Pete Burns

Pete Burns: 1959-2016

The sudden death of Pete Burns, at the age of just 57, robs us of yet another larger-than-life figure from pop’s shiniest decade. More than most, though, Burns’ eccentricities and unconventional – sometimes downright bizarre – behaviour made him a soft target for tabloid ridicule which threatens to overshadow his musical legacy.

Born in Cheshire in 1959 to a Liverpudlian father and German mother who had fled to Vienna to escape Nazi rule, Burns dropped out of school at 14 and by the late 1970s could be found behind the counter in Liverpool’s Probe Records, where customers would be left in no doubt as to his opinion of their musical choices.

Of course Pete was always destined for greater things than just selling other people’s records, and after a spell in the short-lived Mystery Girls with Julian Cope and Pete Wylie – “…his head looked like someone had melted a load of black vinyl down into a kind of space quiff,” Wylie later recalled – Burns formed Nightmares In Wax in 1979. After one EP the band split and Burns formed Dead Or Alive, who soon attracted the attention of John Peel and released four independent singles before being snapped up by Epic Records in late 1982. First major label single Misty Circles reached #100 and the band’s stock slowly rose until a cover of KC & the Sunshine Band’s That’s The Way (I Like It) became their breakthrough hit, reaching #22 in the spring of 1984. Début album Sophisticated Boom Boom reached the top thirty the following month.

By now the post-punk goth stylings of Nightmares In Wax had given way to a pounding hi-energy dance sound, leading Epic to team Dead Or Alive with the fledgling production team of Stock, Aitken & Waterman for their second album Youthquake. Released in November 1984, the album’s lead single You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) spent twelve weeks in the top 100 before finally entering the top forty in February 1985, reaching number one four weeks later. The first S/A/W production to top the chart, You Spin Me Round brought Burns to the attention of the press, who immediately pigeonholed him alongside Boy George and Marilyn due to his androgynous appearance. You Spin Me Round would be Dead Or Alive’s only top ten hit although follow-ups Lover Come Back To Me and In Too Deep both reached the top twenty.

Related:  Off The Chart: 22 September 1985

The third Dead Or Alive album Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know wasn’t released until February 1987, by which time the band’s appeal had waned; lead single Brand New Lover shamefully only reached #31 and although Something In My House made #12 it was to be the band’s last top forty hit in the UK. Burns continued to enjoy success elsewhere, however, most notably in Japan where 1988’s Turn Around And Count 2 Ten spent seventeen weeks at number one. Their international success peaked with 1989’s fourth album Nude and while other Dead Or Alive albums such as Fan the Flame (Part 1) and Nukleopatra were released outside the UK, at home it was Burns’ increasingly bizarre physical appearance which generated headlines. He underwent numerous cosmetic surgery procedures on his face, leaving him with swollen lips after an implant procedure went wrong, yet he continued to court publicity, taking part in Celebrity Big Brother in 2006. In what became one of the most controversial series of the show, Burns entered the house with an alleged gorilla fur coat among his possessions, danced with former MP George Galloway (both of them clad in Lycra) and treated his housemates with the same thinly veiled contempt as his former Probe customers. Pete finished fifth in the competition, launching You Spin Me Round back into the top five (a remixed version of the song reached #23 in 2003 ahead of a singles compilation Evolution).

Burns’ addiction to plastic surgery eventually bankrupted him in 2014 and, despite numerous attempts to relaunch his musical career, for the remainder of his life he was mainly recognised by the general public as a “celebrity” rather than a musician. He probably didn’t mind too much, as long as he was recognised.

Pete Burns died after suffering a cardiac arrest on 23 October 2016.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Sound of the Crowd on Patreon!