By 1983, MTV had blown the lid off of popular music, bringing us such acts as Men at Work, Stray Cats and Eurythmics. We, in the Midwest, were dancing to the sounds of Billy Idol, INXS and Duran Duran. But, when you wanted a new wave act for your slow jam mixtape, you had to turn to a band fronted by a gay man bent on turning sexual perceptions on its head by making fun of them. That band, which some critics said was fronted by the Eighties version of Smokey Robinson, unfortunately, could only hold it together for two white hot successful years before imploding. Today, I come to shout the praises of Culture Club. That’s what I said! For 1983 and 1984, Culture Club was able to meld Motown, soft reggae and a sweet voiced white soul singer into a cultural phenomenon.
Remember the first time you saw them on MTV? A friend of mine and I could not decide if the sweet-voiced singer in their “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” video was male or female. As the song continued, I suddenly realized that I didn’t care. I knew that song was a hit! I went out and bought their first album, based on that first hit of theirs. What I heard on that Kissing to Be Clever album was a band trying to find their sound. From the heartache relationship lament of “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” to the fun dance-lite “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” to the Motown-styled ballad of the great “Time (Clock of My Heart)” was mixed in with several decent attempts at reggae or dub. But when the band focused on that rich Motown vein of songwriting, no other band at the time brought blue-eyed to the masses as they did.
Now, technically, that first album of Culture Club’s was released in the UK in 1982, but we in the States did not catch on to it until early in 1983. By the summer of 1983, while I was working in Wisconsin, “Time” was a huge hit. Whenever the workers at the resort would frequent the local tavern on Thursdays, someone would punch “Time” in the jukebox and all of the patrons at the tavern would be singing the song together. Who knew that a drag queen could bring together rednecks, ruffians and college students together like Boy George. It WAS a site, yet it really did happen. I’m sure glad that social media did not exist back then. While working at that resort, halfway through the summer, the resort would hire a dozen or so kids from England to work at the resort, which was pretty cool to talk to them, not because of their accents but for their experiences.
One night, after a singing “Time” at yet another bar with the others from the resort, this English man told me right there at the bar that if I liked “Time”, then I will love the stuff that Culture Club was just releasing in the UK before he left. That night was when I learned of new songs “Church of the Poison Mind” and “Karma Chameleon”. Unfortunately, I had to wait a few months before those songs and the new album, Colour by Numbers would be released.
So, I waited. We all lived through “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” ‘s run up and down the charts. During this song’s run, the best thing that happened was when some drunk freshman took a scary but very drunken fall of nearly five stories down the middle of the stairwell in my dormitory, only to come away with several stitches in the back of his head (10, if my memory serves me well) and a slight concussion. I just remember how after he was released from the hospital, people would serenade him for the next month with a round of “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” in the dining room. Sad, yet still kind of funny memory.
Well, finally, in October 1983, Culture Club released their now classic album Colour by Numbers. Finally, the band discovered their wheelhouse was really in the Motown-vein. And, since the movie The Big Chill had brought back Motown music to prominence with many of the people around me that the sound became popular as well when performed by new artists, like my beloved Culture Club. “Church of the Poisoned Mind” was the first single released, and it shot straight into the Top 10. During that time, that album spent many hours on my turntable. I played the heck out of the album, devouring the music and lyrics. There were several bands from England who were mining that Motown sound at the time, but none of them had refined it into their own sound as much as the Club had.
Several weeks later, the best song on the album, “Karma Chameleon” was dropped on us as the band’s next single. The song, which could be used by musicologists as an excellent representative song of what music sounded like in the 1980s. It was a perfect song that touch the masses so much that it was reported in a Rolling Stone magazine article about Bob Dylan that he was messing around playing his guitar when all of a sudden he began singing “Karma Chameleon”, saying how great of a song it is. The song streak to Number One on Billboard‘s Hot 100, setting off a small case of Culture Club-mania that should have signaled to us that Culture Club’s ride was going to be like a child’s grocery purchased firework and not last long.
Sure, the band was able to pull more hits off the album as 1983 gave way to 1984. “Miss You Much” and “It’s a Miracle” were both pulled off the album as singles and both became Top 10 hits. I contend that two other songs could have been big hits, but then the band could have run the risk of being compared to Barry Manilow or Elton John if they have been released. These two songs were BIG ballads who lyrical emotions were matched by huge production work. Those song that could have sent the band further into the stratosphere were “Victims” and “That the Way (I’m Only Trying to Help You)”. “Victims” is a Manilow dead ringer of a song, while “That’s the Way” has Elton written all over it. But, for some reason, the band’s record company, Epic, felt the group needed to go back into the studio to cut another album.
The problem was that the boys didn’t have any songs. Plus, Boy George and drummer Jon Moss’s romantic relationship was ending, sending the singer spiraling out of control mentally. The two were strong when the first two albums had be made. But, after recording two albums and touring in between had strained the lovers’ relationship to a breaking point. Guitarist Roy Hay and bassist Mikey Craig were left out in the cold watching half of their band disintegrate. With Boy George being the main lyricist, when he goes toward a bad lyric, his lyrics suffer. So, in a futile effort to keep is attitude good in order to write positive lyrics, Boy turned to drugs. which was a disaster. Boy George was not built to be a recreational user who was able to take drugs for inspiration. On the contrary, Boy George was an addict waiting to happen, in other words a ticking time bomb that exploded during the recording of their third album.
Unfortunately, instead of suspending the work on that third album and letting the boys get some rest and drug help, Epic Records pushed the group for more product, which was obvious after one listen to Waking Up with the House on Fire that Culture Club was creatively toast. The album bombed, as did the lead single, the very underappreciated “The War Song”, a very simple child-like anti-war song. As the album continued to fail, Boy George’s addiction problems increased to the point that he was arrested multiple times.
Over the subsequent years, the band called it a day and disbanded. Then, Boy George was in and out of rehab and prison. But, when he is in a good place, he is highly creative. Today, the band has reunited to a long deserved victory lap tour of clubs. So, here’s to Boy George and his finding happiness in this world and spreading his unique brand of joy to the music lovers of the world. And, here’s to drummer Jon Moss, hoping that he has found happiness in a heterosexual life and not giving in to social convention. And, here’s to the musical backbone of the band, Mikey Craig and Roy Hays, knowing that you two were put on this earth to play this great music that their band, Culture Club, created. And, finally, here’s my personal toast to four men who taught the world about racial and sexual tolerance with the joyfulness of their music.
That was a magic moment between 1982 and 1984. And Culture Club was right up there with The Boss, The Police, Prince, Michael and Madonna, giving us some of the most beautiful and innovative music that we had the privilege to experience in our youth.