What an incredibly rough year it’s been to be a music fan. We’ve lost so many music greats this year spanning multiple genres, and we lost another one on Sunday, October 23. I’ve been wanting to write about England’s Pete Burns, the driving force behind the kick-ass Alt-Dance band, Dead Or Alive, ever since I heard about his passing on Monday, October 24, but between fighting a cold, work and helping out my family, I wasn’t able to write until now.
Pete Burns may not have had the big-name recognition of other folks we lost this year, like David Bowie or Prince, but his name and his work with Dead Or Alive has resonated with me from the first listen of the 1985 classic, “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record).”
In May 1980, after a couple of short-lived bands (and many lineup changes in the process), Pete Burns changed the name of his band from Nightmares In Wax to Dead Or Alive, right before a radio session with famed producer John Peel.
During the next few years, despite more lineup changes that seemed commonplace for the band, Pete’s androgynous style and appearance started leading to comparisons to another androgynous singer, Boy George, lead singer of the band, Culture Club, who were international superstars in 1982. This was about the same time that Dead Or Alive started getting noticed, and they scored a record deal with Epic Records in 1983.
Dead Or Alive’s debut album, 1984’s SOPHISTICATED BOOM BOOM, contained a popular cover of the 1975 KC And The Sunshine Band hit, “That’s The Way (I Like It).” The single was their first U.K. Top 40 hit, reaching No. 22, while the album climbed to No. 29 on the U.K. album chart.
The band’s biggest success would come with their next album, 1985’s YOUTHQUAKE, which was put together by a new songwriting / production team consisting of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman (better known as Stock Aitken Waterman, or SAW for short). Released in November 1984 (months in advance of the album) was the single, “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record).”
“You Spin Me Round” was not an immediate hit in the U.K., spending its first two months outside of the Top 40 of the U.K. singles chart. But, over time it built an audience, and in its 17th chart week, “You Spin Me Round” reached No. 1 in March 1985, and spent two weeks on top. It was the first of many No. 1 U.K. hits for Stock Aitken Waterman, who would go on to produce over 100 Top 40 U.K. hits. About three months after hitting No. 1 in Britain, Dead Or Alive and “You Spin Me Round” started finding an audience here in America.
Dead Or Alive’s first international hit debuted on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 the first day of June 1985 at No. 88, and unlike its chart run in the U.K., it only took five weeks to reach the Top 40 here. By mid-August, “You Spin Me Round” had its sights set on the Top 10, but in a very competitive singles chart field at that time, one of the most memorable singles (and one of the biggest dance records) of the 80s had to settle for a week at No. 11 on the Hot 100.
Strangely enough, Epic was not enthusiastic about “You Spin Me Round,” so much so that Pete Burns actually took out a loan to record the song. According to Pete’s 2007 book, FREAK UNIQUE: MY BIOGRAPHY, Pete explained, after the song was recorded, Epic Records “said it was awful. It was unanimous – it was awful, it was rubbish.” He later added that the band even had to fund the money for the video themselves. Well, as has happened many times with many record labels to many artists in many years, the record label was completely WRONG.
“You Spin Me Round” was a global sensation, also reaching No. 1 in Ireland and Switzerland, and the Top 10 in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Holland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, and along with their first-ever U.K. hit, “Misty Circles,” reached No. 4 on BILLBOARD’s Dance chart.
In the U.K., “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” has been re-released three times since its original release in 1984, and in 2006, the original version stopped at No. 5, due to Pete Burns’s appearance as a contestant on the U.K. reality show, CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER.
Though Dead Or Alive was never able to duplicate the international success of “You Spin Me Round,” “Brand New Lover” (from MAD, BAD & DANGEROUS TO KNOW) did reach No. 15 on the Hot 100 in March 1987 (also their first No. 1 hit of two on BILLBOARD’s Dance chart). and they did have some other minor hits, like 1985’s “Lover Come Back To Me” and 1987’s “Something In My House” (always a Halloween favorite of mine).
Growing up in a very conservative Central Maine in the 80s, in a word, “weird” was my initial thought about the appearances of folks like Boy George and Pete Burns. I just wasn’t used to it. But, I didn’t really care, because I loved the music of Culture Club and Dead Or Alive too damned much. Their androgynous appearances didn’t matter to me, it’s who they wanted to be, and it was fine by me.
Pete Burns himself responded to the subject of appearances in a 1984 interview: “The trouble is that people are all too ready to jump to conclusions about anybody who they think looks a bit strange. They think you must be mentally subnormal. Over the years I’ve had to learn how to deal with people who refuse to take me seriously. That’s where I learnt the blunt side of my character.”
In more recent years, though he kept the Dead Or Alive moniker going, Pete Burns was known more for his affection for plastic surgery than the music. He once told the British tabloid newspaper, the DAILY MAIL, “People redecorate their homes every few years and I see this as no different. Changing my face is like buying a new sofa.”
In an interview with the DAILY MAIL just in September 2016, Pete explained how the plastic surgery obsession began: “I realized [in the 1980s] I was going to be a visual entity and that I had to look good. I had a broken nose. In the punk days somebody head butted me in Liverpool and it went over to one side. The number of surgeries I’ve has is probably 300. I hope when I’m 80 and I get to heaven God doesn’t recognize me.”
Well, sadly Pete Burns never made it to 80, but he did make it to 57. And, I will choose to remember Pete not for the plastic surgery obsession that may or may not have cost him his life, but instead for his wonderful music with Dead Or Alive, and on a 1994 Dance hit called “Sex Drive,” a song he did originally with a band called Glam, but which was re-recorded and remixed by Dead Or Alive in 1997.
R.I.P. Pete Burns, and many, many thanks. I promise your music will keep me spinning ‘round like a record for many years to come, and maybe if I make it to 80. I’d like that…