In The Number Ones, I review every #1 single in the history of Billboard Hot 100, starting at the top of the chart in 1958 and working all the way back to the present.
“I’m a man who doesn’t know how to sell a contradiction,” sang Boy George. On the contrary. In the pop landscape of the early 80s, there was perhaps no one better placed to sell contradictions.
As American listeners were fresh out of the anonymous studio-rock of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Boy George was to sound like a mirage, a purring androgynous flirt who used MTV’s newest vehicle to introduce a character. . who was defiant in her femininity. When I was in college in the early 90s, people were always making homophobic jokes about Boy George, even though his band Culture Club had faded into pop’s past. But by the early ’80s, Culture Club was turning entrenched systemic homophobia against itself, putting forth a picture and sound so proudly different that people had to pay attention.
Another contradiction: while the members of Culture Club all hailed from London’s punk and new wave scenes, they created a tender white crushed-velvet soul that was sonically out of control enough to succeed on American adult contemporary radio, not exactly a welcoming environment for sexists. iconoclasts. Their sweetness may have been radical, but it also helped make them stars.
Culture Club really sold these contradictions too. For a few years, Culture Club wasn’t just a novelty; they were a pop juggernaut. Between 1982 and 1984, Culture Club released three platinum albums and landed six singles in the Billboard top 10. I don’t even particularly like Like Culture Club’s music, but their ability to dominate in a time of rampant homophobia is quite incredible, and it’s a testament to Boy George’s singular charisma.
George Alan O’Dowd was born into a working-class Irish Catholic family in Kent. (The number 1 single in the United States when George was born: “Travelin’ Man” by Ricky Nelson.) George’s father was abusive and he also had to deal with a gay childhood in a deeply hostile environment. But he found escape in the romantic new world of the early 80s, dancing at clubs like London’s Blitz.
One night at Blitz, former Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren saw George and invited him to sing with Bow Wow Wow, the band McLaren was leading at the time. (In the US, Bow Wow Wow’s highest charting single is their 1982 cover of “I Want Candy”, a song by Strangeloves which had peaked at No. 11 in 1965. Bow Wow Wow’s version peaked at #62.) George, using the scene named Lieutenant Lash, didn’t last long at Bow Wow Wow. Instead, he left to start his own band, enlisting Bow Wow Wow bassist Mikey Craig. They also signed guitarist Roy Hay, a former hairdresser, and drummer Jon Moss, who had previously played in The Stranglers, The Damned and Adam And The Ants. For a minute, the new group will be called Sex Gang Children. They went with Culture Club instead.
Culture Club had a huge breakthrough with their 1982 single “Do you really want to hurt me?a gently responsive lite-reggae bounce that became a worldwide hit. “Do you really want to hurt me?” went to No. 1 in nine countries, including the UK, and it peaked at No. 2 in the United States. (It’s an 8.) Culture Club’s next single, “Time (heart clock)“, also peaked at No. 2. (That one’s a 6.) Culture Club’s timing was good. They had arrived just as MTV was starting to take over, and Boy George was the kind of telegenic character that the network needed. By the time they released their second album Color by numbers in October 1983, Culture Club was already starring.
Culture Club didn’t sound like other new wave bands. They used synths, but they didn’t use them for brutal and confrontational purposes. (Boy George’s mere existence was divisive enough.) Musically, Culture Club was probably closer to Lionel Richie than the Human League. The band did a kind of lush, reassuring white soul, sometimes sprinkled with soft reggae or post-disco dance-pop overtones. Boy George sang as much of Smokey Robinson as he could, aiming for that same smooth precision and sense of strength through vulnerability. He was and is a much clumsier singer than Robinson, but he had the same gift of hiding deep sadness in plain sight, translating it into upbeat, withdrawn pop songs.
“Karma Chameleon”, like many Culture Club songs, is a disguised complaint about the tumultuous relationship between Boy George and bandmate Jon Moss. At the time, George hadn’t completely come out of the closet — he claimed to be bisexual — and he kept it a secret that he and Moss were a couple. george said The Los Angeles Times that “Karma Chameleon” was “about this terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for a thing”. May be. But it’s also quite clearly about an unhappy couple with a fucked up balance of power: “When we hold on, our love is strong / When you leave, you’re gone forever / You chain yourself, you chains.”
There’s a deep pain in “Karma Chameleon”: “Loving would be easy if your colors were like my dreams / Red, gold and green.” George pleads for mutual support in the face of a hostile world: “Everyday is like surviving / You are my lover, not my rival. But he sings it with a sort of lighthearted charm, twisting his hook into an almost gibberish chorus. It sounds like an easy, carefree song – an impression only aided by the video, a live-action cartoon set in a ridiculous multicultural alternate-reality version of 19th-century Mississippi, where Culture Club catches a crook on a river casino and throw it overboard. (Director Peter Sinclair filmed the video on the Thames, not the Mississippi.)
The Culture Club members all shared credit for writing “Karma Chameleon,” but George says he wrote it while on vacation in Egypt. George also claims that the rest of the band thought the song was too country when he played it for them. I don’t hear “Karma Chameleon” like a country song at all, despite the constant and annoying harmonica whistles of session player and Merseybeat veteran Judd Lander. Instead, “Karma Chameleon” sounds like the most plastic version of uptempo American soul.
There’s at least a chance that “Karma Chameleon” is a plastic version of a specific rhythmic American soul song: “Handy Man”, a Jimmy Jones single that peaked at number two in 1960. (“Handy Man” is a 5.) Boy George’s track “karma-karma-karma” sounds a lot like Jones’ “come-ah come-ah come-ah,” and the song rocks to a similar beat. Jones and “Handy Man” co-writer Otis Blackwell sued the Culture Club, and the band settled down. But Boy George said he intentionally didn’t steal anything from ‘Handy Man’ and Culture Club ‘gave them 10p and an apple’.
‘Karma Chameleon’ shares a problem with a lot of UK versions of R&B: it’s thin, clunky and awkward. The beat is snappy and funkless, and there’s a sticky sheen to the set that I’ve never been able to get past. The backing vocals sound like they’re identifying a light rock station. Boy George has enough charisma to keep the song afloat, but barely. I could never hear “Karma Chameleon” as a desperate plea for romantic reciprocity Where like a delicious piece of 80s kitsch. It’s always been a slight irritant for me. Blame producer Steve Levine, I guess.
“Karma Chameleon” reached No. 1 in even more countries than “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?” had done, and it was the UK’s biggest-selling single of 1983. In the US, “Karma Chameleon” helped push Color by numbers to quadruple platinum sales, and Culture Club won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1984. accept the price via satellite, Boy George said, “America, you have taste, style, and you know a good drag queen when you see one.”
But Culture Club only scored one more top 10 single in the US: the following single “Miss Me Blind”, which peaked at No. 5 later in 1984. (It’s a 6.) The band’s later records sold less and less. Boy George and Jon Moss separated and George fell into heroin addiction. In 1986, the group ended.
Boy George went on to a solo career and he enjoyed some resurgence in 1992, when his theme for the film The crying game peaked at 15th place. He also had fun with dance music and eventually found a stable career as a DJ. He’s collaborated with a pretty amazing array of people, including Afrika Bambaataa, Faithless and Antony And The Johnsons, as well as PM Dawn and Mark Ronson, two artists who will eventually appear in this column. Boy George also served a few months in prison in 2008 for handcuffing a Norwegian male escort to a wall and beating him with a chain.
Culture Club has met a few times over the years, but never without drama. In 2006, for example, the other members of the group tried to organize a Culture Club tour with another singer; Boy George was not amused. There were poorly successful reunion albums in 1999 and 2018, and Jon Moss recently filed a lawsuit against the rest of the band. After all that, it’s pretty easy to forget what Culture Club was able to accomplish in its heyday. But they really ran.
BONUS BEAT: Here’s the listen-to digital reggae cover of “Karma Chameleon” that dancehall pioneer Wayne Smith released in 1983:
And here is the dancehall version of “Karma Chameleon” that Wayne Wonder released in 1992:
(Wayne Wonder’s highest-charting single, 2003’s “No Letting Go,” peaked at #11.)
BONUS BEAT: Culture Club took part in a pretty hilarious 1986 episode of The A-team; here’s the scene where they perform “Karma Chameleon” in a rowdy cowboy bar:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne singing a bit of “Karma Chameleon” on his 2005 mixtape track “Do It”:
(Lil Wayne will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEAT: Here is the track from 2006 Scary Movie 4 where a giant iPod pops up from the street and briefly plays “Karma Chameleon” before transforming into a murderous robot:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEAT: Here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ snot-punk cover of 2014’s “Karma Chameleon”: