TEN SONGS TO PREPARE TO LISTEN TO LIFE
You could be forgiven for having forgotten about Culture Club over the last several years. The band’s last proper album, Don’t Mind if I Do, dropped nearly twenty years ago, and it’s been even longer since the band’s true glory days, when they ruled the world with their first two albums, Kissing to be Clever (1982) and Colour by Numbers (1983). The band have a brand new album out October 26, Life, and a shiny new single – “Let Somebody Love You” – that’s doing well in the charts. Now seems like as good a time as any to revisit the group’s best work, to relive the mark they made on the music industry.
Oh…and you can expect a full review of the new album early next week!
10. Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?: If you’re going to take a tour through Culture Club, you might as well begin at the beginning. Part of what made Boy George so appealing was the irony of his perpetual broken heart juxtaposed with his larger-than-life personality. How could someone with his hair and makeup always seem so wretched and misused, so plaintive? In “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” he’s torn between the “fire” burning in his heart and the “words that burn.” But the metaphor of heat is only a front for the fragile personality that lies beneath, the one that wonders “How Can I Be Real,” and who wants only to “choose my color find a star.” Heavy reverb and some echo effects in the bridge help cement our pity for his character.
9. More than Silence: From the beginning, shuffle to the end: follow Culture Club’s earliest hit with their most recent track, “More Than Silence,” which comes from the abortive album Tribes, an album that was shelved in 2014, but which, rumors suggest became the foundation for the upcoming Life. Here, a more mature George reflects on his earlier self with some degree of weary wisdom. The moves remain the same: “You play a cold game,” he tells his lover. Yet here he owns his own emotional trauma, accepting he is the “wounded soul,” crying “bi-polar tears.” Bonus points here for a strong ending guitar solo from Roy Hay, who spent most of his time in the 80s blending rather than starring.
8. Mistake Number 3: One of the prettier songs in Culture Club’s catalog, “Mistake Number 3” fuses two sorts of heartache, the kind we feel over lost loves and the deeper kind we feel when the world has let us down. The title refers to the possibility of a third world war, and the album it comes from, the band’s third – Waking Up With the House on Fire – follows a pattern of new wave artists turning to less materialistic and more global concerns (see Band Aid in 1983 and Live Aid the following year). In addition to this gem, Waking Up contains the minor hit “War,” which makes its case more overtly. Here, over heavy synthesizers that manage to shimmer rather than oppressing, George sings, “How cynical are people?” Though “you can stand them on their own,” “they will fall to pieces.”
7. Love is Love: “Love is Love” finds Boy George in full romantic mode, focusing on the positive side to relationships. While in a song like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” heartbreaks seems everywhere, here the world is all sunshine and smiles: “Love is everywhere you go.” The straightforward emotion of that sentiment is balanced by an easy going track that touches Culture Club’s roots in soul music and features strong, if understated, 70s-inspired guitar work from Ron Hay.
6. Miss Me Blind: Culture Club’s first album, Kissing to be Clever presented George as a hapless character when it comes to love; the follow-up album, Colour By Numbers offered an altogether different hero, one who sits on top of the world. That attitude is readily apparent in “Karma Chameleon,” but it can be found scattered throughout the album, as here, where George plays the gracious figure who tells his lover not to leave: “you’ll miss me blind,” he warns. Yet he’s also eager to graciously welcome his lover back: just “grab my golden hand,” he offers like a god, and “I’ll teach you” all you need to know about love.
5. Victims: More than any other of the band’s songs, “Victims,” is all George, an anthem featuring his rich vocals primarily backed with piano until near the middle it builds with chorus and a pounding drum beat into full ensemble. One of Culture Club’s most lyrically sophisticated songs, it finds solace in loneliness by seeing that we’re all victims in one way or another. The metaphor of the marionette that weaves its way through the song adds an extra layer of pathos to this plea for solidarity among all of us who feel despair.
4. I Just Wanna Be Loved: Though it didn’t produce either the buzz or the hits of Culture Club’s early work, their 1999 album, Don’t Mind if I Do showed off a more mature quartet. Something of the uneven energy is missing of course, but that is replaced by a sense that this is a band at the top of their game, in complete control of what they’re doing. The lyrics of “I Just Wanna Be Loved,” suggest that, with the speaker owning his own faults: I “want to beg you baby, but I’m much too proud to shout.” Self-knowledge comes hand-in-hand with another piece of wisdom: the desire for stability: “Fortunately I got wise this time.” Love isn’t about excitement – “I don’t want to fight” – but rather about making peace.
3. Karma Chameleon: Everyone knows “Karma Chameleon,” one of the essentials of the 1980s. That has a lot to do with the song’s musical elements. It manages to capture both the soul and reggae elements Culture Club fused together so well. The lyrics are full of that energy missing from the later “I Just Wanna Be Loved.” In this case, the speaker admires for the ever-changing bad boy, knowing all the while his feelings will only lead him to heartache. For now, before everything tips over into chaos, love spreads itself out like a fan of colors. “Every day is like survival,” but there’s something magical in that. Judd Lander’s harmonica work rises above it all, giving the song its distinctive sound and reminding us to be playful in the face of our fears.
2. Church of the Poisoned Mind: In many ways “Church of the Poison Mind” feels like a follow-up to “Karma Chameleon.” The sentiment in the lyrics is much the same: the lover here both” used and made my life so sweet.” The harmonica blends perfectly as well. What gives “Poisoned Mind” the edge is a slower beat and some wicked bass work from Mikey Craig. Karma Chameleon feels like a party; with those three opening bass notes, “Church” feels like a statement.
1. Time (Clock of the Heart): It’s no secret that most of George’s lyrics were driven by his tempestuous relationship with Culture Club drummer Jon Moss. By all accounts Moss struggled with the public nature of his relationship to George, and in particular his celebrity identity as a homosexual. George’s lyrics throughout the Culture Club cannon vacillate between a sort of idol worship of Moss, an attempt to accept the instability of their relationship, and feelings of crushing defeat when that relationship frequently fell apart. Both “Karma Chameleon” and “Church of the Poisoned Mind” capture the high energy of being on the edge of that relationship, balancing precariously between emotions, but no song perfectly captures that sense of balance like “Time (Clock of the Heart).” As George sings plaintively, time makes other “lovers feel that they’ve got something real.” The speaker here longs for that feeling, and literally begs his lover to give it to him, but at the same time he shrugs the pain away and revels in the love of the moment. He’s both trying and failing to accept the time-worn truism of “Better to have loved and lost.” Craig’s bass line creates a solid foundation while a sweet synthesizer and Hay’s jangling guitar create a sweet counterpoint in which the balance of voices is almost as heavenly as that of the emotions.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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