Pete Burns – pop provocateur with a sensitive side

Pete Burns was one the great true eccentrics, one of pop’s great characters – and the maker of one undeniable classic

Pete Burns: scabrous and outspoken. Photograph:  Yui Mok/PA Wire

Pete Burns: scabrous and outspoken. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

 

Before he was a pop star or a regular presence on reality TV, Pete Burns was a clothes designer and the proprietor of a shop in Liverpool’s Casey Street, catering to the city’s burgeoning punk scene.

By all accounts, he took what you might charitably call a unique approach to the business of selling clothes: abusing his customers, informing them the clothes they’d just bought were “crap”.

Julian Cope of the Teardrop Explodes, later recalled him mercilessly mocking people he spotted around town wearing his designs: “‘The state of her,’ Peter would cackle in his camp posh-Scouse whinny”.

Burns took a similarly confrontational approach to music. His musical career began with a band called the Mystery Girls, which featured fellow Liverpool punk scenester Pete Wylie – later of Wah! and Cope.

The latter said Burns had “as snotty a voice as you could wish to hear” and that his performance style was influenced by Wayne County, the transgender US glam punk best known for onstage shock tactics and a song called F**k Off.

Gothic

Their solitary gig was apparently desultory, but Burns’s willingness to affront was similarly evident in his next musical venture, the gothic rock band Nightmares in Wax: the band was originally named Rainbows Over Nagasaki; their solitary EP was titled Birth of a Nation, a name it shared with DW Griffith’s infamously racist 1915 film.

However, the music on it was more intriguing and idiosyncratic than the provocations suggested. Lead track Black Leather married post-punk guitars with a furious disco beat, a raw, vaguely Marc Bolan-inspired vocal, lyrical interpolations from both Iggy Pop’s Sister Midnight and KC and the Sunshine Band’s That’s The Way (I Like It) and homoerotic lyrics: “I do big muscle boys on motorbikes … I like a filthy, greasy cock”.

Heard today, it sounds not unlike a punk precursor of the kind of thing another Liverpool band, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, would later streamline into multi-platinum success.

The band changed their name to Dead or Alive: if a single like 1982’s The Stranger had nothing musically in common with that year’s big new pop sensation Culture Club – it stuck fast to a post-Siouxsie and the Banshees gothic rock template – then the appearance in the charts of a dreadlocked, make-up sporting androgyne like Boy George proved that Burns’ similarly striking appearance was no barrier to commercial success (Burns, of course, claimed that Boy George had stolen his look).

Pop-friendly

Dead or Alive gradually shed their guitars in favour of a more pop-friendly sound, marrying the gothic grandeur to dancefloor beats and the slap bass, as heard on their 1983 debut album Sophisticated Boom Boom.

It was only a minor success, and, in Burns’s recollection, their record company hated his idea for Dead or Alive’s next single, despite the fact that the band had recruited Stock, Aitken and Waterman, a production trio in the first flush of chart success: he claimed he had to pay for the recording out of his own pocket.

You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) turned out to be both a transatlantic smash hit and a flatly brilliant single, partly because it was a better song than anything Dead or Alive had released before, and partly because Burns caught Stock, Aitken And Waterman at the right moment, before the trio’s sound became too tinny and generic, when their productions still bore the frenzied influence of hi-energy, the pounding, electronic, oddly unfunky off-shoot of disco that was the main soundtrack of early 80s gay clubs.

Hedonistic pop

Indeed, You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) is one of a handful of Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions that even people who revile the trio as the apotheosis of all that was wrong with music in the 80s tend to admit they like: it sounds thrilling and unstoppable, a piece of commercial pop music that captures the hedonism and hysteria of a dancefloor in the small hours.

Dead or Alive never really equaled it, although both the ensuing album Youthquake and its follow-up Mad Bad and Dangerous To Know had their moments – not least the 1986 single Something In My House – and they continued to be hugely successful in Japan, long after Britain had lost interest, at least in their music.

Burns had always been scabrously good value in interviews, and after his musical career waned, reinvented himself as a reality TV star, famed for the sharpness of his tongue and the preponderance of cosmetic procedures he subjected himself to: at one stage he claimed to have spent his life savings on reconstructive surgery after a botched operation on his lips.

Sensitive side

There was clearly a sensitive side to him – he became a spokesman for a charity organisation that dealt with violence in homosexual relationships – but it understandably tended to be overshadowed by the confrontational side to his character: if Noughties reality TV seemed a very different world from the nascent Liverpool punk scene, the man who caused uproar and ended up being investigated by the police for gleefully informing his fellow inmates in the Celebrity Big Brother house that his coat was made of unlicensed gorilla fur (it wasn’t) didn’t seem that different from the cackling proprietor of the Casey Street shop, informing customers that the clothes they’d just bought were hideous. – (Guardian Service)