All things equal, I have to admit that I went to college during a pretty good era. We didn’t have the Vietnam War to worry about, although the Cold War could be stressful at times. And, although the stain of Watergate was stilling casting a pall over the country, we were coming out from under that cloud. Oh sure, we lived through the Reagan era, as we still are, but that is simply the ebb and flow of a country’s political cycle. But, let’s face it that when you were actually coming of age with the rise of punk rock, new wave, hip hop and MTV, it was pretty sweet to have all of that as the soundtrack to your life. Now, not everything that was popular was cool, but much cool stuff was happening in the underground or, even better, just under the surface. My age group’s comedy came from Late Night with David Letterman, SCTV and Fridays. And cynicism rained supreme as we watched many of our Boomer friends and our peers sell out to yuppie-dom.
But, man, were we ever living through an excellent time for music! And, boy, in the early-Eighties, artists from the UK had it all over most of their American counterparts. Here, we were bombarded with bands who paid little attention to image while watering down much of the early-Seventies hard rock sound. Don’t get me wrong, I still love me some Styx and Journey, but those bands all started to sound the same. Then, seemingly out of nowhere came the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam, Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, Elvis Costello, Prince and so many other artists who were taking old sounds and putting a new generational twist on them. And, then, MTV came on cable and put many of those artists on TV and everything changed for us.
Over night, clothing stores in Central Indiana were selling outfits that the guys in Duran Duran were wearing. Oh sure, they were cheap knock-offs of the stuff sold on the coasts, but finally Hoosiers could get a hold of clothing besides jeans and concert T-shirts (though they still tend to be my outfit of choice, along with athletic wear). Everywhere you went, you could hear the latest by Adam Ant, Billy Idol and the Thompson Twins. All of this pop/rock music known as new wave set the stage for much of the Eighties’ fashion, even with Hair metal.
Back in 1982, I remember being at a friend’s house and we were watching MTV when this new band’s video came on. The both of us were staring at the screen perplexed by what we were seeing. The sound was a soothing update on the Motown sound with a pleasing touch of reggae with the voice of an angel rising over it. Yet, it was the visual that had us transfixed, until my friend just blurted out, “Is that a man or a woman?” Honestly, I had no idea.
That was my introduction to Boy George and the video for “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” I cannot emphasize just how subversive it really was at the time. By the end of the video, I was certain that I had just seen my first drag queen performance. I know my friend and I argued about it for another couple of minutes, but we both agreed that the song was a potential hit. And, that the band’s image was definitely a salute to David Bowie’s androgynous glam days.
When I got home later that evening, I flipped on MTV when that same video came on. Immediately, I yelled for Mom to come in to see this. I figured that Mom could help me put an end to the earlier discussion since she was an art teacher and former drama teacher. You see, I was exposed to gay culture when I was younger while Mom was working on her art master’s degree. And, although she was taking classes at Ball State, there were many gay and lesbian classmates who I enjoyed talking to. Well, when Mom, bless her heart, saw Boy George strut across the screen, she immediately screamed with delight and laughter, “That’s a drag queen, and he’s lovely!” She went on and on about him and how she loved the musical Cabaret, but that’s Mom in a nutshell: everything related back to a musical.
With Culture Club, what we got was a man with the falsetto voice of a Smokey Robinson or Eddie Kendrick, a crack band able to blend some light reggae popularized by Men at Work or The Police with the classic Motown sound from the Sixties, and a popping visual image of stylized musicians backing a nearly openly gay man proudly parading in front. It was a striking image to say the least, but they never would have been successful if they didn’t write some very timeless songs, played the hell out of them and created some very cinematic videos to promote them.
I will go to my grave arguing about the brilliance of their sophomore album Colour by Numbers. That album is absolutely an Eighties milestone and totally lost in the hype and controversy over Boy George’s image and subsequent fall from grace. Before a drug addiction brought an early end to the band’s meteoric rise, George was an excellent interview. I loved how he could play coy with his sexuality buy saying things like, “Gay?!?! I’m bisexual! If I want sex, I have to buy it.” Or, as he said when the band won the Grammy for Best New Artist, “America knows a good queen when it sees one.” The man was a master of playing with the conservative media.
Yet, behind those campy quotes, his lyrics spoke to a man deeply hurt by his sexuality. As a scientist, I have always felt there was a genetic reason behind every disease or affliction or psychological issue or sexuality. Now, in the early Eighties, that was a unique stance. But, I believed it. Seriously, who really wants to get against everything that society believes unless there is some genetically telling you to be a certain way. I cannot turn on and off my ADHD or depression when it would benefit society, how can we possibly tell an individual to turn off their sexuality? And, guess what people, scientists are beginning to discover a scientific reason for sexuality!
But, back to his lyrics, George was depressed and repressed and discriminated against and hurt, and it’s all there in his lyrics. Who knows why anyone tries to self-medicate their mental illnesses other than convenience? But, that has thwarted many a great artist, and that’s what caused Culture Club’s downfall. And while their first album was good and their second album is a bonafide classic, their third and fourth albums were spotty, mainly due to George’s addictions getting the better of him.
Maybe that’s all the rock gods were willing for George to give us. Regardless, it is an excellent catalog of terrific music that continues to grow in stature to those of us who lived through that period of music. Culture Club were our Miracles. For that, I would like to honor them with a Top 20 list. Here’s to Culture Club, one cutting edge band that made everything else that came in their wake possible. Frank Ocean, Right Said Fred and so many others should be thankful for this band’s ability to make their careers so passe.
20. “Life” (Life, 2018)
19. “Your Kisses Are Charity” (Don’t Mind If I Do, 1999)
18. “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” (Kissing to Be Clever, 1982). Quick college story: Some drunk freshman once fell about five stories from the fourth floor down to basement in our dorm. Fortunately, since he was so very intoxicated, he only need stitches in his head but was badly beat up with bruises. When he was released from the hospital, he was going through the cafeteria when his buddies started his this song to him in front of everyone. Although I felt sorry for it, it was pretty hilarious all thing considered. Once again, i have a very dark sense of humor.
17. “White Boy” (Kissing to Be Clever, 1982).
16. “Love Is Love” (Waking Up with the House on Fire, 1984)
15. “I Just Wanna Be Loved” (Don’t Mind If I Do, 1999)
14. “I’m Afraid of Me” (Kissing to Be Clever, 1982)
13. “Black Money” (Colour by Numbers, 1983)
12. “Everything I Own” – Boy George (Non-album single, 1987)
11. “The Crying Game” – Boy George (The Crying Game OST, 1992)
10. “Miss Me Blind” (Colour by Numbers, 1983). Pop music with a searing guitar solo? Yep! And it was all the rage back in the day.
9. “It’s a Miracle” (Colour by Numbers, 1983). A pleasant little tune with up-beat lyrics, which was quite a departure for George.
8. “Move Away” (From Luxury to Heartache, 1986). An unjustly forgotten gem from a troubled time for the band. I really hoped at the time that George was getting his demons under control.
7. “The War Song” (Waking Up with the House on Fire, 1984). At the time, this song was written off because of its child-like lyrics. Yet, to me, that’s what makes it such a compelling protest song in that you could have elementary kids singing this song while making a subtle political point. Not everything needs to be Bob Dylan-esque to be brilliant.
6. “Mistake No. 3” (Waking Up with the House on Fire, 1984). Here’s yet another long overlooked song. Please, tell me why this wasn’t a hit here in the States? Boy, this just might be George’s second most personal song the band ever released.
5. “Church of the Poison Mind” (Colour by Numbers, 1983). I remember while working in Wisconsin during the summer of 1983, there were some people from the UK working there as well. I got to befriend one of them, and he told me if I liked Culture Club that I was going to love this song. He was not wrong. George’s lyrics had grown so much in such a short time. He was making a subtle stab at bigotry here.
4. “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” (Kissing to Be Clever, 1982). The song that broke the Club nearly broke it apart, as this was a paean to George’s lost lover, drummer Jon Moss.
3. “Karma Chameleon” (Colour by Numbers, 1983). THE biggest hit and most well-known Culture Club song IS brilliant in its simplicity. This is a worthy landmark song.
2. “Victims” (Colour by Numbers, 1983). Here is the emotional centerpiece of this brilliant album. Unfortunately, it was never a hit over here, so it’s always been more of a deep cut to Americans. But, this remains the band’s most vulnerable performance. Plus, singer Helen Terry soulfully pushes George to greater emotional heights than he ever went. This song is like a duet between Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson. I am blown away every time I hear it.
1. “Time (Clock of My Heart)” (Kissing to Be Clever, 1982). The band’s second hit in the States is a perfect little Motown ditty that has more emotional ties to me than artistic reasons. Nevertheless, what can you say about a song when it makes a whole bar of twenty-somethings sing it in unity? That alone tells you about the power of the song.