He Comes and Goes: Boy George Is Back
Boy George's flamboyant style and personal problems at times overshadowed Culture Club's musical influence. As the world goes genderqueer and Culture Club reunites for a world tour, George and the boys believe its time critics take their art seriously...
Photos courtesy of Culture Club
"If you thought I was straight, you must have been blind."
Boy George lounges on a black leather couch illuminated by mood lighting reminiscent of Disneyland. He's at a bar inside Lucky Strike, a bowling alley, bar, and concert venue in a Hollywood Boulevard mall that contains everything from a Louis Vuitton store to a Hard Rock Cafe. A large black hat sits on George's head, and his trademark oversized white dress shirt hangs over his frame. His Culture Club bandmates—Jon Moss, Mikey Craig, and Roy Hay—flank him on each side.
The band has reunited for their first world tour in 16 years. Craig wears sparkly shoes, Hay rocks a well-fitted T-shirt, and Moss is dapper in a black suit jacket. They look like attractive, fit British dads who just happen to love bedazzlers. Even Hay's pet papillon—Chico Taco, who sits on Craig's lap—wears a scarf. "It's Burberry," George says. "It's a ritzy dog."
Moss corrects him: "It's fake [Burberry]."
"We want to look great on stage," Hay says. "We also don't want to try and be 25."
"I do!" George yells.
George introduced gender bending to the mainstream years before Judith Butler started discussing gender trouble in classrooms. Between 1982 and 1983, Culture Club released music videos for "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," "I'll Tumble 4 Ya," and "Karma Chameleon." They have sold over 100 million records throughout the years. The media obsessed over George's androgyny—his painted face and oversized shirts that resembled dresses—overlooking the band's complex musical mesh of failed homosexual romances and bright gay clubs. "You don't want it to be style over substance," Craig says.
To be 21 again without hysteria would be nice.
2016 is a different world from 1983. Teen queen Kylie Jenner considers a genderqueer boy her best friend, Sam Smith wins Oscars, and gay men take PrEP (a drug that lowers their chances of getting infected with HIV, like a gay birth control). With the current cultural environment and new tour tour, the band plans to remind the world of the complexity of their music.
Culture Club has reunited before: In 1998, they appeared on VH1's Storytellers, and they staged a 20th anniversary show at the Royal Albert Hall in London (the British equivalent of Radio City Music Hall). George himself has had nearly as many comebacks as Judy Garland or Britney Spears. In the mid-1980s his career plummeted after he became addicted to drugs, but he struck back in the UK with the number one single "The Crying Game." (American radio stations stopped playing his music in 1987, according to Rolling Stone.) He made a career as one of the most popular gay DJs in the world years before EDM DJs became rock stars. His musical Taboo resurrected him again in London in 2002. (The Broadway adaptation flopped, thanks to producer Rosie O'Donnell's changes.)
The difference is George is now sober and has been for several years. He fills conversations with language found in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. His bandmates all stay away from drink, too, except Craig, who drinks wine. After shows, Roy prefers to recoil in his hotel room to watch Downtown Abbey. George goes shopping during the day.
"There's a big difference [from the 80s tours]," Moss says. "We actually leave the hotel because in the 80s there were hundreds of fans outside would mob us when we went out. It's nice to be able to go out and do things."
"To be without hysteria is really nice," Craig says. "To be 21 again without hysteria would be nice."
George grew up in Eltham, a suburb of southeastern London. Teenage emotions incited him to start crafting the style that made him famous. "I wasn't in my bedroom painting my nails black, hating myself. I was kind of a gregarious freak. I didn't really hate anyone," he says. "When you're a teenager, you kind of have this feeling that you have the right to be who you want to be." He dressed as Carmen Miranda and as a nun.
His look attracted former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. George auditioned to join the a band called Bow Wow Wow that McLaren was constructing. George played second fiddle to the group's lead singer, a 13-year-old named Annabella Lwin.
One night, they performed at a skating rink. Craig heard about the show. He recalls thinking, Bow Wow Wow? A roller disco? I gotta go and see this. George came out during the encore. He sang a "rockabilly peanuts war song" called "Cast Iron Arm." He sang instead of Lwin. George says, "I would actually get booed," but Craig left the venue more impressed with George than Lwin.
"He was much more than Annabella," he says. "Annabella was sexy and a nice kid and everything, but when George came on, for me I was just like, 'This is it. It's really working now.'"
Bow Wow Wow eventually fired George. (He says he found out from an ad that they placed in a newspaper.) He started DJing for cash. Craig spotted him at a gig and proposed starting a band, with Craig on bass. This is how they formed Culture Club, later adding Moss as a drummer and Hay as the lead guitarist.
"There was a late 70s and early 80s type recession," Hay says. "That created an environment where people said, 'Right, I want to enjoy myself. I want to go out and do whatever I want to do. I want to dress the way I want to dress. I don't want to sit in a depression.'"
George had already written some songs. "I used to write a lot of their verses," he recalls. "Before I met these guys my songs were like War and Peace." His band members edited the songs down.
Throughout Culture Club's first lineup, George and Moss had an on-again/off-again relationship. (Moss was bisexual. Craig and Hay are straight.) In his memoir, Take It Like a Man, George details the love affair and how it influenced many of the band's classic songs.
The first two (and best) Culture Club albums, Kissing to Be Clever and Colour by Numbers, captures the melancholy of homosexuality as expertly as the best Morrissey slow jams. "In my heart the fire is burning / Choose my color, find a star," George sings in "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me." "Precious people always tell me / That's a step a step too far / Do you really want to hurt me." George sounds sad, yet he manages to make depression sound like a magical fairytale filled with technicolor stars.
I'm very old fashioned gay. I don't want to be in the army and I don't want kids.
"I do think 'Do You Really Want to Hurt Me' is poignant, and it's still has a kind of resonance even though I don't feel like that person," George says. "If you look back, lyric-wise, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," "Church of the Poison Mind," "Victims"—there's a lot of woe in those songs."
Craig, Moss, and Hay mesh the lyrics with poppy instrumentals, despite the lyrical content. George's desolate lyrics in "Church of the Poison Mind"—"Love is hard to find in the church of the poison mind," George sings—are backed with fast beats reminiscent of a sing-a-long song sung by the Electric Mayhem on The Muppet Show (in a good way).
"In my experience, my best songs have been written when I was sober," George says. Of the best songs I've ever written that I was most proud of, [they] were written in moments of great clarity. When I'm outside in nature walking around, that's when I really write."
George knows his drug addiction derailed the band, but he and his bandmates disagree on how much his flamboyance affected the way they were received.
"We were just talking about that," Craig says. "The whole thing about image overshadowing music sometimes."
"But I don't agree with that," George says. "When we played in Japan, we had people fucking crying when we were doing 'Victims,' so people have a relationship with us regardless of how we live."
"I think it became that but it's going back to music," Moss says. "Plus, people like to be entertained and know that George is a colorful character at the same time. I have no resentment about that at all, but I think there was a time where that did overshadow it—and I did have resentments but I've worked through it."
"What a load of shit! What a load of old shit!" George says. "Anyone you're going to remember from Prince, to Madonna, to Elvis—they all had style. Bowie had style. [People remember] the music!"
The band broke up in 1986 because of George's drug addiction and infighting. Over the next 20 years, George bounced between the states and London, Hay lived in Los Angeles, writing songs for movies, and Craig and Moss stayed in England. All of the members have raised children except George. "I'm a homosexual and I don't have kids," he explains. "I'm very old-fashioned gay. I don't want to be in the army and I don't want kids, but good luck if you do." He considers much of those years wasted time for another reason: his drug use.
"I certainly don't look back at that time with any great fondness," George says. "Sometimes in recovery you hear people talking about how great it was when you get wasted. To me I just feel frustrated I wasted all that time and energy and money on crap drugs that made me miserable."
When asked why they've reunited in 2016, the band is unsure. "We did a tour last year, which was great fun, and I came off that tour and actually said, 'That wasn't stressful,''" George says. "I was such a neurotic queen. I am so much happier now."
I did not expect Keith Richard to outlive Prince for sure.
Many iconic 1960s and 1970s rock stars have outlived Culture Club's 1980s contemporaries: Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Prince. They say the deaths have led to them receiving more intense medical exams before they hit the road. "I did not expect Keith Richard to outlive Prince for sure," Craig says.
"If you grew up in the 70s in England, Bowie was a part of your life, whether you realized it or not," Moss says. "Prince was the same for everyone in the 80s."
Culture Club hopes the tour will make people reevaluate their catalog. "I think it's difficult to pigeonhole or categorize Culture Club," Craig says. "It encompasses so many things, and it's hard to say we're one thing or the other." Years before artists like Kanye West blended pop, electro, and rap in duets with pop stars, Culture Club created music out of a hodgepodge of genres. "We were a weird world music band," George says. "We had everything in there." Moss came from a punk background, Hay hung out with new romantic artists, and Craig understood the black music tradition. George melded the three boys' sound together.
On tour, George's voice sounds much deeper. "We do this much darker," George says. "My voice is kind of deeper—it kind of has richer tones to it and it's kind of more dramatic." In 2016, George sounds better, more intense, like a gay Leonard Cohen.
"Certain songs like 'Victims' [and] 'Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,' they're more powerful now because you have experience," George says. "You can sing with those things with a little bit more experience, a little bit more depth, and there are other things that seem a little bit more flighty."
At their shows at the Hollywood Bowl, the band plans to play with the Los Angeles Philimaronic Orchestra. A pop band with an orchestra may sound weird, but the band has recorded with full orchestras since the 1980s.
"Not a lot of people recognize, but we have big strings sections all the time," Hay says. "'Victims' has harps. It has reeds. It has strings, cellos, bases. 'Miss Me [Blind]' has strings on it. There's a lot of stuff; there's a lot more in Culture Club records than you think if you get there and have a good listen."
The most shocking thing about Culture Club is how optimistic they are after the last 30 years. Few people get happier in middle age, but few people are in a band fronted by Boy George. He's excited for his stint on the reboot of Celebrity Apprentice (he says he loves working with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is hosting in place of Donald Trump), and he admires today's crop of pop stars, including Anohni and Justin Bieber.
"Why do you like Bieber?" I ask.
"For all the wrong reasons."
"Do you like his music?
"I think he has a pretty voice. I think he writes nice songs," he says. "It's great pop, and he's kind of a wild child, isn't he? I think he's got something about him. He's got a kind of this weird androgyny, which I think is quite fascinating."
He hopes Anohni's last album, Hopelessness, her first album since her transition, will take off in the states. "I went to a show in New York a few weeks ago, and I have to say it was very challenging," George says. "I had to really try to like get my head around it, but what she's singing about is so powerful. It's so not pop and refreshing and kind of out there."
George is blown away by the progress in LGBT rights, but he has felt shell shocked after Omar Mateen murdered 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. He cried for three days after the shooting. "Having kind of worked in clubs for the last 30 years, I think I felt it so deeply because I understand that environment," he says. "You're there, the music is loud, you're dancing. You're in this cocoon―you don't think about those things―so you can only imagine the chaos and terror that people went through."
He thinks Westerners can't ignore the terror that LGBT people face in Saudi Arabia and Russia. "You have to be really careful to not think that, because things are great in NY, LA and London, they're okay everywhere," he says. "No, I'm not negative—I'm realistic. It depends on where you are in the world."
The brash, extreme Boy George has found nuance in sobriety and middle age. He has been writing music with his bandmates; on the road, they have been perfecting their new songs. They plan to release an album called Tribes, which encompasses their pop, world music sound.
"I write from a different perspective now, but I can still understand those songs," George says. "I think the best way is, when you're 19, love songs are questions you want answers to, and when you get older, you don't need an answer. I don't understand love anymore than when I was 19, but I don't require an explanation, if that makes sense to you. I don't need to understand."
To see a complete list of Culture Club's tour dates on their 60 date world tour, visit their website.