Dead Or Alive at G-A-Y: The Pete Burns Interview You’ve Never Heard Before

I moved to The Netherlands in 2002, for what turned out to be a much needed year’s sabbatical away from the cloudy claustrophobia of London. The first trip back to Blighty occurred in April 2003, when Gay Times asked me to throng among the Saturday night pop tarts at London club G-A-Y, to cover Dead Or Alive’s first performance in aeons, at the now dolefully demolished Astoria.

The first gig I ever attended, exactly 19 years and four days previously, had been DOA in Dunstable, just as their first (minor) hit That’s The Way (I Like It) broke the Top 40, and I’d not seen hide or hair of them in concert since. So as (promoter) Jeremy Joseph was dangling access all areas press privileges at us I really didn’t need to be asked twice.

After the band’s fulgent 45 minute semi-set concluded I cavorted with Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s Martin Degville and Gina G, ay – who were at opposite ends of the sobriety spectrum – then made a beeline for Pete Burns’s backstage area. He was masterfully holding court but refusing all photograph requests, so I told him how he’s top of my interviewee list, especially as Burns was the first pop star I exchanged letters with way back in 1984.

So what did the lippy one do? He scribbled down his phone number, in full view of all the acolytes and guest list junkies crowding him, and told me to call him. The following week – after cancelling a face-to-face sit down at the last minute – Pete called back and gave me close to two hours of the most hilarious and incisive anecdotes. GT magazine only used a meagre extract in their June 2003 issue, which coincided with a new single, a contempo remodelling of pop perennial You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) and Dead Or Alive’s first greatest hits album, Evolution. So here, at long last, is the first 20 minutes of our exceptionally entertaining exchange, left as charmingly unedited as possible.

PB: Hi!

SP: Hello Pete, how are you?

PB: I’m alright, I’m sorry I’m not doing this face-to-face, actually.

SP: Oh, no worries.

PB: Oh, I don’t really enjoy the telephone ones but I’m just absolutely exhausted today and there was no way I could drag my weary old carcass across the city to do this face to face interview.

SP: I can imagine, you’ve just got over flu, huh?

PB: Yeah, a mild case of the flu but also the promo schedule, and I guess about 80% of it’s things I would rather not be doing; there’s the crack of dawn radio and interviews and things like that. And it’s things I’d actually put a long way long behind me, and they’re all jumping up like old carcasses. It’s part of the job I guess, you know.

SP: Yeah! Well, how many weeks have you got left to do it? A couple?

PB: Yeah, I think it’s next week the single’s released, but I’m absolutely horrified that we’ve received basically no radio airplay whatsoever, which is very disappointing. Although I’m becoming… er, a regular on TV and a TV celebrity. It seems that the last thing anybody wants me to do is promote a record, they just want me to actually promote myself.

SP: Well, this is interesting. This is one of the points I wanted to raise with you, actually, because Siouxsie Sioux recently said that her image always gave people the opinion that The Banshees were all about veneer. Do you think your visual image overshadows the music? Obviously you do.

PB: Define to me how you would classify veneer. We got to do a give and take here. How would you classify the veneer thing?

SP: Well, it’s a good point. I don’t necessarily agree with what she is saying to me. That’s her words, that’s a direct quote. But you know, veneer, image; obviously a lot of critics did think that The Banshees were, I guess, I don’t know, a little second rate…

PB: I don’t think that they thought they were second rate. I just think that as a female she represented a very, very strong threat: one, she wasn’t blonde, which seems to be something that goes against women in the music industry to this day. Anybody that who was dark and slightly broody is something that they think is intimidating.

Without being arrogant about it, just let me go back to one incident that happened this weekend, I won’t name the TV show but my video, which was completed, was programmed to go on a certain Saturday morning TV show, and we received a call a few hours before saying “No, we’ve decided to drop it because he’s too weird and scary for our viewers”. Well, I think, OK, that’s very fine, and I’m lying in bed on Saturday morning and Marilyn Manson’s video goes on… and it’s like how can I be weird and scary when this guy – be it true or not – represents inciting schoolyard shootings and Nazi symbolism and things like that.

I seem to intimidate people even more than Marilyn Manson, and I guess that is because people see him as some sort of pantomime character. I don’t personally, I think he’s got a place out there and I think his imagery is very good. But I think because his imagery is actually so far extreme and it’s obviously a costume, people just think “Oh, he’s just really regular in dressing up like that. And also he’s fucking ugly and I’m not, and that represents a really horrible threat to people and the fact that I live my life like this on a day to day basis has sinister connotations for people.

Everybody’s obsessed in some way with sex, sexuality, surgery and it’s not even drugs anymore. They’re not obsessed with that, that’s like a thing of the ‘80s. And I don’t know what people think I spend my life doing or if I was given a public platform what I would incite the nation’s youth to do. I’ll never really understand it and it frustrates me terribly but other times I think well, I haven’t lost my edge. It’s good to still actually rattle people’s cages. But at the basis of it we’re not second rate, and whatever people may think Spin Me was the record that changed the course of chart history. It put Stock Aitken Waterman on the map for one thing, and for better or worse they did come up with some very good records. If it wasn’t for us you wouldn’t have ever had a Kylie. Wouldn’t have had a lot of other things. We opened the flood gates on those things. With a song we wrote ourselves, I must actually stress, it wasn’t a Stock Aitken Waterman song.

We did two albums with them and we put them on the map. And Pete Waterman is the actual first to actually acknowledge that, at us. He would have just been delegated or relegated to the Divine category, who I don’t think was a joke, he was very talented. Hazel Dean and a few other kind of B grade projects, we put them in the A level and I would have thought that we did bring a musical sound… and I don’t say this in a patronising fashion – you must actually word this as a responsible journalist – we did bring a sound that really was existing in gay culture and brought into the mainstream.

Now, when that record was initially first promoted around TV stations and radio in the ’80s, I mean, I’ll be blunt with you, the response was, “No, that music for queers”. That was what radio programmers said in the ’80s, and we just thought you know, there are queers – for want of a better word – that are too young to go to queer clubs, who may just have that kind of ambiguity bubbling away in them, and this record will give them a taste of what goes on in those places – the mirror balls, the spinning lights, the smoke machines, the glamour of it all. And we brought that sound into mainstream. I would have thought because it sold so many and it was No.1 all over the world and it was the longest ever record to… it took the longest time to reach the number 1. It’s in the Guinness Book Of Records. I would’ve thought that people would’ve sit back now and think, “Hey, we didn’t give this the leg up the first time – and it really did; it jumped over us and it got there and it is a historic record, and let’s lose our prejudices and our stupidity and let’s programme it on the radio.

When it was initially promoted to radio we were told that this.. I understand, it’s not R&B enough. All we’re playing is R&B, like Justin Timberlake or whatever he’s called, blah blah blah, and Kelly Rowland and stuff like that. And I thought, “I can get that.” Then I woke up one morning and my radio alarm went off and I nearly jumped out of bed in glee, “Oh, my record’s on the radio!” And I was quite horrified to find it was Dannii Minogue’s record mixed with mine, with Danni Minogue singing over it. Somebody had taken Spin Me and mixed in Dannii’s vocal and taken me off. And I thought ‘Well, that’s all very nice. But how can they say they can’t play me but they can play my backing track with her on?” And it became more and more prominent on the radio airwaves and we let it tick away, and we got in contact with her record company, who denied that they knew anything about it. So we did a little bit of investigation and we found out her record company, Warners, had actually been servicing that record to the radio stations. They probably hoped that I’d retired to some obscure wool shop in Birmingham and I didn’t even own a radio. They probably thought that I wasn’t active in the music industry.

The “fucking rude” Dannii vs. DOA mash-up

And then the legal things went back and forth and, “Yeah OK, we did do it but we didn’t know you were going to release it, and can we do mix with more of you on and we’ll programme that. So we gave an OK to do a mix with more of me on. Then we get a response, “Sorry, we’re finished with the Dannii Minogue record, we don’t need you anymore.”

So it seems that I’m meeting that wall of resistance at radio, and looking at the club stations for Spin Me, where it was No.1 in club charts for quite a long time, radio used to jump on the back of that. Not with us! I’m not embittered by it, I just don’t understand it. I would have thought that at my advanced stage it would have been slightly easier but it seems it’s always going to be an uphill struggle.

You know, regardless of that I do have a very hardcore fan base and that can exist without chart status and I can exist on a very good level without chart status. So it’s not as if they’re gonna stop me existing. They’re just making that final hurdle a little bit harder and I would just like an actual relevant reason why they’re not actually playing it.

SP: Exactly. What they’re saying is bullshit. I mean, Kylie and Robbie? They’re not R&B, are they? They’re getting played.

PB: I’m not glued to the radio, so I wasn’t aware that I could dig it when they said we’re only playing Justin Timberlake and blah blah blah, but just on this one particular day when the radio alarm went off which I never put in on the radio and I went “Ooh, there’s my record! Everything’s rosy.” And it was Dannii and then it was being played all the time, and people were coming up to me saying “I love your record with Dannii, blah blah blah,” and I guess if I changed my name to Granny Minogue or something it would have been programmed a lot easier, if they didn’t know it was me. But we’re always going to meet this resistance and we have to find a way of working around that resistance, you know.

Here’s Piggy Minogue – far prettier than Dannii. Probably a better singer too.

And it seems ridiculous now that if you’re not on the radio, record companies are even in doubt as to if they’re actually going to to release your product. It’s a weird situation that radio is ruling the actual orders to shops. We’re killing the music industry like that because I did spend 48 hours listening to the radio just to become aware of what was going on, and on several shows they played the same records in the same order and I don’t even know why they even bothered to put a DJ there? Just slap a CD on! There are other things out there, and I’m not just carping on in retrospect, for me. There are other things out there that need the airplay; let the public decide but it’s not a society like that anymore.

There is a form of censorship but it’s not a valid censorship. It’s just like, “Oh, we don’t like the look of you so we’re not going to do you a favour and put you on the radio. That really doesn’t come under the definition of censorship, it’s almost fascism: “You don’t quite fit what we think you should be.” And I’ll never fit what people think I should be. I have a great life and a great existence, and everything I am, and everything I will be, has got me here and maintained me here, and I’m very happy in that way. But I always get this feeling that other people are kind of judging me in ways that they don’t understand. You can’t always tell a book by the cover and I’m not saying I’m Mother Teresa but I don’t know what people would think I would do given a public platform, you know.

SP: I totally agree with you, Pete. To me it sounds like the R&B thing is complete bullshit.

PB: It’s a sack of bore horse. I know, but I believed it at first. And I was happy in that delusion. I was very very happy in that delusion. I thought, “OK, that’s fine.” But when somebody can blatantly take my backing track and put their vocal over it, and it’s played and welcomed on radio with rave reviews and huge promotion. Something’s really… it’s not sinister but something’s not right here.

SP: Dannii Minogue has completed fucked up your single release then, hasn’t she, really?

PB: Completely. And we’ll look into damages on that level, because I’m not happy about not having been asked permission regarding it. I mean, it is a legal thing that if someone’s going to use your record they have to have permission for them to do it, if it’s your composition. And nobody approached us; they just went ahead and did it and it was fucking rude. And I wouldn’t dare have taken Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head and done another song over it without asking Kylie’s permission. But a lot of people in the industry probably don’t think I’m active, they don’t think I’m working, they don’t think that I’m still generating finance. They probably don’t think I’ve got the money to own a radio, which I have. I am aware of everything and if I’m not aware of it, the internet makes me aware of it.

I just think it was fucking rude and it’s got nothing to do with Dannii. I’m sure Dannii had nothing to do with it. I’m sure Dannii probably didn’t even know which song was being released but it’s the organisations behind these people who just think that we will take that. It’s not going to turn into some awful war and I don’t believe the excuse of “Oh, well Dannii’s gone down the charts now so we don’t need to play you.” I don’t even believe that one. I just think that any excuse would be used. I mean, I also was about to go on another TV show last week. I’m sitting here like Cinderella almost ready for the ball and we get a phone call an hour before we leave: “We don’t want him on the show.” Why? “His language wasn’t very choice on the Graham Norton show.

SP: Oh, you said you had a ginormous knob.

PB: Yeah, well what am I supposed to say? “I’ve got a drippy twat”? He asked me a question like that and they say, “We can’t have him on the show because he said that.” And what next? “We didn’t like his blond hair; we didn’t like his eyeshadow; we didn’t like the colour of his fingernails.” It’s like going through a whole little graph of things where they could put an obstacle in front of you.

Do they think I’m seriously going to go on a main time TV show and scream on about a ginormous knob? I’m not ashamed of having a knob. What was I supposed to say? So it’s any excuse, and I think in the ’80s it could have made me angry, and it doesn’t make me angry, I just get this kind of hot flush when I hear these excuses. I’m ready to leave for these things; there’s a car outside to take me, and I’m in full warpaint and they say, “Oh no, we’ve just viewed the Graham Norton show and he’s said… well, they didn’t mention the ginormous knob quote, they just said my language was not suitable.

SP: They couldn’t bring themselves to say it.

PB: Well, do they think I’ve got two heads, thank you? But I’ve also done Blue Peter, which there was no problem on. I was on Blue Peter twice. I couldn’t believe it, I thought, “Wow things are changing. I’ve been accepted into normal society. Things are just going to be one great big production of The Sound Of Music from now on.” Blue Peter weren’t worried that I would say anything like that, but now the Graham Norton show is going against me. And it does affect your record company towards you, it does. They’ll come to you and say, “Well, you know, they might have a point there.”

But I’m not gonna stiff on a great show like Graham Norton and just sit there like I saw fucking Boyzone, not saying anything. He’s brilliant to do TV with and you can joust back and forth. But I don’t understand why these rules apply to me. When I look back on it, you know, I look at poor old Boy George’s heroin addiction and how everybody was technically allowed to do that, from Keith Richards to god knows who, but when George did it, “No sorry, fuck off.” You’re not allowed that extra crime. I’m not allowed to swear, I’m not allowed to be myself, and it’s just never going to change me, sorry.

SP: I guess the media and housewives and grannies and what have you, they always wanted Boy George to remain the tea drinking ‘celibate’ kind of asexual, nice, safe character.

PB: But I was never like that

SP: You weren’t, not at all, no. He certainly was, though, in the early days of Culture Club.

PB: Yeah, but it came back and bit him in the ass didn’t it? And he’s a really well rounded wonderful character now, and I have nothing but admiration for everything he’s achieved and the way he conducted himself in public, in the face of all that rubbish going in Fleet Street. But no, that was a sin, that was a crime. I know they took his American visa off him but they don’t do that for fucking Keith Richards, you know. They don’t do it to that other old bag Marianne Faithfull and people like that. No, it’s OK for them.

People do want you to remain a certain way. I get asked this constant question. I did a radio show at 7 o’clock in the morning and that’s not a good time for me. And, fuck, the girl goes, “You look different now, than you did in ’85, so I turn around and went, “I’m sure you look different than you did in ’85.” I don’t know what they expected, that I was gonna sit there with curly hair, and an eye patch and the old nose, and things like that. Of course I’ve altered. I’ve altered organically, but I took a hand in it too, and altered myself to what I wanted to be, and people find that really hard to understand.

SP: Would it be fair to say that your mannerisms and performance have, over the years, become more theatrical and maybe feminine too. While paradoxically you’ve built up your body a great deal, masculine wise?

PB: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve always really wanted a masculine body and I work like a son of a bitch in the gym six days a week to get that. I would actually say it wouldn’t be correct to say mannerisms have got more effeminate; no, they haven’t. I’m a man and I’m a strong man, I’m a tough man, and I’m very, very happy to be a man. And I would say if you actually did look back with untarnished eyes to the way I was in the ’80s, nothing has actually altered in that way. I’ve always been a very, very strong and powerful performer. I don’t agree there’s even the slightest glitch of femininity in my performance. I may play with ambiguity in certain ways because it amuses me, but nothing has become more theatrical. In my heat of performances when I was working out in Japan with budgets that suited what I wanted to do, I did really big, big productions with costumes falling out of the ceiling and lifts bringing me up out of the floor. And I really did it on a big time level, you know. And here there aren’t the budgets or time to do that. Nobody in this country has seen me at my best, seeing me do what I want to do in the kind of show I want to present to the public. There just isn’t the finance to do it. There isn’t even the qualified professionals to participate in that in the music industry in this country.

SP: Well, that’s actually want I wanted to ask you, Pete. I thoroughly enjoyed the G-A-Y performance and I wanted to ask why don’t you do more live work in the UK?

PB: Because, the live work is a hard thing to do. I wasn’t lip syncing to a fucking tape. There were sequenced backing tracks, there was live vocals and live keyboards, lines that are live and a live voice, and you don’t have the time to lock yourself away. Even the rehearsal studios that are of the dimensions that you need to bring a full live production to the stage, they’re not available anymore, they’ve closed down. You cannot go in for four weeks with a technical crew because the budget would be completely eaten up. You have an on-stage sound man, you have an off-stage sound man, you have a technical crew on the stage to make sure sequencers don’t go down. You have spare microphones in case your microphone explodes. You have a monitor assistant, you have all of these things just going into the technical production.

The budgets are not here anymore, so I’ll go and do what I can on a level but ultimately I always leave the stage feeling frustrated, thinking, “Well, that really wasn’t very good. That wasn’t what I wanted to do; I didn’t have the whole live band I wanted to have and I always feel a bit short-changed personally from doing it. I’m not interested in getting in a transit van and flogging my arse up and down the country doing live gigs for people who now who are now, fundamentally, coming to have a look at me. I understand that, but most of them are all waiting for me to just go into Spin Me Round and they’d be perfectly content if I did that 15 times over. As long as it thrills me – and it doesn’t thrill me like it used to – I will do some live work.

But I so enjoyed doing that G-A-Y gig. And I could’ve gone on and done six that week, but it wasn’t realistic to do because I’m stuck in the promo for… Yeah, I could work up and down the country. But largely up and down the country they’re not as organised as GAY; they’re not run by professionals like Jeremy Joseph, who gets everything coordinated. You end up in this shithole with no dressing room, everyone’s E’d off their face, they lose your microphone and it’s logistically a nightmare to do. It would make me into a screaming banshee, and I have a reputation for being that – which I’ve never been – but I do see the shoes, the screaming banshee shoes, waiting for me to step into.

It’s only words: my first gig was 33 years ago. But I’m only 29.

I’ve done gigs up and down the country, sporadically. I’ve arrived in Birmingham, there was no fucking microphone. I’ve arrived in Manchester, there was no dressing room. You know, this is a fucking show, I’ve got to switch personalty. I’m not like that in real life. I’m not just gonna step out of a beer-soaked van and be that person.

© Steve Pafford 2003, 2017

All week I've been hunting high and low for my passport. And today I've feared the worst, that it's been snatched by an…

Posted by Steve Pafford on Friday, January 27, 2017

Audio hear here: