Pete Burns: how Britain lost its edge

Pete Burns, who died yesterday aged 57 of a heart attack, is largely known for two things. First, his massive transatlantic hit with Dead Or Alive, ‘You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)’, back in 1985. And second, his appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, during which he and George Galloway cavorted about in Lycra leotards.

His acid tongue, and less noted thoughtfulness, always made Burns good value in interviews, and he shined even after he reinvented himself as a reality TV star. It’s often said that Burns was a pioneer, whose gender-bending shock look inspired Boy George. He was also the first goth. But while Burns was a trailblazer, and a striking individual, he was also emblematic of a kind of belligerence and loud-mouthed confidence that defined the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Burns was a product of one of Britain’s great cities, Liverpool, and his demise is a grim reminder of how much Britain’s cities have shrunk in clout and public influence over time. Liverpool in the late Seventies was home to a scene crackling with mavericks and freaks, such as Jayne Casey, Holly Johnson, Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie to name just a few. Like many ambitious young people at the time, Burns used his home city to build a public persona and reputation.

He started off designing clothes, and would bad-mouth those who wore them. When he worked in Probe Records, he would dish out withering put downs about punters’ clothes and choice of vinyl. This was all part of how post-punks tested each other’s mettle, resilience and, above all, sense of humour. Safe spaces? Forget it. Burns and his ilk went out of their way to make public spaces as unsafe as possible. They recognised that if you wanted to burn brightly in public life you needed a leather hide and a sharp tongue.

The death of Pete Burns reminds us that Britain’s mainstream has lost its creative edge and daring – that sense that anything is possible so long as you have the swagger and the mouth to be seen and heard. At the heart of all of this is the demise of public life, and of Britain’s cities – where anyone, from any background, could once blaze a trail by means of sheer talent and force of will. Lamenting the passing of that era isn’t goggle-eyed nostalgia – it’s a damning indictment of the safety-first blandness and conformity of culture today.

Neil Davenport is a writer based in London.

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