Dead or Alive is an English pop group from Liverpool. Before their frontman Pete Burns became known in the mainstream for making money in gossip television, they actually released awesome music. It seems to me, Dead or Alive is a specimen band demonstrating, how popular and club music has changed during the last decades. They are best known for synth-pop and electronic dance music having come a long way starting out with rock, becoming famous in the 80´s, especially in Japan and ending up releasing electronic dance music in the 90´s, which had a bit deteriorated sound as pop music by that time all-in-all.
Dead or Alive reached their higher success with their second album Youthquake (1985), and the single You Spin Me Round (Like a Record). I hold the album in high regards indeed, however I decided to write the review on their first album Sophisticated Boom Boom, as Burns´s voice still has the same low-pitched profoundness on it, that he demonstrated in the early years, that I so happen to appreciate.
Dead or Alive´s first release Birth Of A Nation (EP) came out under the name Nightmares in Wax in 1980. My first encounter with their early releases was seeing the studio recording of them performing Flowers and what struck me at first was the certain alikeness of Burns´s voice to that of Jim Morrison´s. The early Dead or Alive places in the gothic and post-punk scene and takes on to pop from there. Although the 90´s brought a new wave of punk with grunge onto the musical landscape, it did not affect them as the band had led in another direction by then. But not completely.
The very first song of Dead or Alive that I heard was the cover of Rebel Rebel (1995). It is not certain to my knowledge how much other direct influence they received from Bowie, who was a much-played artist in Blitz club in London, where the new-romantics resided with Boy George, who has claimed to have regarded Pete Burns as an early example. The two were often compared for their androgynous image with a big hat and ribbon-tied dreads. Burns, heavily influenced by punk movement discovered Vivienne Westwood and adopted that look from her fashion stages. See it here:
Misty Circles is my personal favourite from the album. The final album version is a good dance-song but the earlier ones have quite a melancholic undertone. I think the final version with quicker tempo fits better to the whole concept and makes the song more compact. Slower singing contrasted to a constantly ringing backing rhythm creates a dramatic feeling, as if the emotion would be carried by instruments and thoughts by vocals. Burns´s voice here is deep and masculine, not very resonant as usual, a bit characteristically growly, but carries out the higher notes with ease. The real desperation of the song is hidden in the lyrics, which I find to be very poetical without any unnecessary sugarcoating. Unlike many poems that end up being so artistically strained, that only the author knows what they talk about, the message of the song comes across very clear, however misty the circle.
Their first UK Top 40 single That's the Way (I Like It) (cover of KC & the Sunshine Band) is also their most known song from the album up to this day. The famous phrase was already recited on Nightmares in Wax album in quite a perverted punk song Black Leather. The song has not lost any funk in the new cover but gained a new stereotype-breaking perspective in their video and has a more of a rock kinda feeling to it.
Another song that stands out for me on the album is Absolutely Nothing. It sounds sophisticated, earnest and demanding. It starts a bit flirty, suggestive and grows quickly more serious. The strongest part of the song is towards the end, when the tone changes into outright accusing, like a toddler tramping feet against the floor and demanding a candy. The high female vocals are a good balance to Burns´ s low and brute voice.
The next song right after is What I Want, which has a highly energetic beat. The aggressive vocals in the chorus go well with the generally benevolent aggressiveness of the song.Tempo is quick throughout the song, which I really like, because somehow I can not stand slow pointless parts in pop songs, that are only there to take time for winding up to repeat the chorus again. This song winds up in the beginning and once reached to the culmination, it does not suddenly lose its breath before the end. Listening to What I Want feels like someone has told you to shut up, carried you off for a really speedy carousel ride and does not let go any more.
The following Far Too Hard is the only slower and more tender song on this album. It tells about wanting to apologize but pride getting in the way. I think many of us can relate to that kind of situation. It is not however self-evidently clear what it is the speaker needs to apologize for or to whom, but the lyrics: "I am young man/Fascinated with my profile in the mirror/and that´s a dangerous direction/Men should never make it with their own reflection" suggest his narcissistic self-love and what it can lead up to. It is a heart-breaking song, because we know now what it really led up to, at least for Burns. His voice in this song shows another side, more clear, it has lost its typical matte sound and the register is high but not loud, which is not what we get often on this album. It is a very beautiful but a sad song- paradoxically many sad things tend to be beautiful.
Sit On It is a more energetic one once again and although it is about the same length as other songs, it seems to me every time to end too quickly. The song is bustling quickly towards the end and once you get there, you can not believe that is it already. Although there are many repetitions I tend to not notice them, as they don´t seem to bother me. The vocals here are loud, bold and full of energy with a bestial or wild feeling to them. I especially like them at 1.44- 2.14, they are tender and coarse at the same time, which makes me think, if anyone else sang this song, they would only ruin it, because the whole quality sits in the voice.
Selfish Side is a bit different one, as the vocals have been changed into unrecognizable but the song has a good catchy tune and strong beat. It is curious, self-determining, fresh and adventurous. Being not necessarily a sad song, it leaves one a bit wavering in the unknown.
The final song leaving out the remixes is The Stranger, which was made in 1982 and belongs among one of the earliest songs of Dead or Alive. Just by listening one could easily hear it is very similar to their other early songs. It has mystery, questions, uncertainty and gloominess, all components present in Birth Of A Nation. Also the vocals are more sliding, long and a bit more crawling. I regard this song one of my very favourites of Dead or Alive over-all.
Sophisticated Boom Boom is the first and the best album of Dead or Alive as far as I am concerned. It holds true 80´s dance music feeling but also hints on the previous goth club culture through The Stranger. The whole album is a beautiful compact and needs no special mood for listening. It is one of those albums that has a persistent value as a pioneer, a placeholder and a reminder of the magnificent times gone by.