD’s very own Paul Humphreys, who Andy McCluskey once told me—prior to their reformation—“I don’t think Paul’s ever forgiven me for Dazzle Ships.“
Thankfully, in recent years, many of the critics who lambasted the LP for being too ambitious and artsy now praise it for being what it was: a true work of innovation that has withstood the test of time and in its way, is no less influential and crucial to the burgeoning electronic genre as its predecessor.
Peter Gabriel’s So (1986)
1983 was the label’s best to date, with Culture Club rivalling Duran Duran and The Police as the year’s biggest band, and Mike Oldfield delivering one of his biggest hits with the folksy Moonlight Shadow. Charisma Records also came under Virgin’s wing, bringing with it the catalogues of Genesis, Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, who all began selling shedloads. A perfect example of that is Gabriel’s fifth solo LP So, where the original Genesis guy really brought his A-game. And how.
So has an unashamedly quintessential mid-Eighties sound, with plenty of hammering synthesizers and slightly over-sequenced percussion. But, it does however, have a soul to it, with just the right mixture of diverse genres throughout that range from psychedelic to R&B to World Music.
It’s a near-perfect mix of art and commerce, fuelled by a handful of radio friendly hits that were turbo-boosted by innovative, much talked about promo films: stand up Sledgehammer, Big Time and the sublime Kate Bush duet, Don’t Give Up.
The record still sounds supremely listenable today; in fact, looking back three and a half decades later, Peter Gabriel would never look or sound more like a pop star than he did with So, and the period would be the pinnacle of his commercial success overall.
Massive Attack’s Blue Lines (1991)
As the 1990s dawned, club-based sample culture propagated by the likes of MARRS and the KLF meant taking the sounds of the past to craft something entirely new. It would become one of the dominant forms of modern music, and no one did this more elegantly than Massive Attack.
At a time when the early euphoria of acid house was turning into the frantic sugar rush of rave, the West Country had a new direction and genre to take and create: trip hop. On Blue Lines, the Tricky-containing collective which formed out of the ashes of the Wild Bunch soundsystem plowed formative influences like soul, dub reggae, the film scores of Ennio Morricone and a spliffy punky spirit to concoct a heady brew that acted as an intrinsically British (and peculiarly Bristolian) counterpoint to US hip hop.
This was a bold, affecting and game-changing debut. Massive Attack demonstrated that dance music could exist at a slower and more meditative pace. The spine-chilling voice of Shara Nelson gives transcendent tracks like Safe From Harm and the sublime Unfinished Sympathy—a piece of music so close to perfect that’s a contender for the greatest, most evocative single of the entire decade—an unearthly lift.
A shining storm of vision, collaboration, crate digging and luscious melodies, Blue Lines is a multi-faceted diamond whose influence can be seen scattered all over the ’90s from records by Portishead and Björk that it helped pave the way for, to much of Madonna’s Ray Of Light. But what strikes you listening back today, over 30 years on from its release, is just how fresh it still sounds.
Everything But The Girl’s Walking Wounded (1996)
Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, collectively known as Everything But The Girl, radically changed their sound in the 1990s. From their earlier acoustic efforts as nerdy jazz-keepers of the bossa nova flame, all of a sudden the Northern couple turned into a house duo.
After the single Missing was remixed by House Master Todd Terry and became utterly enormodome. Unlike Dame David of Bowie’s noisy contemporaneous appropriations, the happily marrieds from Hull had taken jungle, drum n’ bass, and downtempo, stripped them down, and infused them with a hypnotic human warmth, and the resulting sounds were sleek, modern, effortless, and very soulful.
But more important were the LP’s lyrics, which were filled with stories of heartbreak, loss, and longing. Songs like Single, Before Today, and Mirrorball were a salve. And when Thorn sang “It’s wrong to feel this way/I know it’s wrong, I know it’s bad/To only see what isn’t there/To want and want and never have” on Good Cop, Bad Cop, she helped some of us sort through all of the messed up, conflicted emotions that we had at the time. As Jason Morehead at Opuszine wrote at the time:
“This is an album that lends itself to driving alone, late at night, while trying to figure out your own romantic endeavors and why they aren’t quite working out the way you planned. Everything But The Girl knows what it’s like, and this album is a comfort during those late drives. At least, it is for me.”
Well, guess what? He wasn’t alone.
Daft Punk’s Discovery (2001)
Daft Punk’s sophomore set marked a huge shift in style and tone from their 1997 debut Homework. Discovery is a much cleaner and aural sounding album compared to the French duo’s grittier Chicago House pumping style of old.
Working with dance floor notables Todd Edwards and Romanthony, the Gallic robots deliver a clutch of gleaming gemstones like Digital Love and Something About Us. Even more of a belter, Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger coupled with the irresistible One More Time explode in neo-disco euphoria with subtle throwbacks to retro-funk that hinted at the Get Lucky a decade later, both 45s brimming with post-millennial prog flourishes and more vocoders than you can shake at Herbie Hancock.
The precision-crafted collection also marked the debut of the group’s distinctive mechanical personae, and since the helmeted robots have called it a day, let’s celebrate 22 years of this club classic that defined a new era in electronic music and cemented Daft Punk as the undisputed trendsetters of the genre.
A few worthy contenders though it’s worth pointing out the Mclaren and Michael LPs weren’t issued by a Virgin owned label in some territories such as North America.
Simple Minds‘ New Gold Dream (1982)
Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock (1983)
Scott Walker‘s Climate Of Hunter (1984)
George Michael‘s Older (1996)
Air‘s Moon Safari (1998)
Bryan Ferry‘s Frantic (2002)
*Tin Drum was released in some counties in November 1981, though it generally peaked everywhere in 1982. Ooh. And lest we forget, one of Bowie‘s greatest songs of the 1980s was a soundtrack single on Virgin…