A CLASH OF CULTURE
One or two of you might remember that the mission of my previous (now lost in cyber-space) blog was to dig out albums that everybody used to own but now find themselves confined to attics, charity shops or car boot sales. The intention was to rehabilitate them... hopefully.
This latest entry fits that criterion perfectly and to offer increased value to you, dear reader, I think we need to look at not one but two albums in order to invite you to reconsider this band anew.
Step forward... Culture Club.
Accompanied by their first two albums "Kissing To Be Clever" and "Colour By Numbers".
Whilst the band and especially, lead singer, Boy George are now seen as symbols of the rather superficial and fluorescent elements of 80s pop culture, it rather overlooks just how massive the band truly was between the autumns of 1982 and 1984 across the entire globe.
They were one of the first beneficiaries of the MTV effect that could create global stars with a shiny promo and some outlandish wardrobe. It is very easy to damn Culture Club for this crime of vacuousness because few could match their shininess or their outlandishness.
But underneath it all...
"Kissing To Be Clever" is a real snapshot of the early 80s as virtually every burgeoning style that was bursting through the post-punk dance floor scene is represented as the band try to find their identity. There is the slightly sombre New Romantic moods of "Boy (I'm The Boy)" or the Spandau Ballet soundalike "White Boy" with its synth-drum and horns attack. The sound of Camden Palace and the scene is very prevalent.
"I'm Afraid Of Me" takes its cues from the kind of light calypso rhythm that had made 1981 such a big year for Linx or even Kid Creole & The Coconuts and again sounds very much of its time. "Love Twist" is a more soulful number and would not be out of place on the follow-up album and certainly seemed to be a direction where the band seemed comfortable going.
What many people don't realise is how close the band came to never breaking at all as both "I'm Afraid Of Me" and "White Boy" had been released to deafening silence - perhaps because their sound was ill-defined or perhaps because their potential audience hadn't as yet bought into the New Romantic image and taken it above ground.
So the launch of their third single really was the band's last throw of the dice. And so emerged "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" and with it hundreds of thousands of headlines all across the world. It is a record that seems to borrow from another underground genre - Lovers Rock (a lighter soulful style of reggae) but with its pop sensibilities and gospel-styled acappella intro seemed to feel classic from the get-go.
The effect of their first major TV appearance was electric.
"Kissing To Be Clever" is dominated by its massive number one single because the rest of the album is desperately seeking a style. It has an early message of diversity but that seems to carry over into the track listing too much. But it does have an identity going for it because, these were nearly all songs about being on the outside, not quite fitting in - this is no perfect romantic world despite its more upbeat poppy atmosphere. Perfect fodder for the boy/girl media circus that ensued.
It also launched one of the most under-rated blue-eyed soul voices of the time, largely lost behind mascara and over-sized smocks. And on "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" that voice really lets rip during the now hugely over familiar acapella opening. He's no Whitney Houston but the impact of the audio alone is still really quite startling.
And the whole world went nuts...
They then released a non-album single (in the UK) "Time (Clock Of The Heart)" which I still think might be their best ever recording, bridging the gap between the pop meandering of the first album but now with a more sophisticated groove. It would point the way for the second album which the record company were now clamouring for as the worldwide fan base grew exponentially.
The new album was preceded by another cracking single "The Church Of The Poison Mind" which as a title never made an awful lot of sense to me but had the kind of Motown beat that Wham would appropriate the following year for "Freedom". It also introduced the backing vocals of Helen Terry, which might in itself not seem like a particularly big deal but it presented a tremendous counterpoint to George's voice at several key points on the album.
I doubt it was intended as such but the promo itself shows what a slash of brightness they managed to graffiti across the UK's rather grey early 80s landscape. Of course, it could just be that they shot the video in February.
"Colour By Numbers" is a much more accomplished recording. It's still fairly lightweight in its construction but it has a far more polished production over its predecessor and the writing is stronger (with one notable exception).
"Black Money" is a tremendous vocal performance and sets the more soulful tone that I think the band would have like to follow ultimately. As is "Miss Me Blind" which has a more uptempo feel but has a really authentic groove to it.
Their pop fans were given a real treat with "It's A Miracle" which had a promo that celebrated the band's rise to success. However, by the time of its release it already felt like the act of a band that was nostalgic for the good old days... barely 24 months before.
So much in ther world had changed and it felt like the act of a band becoming jaded with itself after two long years of jet-setting and non-stop media commitments.
Then there is the elephant in the corner...
The really big hit...
Number one across the globe for weeks in the late summer of 1983...
Say it quietly, please.
I cannot stand this record.
Not because it's childish... not because it's annoying... (it is both of those things)
But because you could not avoid it. Toddlers, grannies, housewives, bus conductors - everyone whistled or hummed or sang along to this horrific ear worm. And it killed the band.
They had had an edge, right up to this point. Boy George had been outspoken and outrageous while the band had started to develop a strong style that had emerged from their more underground influences. "Karma Chameleon", a monstrous nursery rhyme of a song, comes along and suddenly George is no more threatening than a pantomime dame.
The song is so huge it dwarfs the album and rather negates all its good work - particularly the extraordinary closing ballad "Victims" which was a much more powerful message to many of Culture Club's previously lost and disenfranchised fans, who had found such an identity with the band and especially George.
It's a towering work that feels like a Phil Spector production and I think is probably one of the performances of which the band is most proud. I am a little surprised that nobody has ever covered it because it is an amazing recording and beautiful lyric - although George Michael who normally had great ear for other people's songs did put it in his live set.
And it is no nursery rhyme.
In the promo there, is a lovely moment though where George is moving backwards through a door on a moving camera boom and I think he is terrified he is about to crash.
As the band moved into the latter half of 1984, there was the demand for another new album at the label's urging and we were presented with "war is stupid and people are stupid" as the opening for "The War Song" and you could hear in the background a once credible career disappearing down the plughole as not even "Karma Chameleon"'s staunchest fans wanted something as juvenile as this.
"Waking Up With The House On Fire" was a great disappointment and 1985 - as it did for so many of the pop giants of the 80s - was the beginning of the end and they would never see Culture Club achieve the potential they could have done. All that was left was a belting and instantly recognisable cameo during Band-Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" and that would largely be that.
It is incredible to think that in the space of not much more than 2 years the band released 3 albums, 7 top ten UK singles (two reaching number one), several more in the US and carried out two and a half world tours - with all the accompanying media frenzy. The exhaustion is understandable and it's palpable in how poor the third album is and how little resistance they now seemed to put up to releasing records that tried to confirm them as national treasures rather than genre-breaking rebels.
Boy George did an enormous amount for breaking down stereotypes and boundaries and genuinely wanted to spread a message of diversity and acceptance - millions around the world bought into this and so the demands became too great for a band that showed some very polished moments with a great and instantly recognisable vocalist. This is too often overlooked.
The two albums have a role to play in this because both end up being over-powered by their major singles. For "Kissing To Be Clever", "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" gives the album a focal point and drags it out of its rather meandering attempt to lock onto a distinctive style out of all its myriad of early 80s influences. How much better that album would be if we took the US version with "Time (Clock Of The Heart)" of course.
"Colour By Numbers" is an excellent album let down by the unmentionable massive hit. It diminishes the effect of soulful renditions such as "Black Money" and "Mister Man" or a message as comforting and important as "Victims". It's not "Rumours" and never will be but there is much to like when you skate across the two unashamedly pop records and think not just of the accompanying pandemonium but the real effort the writing made to build a sense of inclusion.
Put aside your pre-conceptions and consider them as artists not just newspaper headlines and for around 70% of the time you'll be surprisingly pleased you did.