There were so many reasons why I adored Pete Burns. Like Grace Jones and Alannah his ‘difficult’ reputation preceded him. (You may by now have spotted a recurring client theme but believe me – there are those who really ARE difficult as we’ll discover.) Pete genuinely baffled people. His striking, androgynous public and private image seemed at first to contradict the person you met in real life. I was immediately struck by how beautiful he was. His skin was flawless, his make-up stunning and his clothes (admittedly extreme) were fabulous. What freaked people out was that everything except his appearance was unquestionably masculine – he was tall, muscular, not at all camp and he spoke with a deep strong voice in a broad Liverpool accent. What upset people even more than the apparent contradictions was Pete’s incisive and breathtaking honesty in any situation. Once I got to grips with that and he recognised I wasn’t phased by him – our relationship was refreshingly simple and direct. He was also fantastic company – knowledgeable and hilariously entertaining.
Pete and I had spent considerable time working on the ‘Youthquake’ album sleeve (the album with the ‘You Spin Me Round’ track) – and we were really pleased with the final design. However, when I took it to Epic/Sony to show them – they had a ‘major problem’ with it. I met up with Pete to share the record company grievances and he immediately called a meeting with executives of Epic and the MD of Sony. We went to Soho Square and Pete barely disguised his anger as marketing ‘experts’ outlined their ‘concerns’.
Pete was always totally in control of his image and my job was to produce graphics which complemented whatever it was at the time. Designing sleeves for him always began with an image he’d chosen – of him obviously! Sometimes it was playful, sometimes deliberately shocking and always sexy in all manner of different ways. The photo for ‘Youthquake’ was harder to define. It was taken by the comparatively unknown Mario Testino. (Pete was always at the heart of a talented and edgy creative London scene and many unknown photographers whose talents he recognised and used became famous.) The ‘Youthquake’ photograph was dark, richly textured and Pete’s pose was unconventional to say the least. The picture had an unnerving sense of menace about it. That wasn’t the record company problem though.
I had decided typography for the sleeve should be simple and classical – nothing fussy or too clever which detracted from the power of the image. Although we both agreed it was the right approach, I couldn’t get it to work well enough for a resounding ‘Yes, that’s it!’ from either of us. I wiped the slate clean and started again (‘no matter how hard you hit it etc …). My solution, which produced the resounding ‘YES!’ for us both was Sony’s ‘major problem’. The title of the album was four times bigger than the name of the band and in their infinite wisdom the record company thought the record-buyers would think ‘Youthquake’ was the name of the band (yes – I know!).
We both listened to uninspired ‘alternative solutions’ and – clearly fearful of Pete’s reactions – marketing constantly referred to their ‘respect for their artist’s views’. I knew Pete’s restrained silence was working up to a devastating negation of their ill-judged attempts to change his mind. He stood up when they’d finished, took the mock-up sleeve from the table and held it up in front of him. He turned slowly showing the sleeve to everyone in the room. Each word he spoke – in that deep voice, resonating with the authority of a Liverpool bruiser – was delivered like a bullet to the head.
‘This,’ he said, pointing at the sleeve, ‘is an album cover.’ He paused. ‘An album cover – NOT a FUCKING cure for cancer! This is what I want. Deal with it.’
Genius. With that perspective what could anyone say? Exactly. Nothing. We left. Job done. Another great Pete encounter after a short design interlude …
DESIGN OBSERVATION 3 – TYPOGRAPHY.
I love it. The 26 symbols which create our basic alphabet have (for obvious reasons) completely different shapes. Some, graphically and visually, fit together well and others don’t. This is a fundamental design consideration when creating large type headings or, in the case of YOUTHQUAKE’ – a single word title. A computer program produces the same space between each letter and often letter-spacing needs adjusting. Examples will make this clear …
On the top line (computer spacing) some spaces between letters obviously need adjustment. The ‘A’ and the ‘V’ of ‘AVID’ is probably the best example. Once this concept is understood it’s easy to see where other adjustments need to be made. There is no hard and fast rule to correct spacing – only an intuitive ‘eye’ will confirm what looks right. A total of three space adjustments were made on the second line and two in the word ‘YOUTHQUAKE’ on the fourth.
At the time of ‘Youthquake’ designers used typesetters and Letraset (rub-down individual letters) to create type on artwork. With Letraset this meant physically placing each letter on the artwork. The eye intuitively adjusted spacing between letters as they were laid down and, although it took time, it was no bad thing. These days too little consideration is given to adjusting type which is computer generated. It’s detail I know but if a piece of work is worth doing, it’s important to bring to it a whole range of skills to do it properly.
(I have a great story later involving Lars Ulrich from Metallica about typography. He had an eye for it which was verging on obsession.)
I can’t remember exactly when it was (things were pretty crazy on many levels at the time) but I went for a meeting with Pete at his home in Notting Hill. The three people living in the house were Pete, his fabulous wife Lynne and Steve Coy from the band. Whenever I visited the house I always looked forward to it. I was always made welcome, engaged in intelligent conversation, had many laughs and we usually reached agreement on artwork eventually.
There was something different this time. The large front room was littered with several lightboxes, piles of photographic contact sheets and hundreds of transparencies and 8×10 colour and black and white prints which covered every surface in the room. It was chaotic to put it mildly, Pete was more hyper-active than usual, less focussed which was unusual, somewhat self-conscious (!) and constantly diving in and out of the room. I asked him if everything was ok. He stopped, sat on the sofa and said, ‘I have to stop taking Prozac. It’s turning me into a monster – more self-obsessed than I usually am.’
Pete suffered and endured severe depression. I had never heard of Prozac before then but Pete had discovered the ‘new wonder drug’ to treat his illness. I don’t know what dosage he’d been taking or over what period ( I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months) but knowing him – probably more than he should have. What I was seeing, he said, were the chaotic effects of the drug.
‘I was nearly arrested last night’, he said. ‘I went to a party wearing something impractical’ (it was an outrageous trouser-suit I learnt later!) ‘and a pair of six-inch stilettos. On the way back to the car I decided the shortest way to get there was OVER cars not round them. God knows how many I damaged but I got stuck when the stilettos punctured the top of a soft-top Mercedes.’ (Hopefully not Christopher Hunter’s!)
Picturing Pete, his wild hair blowing in the wind, wearing a silver chain-mail, bell-bottomed trouser suit (oh yes!) attached to a sports car and calling for help in the middle of the night is an image that will stay with me for ever. However hilarious it seems on the surface it was the catalyst which made him realise something was horribly wrong. ‘You know what I did last week? I insisted my clothes designer move into our spare room – so when I woke up at four in the morning with some crazy idea for clothes, I could wake him up to start work immediately. Crazy – fucking crazy. The Prozac HAS to stop!’
Such encounters endeared me to Pete’s honest complexity. Conflict appears to come with the territory. Driving ambition for success to overcome depression, abuse or insecurity can take its toll. An overwhelming dedication to be adored and respected – despite the odds – takes a particular kind of courage.
Respect Mr. Burns. Respect.
Coming up in 12. DEAD OR ALIVE – Part Two:
Sleeves become more outrageous, the freaked-out courier, fear of surgery and Pete on ‘Richard and Judy’
‘Something In My House.‘
Check out DEAD OR ALIVE ‘You Spin Me Round’ Pop-up single HERE
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