Various Artists: Virgin Records 40th Anniversary Compilations

Five collections mark four decades of this prog-friendly stable.

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When the first album released by your label was Tubular Bells, you can be sure you’ll be getting a birthday card from Prog. They say that life begins at 40, but Virgin Records got off to a flying start back in 1973 with the release of Mike Oldfield’s evergreen debut. The label has released five wide-ranging compilations to mark their first four decades.

They’re arranged chronologically and encompass the many phases of music they’ve been involved with, and as you’d expect there’s much here for the prog audience to get its teeth into, at least to start with. A three-disc set comprising 40 tracks, the first set Losing Our Virginity covers the era from ’73 to ’76.

Beginning, unsurprisingly, with the title track from Oldfield’s opus it then delves into Virgin’s archive to unearth classic tunes from him, Gong, Faust, Henry Cow, Tangerine Dream, Comus, Robert Wyatt, Captain Beefheart and others, including a humourist very much in our universe, the brilliant Ivor Cutler. Of the five compilations this is the one the prog rock fan is more likely to get the most out of. I’ve found myself coming back to this collection numerous times; it confirms firstly what a fertile time for innovation and brilliance the early 70s were, but and also Virgin’s pivotal presence throughout prog’s early years.

Never Trust A Hippy takes up the story from ’76, as the label was at the forefront of punk and new wave. In with Sex Pistols, The Ruts and X-Ray Spex are superb bands at prog’s outer limits – XTC, Devo and (with their bonkers art-rock cover of Summertime Blues) the Flying Lizards. If your tastes get this broad then it makes for an evocative selection. Less so New Gold Dreams, which harks back to ’79 to ’83 as the synth really established itself as the instrument of choice among upcoming bands. In amongst The Human League, Heaven 17 and OMD are Japan’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids and David Sylvian’s own Forbidden Colours.

Taking its name from and kicking off with another Japan song, Methods Of Dance covers Virgin’s ‘electronica and leftfield’ output from ’73 to ’86. It’s a mixed bag this, with the Tangs, Can, Faust and Sparks rubbing shoulders with PiL, Mantronix and Simple Minds. Fascinating Rhythms spans the period from ’87 to the present day, and if the dance beats of Soul II Soul and Inner City might offer little to the likes of us, Air and Massive Attack are both former residents of our column It’s Prog Jim (But Not As We Know It).

Virgin’s pioneering spirit runs throughout all five sets, but it’s Losing Our Virginity that’s the prog motherlode.

Grant Moon

A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Prog, Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, 'Big Big Train - Between The Lines', is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.