By Jeff Maisey
Few pop bands have made the dynamic one-two punch Culture Club did in the early ‘80s.
The London-based group debuted in 1983 with the album “Kissing to be Clever,” which spawned three hit sings in “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” “Time (Clock of My Heart)” and “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya.” At the time they were the first band since The Beatles to have three Top Ten hits from a debut record.
Culture Club followed its initial success with an even stronger sophomore release, “Colour by Number,” with songs such as “Karma Chameleon” and “Church of the Poison Mind.”
The group was known for his melding of musical styles and its flamboyant frontman, Boy George.
It was the age of MTV and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Culture Club.
Over time the band had its ups and downs, breakups and make-ups.
Luckily, the group is on a highly anticipated reunion tour featuring all original members – George, Roy Hay, Mikey Craig and Jon Moss. They’ll perform Sunday, September 4 as the headliner of the American Music Festival at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.
I recently interviewed Boy George, born George O’Dowd, by phone during a tour stop in Texas. Here’s our conversation.
How does it feel for you to be back on tour with the original members of Culture Club?
You know once a band gets on stage it all kind of makes complete sense, and you sort of forget about all that stuff. And also we all get on pretty well now. We’ve known each other a long time. Everybody’s pretty settled. You have the odd on-the-road skirmish about unimportant things, but in general people get on very well now. It just feels kind of normal.
That’s good to hear. George, I’m wondering, living in London during the 1970s and early ‘80s, how did that experience shape the music of Culture Club early on?
I think all of us growing up in the UK, particularly in the ‘70s, were affected by all the many different types of musical explosions.
As a kid I was on the tail end of the ‘60s – Little Richard, a bit of Elvis, a bit of rock ‘n’ roll, The Beatles, and then glam rock, punk rock, disco, New Romanticism. So there was so much happening in the ‘70s. Certainly when we started the band we pulled all of our influences together. We talked about all the different types of music that we liked.
Everybody in Culture Club had an idea about how we wanted to sound, but by some sort of weird osmosis the band developed its own sound. Because of all those influences we ended up having this bizarre world music sound, if you like.
I agree with that. Like many Americans I came across Culture Club by seeing the video for “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” and it did really incorporate an array of styles. I’m wondering what role, you feel, MTV had on the initial success you had as a band?
Well, MTV delivered these colorful postcards into people’s living rooms all over America. So it took away the need to go out and tour extensively. You were being sent into people’s homes directly so people didn’t have to wait to see you, in the way that I did when I was a teenager when somebody came to play in my hometown it was a big event. You bought your ticket well ahead of time, and you had to wait. It was a kind of excitement about that.
But MTV was the beginning of a new era, because we’d come out of this prog rock of the ‘70s where bands like Led Zeppelin had their own airplanes and they’d tour. That’s how they built their following. And MTV changed all of that. We were the new generation. We probably didn’t tour as much as some of the big bands in the ‘70s.
Culture Club had three major hits on your debut album. I’m wondering how you personally dealt with that immediate success and how that impacted songwriting. Did that create additional pressures you perhaps were not anticipating?
I think initially we did “Kissing to Be Clever,” which I would say was full of youthful exuberance, and then we did “Colour by Numbers,” which was really a perfect pop record.
Then after things got a bit patchy – because you become so famous that your job of being famous sort of takes over everything else. Everybody wanted us on TV. We were traveling around the world doing extensive media. The music sort of becomes weirdly secondary. I think that’s a mistake a lot of bands make and made in the ‘80s.
When you’re first successful you kind of panic and you think, “Oh, we’ve got to keep going, if we stop for a minute everything’s going to fall apart.” And everybody’s trying to milk the cow. Everybody’s trying to get everything they can out of it. Most people don’t think of pop bands being long term things. So I think the music became secondary later on, but we did manage to pull off a perfect pop album with “Colour by Numbers.” There were moments of brilliance (after) but it was patchy, I have to say.
Speaking of that album, “Karma Chameleon” is the perfect pop song. When people hear that tune it brings a smile to their face and they sing all the words. It has stood the test of time. Why do you think it has resonated so well with listeners?
If I knew the answer to that I’d write twenty more. (laughing)
I think music, like anything – at the moment it happens, what’s going on politically, socially, where people are in their lives – is all about timing. I wonder if we wrote something like that now whether it would resonate in the same way. It’s difficult to say. I think all of these things are about the moment.
I imagine, on this tour, you’ll see some longtime fans in the audience, but you’ll see a lot of new faces as well. What do you hope young people in the crowd take away from experiencing Culture Club in concert?
I joke a lot when I look out into the audience and say, “If we were building an ark we’d be doing quite well,” because our audience is full of everyone. There’s just every kind of person you could think of, from sort of outrageous people with pink hair, drag queens to very conservative couples and old people to young kids. Music is this wonderful, unifying force.
I think these days what you listen to doesn’t necessarily define you socially or politically anymore. When we were kids you’d have never wore a T-shirt by a band you didn’t love. It just wouldn’t have happened. But you see kids walking around now with Ramones and Siouxie and the Banshees and half of those kids don’t know who those bands are. Whereas, I think, when we were young there’s no way you would have worn a T-shirt of a band you just didn’t worship. You wouldn’t have bought a record by someone you didn’t worship. I think now all of that stuff is very blurred. You can’t define your audience by the way they look or their age – I think it’s a good thing in some ways.
It’s a good thing but it makes it hard to really make any kind of statement. The thing about the ‘70s and the ‘80s was that you could use clothing to say something quite powerful. It has become more difficult because we live in the age of the stylist, and the personal shopper. People can fake it now, you know?
That’s a good point. I wonder what your opinion on streaming is. That’s not a problem we had in the 1980s, but it is now for recording artists.
Well I suppose the equivalent of streaming when I was a kid would be playing the same record over and over and having your mother bang on the ceiling with a broom. You buy that one Bowie record – or whatever it may be – and play it, play it, play it.
The problem with streaming is that young people are playing the same thing over and over and over. You don’t get a wide spectrum of tastes. There’s such a lack of variety.
We also have this terrible kind of ageism in rock ‘n’ roll where past a certain age you’re not going to get played on the radio. It’s kind of been deemed that if you’re a certain age you can’t offer anything creatively to the music industry. The music industry is shooting itself in the foot. It’s like we live in an age where the audience dictates the art form, and it’s awful. That’s the worst thing about the current climate. You’ve got these shows on TV where we make pop stars and you’ve got the audience deciding what gets played. At radio stations you don’t have those DJs like you used to have that have opinions, personalities and play things they like. It’s all formatted. It’s the age of the robot. For a creative person it’s quite frustrating.
The one great thing is that if you can do a good live show it’s really the only place you can be authentic.
To your point of creative frustration is there any incentive for you to release a new Culture Club album?
Well I think that it’s about waiting for the right moment. Personally speaking, I kind of feel that the old way of doing things is dead and pointless.
Putting out records with the record label, going to radio, all that stuff is just a waste of time. So I’m looking for something else. I’m looking for some other way of getting the music out there. I’m looking for the new way because it hasn’t happened yet. There has to be a way to bypass all of that.
I think what U2 did was genius. It’s a shame we can’t all do that. I was one of the few people who wasn’t disappointed to get the album. I thought it was great. I like free stuff.
George, you were influenced by David Bowie. I’m wondering where you were when you heard of his passing. How did his death impact you personally?
Well weirdly I had just bought “Black Star” literally two days before. From a fans point of view, if you’re someone who listens to lyrics, for me it was one of the most personal records Bowie’s ever made. I never really thought of Bowie as somebody who shared his heart with his audience. He was always mystical and nebulous. He was very dream-like creating these fantastical landscapes.
With this record, “Black Star,” he really was talking to his audience.
You know, “If I never see those English evergreens I’m running to,” all of that stuff.
I mean I cried. I listened to that record and I wept. In fact, whenever I listen to the record I cry because I think it’s so beautiful, so poignant and so layered.
When you first hear any Bowie album you always go, “Oh my god, what’s this?”
The first time I heard “Black Star” I just couldn’t get my head around the groove at all. Then suddenly after like four or five plays I was in the pocket and I got it.
“Black Star” is up for a Mercury Prize in the UK and I really hope it wins. It’s a beautiful record but wasn’t played on the radio. It just blows my mind, you know? Despite all the fuss about Bowie’s death no one really heard that record. It went to number one, but it wasn’t played. It’s shocking. It’s such a great Bowie record.
As someone who has devoured so much of his music, “Black Star” really was a terrific record.
You know his passing, for me personally, I wasn’t surprised because I knew he wasn’t well. I didn’t know how ill he was but I knew he wasn’t well.
What was beautiful about him was that he got to paint his own ending. That was just amazing.
WANT TO GO?
Sunday, September 4
5th Street Stage @ Oceanfront
American Music Festival