Fade to grey: Warhol's Marilyn Diptych (1962). Image © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London
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Death and dollar signs: Warhol’s memory capsules of 20th-century America

Mark Lawson’s Critic’s Notes.

Because Andy Warhol (1928-87) rarely spoke in public and when he did he mumbled gnomically, it’s difficult to know what he thought. But as his art was obsessed with modernity – frozen moments of his time, from supermarket products to scenes on TV – it seems unlikely that posterity was a central concern, especially as his most quoted line (“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”) addressed the perishability of celebrity. As it turns out, in the present, Warhol has been famous for 50 years and so there’s a particular fascination – in “Transmitting Andy Warhol”, the handsome retrospective at Tate Liverpool – in seeing how his stuff stands up. 

The Tate display puts special emphasis on the artist’s later work in film, which led him more than once to murmur about retiring from painting. And a good case is made that his video pieces mark him as a cultural prophet in the league of George Orwell and Marshall McLuhan. By aiming a camera at the Empire State Building for eight hours or a friend’s sleeping form for five hours and creating a deliberately vacuous TV show of interviews, Warhol foresaw webcams, reality television and the ethos of the internet.

His best works, however, are not the pictures that scarcely move but the ones that remain completely still. Each Warhol retrospective makes it seem even more shocking that the philistines of his time dismissed his paintings, prints and sculptures as easy or empty. The works beside the Mersey confirm the sharpness of his eye: there’s always more going on than a sceptic thinks.

Blue Airmail Stamps (1962), for example, may reproduce the same image 44 and a half times but, by choosing a stamp with a jet on it, Warhol creates a blanket-bombing raid in a year that the US tripled its troop levels in Vietnam. Because of his tactical or actual inarticulacy, the extent to which Warhol was consciously a political artist remains unverifiable. Yet the show demonstrates that, one way or another, he perfectly selected the items for a memory capsule of late-20th-century America: the Tate curators pointedly place in close proximity depictions of a gun, a dollar sign, an electric chair and the murders of the Kennedy brothers. The latter canvases are further darkened by Warhol having himself survived an assassination attempt by the writer Valerie Solanas – suffering serious gunshot wounds – days before RFK was killed.

The only weakness is that, as Warhol shows usually do, this one underplays the extent to which his lifelong Catholicism informs his most iconic creations. This is the art of a child who gazed up at images of horrifically murdered men and women who had achieved saintliness by rejecting sex. Marilyn overlaps with another “MM” – Mary Magdalene – and is perhaps even transmuted into a non-virgin Mary in works that ape the panelled form of altarpieces.

The Warhol compositions that deal with the decomposition of Monroe are terrifying memento mori. In Marilyn Diptych (1962), from the year of her death, her bright-pink face fades in the second panel to a blackened negative. The palette of rigor mortis is utilised even more frighteningly, five years later, in another set of Marilyn screen prints in which the progressively disintegrating portraits play with the techniques of movie and mortician’s make-up.

Liverpool isn’t a place we connect with this artist, although the Tate dutifully includes his undated portrait of the Beatles. That, though, is perhaps the weakest painting to be seen – there’s nothing going on except reproduction – whereas the rest of the exhibition handsomely confirms that Warhol represents one of those moments when artistic possibility breaks its frames.

Strike up the band

The most familiar dramatic genres are tragedy, comedy, farce, musical, monologue and revue. Yet an article in the programme for Made in Dagenham at the Adelphi Theatre in London – a song-and-dance version of the film about a 1968 equal-pay strike at a Ford plant – posits a new artistic subdivision: the industrial dispute musical. It lists eight shows about shop-floor walkouts, including Strike!, a Canadian hit about a 1919 general strike in Winnipeg; The Pajama Game, recently revived in London; and Billy Elliot, which has been turning the 1984 miners’ picket line into a chorus line for almost ten years now.

Whereas Margaret Thatcher appears in that show only in lyrics and as an effigy, Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle, the politicians challenged by the women who stitched the seats for Cortinas, are central characters in Made in Dagenham, with the prime minister delivering a Python­esque silly-walk number about the balance of payments.

Some newspaper reviews have seemed to me astonishingly bilious, the main complaint being that this is a less serious piece than Billy Elliot. But the tone of any drama is largely dictated by its ending and, because the miners lost but the Essex feminists won, the comedic feel of the Ford musical is justified. No originally written musical for years has been this funny and Made in Dagenham deserves a long run before the management locks it out. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.