Dead or Alive leader Pete Burns died yesterday of cardiac arrest, it was announced today. He was 57.
DOA are of course best-known for the iconic “You Spin Me Round” (#11 US/#1 UK), but they deserve more of your time than that. First of all, even though Stock Aitken Waterman produced their two biggest albums, Youthquake (1985) and Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know (1987), as opposed to pretty much everyone else SAW worked with, DOA were actually a band. One of the most fascinating things about their Rip It Up Live in Japan concert video (linked above) is that while most Burns’s vocals are lipsynced, the band is actually playing live. (More on the video in a moment.) Their dance smashes included, just about all of them, guitar solos. No one else in the ’80s was doing that. The eight singles released from those two mid-’80s albums are all classics, from “Brand New Lover” to “Lover Come Back to Me” to “I’ll Save You All My Kisses,” and their tidiest summation is found on the mix album Rip It Up, which collects all eight of those in extended versions and stitches them together.
This isn’t to say anything of Burns’s importance as an icon of androgyny and queerness. Even though he was married to his wife for 26 years (the year after they divorced, he married his husband, to whom he was still married when he died), he was always very defiantly queer as in “fuck you,” not only presenting the gayest image possible (check out the dancers in the above concert video, not to mention Burns’s own wardrobe; a number of my friends and I joke that Rip It Up Live in Japan made us gay), but having extensive, extreme plastic surgery which made his face look very femme if not entirely female. In the later ’90s and ’00s he became a bit of a reality TV celebrity in the UK — he did love his fame — and released a series of diminishing-returns records (and loads of awful remixes of his earlier catalog) under the DOA name, but that shouldn’t be any kind of spot on his legacy. Whereas Boy George (in the ’80s) was the cuddly one you could take home to Mum (at least before his heroin use spun out of control), Pete Burns was the prickly one. He really was mad, bad, and dangerous, which is precisely what made him so special.
Also, try to imagine how significant it was for a queer teenager stranded in the midwest to see this video in 1987. Thank goodness Pete didn’t know the definition of “subtle.”