A customer was trying out our MetaEdit+ app, (7.1 image, 7.2 VM) on Ubuntu 5.04, and received several primitiveFailed errors. The errors turned out to be when VW was trying to allocate a scaled Helvetica font - most font sizes needed were available as bitmap fonts, but whenever VW tried to use the scalable (size 0) font that xlsfonts said was available, it got a primitveFailed allocating the font.
I tried out 7.3.1, and that sat there at start-up grabbing all the CPU and increasing memory without ever opening a window. If the VISUALWORKS variable wasn't defined, it managed to open an empty "Source files invalid" window, and then Ctrl-Shift-y and printProcessorStacks revealed that it too had a process with an error trying to allocate a font. dpkg-reconfigure fontconfig didn't help, nor did several other approaches.
In the end I solved it by installing the Ghostscript extension package that lets X use the Ghostscript fonts:sudo apt-get install gsfonts-x11
Apparently the Helvetica (aliased?) there works better, or some change it makes to the fonts config files (the package install no new fonts itself). 7.1 works fine with different sized fonts, and 7.3.1 starts up fine.
Although I hadn't used it before a couple of days ago, Ubuntu looks very nice, and is currently the most popular distro according to www.distrowatch.com, so this may become an issue for others. It's a Debian based distro, using the X.org successor to XFree86 4.0, so possibly this problem may become apparent in other similar distros (Gentoo?). Hopefully posting here will save someone a few minutes!
All the best,