When Boy George professed that he'd rather have a "cup of tea" than engage in any sexual act or preference, the marketing machine behind Culture Club was already drumming at a manic pace. Subsequent androgyny, including an awards show alert that America knows a good drag queen when it sees one, only made the odd collective more beguiling for the eminently malleable tastes of the early '80s. Eventually, though, the remarkable music of the group fell prey to the image overshoot of George himself, leaving the recordings and, alas, the other three members, in a rather large, condemning shadow.
This week, EMI drags out the makeup kit to reissue Culture Club's first three records, with much-needed remastering and some superfluous bonus tracking. Surprisingly, minus the high profile of a compulsive drag queen, the material holds up swimmingly well. In effect, Culture Club represented the apex of post-punk reggae-revolution Britain. Sparking from the ashes of Malcolm McLaren and his Adam Ant/Bow Wow Wow posse (both of which George played small roles in), the band mixed heavy bass rhythms with otherworldly belts of soul, employing the sort of global populism the band name implied.
"Kissing to Be Clever" encapsulates the early intensity of a band on the make, all brassed-up and souled out to the extremes. George's pseudo-political posturing amid the middle-class issues of a struggling Britain finds sweet release in almost-controversial racial epithets like "White Boy" and "White Boys Can't Control It," but is better served in straightforward come-on narratives like "I'll Tumble 4 Ya" and the Å¸ber-hit, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" In reality, there had to be a lot of guile involved, what with the cultural shopping of dreadlocks and black rhythms -- not to mention blatant, although denied, homosexuality. All of which makes "Kissing" more the sound of a cultural shift than that of a mere album of singles. The stakes were duly raised.
By 1983, Culture Club were in full-tilt blow-up mode, rubbing shoulders with the upper echelon of the increasingly populated "Second British Invasion," and "Colour by Numbers" ably reflects that. A sweeter, more soulful George replaces the Mach One urgency, and hits become the name of the game. Plenty of them are here, too: "Karma Chameleon," "It's a Miracle," "Church of the Poison Mind," "Miss Me Blind" and "Victims." No slight to the material, but by now the Culture Club premise had become polluted by success, and surprise was beginning to give way to ingratiating catchiness. The banner being waved became less about diversity and more about George riding the hobby horse with straight drummer Jon Moss.
Packaging, merchandising and the distinctive wail of big girl Helen Terry sent "Colour" into the stratosphere. Genius, really, but with plastic edges. "Pull the strings of emotion, take a ride into unknown pleasure," George crows at the end.
That pleasure is what derails the follow-up, "Waking Up With the House on Fire." In line with the Orwellian slant of its 1984 release, Culture Club eked out one more hit single, "The War Song," but not without the pithy chant of, "War is stupid and people are stupid," to nail the coffin. That, and a flame-red wig that would do Cher proud. The songs are as disjointed as the band itself had come to be at this time, and Boy George would go on to the similar desperations of heroin and "The A-Team." "I make mistake number three," he sings. And indeed, three's the limit.
A subsequent album and, later, a reunion record and tour would only serve to close a particularly dramatic "Behind the Music" segment. But for a moment in the early '80s, this was as current and driving as music could be. It's a little sad to think that this could never happen again.