Pete Burns spoke to SDE just weeks before his death
I interviewed Dead Or Alive frontman Pete Burns for SDE about a month ago, to discuss the new19-disc box set Sophisticated Boom Box MMXVI. I was literally listening to the audio of the interview (conducted over the phone) late yesterday afternoon, when the shocking news came in of Pete’s untimely death at the age of 57.
When we spoke, Pete told me that he hadn’t done an interview for over 18 months and was “very anxious” about it, because he was “not used to selling a product”. He also didn’t really like speaking over the phone: “I hate having them and I don’t have the internet, either. I’m primitive, really,” he said.
He was recovering from a spell in hospital with kidney problems (“I’m fine now”) and was just getting back to a routine at home “and finding my feet in life again, because I’ve just spent four months in a hospital bed.”
I reassured him that I was simply going to ask about the box set and also put to him a few specific questions that SDE readers had submitted. There was no underhand agenda and I just wanted to talk about his career and the music. Pete was lovely to talk to. He was very thoughtful and quick with his answers which were direct and not sugar-coated. I started by asking how the idea of the box set came about…
Pete Burns: The record company approached us. Demon Records approached us and it was completely down to the record company. They’d done a bit of market research and there was a fan demand for it. Not a very interesting answer, but it’s the truth. That’s all I can give you.
SDE: But before they approached you, did you have any desire to get some of these albums back in print, maybe the ones that were out in Japan but have never been available in the UK?
PB: Yeah, I did. I’d always wanted them released in other territories, always, but it proved an impossible thing…I’m too old. Being 57 years old, people count you out the game at that point in England, but the record company did some research into whose box set they would like and ours came up as one of the priority ones, so they approached us and it was months of wrangling with the deal, you know, so it was a good deal. And we did it and it’s out soon.
SDE: I know you and Steve [Coy] have been involved in the project. How hands-on did you get in terms of selecting the content for the box?
PB: Well, it’s nearly everything that I’ve ever done, you know, so it wasn’t a case of being hands-on, it was like, “let’s put everything together and get it in a nice sleeve and let the record company market it.” So as hands-on as I could be, and then I took ill for four months with kidney stones, so I was off the project for a while, and then the next thing I come out of hospital, which is only four weeks ago, and the record’s ready.
SDE: Did you enjoy the process? I guess doing the box set must have forced you to step back a little bit and have some distance and look at your whole career. What was your feeling, looking at your body of work?
PB: Well, I’m actually proud of my body of work. I don’t own any of my own records. I don’t listen to them once I’ve done them, unless they’re a hit, which is very rare. So it was a way of looking back at what I’ve done. Obviously, when you’re putting all of your work on it, there are some things you wish that you’d never done. There are some things I call ‘criminal records’… it’s not that I don’t think they should be on there, I just I wish I’d never done them. But everything is on there for everybody to hear and there’s some good stuff on there, and there’s some terrible stuff on there. It was therapeutic, and I think a lot of the material stuff stands up today, particularly off Sophisticated Boom Boom, likeWhat I Want, and I’d Do Anything and stuff like that, and Unhappy Birthday, and Isn’t it a Pity? and stuff off Fragile that I can’t actually remember the titles of, because I haven’t got one of them that come to me at the moment. But they still stand up today. I still think that a great album could be lifted from that compilation as a single album to go out on its own, you know.
SDE: But what did you think of the concept of a 19-disc box set? There’s so much there. Did you have to be persuaded that it was a good idea to more or less empty the entire archive…
PB: For the advance, no, there was no persuasion necessary, and there was no other deal on the table. They approached us out of the blue and it was like pennies from heaven, you know. They’d done market research and found out there was a demand for it.
SDE: I noticed there’s at least 25 versions of You Spin Me Round.
PB: That’s not my fault. That’s because people asked to remix it and it seems to be the one that I’m going to die with, like Judy Garland died with Over the Rainbow. I wish there were other tracks that people took an interest in… we had other hits in other markets and other hits here, [but] that’s the one everyone remembers. I’m very grateful for it, but I wish that other things got an airing, but they don’t, which is the way it is.
SDE: I was going to ask you whether the song is a blessing or a curse in that respect, or is it a mixture of both?
PB: It’s an absolute blessing, because it keeps me afloat. It’s a blessing, but what can I say, really? I wish that hadn’t been the number one. I wish it had been Brand New Lover or Something in My House or something else. I wish it was another of the tracks. It’s not my favourite track, but it’s my luckiest track… I mean, George Michael must feel the same about Last Christmas, mustn’t he? It kind of haunts them. And when I’ve got to perform it on stage, although the crowd love the energy, I literally need a cattle prod to get me through the second verse.
SDE: One omission from the box is the very early work, your independent stuff that you issued before signing with Epic. Was there ever any chance that that might have made it? Will that see the light of day or get reissued?
PB: It will see the light of day but it’ll probably be re-recorded, because that wasn’t the sound that I wanted to be working with.Even when I started making those indie records, I always dreamt of us making disco records, and those records were done to finance the purchase of a sequencer. I found somebody who would operate a sequencer to turn my songs into disco records, because I always call them disco, not just dance-pop, they’re disco records. So they were just a means to an end, but they will see the light of day, but probably re-recorded and probably accompanied by the original versions so people can see how dire they were.
SDE: Tell us a little bit about how you ended up meeting Stock, Aitken and Waterman in the early ‘80s and how that partnership come about?
PB: It lasted two albums. Meeting them was a blessing and a curse, because the demo of Spin Me Round sounds exactly like the finished product. Well, at the time Culture Club were big, and Marilynwas big, Bananarama were big, and we didn’t fit any mould with the sound that we had, because it was the same as Stock Aitken Waterman [eventually] put out, you know. It was that dance sound. We needed producers and we approached Bobby Orlando who had done Divine and the Pet Shop Boys. But the deal he had on the table was a crook’s deal, and the record company refused to finance it. So then we approached someone called Patrick Cowley who worked with Sylvester, and that nearly came to fruition but he went and died of AIDS. And then I heard a record on the radio by Divine. I originally heard Native Love (Step by Step) by Divine and I heard him recording You Think You’re A Man, and I liked the sound of it. And then I heard a Hazell Dean track and I liked the sound of that, so I said, “Can we find these producers?” and we were told by the record company, “No, they’re not producing, they’re just DJs”. I was adamant that we’d find the producers, and we’d approached Clive Langer, we’d approached various other people – they’d all turned us down.
They didn’t see us as marketable products, or me as a marketable product. And eventually we did finance it ourselves. The record company gave its blessing after I met Pete Waterman. As soon as he heard it, he said it was a number one hit. It was an obvious number one hit. If they had an album for them he’d take the project.
So that’s how we met him and it was through our own doing. We got management on board who set up the meeting, the record company weren’t helping in any way towards it at all, they tried to block it and tried to get us in with anyone to change our sound. Because the record company wanted us to sound like Culture Club at the time. So we forced the issue of meeting Stock Aitken Waterman. It wasn’t the most joyful experience working with them. It has lots of bad memories because they were doing bands called Spelt Like This and Hazell Dean and Princess and stuff like that, and they couldn’t understand our sound. So they thought we should have another sound, and it was a constant battle to get our sounds down the way it was. I don’t have fond memories of working with Stock Aitken Waterman at all, although they’re incredibly talented, but they were incredibly difficult to work with, because they’re artists as well, you know.
SDE: Was that because it was much easier for them to work with just one singer and you were a band and they never really knew what to do with a band?
PB: Absolutely, you’ve put it in words that failed me. Thank you for answering the question. Yeah, we were a band with our own identity and our own sound, and it was much easier to take a singer, like a cleaner off a reception desk or something like that, and give her a record and send her toddling on her way. And nobody who worked with Stock Aitken Waterman got a penny because they were all, you know, just session singers doing records. They got all the glory but they didn’t earn any money, and we were already an established band with a following, so there was a real battle of egos there.
SDE: And was that why the collaboration was relatively short-lived?
PB: Well, you know, they discovered, after working with us, that it was easier, thank you, to work with other singers, just session singers. There was times when I’d be writing a track and they’d go, “Why don’t you go home and take a nice bubble bath and we’ll write it for you?” You know? Just fuck off basically and let us do it. Which is what they wanted to do. They wanted all the glory, as you probably saw on the Brit Awards when they appeared and stuff like that, you know. And as the time with us came to an end, they were so busy doing these kind of things, there was no space for us, which I was secretly glad of. So we went to the record company with our own demos and they said, “produce it yourself.”
SDE: You mentioned the Pet Shop Boys earlier on. One of the tracks that’s on the Fragile bonus disc in this box set is your collaboration with Chris and Neil, Jack and Jill Party.
PB: Yeah, that was great fun to do.
SDE: Tell me a little bit about how that came about?
PB: It’s the most dull, boring story ever. I was at a premiere ofParty Monster. Remember that movie? And Janet Street-Porter said “My friend, Neil Tennant, has got a song for you. He really wants you to do this song,” and I said, “Oh, great, fantastic.” And then I bumped into Neil Tennant and I said, “I believe you’ve got a song for me.” We didn’t know each other or anything, never met. And he sent me a cassette over – at the time, it was actually a cassette that he sent me it over – of this demo, Jack and Jill Party, and I was a little bit disappointed at first when I heard it, because it was a bit dark. I wanted a bright, sparkly, Pet Shop Boys record, but I thought, “Well, it’s an opportunity to work with other people.” I wasn’t doing anything at the time – large parts of my life, I’m not doing anything at the time – and I went and worked with them and it was just the most joyful collaboration ever, because they took everything very lightly, and there was almost an album but things were not to be. Things didn’t work out, and their management gave us difficult problems with the royalties and stuff like that. But I will say to my own credit that I rewrote Jack and Jill Party. I rewrote the lyrics and everything like that, but I got no credit for it.
SDE: Were you disappointed it wasn’t a bigger hit?
PB: Of course I was, but I knew when we were finishing it, it wasn’t going to be a big hit because it wasn’t the Pet Shop Boys sound they gave me. An interpretation of a dark disco sound that they thought suited my persona, whereas I wanted something sparkly and bright. But, you know, I think it’s still stands up today. In fact I would say today it sounds better than it did at the time.
SDE: And with Dead Or Alive, does Dead Or Alive still exist as an entity? I mean, will there be any more records, tours or anything?
PB: Oh, there will definitely be more records. It doesn’t exist in the idea of the old members. We graft in members at the time, musicians and stuff like that, to write with. I usually write with one musician and Steve Coy, and then for the live work we get session musicians to do it. Dead Or Alive was always fundamentally musicians changing around me. One of the spells was Mike [Percy] and Tim [Lever], who are great to work with and went on to do their own things because they didn’t like the travelling and the interruption of having to stand behind me, really. Because, what can I say, there’s usually democracy in bands, and there was no democracy in mine. It was my way or the highway, so it’s not a good atmosphere to work under long-term because other people’s suggestions are very quickly rejected because I have a very strong idea of how I want to represent myself and how I want to sound, whereas other people think I should try something else. I’m very reticent to try it. I’m not really an experimental … I stick to one formula and go with it.
SDE: I know there’s a lot in the new box, but are there any further archival projects planned?
PB: Well, Steve’s talking to a lot of people at the moment about further projects. There will be a new album, probably 2016/2017, but there’ll be a lot of cover versions on it and some new songs. There’s a lot of songs that I want to cover which will remain nameless. But sometimes you’ve just got to admit some people do it better than you, and if there’s a good song to cover and your voice carries it, why not do it?
SDE: Let me ask you some questions that SDE readers have submitted. Is the cover of Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know, some kind of deliberate homage to The Damned’s Phantasmagoria album cover. Both are by the same photographer, Bob Carlos Clarke
PB: No, I never saw The Damned cover. I just saw an exhibition of Bob Carlos Clarke photographs, and chose… he’s now dead. He killed himself. I chose him to be the photographer for the cover, andthat’s a really weird question.
SDE: Some people have asked whether the content within this box will be available separately, if they don’t want to – or can’t – pay £120 now for it – will that happen?
PB: Well, I do think it’s really expensive, it’s a lot of money to ask off somebody, which is why I feel sales will be limited. And it’s clearly not my call to say if they’ll be released separately. I can’t say anything. It’s in the hands of the record company and Steve Coy negotiating with them.
SDE READER QUESTION: Which music video did you enjoy making the most and why?
PB: Spin Me 2002 because it was very easy to make. Video had progressed to such a point that everything was very, very easy to do. Well, actually, it was just very easy to do in a very short shoot. I just enjoyed it and I enjoy the process of video making anyway. I enjoy it, but videos don’t serve the purpose that you think … well, they didn’t. I can only talk in the realms of the past. They didn’t serve the purpose that I was hoping they would do, in that you wouldn’t have to go on endless shows, they’d show your video. But no, they wanted to show you and intersperse the video with your performance or something, you know?
SDE READER QUESTION: You’ve been fabulously opinionated over the years – do you regret anything that you’ve said?
PB: Everything. I think opinions are best kept to yourself really and you pay the price for them. I don’t know what opinions in particular that they’re talking about because I’d have to sit re-reading my old press, which I never did. Once I’ve done an interview I don’t read it. But if someone asks me a question I usually have an answer for it, and I paid the price in some ways because it’s made me rather an intimidating individual, and I’m not really intimidating, I’m a pussy cat.
SDE: But the questioner goes on to say, have you made up with any of the pop stars that you might have dissed, whoever they may be?
PB: Who have I have dissed? I’ve just got no memory of it. It just seems such an irrelevant question.
SDE READER QUESTION: When you first heard the initial cuts for You Spin Me Round, did you get the instant feeling of, “This is it, this is a big hit,” you know, “We’re going to have a number one record?”
PB: No, I definitely didn’t. I never assumed anything in advance. I thought at the most we’d have a Top 20 record [that’s] was what I hoped for, so there would be a building process to the career. Because after you’ve had your number one, everything else is downhill, you know. People call me a one-hit wonder, but I had seven Top 40 hits that year, and it’s like Spin Me has overshadowed absolutely everything I will ever achieve. I’ll never achieve anotherSpin Me. Not that I want to. It just seems that it hit the magical chord with people, and I didn’t expect anything. I was the unhappiest person in the world the day it got to number one, because I wanted it to stop at number six and the next thing we’ll go to number five and have a gradual building process. But even though we’d been around for a long time, that overnight success was the peak of what you could achieve. So even on the record company side, everything after that was a flop.
SDE: A few years ago, there was some buzz that you’d done some recordings with Pete Waterman and that something might come out of that. What’s the story behind that?
PB: No, what happened is Pete Waterman, after we’d done the O2 Centre as part of the Stock Aitken Waterman debacle, he said he got his excitement back when he saw me onstage and wanted to work with me, and I was very interested and eager, thinking he’d have a team like Aitken and Stock and stuff like that, and when I got there, it was like there was tumbleweed blowing around the studio. It was an inactive studio, and he had a new young songwriter that he’d discovered, who really wasn’t up to cutting the mustard, who couldn’t bring anything out of me and I couldn’t bring anything out of him, so within a week the project was dead. There was no recording actually done. Because Pete Waterman has a way of picking up people and getting the best out of them and then throwing them to one side, but it was an unworkable situation and there was no advance on the table or talk of a deal. It was just trying me in the studio with somebody else, and it came to nothing, so no hard feelings… but it came to nothing.
SDE READER QUESTION: To what extent was Fan the Flame Part II recorded and how come it remains unreleased?
PB: It’s a really long, boring, complicated story and I’ll try and make it short for you. I was doing a tour of America and I became very aware of the AIDS situation, and I wanted to make an album of torch songs, and I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. So we were in Texas and I went in the studio with … I wanted a cabaret pianist to do a sort of cabaret album. It was to be on sale with the merchandise, right, and the money was going to directly to the homeless people with AIDS. I was just going take the money and give it to the people on the street. And the tapes were never finished, the pianist was drunk and couldn’t read music and stuff like that, and it was just a nightmare after hearing it in the studio. I paid the studio bill and left and thought we’d hear no more of it, and it emerged as a bootleg that’s still on sale, and really it should never have gone on sale. It wasn’t for release. It was me playing around in the studio with a pianist who couldn’t play and didn’t know the songs, and it was never, ever, ever meant for release and I’m horrified that it’s still out there.
SDE: For the box, there’s new artwork on some of these albums, I understand. Have you chosen or have helped design or pick the new artwork for these?
PB: Well, I’d chosen the pictures and let the record company do what they want with them. This is the first time that a record company has been so easy and helpful, but I’ve just handed things over to them for their side, because they know what they’ve got to work with and what they’ve got to sell, you know, so I’ve handed it over to the record company because I used to stress out to the point where I was physically ill over the finer details, and what matters really is the music and if people actually want it.
SDE READER QUESTION: Is there anything in particular that inspires you or fires your imagination at the moment, and that might be art, fashion, literature, film or people?
PB: At the moment, I can honestly say no, because I’m not somebody who works off inspiration. Ideas just come to me out of the blue, in the middle of the night, and I’ve either got to record them or wear them or do things like that, and I’m in a phase of my life at the moment – not being negative – where I find nothing inspirational. My personal life’s going through a lot of changes at the moment, so I’m focused on that, and I’ve just had four months in hospital with kidney problems and stuff like that, so this is my … I think it’s my second week out of hospital with kidney problems and I’m fine now, but I’m just focusing on getting well and finding my feet in life again, because I’ve just spent four months in a hospital bed. You’ve been institutionalised for four months and, like, just going out on the street is a bit scary, so I’m not finding very much inspiration in anything. But it will come. My husband plays me lots of music that he thinks is good, and occasionally somebody will strike a chord and I’ll ask him what it was, but usually I’m incredibly slow. The last thing he played me that I found very inspirational was an album by an artist called Robyn and I found it very inspirational and there were tracks on that that I wanted to cover, but somebody beat me to it, the one I want to cover. But I’ll cover a track off that album at some point. I’ll pick a track, or maybe she’ll do another album, but she was the last thing that really inspired me, because she had a great pop dance sensibility and a beautiful voice and melodies and lyrics. There was stories in those lyrics, and I often wonder what’s happened to her. She seems to have gone away.
SDE READER QUESTION: If you had a TARDIS, is there any part of your career you’d go back and change?
PB: No, because what’s done is done. I’m not somebody who has regrets. Hold on, let me think what I would change…. Oh, the fact that we started a major lawsuit with Sony over our 12-inch royalties, just as Spin Me hit number one. We spent a lot of years in litigation with our record company behind the scenes, so the records suffered in marketing. I just wish it could have been different but it couldn’t be, because we changed it for everybody that we actually got royalties on 12-inches, because they was seen as a promotional tool, but once we sold 72 percent 12-inches of our Spin Me thing, we thought, “Hold on, this is more than a promotional tool.” So we had to do something about it legally or we’d have never got any money, and once we changed it, everyone on Sony got royalties on the 12-inches and we weren’t the most popular people in the Sony building for doing so.
SDE: Is that related to the fact that a few years back, there was supposed to be some 12-inch collection, compilation, coming out and that never happened. Do you know why that was, or what the story behind that is?
PB: I’m not sure. I would say it was down to the marketing manager changing their mind, because we were handed on to some very dodgy marketing managers who didn’t know what to do with us, and as I got older, I had more to say about it, and if something wasn’t acceptable to me, I’d veto the project. Because we always had complete artistic control in saying what the record company did, they couldn’t blink without our approval. So I probably said no to it, because they had a different idea for it than I did. I mean, when we did the Greatest Hits 2002, some genius in the marketing department – because you do need marketing – decided we would only market it to gay people. So what did that entail? Fly posting in Compton Street only and half-page ads in gay magazines only. It was relegated to the gay bucket. You know, music’s not something for your sexuality, it’s music, you know. But we’ve had a bad time with marketing people and record companies, which is why we licensed albums in separate territories because it made it easier. If one record company went down, another would pick it up, you know. Being in a worldwide contract with the same record company, if you fall out with your home record company, you’re affected in every other territory.
SDE READER QUESTION: Someone says he’s got an old copy of Record Mirror with an old interview where you said that Giorgio Moroder might be producing the next album after Sophisticated Boom Boom. That obviously that didn’t happen, but do you remember that?
PB: Yeah, I do remember it. Things just sometimes don’t happen because they ask for too much money and it can’t come to fruition. Unfortunately, I would speak about things before they were consolidated, you know.
SDE READER QUESTION: If you weren’t the famous Pete Burns of Dead or Alive, what else might you be doing for a living, do you think?
PB: I have no idea. I have no idea. I’d probably be down the tube station begging with a bowl. I have no idea what else I might be doing, no idea. Fame was something that was thrust upon me, it’s not something that I actually sought, but my appearance put me on the treadmill of fame. It has its ups and downs. I feel completely anonymous. I don’t see how people can relate to me as a famous person just because I’m on the TV. I feel totally anonymous but I’m not. The public are very nice to me and very warm and affectionate. As soon as I did Big Brother and they saw I could actually string a sentence together and I was opinionated and had something to say.There’s a lot of love for me in the public, but whether they love my product, I don’t know, whether it’s me personally or they want a product from me. This is the first time that I’ve had a product out in a long time, so it’s a shock to the system. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen with it. I don’t have any understanding of what the Amazon shop is, I don’t know what it is, I don’t understand the internet. All I do is I make the music and that’s all the music that I’ve made to date, and it’s available and it’s a ridiculous price, but what can I do? But it’s in a nice package, and I hope some people buy it.
SDE READER QUESTION: If you could stop time and live in any era or any particular year, which one would it be?
PB: With hindsight, I’d go back to the 80s. I’d go back to ’85 because there were some things that I would be more mature about. I mean, I was very immature. There’s no college or university you go to to learn how to deal with fame. You think it’s something bigger and more important than it is, and I ran away from it, whereas it was something I should have actually embraced and made more of. But I’d say ’85 to ’87, but unfortunately after ’87 my mother died, which was a very bad two years for me after she died. But I’d say ’85 to ’87 were the years that I’d go back to, because they were our halcyon days and everything was going well and I couldn’t fart without it being a hit.
SDE READER QUESTION: Does it bother you that, your image may have detracted from the music?
PB: Yes, it does. It’s a shame, but my image would be my image regardless. I’d be like this regardless of the music. It is a shame and it’s why at a certain point I stopped doing interviews completely, because it was always about my image and stuff like that, and I have nothing really to say about my image. My transformation was something organic. I just did it because I needed to do it, I needed to be this person. In the earlier stages I didn’t recognise myself, it was like a form of dysmorphia. I didn’t recognise myself, so I transformed myself into a person that I recognised and who’s comfortable in their own skin. And it’s a shame it outweighs the music, but it’s also done it some favours.
SDE: Thank you, Pete. Is there anything else you want to say?
PB: Just buy it, buy it, buy it. Thank you very much, and I’m really grateful to the record company for putting it out and putting the steam behind it. And thanks for making this interview easy as well, because I’ve been so nervous about it.
RIP Pete Burns 1959 – 2016. The box set is out on Friday 28th October.
I interviewed Dead Or Alive frontman Pete Burns for SDE about a month ago, to discuss the new 19-disc box set Sophisticated Boom Box MMXVI. I was literally listening to the audio of the interview (conducted over the phone) late yesterday afternoon, when the shocking news came in of Pete's untimely death at the age of 57.