Freak Unique

Freak Unique (2007)
Pete Burns

I’d read about Dead or Alive’s Pete Burns’ time at Probe Records in Liverpool in other books (maybe even Boy George’s autobiography?) because his time selling clothes in the backroom and working the register for the record store are legendary. He would pass withering judgment on anyone buying albums he thought were “naff” and some customers would wait for him to go on break before they would dare to buy anything lest he loudly deem their choice uncool. I was rebellious as a teenager but I would’ve never had the moxie to be so sure of myself, so defiant, and so dismissive of others just for a laugh. Burns’ attitude was definitely punk and was shaped by his unusual childhood as much as it was by Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Sex Pistols. In his autobiography, Burns writes about the early days of punk with a lot of passion, though he’s more interested in recounting his fashion choices than in digging into his enthusiasm for punk rock. One of the difficulties I had with this autobiography is that Burns doesn’t really talk about music much at all – his or others’ – and the book eventually devolves into a discussion of his many plastic surgeries and his love affair with his husband, Michael (I don’t believe the relationship lasted very long. I suppose writing rhapsodically about one’s great love in a book is the equivalent of getting a tattoo of their name: bad juju). He talks about his time on the TV show Big Brother and about people he likes and hates. It isn’t very interesting after a while, and the detailed descriptions of the aftermaths of his many plastic surgeries proved unsavory reading at bedtime.

Burns does have informative things to say about fashion and identity, however. The earlier chapters could be helpful in thinking about how clothing changed from punk to New Romantic with the addition of some ruffles, a pirate hat, and some dreadlocks. I think it’s also an important story of someone who rejected a myriad of identity labels long before society was ready for such indeterminacy. The rest of this autobiography would really be for hardcore Burns fans only. If you’re looking for Dead or Alive insider information, though, it really isn’t here!

Burns died in 2016. I wish he’d left behind an autobiography that better captured his wit and his important contributions to fashion and New Pop/New Wave music. Here’s a taste of his thoughts about his very idiosyncratic approach to fashion:

What it [dressing up] ultimately taught me about the real freaks, the ones doing the shouting and giving the hassle, was just as important. It taught me why they shouted why they jeered. When they do this, it’s never really about me – it’s about them. Whatever I’m wearing, it’s not me they’re seeing. It’s themselves. A well-buried fear, a secret desire. ‘Look at him … what a freak!’ is what they think they’re saying. ‘Look at me, I’m here, too,’ is what I’m hearing. The louder they shout, the more they want the world to look at them. It’s almost like a competition for attention, a primal jealousy. And don’t try shouting me down as a drama queen who craves attention. I don’t dress or look the way I do to get attention. I did it to build walls and fend off attention. I do it to stop people approaching me, to keep me as isolated as I was back in Port Sunlight as a child. (53)


The World in My Eyes

The World in My Eyes (2017)
Richard Blade

Though the Los Angeles radio station KROQ bills itself as “world famous”, this autobiography will probably be most enjoyed by locals who listened to the station in the 1980s when Richard Blade was in his heyday (he still has an 80s show on Sirius XM, so listen to it while you’re reading the book for the ultimate flashback experience).  Although I had an older brother who gifted me with some essential music over the years (thanks for KISS’s Destroyer, Steve!), KROQ was truly the generator of my musical tastes. Richard Blade’s presence on the station was inextricable from the music he played. With his English accent, he sounded just like the guys in all of those bands my friends and I were so obsessed with … and we were obsessed because we listened to KROQ. I distinctly remember being disappointed when I realized a band I liked wasn’t from the UK. Blade not only had a radio show but also a TV show, MV3, that played videos and had a group of real New Wave kids dancing to them in the studio. He presence, then, was part of the New Wave scene in L.A., and he was like a rock star to me and my friends. I wanted to be on MV3 with excruciating fervor but I worried my clothes weren’t cool enough to be on TV. I also knew that being in close proximity to Richard Blade would be overwhelming.

I was a Duranie and KROQ really fed my mania for them. Duran Duran was the first band I was devoted to and devotion meant not only listening to KROQ to chart how many times Duran Duran was playing during a day (I had an actual chart!) but also collecting posters, magazines (particularly Japanese ones), and every album and 12 inch ever released. I still wear my original 7 and the Ragged Tiger tour shirt and I proudly display the Duran Duran board game in my office! I looked forward to all of the Duran Duran stories in Blade’s book as he was a close friend of theirs, and Spandau Ballet’s, too.

This was a surprisingly interesting read, though it takes Blade a long time to get to the 1980s. But Blade is good storyteller and all of the years he spent scrounging around Europe for radio jobs large and small are just as involving as his stories about being a DJ at a station, despite being relatively “underground”, which had the power to introduce L.A. listeners to a wide array of new wave, postpunk, and other alternative bands. Having grown up in the San Fernando Valley in the 80s, I was really fascinated by all the goings on behind the scenes and it was fun to recognize the names of other KROQ djs like Jed the Fish and Swedish Egil. As for gossip, Blade is relatively circumspect but he does write about being romantically involved with Berlin’s Teri Nunn, and story of him asking her to marry him is really a doozy. Highly recommended just for that!

In terms of research, this book wasn’t enormously helpful but it could assist in rounding out an understanding of how bands were played and promoted in the 80s. Maybe I could interview Blade if I can get a 33 1/3 book on Duran Duran or Spandau off the ground?  My 13 year old self is already squealing at the thought!

To Cut A Long Story Short

To Cut a Long Story Short (2004)
Tony Hadley

The original idea for this blog was that I was going to start with a foundational text on postpunk or at least late 70s/early 80s music to anchor and explain what kind of research and writing I’m doing/would like to do, and then I was going to spiral outward to incorporate texts I’ve just finished reading, texts in progress, and texts already completed. This would provide potential readers and me a look at all of the music related autobiographies, biographies, and genre overviews I’ve read to build a comprehensive vision of my postpunk interests and ideologies.

It might just be the end of the semester talking, but all of that seems ambitious.

So, I’ve decided to simply start with the book I’ve just finished reading and then I’ll just build a postpunk book tracking device up around it.  Hopefully I’ll remember at the end of each post to assess what the text has contributed to my understanding of the genre and the subcultures which surrounded it. I would like this blog to be both an online index of my reading habits and inspiration for future articles and conference papers.

The book I’ve just completed is Tony Hadley’s autobiography, To Cut A Long Story Short. Hadley, the former lead singer of Spandau Ballet (I’ll describe some of the messiness of this “former” designation in another post), is notable for having a dramatic, distinctive voice which was most famously put to good use on Spandau’s most popular song, 1983’s “True”. Released on the album of the same name, “True” marked Spandau’s push into new musical territory and it set into stone the public’s view of the band: dreamy, be-suited beauties who cranked out light pop hits punctuated by a very 80s saxophone. This isn’t, however, how Spandau started life as a band. Considered to be one of the cornerstones of the early 80s subculture known as New Romantics, Spandau Ballet was originally a more idiosyncratic, challenging band than their biggest hit would make them seem. I’ll save the New Romantic history and Spandau’s role in it for another post because I’ve read a number of autobiographies from some of the movement’s featured players and teasing out the connecting threads between punk, new wave, New Romantics, and New Pop within the postpunk tapestry is one of the larger goals of this blog and my music writing in general.

Spandau’s earliest success came with the song “To Cut a Long Story Short” which was released in 1980 and netted them an appearance on Top of the Pops. Hadley’s autobiography obviously takes this song’s title for his book’s title, contributing to a trend of members of the band titling their books after Spandau songs and lyrics (see Martin Kemp’s True and Gary Kemp’s I Know This Much – hopefully drummer John Keeble and saxophonist Steve Norman will complete the set!). Hadley is a serviceable storyteller, though in his desire to frame himself as the “everyman” of the band, I found myself a little disappointed in the sections about Spandau’s early career.  Known for donning fashion which featured a mash up of styles and time periods, the New Romantics were thought to be outrageous and daring, the beautiful flipside to punk’s dirt and grime. Hadley discusses this era with affection but also a bemusement as he characterizes himself as someone passionate about music, not clothes. He rolls his eyes a bit at the more out-there fashion the band wore (including John Keeble’s “gymslip” [what we would think of in America as a jumper with a pleated skirt] which he wore for the band’s inaugural Top of the Pops appearance). Hadley characterizes the band’s feelings in those the early days as: “We were happy to polarize the critics. We were brazen and opinionated. Yes, we had attitude, but we were young and hungry for success. We wanted to take over the world. Oh yes, and in those days, we also wore rather too much makeup” (79). I know we’ve all looked back on things we wore in the past and thought, “God, why didn’t anyone stop me?” but when a band builds their initial philosophy on the political power of clothes, it’s a bit of a let down to read that one of the band members wasn’t really on board with those bigger ideals at all.

Hadley’s main contribution to the band’s historical record is his view of Spandau guitarist Gary Kemp’s takeover of the band’s publishing rights. The lawsuit Hadley, Norman, and Keeble brought against Kemp was fodder in the English gossip pages in the late 1990s (the band passively broke up in 1989 after the release of the album, Heart Like a Sky). In 1999, the three were ruled against by a judge and they lost the ability to draw an income from the residuals for the band’s back catalog which Kemp felt – as the band’s sole songwriter – only he had the rights to. It’s a messy, complicated issue and Hadley does a good job in thinking about it from Kemp’s perspective while also arguing that the rest of the band contributed in a myriad of ways to the songwriting, not the least of which was the use of Hadley’s voice. After the lawsuit, the book falters a bit as Hadley takes the reader through all the ways he had to hustle for money to pay back the court costs and to simply continue to make a living. He seems like a down-to-earth man who enjoys entertaining fans but those good qualities don’t always make for the most scintillating of reads.

In assessing what this book as contributed to my understanding of the New Romantic movement, I would say that it let me see that some of it was just fashion, not ideology. I knew this, of course, but I wanted Hadley to be a bit more motivated to see the band’s sartorial choices as the working class overthrowing British class traditions as Gary Kemp does. It is true, though, that Hadley’s voice indelibly encapsulated the mood and tone of the New Romantics. Hadley’s dramatic baritone anchors the movement to a brooding and stylized approach to moving past punk into new, more glamorous frontiers. He might not outwardly embrace it, but Hadley’s voice is a fashionable subversion of punk’s gritty rejection of society.

This book didn’t move my thoughts about postpunk forward really, but it was a good reminder that the slide from punk to postpunk was imperceptible to most bands. They just wanted to do something different. In this case, they wanted to do it in gorgeous clothes in their own very exclusive clubs and discos.

Oh, I just thought of something else I learned: Spandau Ballet didn’t hate Duran Duran.