The Early Years
"Oh I am a young man fascinated by my profile in my mirror...."
Pete Burns' innovative style and creativity may have been in his genes. His mother, Eva, hailed originally from Austria and, according to Smash Hits magazine, learned her way around Liverpool by marking buildings with chalk for use as landmarks. She seemed to understand when Pete was having trouble in school because of his own uniqueness, and persuaded the authorities to let her educate him at home.
Born August 5, 1959, to Frank and Eva Burns in Port Sunlight, near Liverpool, Peter Jozzeppi Burns was, by his own admission, a solitary child. He preferred drawing and painting to playing with other kids. When he neared adolescence, he gave up the pens and paintbrushes in favor of powder and panstick, and began experimenting with his own appearance. His gift for self-beautification did not sit well with his schoolmates or teachers, who reacted with derision.
"I dropped out of school," Pete recalled later, "because it got to be too dangerous for somebody who looked a little different. At that time, I was experimenting with hair dyes and stuff like that and I was going to a particularly macho-oriented school and causing too much controversy."
In retrospect, dropping out of school was a career move for Pete.
Liverpool in the Sixties and Seventies was a place of high dreams and low employment. Inspired by the Beatles' phenomenal success, a lot of young people formed music bands to escape low wages or the dole. Pete initially took a string of casual, dead-end jobs, but at age eighteen found work at Probe Records. Probe's illustrious clientele included Ian McCullough (Echo And The Bunnymen) and Julian Cope (the Teardrop Explodes). Pete Wylie, of the Mighty Wah! was a fellow staffer at Probe. Surrounded daily by so much musical creativity, (and even MORE ambition), it was only a matter of time before Pete himself was bitten by the performing bug.
On November 4, 1977, an androgynous, amateurish new band opened for Sham 69 at the famous Eric's Club. They called themselves the Mystery Girls, after a song by the New York Dolls. Regulars howled when they recognized Pete on vocals, backed up by Pete Wylie and Julian Cope. The three unlikely queens for the night bounced and bungled their way through a slew of cover versions and a few originals, and then vanished into posterity.
The Mystery Girls were a one-night stand for all involved, and Pete did not perform publically for a year. Then, in February 1979, he formed Nightmares In Wax. The inspiration for this new project was a stolen keyboard that they had to do something with, and Pete described their aim as to be the worst group in history. "We were pure rubbish," he said, "performing one-note songs for ten minutes." Despite this self-denigrating philosophy and continual line-up changes, Nightmares In Wax recorded an EP, BIRTH OF A NATION, for Inevitable Records, run by Eric's manager Pete Fulwell. The single taken from it, 'Black Leather', was frowned on by the distributers as sexist, although Pete saw it as merely an offshoot of his dark humor. Sales were moderate (although the EP made the Indie chart), and Nightmares In Wax eventually dissolved.
Pete quickly assembled a new band (with ex-Waxer Martin Healy still on board), and ten minutes before a radio session, chose the name Dead Or Alive. He was not fond of the 'arty' names popular among the Liverpool music scene, and wanted to set his latest group apart. Dead Or Alive's debut single for Inevitable, "I'm Falling", was released in May 1980, and separated them even further from their peers. It was a new sound, something more spontaneous, melodramatic, and macabrely funny than anything else being recorded at the time. It drew attention to the band and more gigs resulted, including a spot on Granada TV's arts programme Celebration.
The Granada TV appearance featured Dead Or Alive in a smokey studio set, performing 'Flowers' (the B-side to 'I'm Falling'). Pete's black hair had been crimped to an electric frizz, he wore a nose ring that touched his lip, and his makeup and clothes were garish. Some viewers reacted violently; the father of the band's bass player, Sue James, declared, "He should be shot!" Pete responded to the outcry with calm egotism; "I look like whatever I want to look like. I can't be different or I'll be unhappy."
In August 1980, he married hairdresser Lynne Cortlett, who had been a customer at Probe. "I was immediately attracted to Pete," Lynne said later. "He was as outrageous as I was and we both had so much in common." She laughed when recalling her parents' reaction to the match. "At first (they) thought Pete was just a gay friend of mine. They thought he was sweet and nice. But they didn't like it when they found out we were serious. My dad always wanted a son-in-law he could watch football games with."
By 1980, Pete was a cause celebre in Liverpool. His innovative clothing, makeup, and hairstyles aroused the envy of less creative associates and the wrath of everyone else. People jumped out of cars wanting to hit him, and occasionally an old lady would thump him with her handbag. Pete's razor wit, which later was a cornerstone in his celebrity, came into being out of necessity. "After all," he explained later, "when you've got a gang of boys surrounding you with Stanley knives, you learn to be witty pretty fast."
One person less than impressed with his looks or fame was Courtney Love, now the widow of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain and singer for Hole. When Burns became, in his own words, "the local celebrity punk", Courtney would put him down a notch. "She would call me all sorts of names on the street and it got to the stage where I just sort of loved her for that. She had, like, a complete lack of respect for the divinity I had in the city at the time." Her spirit aroused his admiration, despite the vitriolic language, and over fifteen years later, he dedicated a song, 'Rebel Rebel' to her.
Boy George, in his autobiography TAKE IT LIKE A MAN, said that during that period, Pete Burns was "a local disco celebrity in Liverpool, like Philip Salon in London." He noted, "I'd never met Burns, but knew of his...reputation for being evil."
Dead Or Alive's second offering, released on Inevitable in May 1981, was 'Number Eleven'. Pete was pleased with DOA's musical progression. "The total effect is much more impressive than it used to be," he said. 'Number Eleven' was smoother vocally, and Pete no longer sounded like, as he put it, "I was throwing a temper tantrum in an empty room." Virgin Records also liked that they heard, and offered DOA a 45,000 pound record deal, but Pete and the band were not yet ready to be tidied up into a commercial act.
They soldiered on, aiming for a few more independent successes before settling with a record company. Another lineup change occured: Sue James and Mitch left, to be replaced by Wayne Hussey (later of the Mission UK) and Mike Percy, and Steve Coy evolved from roadie to drummer. An EP, IT'S BEEN HOURS NOW, was released in February 1982, and judged to be DOA's finest composition to date. A followup single, 'The Stranger', became their third record to hit the Indie Top 10. They headlined the Futurama show in Leeds, playing alongside the Damned and the Southern Death Cult (later the Cult). Confident from these accomplishments, Dead Or Alive signed with CBS/Epic in the summer of 1982.
By now, Dead Or Alive had shed a lot of the garish rhythmns and monotone vocals typical of defiant indie bands, and were evolving into a tough dance act. Pete, a fan of the disco sounds produced by Olivia Newton-John and Donna Summer, announced his intention to "put the edge" back into the softening Top 30.
He quickly learned, however, that his appearance was an impediment to, instead of vehicle for, achieving that goal. His dreadlocks, makeup, and androgynous appearance were leading to comparisons with Boy George O'Dowd, pop icon and frontman for Top 10 act Culture Club. O'Dowd had achieved acceptibility by downplaying his sexual side and becoming, at least outwardly, the tea-swilling, celibate teddy bear of pop. Pete's record company, anxious to cash in on the Culture Club sweepstakes, wanted him to do the same. It just proved how little they knew their new signing.
"They're a bit slow at Epic," Pete commented later, "and when they signed me, they didn't really know who I was."
To him, being a musician was not about standing outside department stores in Oxford Street and, as he succinctly put it, "going on JOAN RIVERS and talking shit." He did not want to be an easily targeted personality, and resented Boy George for setting a standard he was expected to follow. Insults, some clearly invented by Fleet Street, flew between Burns and O'Dowd, which distressed Epic but kept journalists in Porsches and caviar.
Dead Or Alive's first release on CBS/Epic was 'Misty Circles'. Promotion for the new single included an unusual appearance on RAZZAMATAZZ, a kid's show. Press and club interest were high but sales weren't, so Epic held out on releasing SOPHISTICATED BOOM-BOOM, the debut album.
Making the album had been an enjoyable experience for Pete, largely due to the agreeable working relationship the band had with the producer, Zeus B. Held. Unlike most of his profession, he did not want to tamper with their self-expression, and left them to create the album as they saw fit. Six years later, after having worked with such high-profile production teams as Stock/Aitken/Watermann, Pete praised Held's faith in DOA. "I think that any young band starting out should go to someone like Zeus," he said.
In January 1984 Epic tried again for a hit. 'I'd Do Anything' was released, complete with video, but like Misty Circles, did not dent the Top 40. In the meantime, Dead Or Alive went through it's last lineup change, with Wayne Hussey going on to pursue other projects. Pete Burns, Steve Coy, Mike Percy, and Tim Lever created a dark, fast-rhythmned unit that is still fondly remembered by fans.
The as-of-yet unreleased SOPHISTICATED BOOM-BOOM contained a cover version of the old KC and the Sunshine Band hit 'That's The Way (I Like It). Seeing that Pete's own creations were not producing the desired results, Epic put it out as a single in March 1984. The video (whose concept was suggested by Lynn Burns) featured Pete prancing in the showers at Arsenal's football grounds with muscular females from the English Federation of Body Builders. Dead Or Alive did a live appearance at the Oxford Road Show around the same time, and this time the public responded, fascinated by the new, vulgar slant on an old hit. 'That's The Way (I Like It) went to Number 22 in the charts.
The dam had been broken. Public interest was now high. But when Dead Or Alive made their debut appearance on TOP OF THE POPS, some cheers turned to jeers. Pete went on in a tight white vest and yellow pants, which left little to the imagination. "I got loads of complaints about my bloody bulge," Pete grumbled, but he wasn't bothered- in fact, it annoyed him that more complaints had been aimed at Divine. What really disgusted him was the fragile, fake moral veneer that had been covering the industry since 1982 thanks to entertainers like Boy George.
1984, however, showed promise of the laces coming undone. Frankie Goes To Hollywood had slashed at public sensitivities with their orgasmic hit, 'Relax', which Pete applauded as "the first victory"in wiping away the falseness. "This year," he told viewers on THE TUBE, "the real, true side (of the industry) will come through."
The press couldn't have been more pleased with Pete's bluntness. They also revelled in his black rubber and leather costumes, urban savage looks, and hints of sexual deviancy. Inch upon inch of column space was devoted to rumors of cross-dressing and three in a bed games. Most of what they printed was pure fancy, but Pete, a lover of lurid headlines, occasionally helped them out. When once asked what he did in bed, he replied, "There are so many men in it, I can't sleep." He even wrote in his own press release, "God, I've seen so many dicks." He was quoted as calling obese Culture Club backing singer Helen Terry a 'crowd' and saying that Lionel Richie had a chin like an ironing board. The journalists keeled over with glee, but not everyone approved. Boy George sniffed, "It's one thing to be outrageous, but another to be totally disgusting. I can say I'm bisexual, but I don't make comments like 'I can't wait to be on the cover of NEWSWORLD with 65 nude sailors." True to image, he lashed out at Burns for disgusting his mother. Pete replied calmly that George could use a subscription to SLIMMER'S GUIDE.
Bitchery aside, Dead Or Alive kicked off a short UK tour in February 1984, taking in Keele University, the Liverpool Royal Court, Reading University, London University Union, and the Dominion Theatre. The latter appearance was accompanied by a short TV segment, in which girls who were waiting by the stage door expressed their appreciation for men wearing makeup.
Lurid headlines were better than none at all, so Epic finally released SOPHISTICATED BOOM-BOOM. It recieved mixed reviews, but long-term fans were ecstatic. Dead Or Alive flew to America in the late spring to do a few shows at the Ritz in NYC and appear on MTV. Upon their return, they released a remixed version of 'What I Want'. It failed to chart, but by now Pete had faith in his ability to go global. Dead And Alive were out of the crypt and running for the brass ring.
"We'll keep doing the same thing," Pete promised his fans -and warned his opponents. "Just progressing. We've built up a good fan base to follow from."
:: designed by Rose Keefe