;From its beginnings as an outlet for prog-rock aficionado Richard Branson to release albums by his favorite obscure acts, Virgin Records was — at one time at least — a brand name that meant musical quality, rather than another corporate logo on a swank transatlantic flight.
;;A new batch of reissues highlights Virgin releases from the late '70s and early '80s: a collection of soundscapes from ambient progsters Tangerine Dream, Heaven 17's first three — and most subversive — records, the last two studio albums from Captain Beefheart, as well as a best-of set from Simple Minds that focuses on their earlier, more innovative work. What's most revealing about these new discs isn't that Beefheart had sort of lost it by the early '80s or that Heaven 17 were infatuated with high-minded concepts, but the laughable unlikelihood that any of these artists would find a home on the Virgin of today, alongside the likes of Janet Jackson and 30 Seconds to Mars.
;;As the label that debuted with Tubular Bells, foisted Faust on an unsuspecting public and made its biggest splash by being able to release Never Mind the Bollocks, Virgin's track record as an artist-friendly label in the '70s was impeccable. Whether it was the roots that Branson (and partner Nik Powell) had in the trenches of record retail or simply a sense that the punk and post-punk zeitgeists meant that money could be made by appealing to the routinely disenfranchised, Virgin was home to surprisingly successful artists.
;;In 1981, the original version of the Human League dissolved, with two members retaining the name and going on to make accessible tracks like "Don't You Want Me." The other half of the group — Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware — emerged as Heaven 17 with the most danceable anti-consumerist rant ever recorded, "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang." Appearing on their concept-rich debut album, Penthouse and Pavement, "Groove Thang" distilled the group's essence: Overtly synthetic instrumentation was humanized into a soulful, Motown-touched delivery … and then instantly rendered cold again by their antagonistic and sometimes strident approach.
;;The Early Gold collection from Simple Minds was a conscious decision on behalf of Jim Kerr and the group to focus a "best of" on the material they're most proud of, rather than that which was most successful. This 15-track collection of intricate and artful electronic-tinged pop is miles away from "(Don't You) Forget About Me," a song the members are said to "despise." Likewise, megahit "Alive and Kicking" is absent in favor of sweaty and progressive material like "Thirty Frames a Second."
;;The other two artists represented in this batch of reissues — an Essentials disc from Tangerine Dream and two end-of-career sets from Captain Beefheart — are more in line with Virgin's original prog-rock ethos. It's difficult to conceive of a record label that could concurrently work new releases from Heaven 17 and the creator of Trout Mask Replica, but that unpredictability was what, for a time at least, made Virgin such an impressive firstname.lastname@example.org
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.