Remembering Dead or Alive's Pete Burns, An Overlooked LGBT Pioneer
As the leader of Dead or Alive, Pete Burns was known to much of North America as the singer of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” a No. 11 Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1985 that lived on through its inclusion in the 1998 Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore blockbuster The Wedding Singer, as well as Flo Rida’s “Right Round,” which debuted Kesha and topped the charts in 2009 largely because its chorus quoted Dead or Alive’s hit atop racier lyrics.
But to LGBT folk, lovers of New Wave, dance-pop addicts, followers of British reality TV, and much of the U.K. public, Burns -- who passed away Oct. 23 from cardiac arrest -- was a singular star emblematic of a time when even the most eccentric musicians could achieve significant international sales and radio play with the right brain-embedding hook. “You Spin Me Round” certainly had that, and so did “Brand New Lover” (No. 15 in early 1987), as well as other singles that scored both on the U.K. pop chart and in clubs the world over, like “Lover Come Back (To Me),” “Something in My House,” and “My Heart Goes Bang (Get Me to the Doctor).”
“You Spin Me Round” was the first single overseen by Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, and Pete Waterman -- known collectively as Stock Aitken Waterman or S/A/W -- that signaled the production team’s Midas touch. According to Burns, Epic Records hated “Spin” so much that the band had to finance the song’s video. Taking 17 weeks to hit No. 1 in the U.K. during March 1985 and then several more months until it peaked in the U.S. at No. 11 in Aug. 1985, the record honed a style known in ‘80s gay clubs as Hi-NRG, an electronic variant on ‘70s disco featuring clattering percussion, octave-skipping basslines, uptempo BPMs, and sexually charged lyrics. Pioneered by synth wizards like Giorgio Moroder and Patrick Cowley, Hi-NRG turned mainstream thanks to S/A/W, which was soon called “The Hit Factory” for their assembly line approach to Bananarama, Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley, and many others.
Although S/A/W’s Hi-NRG template was already in place on earlier U.K. hits for Divine and Hazell Dean, their Dead or Alive breakthrough was notable because it was the first time the production trio used it to utterly reframe a singer to fit their style. Born in 1959 to an English father and a Jewish-German mother who escaped the Nazis by fleeing to Vienna, Burns got his start in Liverpool’s punk scene; his first band, The Mystery Girls, included future Teardrop Explodes singer Julian Cope and soon-to-be Wah! frontman Pete Wylie. Morphing from Nightmares on Wax into Dead or Alive with the addition of future Sisters of Mercy guitarist/The Mission singer Wayne Hussey, Burns’ group initially straddled Goth and New Romantic grooves; a combination that defined DoA’s 1984 debut Sophisticated Boom Boom.
When that album’s bass-slapping remake of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It)” became a U.K. 1984 hit shortly after Hussey’s departure, the remaining quartet hooked up with S/A/W to flesh out their sound. Back then, gender-benders like Boy George and Annie Lennox as well as out gay men like Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford ruled U.K. pop. Then married to his wife and stylist Lynne Corlett, Burns was nevertheless unmistakably queer: The video to 1987’s “I’ll Save You All My Kisses” amplified the camp aspects of every DoA clip to such an extreme that MTV allegedly banned it: Thuggish yet baby-faced young men scale a playground fence to get a closer look at Burns in a burlesque leather, metal, and Spandex outfit remarkably similar to the one in which Cher would dominate MTV two years later with her own homoerotic video for “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
Although he remained a superstar in Japan throughout much of the ‘90s, Burns eventually became just as well known for his plastic surgeries, which began with fixing a crooked nose but snowballed into total facial reconstruction. Aiming to correct prior surgical mishaps while maintaining his public profile on U.K. editions of Celebrity Big Brother and Celebrity Wife Swap, Burns became virtually unrecognizable after what he estimated as some 300 surgeries. Looking like a woman but still belting with the same bellowing baritone, Burns pushed gender fluidity further than even his boldest androgynous peers.
As such, Burns became a paparazzi target, and regularly found himself the subject of tabloid speculation over his appearance, weight, and health. He divorced his wife in 2006, entered into civil partnership with his boyfriend Michael Simpson, issued his autobiography Freak Unique, and separated from Simpson all during his reality TV reign. Declaring bankruptcy in 2014 from those surgeries and then evicted from his apartment the following year for non-payment of rent, Burns paid the price of reality show stardom, ultimately becoming more infamous in the U.K. for his morphing appearance than famous for his music.
Yet even as a dance-pop darling, Burns was more punk than nearly any contemporary guitar band. That became obvious during Dead or Alive’s Sophisticated-era set at The Saint, New York’s legendary gay disco. Despite his ample makeup and flowing curly locks, Burns proved himself a tough cookie, and his early fans, who’d heard the records but had yet to see the videos in regular MTV rotation, buzzed about his attitudinal kinship with Divine as he growled through DoA’s initial material much like John Waters’ drag film star.
A year later, Burns became much more than that. He was the Hi-NRG diva who broke the mold even as it was being cast; the New Waver who brought blatantly gay Gothic drama into clubland and the U.S. top 40. Many will forever mishear that notorious line in “You Spin Me Round” as “Open up your loving arms/I want someone's son” because -- regardless of the actual lyrics -- that’s the way Burns sang it, man to man.