Various artists - Virgin Records: 40 Years Of Disruptions
Like a vast, tattered flag of modern British popular culture unfurling before you
Losing Our Virginity 1973-1976 (●●)
Never Trust A Hippy 1976-1979 (●●●●)
New Gold Dreams 1979-1983 (●●●●●)
Methods of Dance 1983–1986 (●●●)
Fascinating Rhythms 1987-2013 (●●)
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s record companies, whether EMI or RCA, were monolithic and faceless, vast industrial combines that also manufactured your fridges and television sets, and were answerable slavishly to shareholders. Then, in 1973, came Richard Branson and Virgin Records and the paradigm changed forever. No longer was pop music to be a hula-hoop, a disposable mystery, flogged to trend-crazed youth by second-guessing businessmen.
Pop became territorial, partisan, an ensign, a flag to rally under. And Virgin was instrumental, nay central, in this, in turning pop into this patchwork of passions and world views, outlooks, factions, genres and cults. This is the kaleidoscopic model we know still, forty years after Branson used the music press to sell dippy concept albums by mail order. There was never an aesthetic to the label, or a guiding musical philosophy. Rather, Virgin was a bazaar, a splurging, promiscuous A&R free-for-all. This renders CDs 1-3, Losing Our Virginity, covering the years 1973-1976, difficult to digest, with its off-key saxes, challenging 7/8 time signatures and all-pervasive eau de student bedsit: only professors at the Open University could find warmth in their hearts for Kevin Coyne and Steve Hillage, Gong or Henry Cow.
Indeed, the great benefit of this hulking, 5x3-disc 40th anniversary compilation lies in reminding us how necessary the great vowel shift of punk was. Virgin, of course, signed The Sex Pistols, not to mention The Skids and XTC and Magazine, and did sterling work in popularising roots reggae. It was with post-punk, however, that the label harnessed most effectively quality to eccentricity, as covered here in the New Gold Dreams 1979-1983 set, before the dancier imperatives of the Methods of Dance 1973–1986 and Fascinating Rhythms 1987-2013 sets kick in. There are hits here: The Human League, Culture Club, even Public Image Ltd. There are horrors too: Gong again, I’m afraid. At times it’s like wading through a horribly extended edition of Top of the Pops 1975. At others it’s as though the vast, tattered flag of modern British popular culture is unfurling before you.