Ever watch one of those VH1, “one-hit wonders” specials, where the random D level commentators start talking about these artists that had one hit, where half of them actually had multiple songs that charted? Random commentator probably has no idea but then somewhere in there Matt Pinfield comes in with his “I’m smarter than you and probably no fun at all” persona and makes sure you know they had another song that charted exactly at #98 for one week in 1984. Well, I’m the everyman’s Pinfield but funnier and better looking. This series will go back to the 80s and spotlight one-hit wonders (in the US), real (truly only one charting hit) or perceived (other songs charted low but they are known for just one song) and come to a definitive verdict if we should accept or reject their status as that one-hit wonder.
I tend to like bands that are unique. Usually this means they are musically different than their peers, which is iffy here but leader Pete Burns and his bandmates certainly were one of the more outrageous sights of the 80s, which is why I will always have an affinity for their music.
Dead or Alive are considered one-hit wonders in some circles thanks to the #11 hit, “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” from 1984. But I think they are known just as much for the over-the-top nature of lead singer Pete Burns.
Dead or Alive formed in 1980 with Burns in a group called Nightmares in Wax which released a EP in 1980. After a bunch of changes in the band and before they were to go back into the studio, Burns changed the name to Dead or Alive. At this point, the band didn’t remotely resemble the Hi-NRG dance pop they would later put out. They released four singles without an album, with at least the first two being squarely in the gothic post-punk genre.
Even back then there was a bit of an androgynous side to Pete Burns but no more than say someone like Boy George was. That would change quickly though once they got a record deal and recorded their first true album, Sophisticated Boom Boom. Funny that the original title of the record was supposed to be Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, which would end up being the title of their third album. But Epic records rejected the title and yet somehow went through with Sophisticated Boom Boom.
I want to state for the record that I have no issues with anyone being whomever they want to be but for a kid in the 80s seeing the album cover for this, with a dude looking like lady, sprawled out in a tiger coat was a bit startling and I have to think wasn’t exactly the easiest thing for Epic to promote either.
The album was mostly dance-pop/synth-pop with some disco and Hi-NRG touches throughout the record but also had a goth element to it, which was actually pretty unique at the time. This is where Burns really turned up the campy over-the-top self indulgence to 11. Most tracks were pretty simple and fun, either all about himself or some element of sex. “What I Want” “Do It” and “You Make Me Wanna” are prime examples of this. But I have a soft spot for “I’d Do Anything” and the funny first verse; “Well I used to have what I would call / A very limited vocabulary / And the only two words / I could wrap my tongue around / Were I and me / But now I feel so clever /
That you would swear I ate a dictionary / And the new word that I’ve added / Brings up my words to three / What am I gonna do / Word number three is You.” But the highlight of the record is the dance remake of KC & the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It)” which is one of my favorite songs of the decade.
When the band went in to record their second record Youthquake, they were hooked up with the relatively new production team of Stock Aitken Waterman. Over the course of the decade those guys would be known of course for Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue singles but “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” was actually their very first hit song. What their production on the album did, was give it almost a pure Hi-NRG feeling and a boom boom that was clearly more sophisticated and crisp than the debut. Epic records apparently hated the first single and Burns and the band had to fund the recording of the song and the video on their own. It would of course go on to hit #11 in the US and by SAW’s first #1 tune in the UK. Imagine how big it might have been if the labeled had believed in it to begin with.
Interestingly enough, there was also an extended mix of the tune on the CD and cassette versions as well, which probably should have been relegated to a remix record or just the 12″ release. The same actually goes for the second single “Lover Come Back To Me,” which appears in two versions as well. To me, that song was actually a poor choice for the follow up single as it doesn’t have the same danceable quality as the hit and I’m not a fan of the layers vocals that SAW used in the chorus. Two more singles were released from the album and didn’t chart in the US and frankly at least “My Heart Goes Bang (Get Me To the Doctor)” was a pretty stupid song. I’ve convinced myself over the years that if Epic had released “DJ Hit that Button” as the second single, I wouldn’t be writing this post right now. It has the same infectious Hi-NRG dance style of “You Spin Me Round” and feels very radio friendly.
Over the years I’ve read that SAW and Pete Burns butted heads a bit in the studio but the pairing worked well, so they reunited again for their third record in ’86. And I guess once you have a worldwide smash hit if you want to name your album Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, no one will stop you now.
Mad… really wasn’t a great record, in fact Dead or Alive has no really great albums, just great tunes, of which first single and lead track “Brand New Lover” is one of them. What SAW was able to do on the best tunes is reel in the campiness of the songs and tone Burns down a bit while still allowing some of his quirkiness to shine through. However, in album form this is also the downfall of the record. I get derailed right away as the next track in sequence is a 60s pop meets 80s dance tune, “I’ll Save You All My Kisses” which seems very out of place on the disc. The rest of the disc seems almost dull in nature compared to earlier material. The band took almost no chances on this, going so far as to even writing “Something in My House” with a very similar keyboard rhythm as “You Spin Me Round.”
By this juncture though the band had lost almost all of its steam in the US and their 4th album, Nude, didn’t have any impact on the charts. However, it make them huge stars in Japan, which is where the band focused their efforts with their future albums only getting Japanese releases. I had no idea those three albums even existed until 2000, when they released a cover of U2’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing” which was at least pretty interesting.
But even without knowing the band was still making music, the Pete Burns story was fascinating and one that I was always interested in over the years. Although he says he never had any intention of transitioning from male to female, over the years he spent tons of money on plastic surgery and tattoos on his face that surely made him look like a woman. And then he had a lip procedure that went horribly wrong, which then forced him to spend all his money on reconstructive surgery which in the end and to declare bankruptcy. All of these procedures almost killed him but he survived until a heart attack took him in 2016. By the time of his death, unless you had been following along with his career, Burns was completely unrecognizable.
Verdict: As I said above, Dead or Alive never really had that undisputed great album. “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” was a great tune that hit #11 on the US charts. But it’s “Brand New Lover” charting at #15 in 1986 that forces me to reject their status as a one-hit wonder. And although they didn’t have that much success on the Billboard Hot 100 which is the chart this one-hit wonder status is based off of, ask anyone that was in the clubs in the mid-to-late 80s and they’ll certainly be able to recognize multiple tracks by the band.