Pete Burns


The expression ‘gender bender’ was practically invented in the 1980s due to a plethora of pansexual pop idols featured in this mixtape. Like its musical predecessors glam rock and disco, new wave music – most notably the Bowie-influenced New Romantics – took all the outrageous elements of fashion, unusual stage names, ambiguous sexual identities, make-up on both genders and over-the-top hairstyles. The early 1980s also gave the rise to music videos and MTV which were the perfect visual outlets for music artists to reach an audience 24 hours a day instead of the often brief appearance on the occasional weekly pop music program. This ability to break away from sanitized on-air TV appearances allowed many performers to further accentuate their gender bending persona.  Chris Rooney picks his favorite boys who look like girls and girls who look like boys.

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David Bowie, “John, I’m Only Dancing” (1972)
T.Rex’s groovy flower child Marc Bolan was the first out of the gate with a fully-developed glam rock image, but it was David Bowie’s androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust that one-upped Bolan when he declared in a Melody Maker interview that he was bisexual. His highly suggestive “John, I’m Only Dancing” further enhanced his gender-bending mystique as the song has long been interpreted as a gay relationship. After dancing with a girl, the narrator reassures his male partner that he’s “only dancing” with her and is not romantically involved. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Bowie wrote the song in response to a derogatory comment made by John Lennon about Bowie’s cross-dressing. Bowie’s flamboyant Ziggy Stardust along with Roxy Music’s panache would be the blueprint for the New Romantic subculture in London that would emerge at the turn of the next decade at Covent Garden’s Blitz club nights.

The New York Dolls, “Jet Boy” (1973)
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, The New York Dolls made their way into the world kicking and screaming in platform heels while sporting ratty long hair, gaudy makeup, leather and tight pants. This ungodly birth gave rise to the 1970s British punk aesthetic adopted by The Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux and The Damned and later the heavy metal glam image that would resurface in the 1980s with American bands like Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, Poison and Cinderella.

David Sylvian of Japan, “Life In Tokyo” (1979) / Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, “Planet Earth” (1981)
What came first: the chicken or the egg? In this case, it was probably a fuzzy, well-coiffed blonde chick. In 1982 one-time glam band, Japan called it a day and New Romantic newbies, Duran Duran became certified superstars. But between the two bands, they shared something in common: Japan frontman David Sylvian’s and Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes’ “gay but straight” looks were almost inseparable. In their late teens, Sylvian and his brother Steve stole some eyeliner from Bowie’s dressing room, some new last names from the New York Dolls, and sounds from both to create Japan. Sylvian dialed back the outrageous, imposing “alien from Mars” image that Bowie created (while keeping the gorgeous visage) and repackaged it in a more suave, sophisticated suit and masculine vocals reminiscent of Roxy Music’s troubadour, Bryan Ferry. When the 1980s rolled around, Japan were often associated with the burgeoning New Romantic fashion movement, though they denied any such connection. After Japan’s breakup, Sylvian went solo in a minimalist direction. Meanwhile, Nick Rhodes’ keyboard work emulated Japan’s 16th note sequencers that electronic music producer Giorgio Moroder introduced in “Life In Tokyo” and today Rhodes remains the world’s longest running David Sylvian tribute act, years after Sylvian himself put away the make-up and hair dye.

Klaus Nomi, “Nomi Song” (1981)
German-born Klaus Sperber discovered his love for opera and pop music in his youth. After struggling in Europe to define himself as an opera singer with his stellar countertenor (a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of a female contralto or mezzo-soprano), he moved to New York City in the early 1970s to be a part of the art scene based in the East Village. Using the pseudonym Klaus Nomi, an allusion to the American sci-fi magazine Omni, his performances blended his opera background with pop music in elaborate stage shows reminiscent of visions of early science fiction: Kabuki-style white face painting, black lips, extravagant clothes and hairstyles inspired by early 20th century avant-garde. David Bowie discovered Nomi in 1978 and helped him with a record contract along with inviting him to sing backing vocals on Bowie’s 1979 musical appearance on Saturday Night Live. Nomi was so impressed with the plastic bowtie-shaped tuxedo suit that Bowie wore during “The Man Who Sold the World” that he commissioned one to be made for himself. It completed the otherworldly manifestation that Nomi is best remembered by now. Nomi’s musical career was cut short when he died at the age of 39 in 1983 from complications due to AIDS. In more recent years, Morrissey has championed Nomi by often using one of his songs as an introduction prior to taking the stage at his concerts.

Annie Lennox of Eurythmics, “Who’s That Girl?” (1983)
After Lennox and Dave Stewart left their previous band, The Tourists, she reinvented herself in their breakthrough video, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” with a fiery red buzz cut hairstyle and an authoritative tailored suit like she was a modern-day Marlene Dietrich. (Sorry Madonna, Annie beat you to it.) Lennox played up the image even further in their video for “Who’s That Girl?” with dual roles as a 60s-era blonde nightclub singer performing the song and a Elvis Presley-like male member of the audience with his eye on her. At the end of the video, the female Lennox locks lips with the male Lennox. Blink and you might miss appearances in the video by all four members of Bananarama, Kate Garner of Haysi Fantayzee and fellow gender bender, Marilyn.

Philip Oakey of Human League, “Sound Of The Crowd” (1981)
With his lipstick, eyeliner and asymmetric hair hanging long and down one side of his face, Oakey’s androgynous appearance and chilly baritone helped to define the look and sound of British new wave in the early ‘80s. Lyrics like “The shades from a pencil peer / Pass around / A fold in an eyelid brushed with fear / The lines on a compact guide / Pass around / A hat with alignment worn inside” was the same musical inspiration that a desperate Oakey probably used to get ready before heading to the Crazy Daisy Nightclub in his hometown of Sheffield a year earlier. There, to his amazing luck, he plucked Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall out of obscurity to be his tour dancers and backing vocalists when he set out to create a more pop-driven Human League.

Boy George of Culture Club, “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” (1982)
America fell hook, line and sinker for the former Blitz Kid because of his witty personality and infectious retro soul pop sound so much so that Culture Club racked up five Top Five hits in the US within two years. His multicultural-printed baggy tops, ribbon-filled braided hair and accentuated facial features spawned such merchandise as a Barbie-sized doll by the American toymaker LJN that proclaimed on the box, “Boy George: The Original Outrageous Boy of Rock!” and the publication Boy George Fashion and Make-Up Book that featured instructions on how to create your own flamboyant hats and hairstyles and expert tips on make-up.

Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive “Brand New Lover” (1986)
If Boy George was the cute and cuddly androgynous performer that America could embrace, Pete Burns was Boy’s evil twin who brought a fiery sexuality to his songs and look. Burns has never shied away from flaunting his individual style and since his initial halcyon days with Dead Or Alive, he has gone through numerous cosmetic surgery operations to transform his face. While others of this era have moved on from their androgynous 80s style, Burns has constantly pushed his gender bending look even further.

Grace Jones “Slave To The Rhythm” (1985)
Long before Lady Gaga broke out of the gender box and Caribbean pop divas Rihanna and Nicki Minaj were even born, Jamaica-born Grace Jones was glamorizing a fiercely androgynous look with masculine, angular fashions and an imposing flattop haircut that could stop you dead in your tracks. Her commanding, yet exotic-sounding vocal delivery didn’t hurt either. Jones later appeared as the sexy assassin in the James Bond film, A View To A Kill for which Duran Duran provided the theme song.

Marilyn, “Calling Your Name” (1983)
Liberating the name that schoolyard bullies once taunted him with, Peter Robinson rechristened himself ‘Marilyn’ while wearing vintage dresses and bleach blonde hair when he became a regular at The Blitz along with his frenemy Boy George. After a small appearance in Eurythmics’ music video, “Who’s That Girl?” and Boy George’s success with Culture Club, Marilyn launched a singing career with limited success. Marilyn’s 15 minutes of fame stretched a little further when he took part in the Band Aid charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” along with various other pop stars of the era. His notoriety soon waned after cutting his long blonde mane and ditching the makeup. At one time he was an item with the future Mr. Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale before Rossdale’s days as the frontman of the band Bush.

Divine, “You Think You’re A Man” (1984)
Cult film director and close friend John Waters first bestowed the stage name “Divine” upon the drag persona of Glenn Milstead and introduced the actor and performer as “The most beautiful woman in the world, almost”. After several movies under Waters’ direction, Divine branched out as a singer by cutting several Hi-NRG disco singles in the 80s that were club hits in several countries. Just as mainstream recognition was around the corner, Divine died in 1988.

Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat, “Why” (1984)
With a skyscraping falsetto that could make Barry Gibbs sound like Barry White, Jimmy Somerville fronted the openly gay synthpop group that explored overtly political commentary on gay-related issues coupled with a hard-edged dance-pop sound. Thirty years ago, it was almost unheard of to be an out-of-the-closet pop singer, yet with his autobiographical ‘Smalltown Boy’ and this song, he and his bandmates gained mainstream acceptance. Somerville left Bronski Beat after one album and had continued success in the 1980s with his similar-sounding synthpop duo, The Communards and as a solo artist.

Laurie Anderson, “Language Is A Virus” (1986)
Experimental performance artist, composer and musician, Anderson never quite fit the definition of “new wave” but embraced its sound in many of her compositions and its ambiguous style with her spiky hair and skinny tie masculine suits. A recurring motif in Anderson’s work has been the use of a voice filter which deepens her voice into a masculine register, a technique which Anderson has referred to as “audio drag”. For much of Anderson’s career, her masculine character was nameless or called the Voice of Authority, although more recently, he was dubbed Fenway Bergamot at her late husband Lou Reed’s suggestion.

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Mixtape: Roots Of New Wave- The Legend Continues 0

Way back in May–May! Who knew this blog would still be alive by now?–we dug deep into the roots of this thing we label new wave and came up with music by the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk and Chic. But there’s a deep well of influence so we submerged ourselves for another trip down into the depths. Here’s what we found:

“20th Century Boy,” T.Rex

David Bowie and Marc Bolan evolved beyond psychedelia and chased mainstream success at the same time. Bolan soared higher and fell faster. Over an incredibly intense two year period, the Bopping Elf ignited the worship and hysteria of Britain’s teenagers, drew grudging praise from the country’s glam-hating rock media, attracted the likes of Elton John and Ringo Starr and left Mick Jagger acting old and defensive. He did it with a non-stop barrage of funky rock records with nonsense lyrics that he delivered like a singing duck. Look at Adam Ant, Siouxsie Sioux and Marc Almond and you’ll see a Marc Bolan fan.

“School’s Out,” Alice Cooper

We talk a lot in MW:TB about the seismic influence of David Bowie doing “Starman’ on Top Of The Pops in 1972. Lest we forget, Alice Cooper debuted “School’s Out” on the same show on the same year and the nation’s impressionable pre-teens wet their beds later that night. In 1980, Alice made a bold and barely successful to hop on the new wave bandwagon with his single “Clones” which was a little bit Numan, a little bit Cars.

“Blockbuster,” The Sweet

The Sweet were but a cog in Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman’s successful British bubblegum machine. They were known and, in some quarters, derided for foot-tappers like “Wig Wam Bam” and “Alexander Graham Bell”. In 1973, they released “Blockbuster” at the exact same time David Bowie released “Jean Genie”. The two songs were built on the exact same guitar riff. It was hard to hate on one and applaud the other. Thus, The Sweet were elevated from bubblegum anonymity into one of glam-rock’s deadliest strike forces. Musically, Chinn and Chapman kitted them out with one shrill, shrieky high-concept hit after another: “Hellraiser”, “Ballroom Blitz”, “Teenage Rampage”, “Action” and the band even asserted their own chart-topping prowess with the self-penned “Fox On The Run”. Visually, they reversed the Bowie/ Ronson chemistry with blonde Glaswegian singer Brain Connelly, the hard-working straight man to pouting, lisping bass player Steve Priest’s camp camera-hogger.

“Waterloo Sunset,” Kinks

The Jam, Squeeze, The Specials, Blur: every band that made a virtue of it’s nationality, that performed melancholy narratives about the insignificant lives of ordinary people walk in the shadows of The Kinks and this is their crowning achievement.

“I’m Waiting For The Man,” Velvet Underground

Every band from Liverpool, every band from Glasgow, a lot of bands from London, a coupe from Dublin and maybe one or two from Wales wanted to be an iota as cool and as arty and as ahead of their time as the Velvet Underground. No one of them ever were. (Maybe one of those Welsh bands came close. Not The Alarm)

You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” Sylvester

A few years after this record was a hit, the UK charts would be filled with the likes of Boy George, Pete Burns, Marilyn and even Divine. In 1978, Sylvester stood alone.

“Hand Held In Black And White,” Dollar

No one in the right mind or out of it would have the temerity to suggest toothsome blonde British twosome Dollar were a seminal influence on new or any other kind of wave. Except, they were. Singers David Van Day and Thereza Bazar split from minor seventies cabaret chart act Guys N’ Dolls to become a kind of UK seaside resort version of Captain & Tennile. They had a few, barely noticed, barely appreciated hits. The they drafted in former Buggle and Yes band-member Trevor Horn to rejuvenate their stagnant career. He bought with him a team of hand-picked session musicians and a studio packed with expensive machinery. The first of the four singles Dollar mad with Horn was the glossy and expansive “Hand Held In Black And White.” Martin Fry of ABC heard it and decided that was how he wanted his band to sound. Suddenly Dollar who were not very cool at all and trevor Horn who, as a Buggle and a Yes-man was even less cool, were suddenly the epitome of everything eighties pop aspired to capturing. After their dalliance with Horn, Dollar’s currency plummeted. But if they hadn’t made “Hand Held In Black And White”, there would have been no Lexicon of Love, no “Relax”, no “Dr. Mabuse”, no “Slave To The Rhythm ” and the eighties would have been an altogether grimmer place. So, for their small but vital contribution, hail Dollar!

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Friday Face-Off: Madonna, George Michael, Dead Or Alive and…REO Speedwagon! 0

Welcome to March 9, 1985. Welcome also to the chart arena, taking on the role of the American presence, my friend, fellow YA author, health and wellness journalist and whole living advocate, Alexa Young. As if that dizzying list of accomplishments wasn’t enough, Alexa has served her time in the music industry trenches, roaming the halls of Capitol Records, Hits magazine and teen title Jump. But does that make her a qualified chart gladiator? We’ll see. You’re up, rookie!

UK Top 5

“Material Girl,” Madonna

JB: Sick of having Kardashians rammed down your throat and/or up your ass? I have no sympathy. I’ve never seen a single second of anything with their name on it and I consume nothing but crap. There are too many options now to be monopolized by any lone entity. Try being a Madonna non-fan in 1985, though, when she was remaking the world in her image. That must have been like being trapped in an endless car ride with someone with no sense of humor who won’t shut up about herself. Has anyone ever attained Madonna’s level of success with Madonna’s level of unlovability? I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing. Given the choice of today’s timorous role models and an arrogant, stuck-up, self-obsessed monster like ’85 Madonna, I’ll take the latter. But only because ’85 Madonna was making records that justified her colossal ego.

AY: I have no idea what you just said, which is weird because you don’t type with a Scottish accent. Oh, hang on…I think I’ve got it now, and I mostly concur: Madonna was (and still is) a humorless narcissist, but indeed had a certain je ne sais quoi (which is French for the ability to entertain with little to no musical talent). Like most girls at the time, I fell right in line with the stacked bracelet- and lace bustier-wearing sheep. (I even got into wearing crucifix jewelry, which was quite thrilling for my Jewish family.) Honestly, though? I always found this track to be a pretty weak effort when compared to some of her others. Sure, it made an impact—not the least of which was establishing one of her most enduring (and annoying) nicknames and thus giving journalists yet another way to be unoriginal when writing about her. But “Material Girl” was hardly the finest moment for the Material Girl (see what I did there?).

4)”Kiss Me,” Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy

JB: The Pete Best of Duran Duran! The man who left the band just before the screaming started! This is a lovely, literate eccentric little record that I never grew sick of. And “Icing On The Cake”, the follow-up that just about stopped him being known as a one-hit wonder, was just as good.

AY: As the original bassist, wouldn’t he be more like the Stuart Sutcliffe of Duran Duran? I didn’t actually know that Duran backstory (I feel so enlightened…or, um, American?). I definitely liked this song—so nasal-yet-catchy! Kind of dirty! Totally spoke to my adolescent desperation!—but I have to confess that it brings back awful memories of the countless high school dances where I would stand in a darkened corner, swaying to the beat, knowing I would never get anything even resembling a kiss from any of the boys I liked. Wine coolers were all I had. Their love would never be mine. Ahem. I can already tell this whole Friday Face-off thing is going to be a rough walk down memory lane. But why didn’t any boys like me? Why, why, WHY? (Don’t answer that.)

3)”Nightshift,” Commodores

JB: I feel like the Commodores made a bit of a deal with the devil as regards this, their sole post-Lionel Richie hit. If you do a song that’s a tribute to dead musicians more famous than you are, the likelihood is strong that their legacy, rather than your talent and charisma, will make that song a hit. So it proved with “Nightshift” which is a way better record than the innumerable Richie ballads clogging up the international charts at the time, but also a record that left the listener thinking about how great Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson were rather than how promising the career of the post-Richie Commodores was shaping up to be.

AY: And oh what a not-promising career it was. In fact, I don’t actually agree with your contention that this was better than the Richie ballads. I mean, Hello? (Yes, “Hello.” That song totally ruled, and not just the airwaves. It holds a permanent place in my dejected adolescent heart. Are you sensing a theme here? 1985 was a rough year for me, man.) I’ll concede that “Nightshift” outshines “Penny Lover,” but only just.

2)”I Know Him So Well,” Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson

JB: True story. After the New York launch of Mad World: The Book, we went for a meal at a restaurant and found ourselves seated in a back room filled with guests waiting to spring a birthday surprise on a mystery guest. The recipient of the birthday love turned out to be one of the Duck Dynasty guys (and the guests all fancy Manhattan media types). The Duck Dynasty guy–his name, I think was Willie–mingled with our table for a few moments. Upon hearing that we were celebrating a book about the music of the eighties, he declared himself a big fan of the era. When asked his favorite eighties song, he thought for a loooong moment and then said “One Night in Bangkok”. This tortured slab of balladry comes from “Chess,” the same musical that produced the Duck Dynasty guy’s favorite eighties song. He probably wouldn’t have liked this as much and that might be the only thing we have in common.

AY: My British, musical theater- and ABBA-loving mother may turn in her grave over what I’m about to say, but this painfully earnest ballad is a show-tune only a mother—yes, that would be my mother—could love. (Okay, my mother and all the other people who inexplicably sent this up the charts.) Mum also regularly stated that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. So I should probably stop now.

1)“You Spin Me Round (Like A Record),” Dead Or Alive

JB: You know when you’ve been playing slots in Vegas and suddenly you win and all the bells start ringing and the coins vomit out and there’s all this noise and activity? THAT’s what this record sounds like. Pete Burns had been kicking around a good few years before he finally got his big break. He’d been signed in the post-Boy George every-label-needs-its own-gender-bender gold rush. But George positioned himself as a family-friendly drag queen. Burns was the exact opposite. No family member was safe around him. Until he hooked up with Kylie Minogue/Bananarama/millions more producing trio Stock/Aitken/Waterman and thrust “You Spin Me Round” into the world’s open orifice, where it has remained lodged to this day. Burns has gone through so much surgery he barely resembles an alien life form at this point, but “You Spin Me Round” has become a mini-industry of its own, whether being sampled, reissued or covered, it refuses to curl up and die.

AY: Indeed, some songs deserve to be called infectious—and this one ranks high on the incurable disease list. I may actually need to go to psychotherapy now, not just to get it out of my head but because watching the literal interpretation of the title in the video (nice flag-waving, lads), as well as reviewing the images of Burns’ ever-changing face, has left me highly disturbed (like I wasn’t already).

US Top 5

6)“Too Late For Goodbyes,” Julian Lennon

JB: “Material Girl” was also number five so we dipped one position but a lot lower in terms of quality. I had no particular problems with Wilson Phillips or Jakob Dylan. Master P’s lad, Lil Romeo, was in my movie, Max Keeble’s Big Move! But Julian Lennon is where I draw the line. Has any icon’s offspring ever besmirched the family name as blandly as this guy did? Huh?

AY: Way to name-drop, movie boy. It really is tragic that John Lennon’s talents were so horrifically diluted in Julian (and I’d say they were altogether lost in Sean)—but to answer the besmirching bland offspring question (rhetorical though it may have been): How about Lisa Marie Presley? Alexa Ray Joel? This one is pretty bad…but there’s the slightest whiff of real Lennon talent lurking in those vocals, and I’ve heard far worse spewing from the gene pool of music legends.

4) “California Girls,” David Lee Roth

JB: Anyone watching this without the context of who David Lee Roth used to be would have no idea why he was famous or why he thought he was funny.

AY: I’ve got the context and I still have no idea. This Beach Boys cover is, was, and always shall be painful on the eyes and the ears. The moment it comes on, you might as well jump…off a cliff.

3) “The Heat Is On,” Glenn Frey

JB: I’ve said it here before but it bears repeating. The eighties soundtrack boom must just make old-time record guys want to blow their brains out. You could take the worst, most generic, least-felt slices of filler–ie: this–and toss it on a soundtrack and the attendant movie marketing machine swept your piece-of-shit throwaway song along with it. Has there ever been a time when people put so little effort into so much success? Think about it, Pitbull.

AY: I can still remember the first few moves from the routine our high school “song-leaders” (cheerleaders with pom poms) choreographed to this song. These are girls who willingly, eagerly, dated jocks. Clearly their discriminating taste in boys also extended to music. (I readily acknowledge that this is dejected teenage me speaking again. Insecurity can be an ugly thing.)

2)“Careless Whisper,” Wham! featuring George Michael

JB: Ah, “featuring George Michael”. In the UK, everybody knew that Andrew Ridgely’s time was pretty much up and this was billed as George’s first solo single. There are, to my mind, two types of people in this world. Those that think “Guilty feet have got no rhythm” is an inspired line and those who think it’s a howler. I’ll let you guess what camp I’m in (clue: howling’s involved). I can’t lie, though, the journey from Wham! to “Careless Whisper” is as accomplished an act of career bridge-building as I’ve ever seen.

AY: Yeah, I don’t even remember Wham! being attached to this one—so I suppose one man’s bridge-building is another man’s bridge-burning. Either way, I’ve always found it to be a delicious if histrionic slice of tasty pop balladry. You really can’t listen to it without singing (and fake-sobbing) along.

1) “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” REO Speedwagon

JB: Look, I’m not made of stone. Even in the actual eighties when I actively hated shit like this, I would find myself shamefacedly half-singing, half-humming along. It’s no “Keep on Loving You” but as cheese goes, it’s rich and satisfying.

AY: Aw, JB! You really can’t fight this feeling—nor can I. I think this one’s every bit as good as “Keep on Loving You” (maybe even better!). Okay, yes, I love me some ‘wagon, and I’m neither ashamed to admit it nor high (although I was—both, probably—when I went to see them in concert with Styx about 15 years ago). You know your affection for a band is real when you incessantly refer to them by an abbreviated pet name, right?

JB: Tough call. I’d say Britain barely ekes out a victory here due more to there being less songs I actively loathe rather than many I legitimately love.
AY: Hey, wait…don’t I get to weigh in on this? I’m far from a patriotic type, but the US is the obvious winner on this one for me.

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