Born out of the English club scene of the late 1970s, Culture Club combined Boy George’s outrageous fashion sense and charming wit with a deft sense of popular music. “Few New Wave groups were as popular as Culture Club,” wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine in All Music Guide. “During the early ‘80s, the group racked up seven straight Top 10 hits in the U.K. and six Top 10 singles in the U.S. with their light, infectious pop-soul.” Media attention, plus exposure on MTV helped push songs like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” and “Karma Chameleon” to the top of the charts. Few realized at the time, however, that internal pressures continually threatened to disassemble the band. George’s drug addiction and his off-again, on-again relationship with drummer Jon Moss eventually led to the band’s fragmentation. “By 1986,” Erlewine wrote, “the group had broken up, leaving behind several singles that rank as classics of the New Wave era.”
Singer George and bassist Mikey Craig met Moss while playing in a band called Sex Gang Children. Once guitarist John Suede had been replaced by guitarist/keyboard player Roy Hay, the lineup of the band gelled. After considering the Caravan Club and the Can’t Wait Club, George christened the band Culture Club in 1981. They set out to avoid the pitfalls of fame and fortune. “Right from the start,” George wrote in his autobiography, Take It Like a Man, “we agreed that all band earnings would be split four ways, including the songs. We tried to create a perfect pop democracy….” The group recorded demos of “The Eyes of Medusa” and “I’m an Animal” for EMI, and while the record label expressed interest, it wanted to hear more material. On October 24, 1981, Culture Club played its first live show at Crocs, a nightclub in Rayleigh. They chose Tony Gordon as their manager and cut demos of “Put It Down,” “Kissing to Be Clever,” and “You Know I’m Not Crazy” for Virgin. When producer Steve Levine helped the band fill out its sound, Virgin signed Culture Club to a six-year contract.
Even before Virgin began to push the band’s new singles in 1982, Culture Club received media attention after George appeared in magazines like New Sounds, New Styles. His quick wit and charisma proved to be the group’s best promotional tool. First, “White Boy” was offered to radio audiences, and later, “Afraid of Me.” Though neither became hits, the record label allowed the band to continue recording its album, Kissing to Be Clever, at Red Bus Studios. George wrote new songs for the album, including “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” which the band debuted on The Peter Powell Show on BBC Radio 1. When the label decided to release the song as the group’s next single on September 3, 1982, reviewer reactions were lukewarm. Ten days later, however, the song charted. After appearances on Top of the Pops and The Late, Late
For the Record…
Members include Mikey Craig (born on February 15, 1960), bass; Boy George (born George Alan O’Dowd on June 14, 1961), vocals; Roy Hay (born on August 12, 1961), guitar, keyboards; John Moss (born on September 11, 1957), drums; John Suede (left group, 1981), guitar.
Group formed in England, 1981; recorded “White Boy” and “I’m Afraid of Me” at EMI studios; signed with Virgin Records, May 1982; released previously recorded songs, both failed to chart; recorded first English hit, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” for BBC Radio 1; released Kissing to Be Clever, October 1982; “Time (Clock of the Heart)” reached number three on U.K. charts, December 1982; Kissing to Be Clever ranked number 14 on U.S. charts, January 1983; charted with “Church of the Poison Mind,” “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya,” and “Karma Chameleon,” 1983; released Colour by Numbers, 1983; charted with “Miss Me Blind” and “It’s a Miracle,” released Waking Up with the House on Fire, 1984; extended break, 1985; recorded From Luxury to Heart-ache, 1986; group disbanded, May 1987; reunited, 1998.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best New Artist, 1983; BRIT Awards, Best British Newcomer, 1983, Best British Group and Best British Single for “Karma Chameleon,” both 1984.
Addresses: Record company —Virgin Records, 304 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10010, phone: (212) 253-3000, website: http://www.virginrecords.com. Website—Culture Club Official Website: http://www.culture-club.co.uk.
Breakfast Show, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” catapulted to number one in Britain.
Released in October of 1982, Kissing to Be Clever reached number five in the United Kingdom and by January of 1983 had hit number 14 on the American charts, where it remained for 88 weeks. “Incorporating pop, rock, dance, new wave, soul and Caribbean rhythms…,” Jose F. Promis wrote of Kissing to Be Clever in All Music Guide, “the result was a soulful, progressive pop outing….” The band played shows in Belgium, Germany, and France, and planned its first American tour. Separately and as a group, George and Culture Club appeared on The Tonight Show, Solid Gold, and Dick Clark’s Rockin’New Year’s Eve. Before 1983 was over, a series of smash hits and popular videos made Culture Club the most successful pop-rock band in England and America.
George’s cutting wit made him popular with the press, though interviewers often expressed more interest in his clothing and makeup than Culture Club’s music. “People can’t understand that I dress up because I want to,” George told Nancy Collins of Rolling Stone. “They think my image is a professional thing, but it’s not. I want to look like this.” Because of his androgynous sense of fashion, reporters also asked about his sexual orientation, while fundamentalists in the United States and Australia railed against his influence on teenagers. “What frightens people most,” he told Collins, “is that I’m not confused about my sexuality. I’ve said I’m bisexual, and that’s enough of an explanation. It’s 1984. People shouldn’t be bothered about this stuff.”
At the beginning of 1984, anything seemed possible for the band. They had released Colour by Numbers in the fall of 1983, which produced a number of hits including “Karma Chameleon,” “Miss Me Blind,” and “It’s a Miracle.” In February, the band received a Grammy Award for Best New Artist of 1983 and won Best British Newcomer at the annual BRIT awards. Culture Club’s new album also made them popular in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Canada, resulting in multiplatinum sales for Colour by Numbers. George and Moss participated in the recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” for Band Aid, and the group spruced up its live act by adding a million-dollar stage show, complete with horns and backup singers. Despite these successes, fame was begging to take its toll on the band by the end of 1984.
“Culture Club became like a bad marriage,” George wrote, “one where you lose your personal identity.” Both Craig and Hay were jealous of George’s “front man” role. He sang the songs, gave the majority of interviews, and had his picture plastered on the cover of magazines. The band’s creative energies were also running dry. Culture Club’s third album, Waking Up with the House on Fire, met with a muted critical response and slow sales. “By the time we recorded Waking Up,” George wrote, “we were out of ideas and out of touch. We’d been traveling around the world almost continually…. Writing songs had become an unnatural process.” An American tour, beginning before the new album was released in the States, received mixed reviews, and a number of shows failed to sell out. Neither the second nor third singles from the new album broke into the top 30.
After a short tour in the United Kingdom at the beginning of 1985, the band decided to take a break. Craig, Hay, and Moss also searched for other musical outlets, while George became enamored by the dance club scene in New York. When the band started writing material for a new album, the work proceeded slowly. Other internal struggles were also plaguing the band. The relationship between Moss and George, kept secret from the press, was fraying. “Ending our relationship would have been messy, like any divorce, only it didn’t involve the house, the kids, the car, and the cat,” George wrote. “We were talking careers, futures, finances.”
By the spring of 1986 “Move Away” reached number seven on the British charts and Culture Club was back in action. Critical response to From Luxury to Heartache, however, was lackluster. The album sold no better than Waking Up with the House on Fire and unlike the band’s first two albums, the singles spent little time on the charts. The band also seemed to be coming apart. George appeared at London’s Clapham Common covered in flour and stirred up controversy by introducing himself, reported VH-1’s Where Are They Now, as “your favorite junkie.” This puzzled many, since the band had always been antidrug. “I don’t do any drugs,” he told Collins of Rolling Stone in 1984. “I never have. I do not wish to find out what it feels like to stick a needle in my arm. Ever.”
A week after the Clapham Common appearance, George’s brother told the press about George’s heroin addiction. “He just sits in his house taking heroin…,” David O’Dowd said to William Plummer of People. “We’ve just been waiting for a phone call from a reporter to tell us George has been found dead from a drug overdose.” In July of 1986, the police arrested a transvestite friend of George’s named Marilyn, charging him with heroin possession; others, including another of George’s brothers, Kevin O’Dowd, were charged with conspiring to supply heroin to George. Days later, Michael Rudetski, who had played keyboards on From Luxury to Heartache, died at George’s home from a heroin overdose.
While This Time, a collection of Culture Club’s greatest hits, reached number eight on the British charts in the spring of 1987, George admitted on the BBC1 television program Wogan that the band had broken up. After drug rehabilitation, George began a solo career, achieving chart success in 1992 with “The Crying Game,” the theme to the movie of the same name, and in 1995 published Take It Like a Man, a frank biography detailing the ups and downs of his musical career. In the summer of 1998 Culture Club put aside past differences and performed before 6,700 people in Atlanta, Georgia. The band also appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman and VH-1 Storytellers/Greatest Hits. “This was no longer a frivolous foray into ‘80s nostalgia,” wrote Larry Flick in Billboard of the group’s return to performing. “It was validation of music that may have been underestimated the first time around.”
Kissing to Be Clever, Virgin, 1982.
Colour by Numbers, Virgin, 1983.
Waking Up with the House on Fire, Virgin, 1984.
From Luxury to Heartache, Virgin, 1986.
At Worst… the Best of Boy George and Culture Club, Virgin, 1993.
Don’t Mind if I Do, EMI, 1999.
Brown, Ashley, editor, The Marshall Cavendish History of Popular Music, Marshall Cavendish, 1990.
George, Boy, and Spencer Bright, Take It Like a Man: The Autobiography of Boy George, Harper Collins, 1995.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Billboard, May 16, 1998, p. 33; December 4, 1999, p. 25.
People, July 21, 1986, p. 34.
Rolling Stone, October 27, 1983, p. 77; June 7, 1984, p. 13.
Seconds, Issue 35 1995, pp. 26-32.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 24, 2002).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.