February 14, 2008

A kiss across the ocean

Boy George. Oh my, the Case Of Boy George. Here's the thing: He appeared right at the moment when I was really getting interested in pop music, in 1982. Strangely, I have never written about Culture Club here, but some of my happiest teen memories involved sitting in my room, drawing on a drafting board, and playing Colour By Numbers on my turntable. It's one of the greatest pop albums of my lifetime. There is a whole generation of pop music fans who know that Victims (watch the video) is one of the finest 80's ballads. You know who you are.

Can you imagine him being popular today? We blather on about how far we've come, but I find it hard to believe a persona like his could make it today. The business is far too mercenary and bottom-line oriented. It panders to conservative notions of what is acceptable. Violence and aggression are fine. Wit, confusing sexuality and subversiveness are not.

Boy George falls into the category of misunderstood. Due perhaps to a mix of appearance and instability, he has never secured his place in the pop canon as the great songwriter he is. Lyrically there is a certain kind of "Boy George song." He has a very defined way with words (see Unfinished Business below). Vocally, he was unparalleled in the 80's. Though his imperial phase only lasted two albums, he has consistently surprised over the years with hidden gems like Broken Spirit, the amazing I Specialize In Loneliness, and Innocence Is Lost. His longtime collaborator Jon Themis has always supplied strong arrangements for his best songs.

Over the past few years he seemed to be hiding under extreme makeup and unrecognizable vocals, either in the glam side project The Twin or on strangely worn guest vocal appearances such as his collaboration with disciple Antony Hegarty. Last year's fantastic Time Machine was evidence that the old George is still around.

People slam him, deservedly, for his forked tongue. He's a bitched out queen, no doubt. But really it's the flip side of his writing talent. I have many favorite Boy George lyrics, but one that never fails to amuse is from Unfinished Business, a song he wrote about Kirk Brandon, an 80's minor popstar who denies he and George were lovers. Boy had a habit of going for unavailable men. Can you imagine if someone you loved when you were young totally denied the relationship ever existed? Ouch. Anyway, the song is a delicate ballad with a wicked lyric. The best line is this one:

Now go tell your friends that I'm mad in my head
That I don't know what I mean
You walk like Jack and you love like Mary
And you're more
Than a bit
Of a queen

In 2007, it appeared that George had truly come undone at 46. For the past few years he's been in the same drug/arrest abyss that has swallowed up people like Britney. It's as if the internal wounds of a life in the spotlight finally erupted on the surface. Very cliche (on my part and his), but not surprising.

In January, George gave an
interview with The Daily Mail which is fascinating:

"I hate talking about me," he says. "I think people have a fixed idea of me now. They think my life is miserable. But that's not the case."

No, I venture, while most people retain a deep-seated affection for him, some regard George's lifestyle as, well, a bit on the seedy side.

Boy George could not look more wounded. He rocks back in his chair and reaches for a cigarette, a small but discernible tremor to his hand as he attempts to fire the lighter into action...

He's visibly upset. "I can't believe people would think that," he says.

It's a bit rich, isn't it? That George would not understand people think he's a mess? The end of the article - kudos to the writer - is kind of poignant, because he says hearing Amy Winehouse's Love Is A Losing Game really inspired him to sing again.
He started a new tour of England a few weeks back called Songs That Make You Dance And Cry. He's been playing a new song called Shadow Boxing that's pretty solid (watch it) and his vocals seem closer to form. I hope he can pull himself together, because he is a great talent.

My Top Ten Plus One Boy George songs:

Time (Clock Of The Heart)
Miss Me Blind
Same Thing In Reverse
Black Money
That's The Way
Bow Down Mister video
Generations Of Love video
The Crying Game
Strange Voodoo
Unfinished Business

This list was hard to edit and changes all the time. I didn't even mention Church Of The Poison Mind, Colour By Numbers (the song), Karma Chameleon, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me or After The Love.


D'luv said...

Ooh, your top 3 Culture Club songs are mine, as well! And I was just thinking about how a pop star like him could never happen in this day in age. Crazy! You'd think we would have come farther since the '80s, not regressed.

Anyway, didn't he meet President Reagan at some point, even??!

My mom bought Colour By Numbers when it came out (and ditto for Kissing To Be Clever). She was only 31 then. I remember her playing those albums, along with Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual, The Pretenders and The Cars all the time in those days.

Is it any wonder I grew up with such sparkling taste in music?

countpopula said...

Thank you for this incredible post on Boy George. I have long waited for him to get his act together and actually do something to solidify his status as one of the finest white soul singers of the past couple decades, and it looks like he may finally be taking some positive steps.

There are so many unheralded great songs by BG, many you have mentioned already here. I think of early gems like "Love is Love" or "Mistake No. 3" to solo stuff like "Il Adore" or "She Was Never He". It's funny how he was seen as a cartoon-like figure early on and enjoyed mass appeal, only to squander most of it on drugs, and have to push back almost as an underground artist in the early
90s, reaching some redemption with "Crying Game" thanks to Pet Shop Boys lovely production. Maybe he should do a whole album with them finally?

Boy was a master of reinvention before Madonna. Drugs got in the way. Will he be able to sort it out for good? The world waits...

El MarvelOso said...

Culture Club has a special place in my heart. "Colour By Numbers" was my theme music while I was playing Ms. Pac Man on my Atari 5200.

"Time" is one of the all-time classic pop songs. Even the instrumental version is incredible.

I was upset that the box set didn't include anything from the album "From Luxury To Heartache". Of course, I ended up buying all the remastered albums as well.

I joke about the Culture Club song "formula": For the chorus - Take one line; repeat 4 to 8 times.

Tricky said...

Now is the moment for Boy George to write ten perfect pop songs about his life and our lives, perhaps with Joe Henry as collaborator, produced by Mark Ronson. It is Boy who Mr Ronson needs to seek out, not the latest new starlet. A good producer looks back as well as forward both in their musical styles and muses and all those horns and soul are totally hip to the glory days of Culture Club.

V said...

Great post!

Will George ever "wear a medal again?" Ditto on Victims. My song of songs from the Club. "Feel like a child on a dark night.." Beautiful.

Boy George was lovable. So lovable that you and mom can sit and watch him perform on Solid Gold and cheer him on. He was so lovable that even the homophobic dad would have to put on the breaks and marvel at the performer. I'll never forget my dad actually watching the live HBO special with me when it aired. All the way through.

"I'm Afraid of Me" is a particular favorite of mine off the first album.

duanemoody.com said...

Every time I think of Boy George, I think of that scene from The Wedding Singer where the drag queen-ish guy sings Do You Really Want to Hurt Me, and of course, I laugh. A great song, however!

Phillip said...

the thing about boy george is that there is no-one else like him. he is a very talented singer and songwriter. i don't think you could say that about the other gender benders of the 80's. i personally think he has lost the plot over the last few years but hopefully he can comeback with a decent album.

i remember when colour by numbers came out and people were saying it was the perfect pop album and it was. george was why i got into music.

my fave tunes are victims, thats the way, generations of love, stranger in this world (taboo), don't cry, you are the deal (unreleased), it's a miracle.

lets see what the boy does next!

xolondon said...

Good choices Phillip! I knew this post would bring out responses like this.

The thing is, he's at a crucial point where he could do some decent work or end up a novelty act on one of those chepa 80's tours. Some would already say that about him, but he COULD pull off a Pet Shop Boysy return (at least quality wise) if he really tried.

V said...

I also wanted to add that un-official member of the Club Helen Terry really added a lot soul to Colour By Numbers. I wonder why her career as a solo artist didn't take off?

Phil said...

Fabulous. I knew you had a little Boy in you... er... a Boy George post itching to come out I mean. You have a real soft spot for him. And that's the common theme amongst everyone. We all have a little place for George.

Like everyone, I remember going into school the day after his first TV appearance on TOTP and hearing the same "Is it a girl, is it a boy?". Do You Really Want to Hurt Me is easily in my top ten EVER favourites.

But George, being George I can fall in and out of love with him. I forgot him for years until the book 'Take It Like a Man' and then I picked up his music again after reading 'Straight'.

I went to see him live twice in one year and was thrilled but disappointed at the same time.

He can make fantastic music and I keep waiting for THE album which will be a latter-career revelation to the masses. Although I adore my Culture Club tracks, songs like Il Adore, If I Could Fly, Julian and Mr Strange are just as classic.

I find he always has to FIGHT against every preconception of Boy George. If he could just relax, let go and feel easy with his reputation as an icon and, quite frankly, BRILLIANT musician, the album of his career could happen.


Chris Krakora said...

I'd also throw in "Genocide Peroxide" from his Cheapness and Beauty album and "When Will You Learn" on that list as well. Also the 12" mix of "I'll Tumble 4 Ya," which was better than the single version IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Kindred spirit here! :)

Boy George (and C/Club) will always have a place in my [musical] heart. I think his Jesus Loves You stuff is probably amongst his best. 'I Specialize In Loneliness' is particularly brilliant.

As a (gay) teenager in the 80s, I was mesmerised by George and always found him entertaining and witty. He just comes across as bitchy these days, which is a pity. He has one of the best white soulboy voices of modern pop times.

Terry. x

xolondon said...

Thanks again for all the comments. Post comments whenever you are moved to!

Anon, I am thiking that Ultra Nate or someone covered I Specialize In Loneliness. ?? The Martyr Mantras album has aged really well. I also still love After The Love.

Yuяi said...

Party over here!

"Church of the Poison Mind" is one of my all-time faves. I think V mentioned Helen Terry already. Her backing vocals are phenomenal! I also like "Move Away," "Crying Game," and "Time".

Great post. Things that make you hmmm...

Chris said...

I always liked his songs on the "Electric Dreams" Soundtrack, and "Live my Life" from the "Hiding Out" Soundtrack.

Man, on the "extreme makeup" link pic, he looks like "Vulva" from Simon Pegg's brilliant series "Spaced".

Anonymous said...

George is very talented! and i really admire his personality, i really consider him a very very inteligent man...I like Boy George and George! Boy George the artist and George the human! Love you Georgie! i cant wait to see you in San Diego Las viejas!!! yeiiiiiiiiiii

Jason Callaghan said...

Big influence. Strange looking back now. Kiss across the ocean concert is obviously fake. And BOY was clearly a girl in some shots. But still love it.