Pete Burns opened his home to Robert Thomson and talked about music, fame, overkill, and the boredom that goes with singing “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” for more than ten years. This article was originally published in FAB National magazine in 1996.
This is not a whatever happened to article. Pete Burns and Dead or Alive have never gone away. Since the dissolution of Dead or Alive’s recording contract with CBS Records and following the release of their album Nude, Burns and his band have been quietly roaring away in Japan, making records exclusively for Sony Music’s Japanese market and playing to wildly appreciative audiences. The eyepatch is history, Dead or Alive has heft the sausage factor, and, yes, there is a new album: Nukleopatra.
Pete Burns is a vision. He enters, freshly shaved and showered after his daily eight-mile run through Hyde Park. He smells softly sweet, but masculine. His hair, a gorgeous black mane, is immaculately coiffed. His full lips, glossy, perfectly augment the red makeup beneath his eyebrows. In the 1980s, while critics dubbed him gender-bender and a disco bunny’s version of Boy George, there was perhaps nobody less deserving of such a trouncing. In the media—and to a certain extent, in the public eye—Pete Burns and Dead or Alive have been perceived as a novelty act from a bygone era, an era that ended only seven short years ago, one that has been repackaged and resold to consumers as a trip down memory lane: the ’80s. And although many people remember Dead or Alive and their signature song “You Spin Me ‘Round (Like A Record)” as a one-hit curiosity, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Dead or Alive’s first three albums (, , and ) spawned no fewer than seven chart singles with remixes that packed the dance floors of gay (and straight) clubs around the world. For someone who began his career in music as the end result of blackmail, Pete Burns has done remarkably well. In the mid-1970s, just around the time that punk scene broke in England, his remarkable story begins.
“There was a very brave nightclub promoter in Liverpool who ran a club that was on the old sight of the Cavern [a spot made famous by the Beatles]. It was called Eric’s,” Burns tells me. “He was one of the first people to book the Sex Pistols, the Heartbreakers, David Johannsen and stuff like that. I had a clothing shop around the corner and because I was sort of a regular at the club to see the groups, he said he wouldn’t let me in anymore if I didn’t form a band of my own. If I did, it would be free drinks and free entry and a guest list of up to twenty-five. I said, ‘I don’t know what do do,’ and he sort of put a band together for me which consisted of Julian Cope [who would later go on to form The Teardrop Explodes], Pete Wylie [later of Wah], various drummers, and we did a set of cover songs, mainly Iggy Pop stuff like ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog.’ And there was a couple of ’60s numbers like ‘The Moves’ and ‘The Nighttime Is The Right Time.’ We did one gig. It went on really well.”
The Burns-fronted Mystery Girls would go on to open for the notorious skinhead group Sham 69 and disbanded shortly thereafter. Pete, disillusioned with rock stardom, would enter a premature retirement to go back to running his clothes shop, but the British music press, always digging, always lurking, caught up with him as the Liverpool scene exploded and his former bandmates Wylie and Cope began making headlines.
“I’d done a series of interviews,” Burns recalls, “talking complete rubbish with no band name or anything.” Soon enough, however, he would have a new project. Nightmares In Wax was formed and did numerous radio sessions with John Peel.
“I got a few musicians together who were unknown and we just made up some crap and we did a session. [Peel] got flooded with requests to repeat it, which meant we got repaid. And then we did another session, a lot of requests to repeat it. And after three goes at doing these sessions and getting paid with what at the time seemed like a big amount of money for somebody who didn’t have a record out or anything, I thought, ‘well, it’s about time I started to take this seriously.'”
Nightmares In Wax began playing festivals and clubs across the country and the money started rolling in. Record companies began to approach the band, but the fact that they didn’t have a serious lineup of musicians complicated matters.
Enter Boy George.
“Culture Club appeared out of the blue and got signed. Then all of a sudden we had so many record companies banging the door down ’cause they thought they might have the next Boy George. CBS Records came along with a very good offer: complete artistic control, choice of producers, big amounts of money, again, and I don’t know what possessed me, really. I signed with CBS. A great publishing deal came along and we made one album, Sophisticated Boom Boom, which only spawned one hit, which was the cover of ‘That’s The Way (I Like It)’ and the record company started to let the album wither and die. They didn’t know how to market me because I wasn’t doing ‘Karma Chameleon.’ I was doing a much harder sound. It was difficult to get me on kiddies TV programs. At that time, the industry thought that if you were a bit fruity to look at, that you’ve got to go on children’s TV programs and turn into a teddy bear—which I wasn’t.”
Dead or Alive’s roots extend into many regions of fertile musical soil. Considering Burns’ early days with Pete Wylie and Julian Cope, and performing on the same stage as the young Holly Johnson [Frankie Goes to Hollywood], it might seem strange that it was Divine who helped lead Dead or Alive into the top 40.
“I always liked Divine,” Burns smiles. “And when he did ‘Native Love,’ that’s what I wanted to be doing. I almost went with Bobby O [who produced—among other things—”Native Love” and the original version of the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls”] but it didn’t come off. Divine did one record that was a big hit in England. It was called ‘You Think You’re A Man.’ I thought, Those producers must be geniuses. They’re who I wanted to do my next album with. And the record company said no. So we financed our own album, Youthquake, with an unknown team of producers called Stock Aitken Waterman, and what an experience that was.”
Despite the fact that Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW) did play a big part in placing Dead or Alive on the pop charts with an international number one hit record, Burns, like many other former Stock Aitken Waterman-produced artists, has no kind words for the trio, and to this day calls them “the sausage factory,” a spin on how SAW referred to themselves as the Hit Factory.
Mad, Bad, and Dangerous To Know, Dead or Alive’s third album, and their second at the hands of SAW, is far from Burns’ favourite. It was at this time that things began to go wrong for the group.
“We were on the verge of splitting up and killing ourselves ’cause [Stock Aitken Waterman] were so difficult to work with. And after we finished that album, it had a couple of hits, we found out that our money was going into a lot of the wrong avenues, so we took out a major lawsuit [against our manager].”
Another lawsuit was volleyed at CBS Records which, at the time, was not paying their artists royalties for sales of twelve inch singles. Dead or Alive, clearly demonstrating the power of their popularity in dance clubs, had phenomenal sales of their twelve inch singles, and was determined to reap the rewards. What followed was an out-of-court settlement and a gag clause which prevented the band from discussing the lawsuit.
“On the next album they had a grudge to bear,” Burns says, his voice drawing out the words for emphasis. “A really bad grudge to bear. And it was an international grudge with that label. It had gotten around that we’d taken them on at their own game and it turned into a big nightmare. We produced our own next album [Nude]. Our project manager died. We didn’t have any allies at the record company. Half way through that album we decided we wanted to leave that record company.”
To some, this might sound like the death knoll of their career, but it was, in fact, one of the smartest moves Burns and Dead or Alive would make; definitely an act of self-preservation. For Japan was not only the home of Sony Music, which was in the process of purchasing CBS Records, but also the home of many thousands of die hard Dead or Alive fans. These two facts alone helped Dead or Alive dissolve their recording agreement with CBS and then forge a new deal with Sony, Japan. Since then, the band has recorded Fan the Flame (Part One) and, in 1995, Nukleopatra, which has since been remixed and repackaged for a mid-1996 Australian release.
Nukleopatra, which features a stunning version of Blondie’s “Picture This” and David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” [which Burns had previously recorded and released under the name International Chrysis] as well as a good dose of Dead Or Alive-penned tunes (most notably “International Thing” and “Unhappy Birthday”), should do well on dance floors as well as home stereo. The Australian version of the album also contains the 1996 reworking of “You Spin Me ‘Round.”)
How does he feel about singing the same song for more than ten years?
“I couldn’t criticize it. It earned me a lot of money and opened up a lot of doors, but when people expect you to always, always perform that song, it used to make me kick against it. People don’t want you to move forward and leave things behind. They always want to hear the same thing. But I’m more or less resigned to I’ll always have to sing that song because that’s how the mass market got to know me. That’s okay, but I’m really not good at faking the enthusiasm.”
“I’m probably supposed to sit here and tell you how fantastic and essential it is to people’s lives,” Burns says when I ask him about Nukleopatra. “But I really don’t think it is. No one’s records have had that effect on me anyway, and that’s the way my mind is around records. They’re not that important.”
Last summer saw Dead or Alive facing harsh criticism from fans and industry types during their disastrous tour of North America. Club dates were cancelled at the last minute, no-shows, and an air of mystery and confusion cling to this tour like a second skin. Who was to blame? Burns and Steve Coy, Dead or Alive’s manager and longtime drummer, says Michael Scott, the American promoter they hired for the tour.
“He stole vast amounts of money from us and just disappeared. He was a thief and a liar and he used a false name [Michael Scott or Kim Scott], and he does it to a lot of groups. Apparently he did it years ago to Sister Sledge and he’s done it to The Prodigy and 2 Unlimited. Steve went to collect the fees for the last three weeks of the tour and he said, ‘I don’t know you, I have nothing for you. If you touch me you’ll be arrested,’ and he just walked out of the hotel. We weren’t in a position to restrain him ’cause the hotel said we don’t want any drama on the premises.”
Looking back at the wreckage, Burns remains unflinchingly calm. “It all sounds miserable and negative. I don’t think it is. It teaches you that you can’t really trust the people you think you can trust. But that aside, we’ve maintained the ability to get on with what we do, and that’s make music. Nobody would believe what can go on in the music industry until it actually happens to them. On the American side we’ve made nothing but mistakes.”
Hopefully that will change. Dead or Alive are promoting their first release outside Japan in seven years and plans are in the works for a North American release of Nukleopatra. What comes next is anybody’s guess, but Pete Burns and Dead or Alive will keep at it, of that you can be sure.
“Everything I’ve ever done since the age of twelve has had a sense of adventure about it,” Burns says. “Sometimes as trivial as whether you’ll get from A to B without having somebody bash a bottle over your head just because you’re wearing make-up, and sometimes just because everything you see through your eyes is tinged by your appearance, the way people react to you and stuff. I see it as a really good adventure and an obstacle course that I’ve enjoyed being on. It doesn’t make me embittered about it at all. I couldn’t be any other way.”
Dead or Alive Discography
- Sophisticated Boom Boom (1984)
- Youthquake (1985)
- Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know (1987)
- Rip It Up (1987)
- Nude (1989)
- Fan the Flame (Part One) 1990
- Nude: Remade, Remodelled (1991)
- Nukleopatra (1995)
- Fragile (2000)
- Unbreakable: The Fragile Remixes (2001)
- Evolution: The Hits (2003)
- The Twelve Inch Collection (2005)
- That’s The Way I Like It: The Best of Dead or Alive (2010)