Its Pride Weekend here in Columbus, Ohio and that means parades with women dressed as men and men dressed as divas. But beyond the Diana Ross and Village People impersonators the outlandish spectacle that is a Pride Parade may not have been possible in middle American places like Columbus had it not been for the pop image trailblazers of the 1980s.
Primary amongst them was of course Boy George, who proved that a drag show would score on the charts as well as in the camp circles which inspired him. Riding on the high heels of the Culture Club was a small troupe of style imitators who had varying degrees of success. One of those was Dead or Alive.
It was hard to figure Dead or Alive out on looks alone. At times the quartet appeared like any other post punk/new wave British band with big hair, long lashes and all clad in leather. But at closer inspection the band’s leader Pete Burns would go from glam to glamour with the hair, nails and makeup of a supermodel or Japanese Kyoto style dancer. Granted the look was silly, but it was the ’80s and Boy George had opened the door for queens to follow.
It’s no wonder the band was as huge in Japan as they were in England. The Dead or Alive’s first album Sophisticated Boom Boom drew comparisons to Boy George’s looks and Depeche Mode’s sound, so the more outrageous the bands appearance became, the more doors seemed to open for them.
Dead or Alive had attracted enough buzz to land the famed Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW) production team to helm the boards of their second album Youthquake.
It would be the first project from the future English hit making team. From it would come the hits ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’ and ‘Lover Come Back To Me’. Those two singles captured a Hi-NRG sound that was popular in gay clubs and would become part of the pop mainstream as the middle part of the decade progressed.
Much of Youthquake was pleasant dance pop with the better songs like the single ‘In Too Deep’ leaning towards R&B. Being pleasant often equates to bland, which may explain why the bands appearance (Burns in particular) was so important to their early success in America. Be it musical blandness or lack or depth, what ever the reason Youthquake would be Dead or Alive’s big moment in America with ‘You Spin Me..” reaching #11 and ‘Come Back to Me’ reaching #75 on the Billboard pop chart. The albums presence on the dance charts was more consistent with the album peaking at #31 after hovering on the chart for the better part of a year on the strength of remixes.
By the time the third and final single was released Dead or Alive had already had their 15 minutes on this side of the Atlantic and had receded back to club status in America. In the wake of their short lived stay in the spotlight, they helped reform the American public’s view of androgyny to the point of no longer stigmatizing it amongst the young and more open minded. Well, ok they were more tolerant but Youthquake likely would not have been sold in a typical Walmart store back when it was still a theocratic regional retailer.
America has had a long and fragile acceptance of androgyny in rock n roll, but only if the music made us dance (Little Richard, David Bowie, Prince, Eurythmics etc). Dead or Alive’s added to this legacy despite their one hit wonder status in America. They helped forge acceptance of drag and androgyny beyond the coasts and into Norman Rockwellian places like Omaha, Nebraska and Columbus, Ohio.
As George Takei(also known as Sulu on Star Trek) leads this years parade, it will no doubt include music from the time when “the cause” begun to gain popular acceptance. ‘You Spin Me Round’ might be as much Pride parade fodder as ‘YM.C.A.’ or ‘I Will Survive’ in the march for acceptance.