Boy George dishes about reuniting with his old bandmates from iconic ’80s group Culture Club
The falsetto is gone. When Boy George sings now, a rich tone resounds. He refers to it as “the voice of experience.” The voice, once fluttery and high, can be traced back to the early ’80s by way of a long, glittery trail that George blazed as frontman for Culture Club. The band formed in 1981, at the onset of a second, MTV-aided British invasion, and the foursome turned out a treasure trove of sonic gold, most notably “Karma Chameleon” and “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”
Within a few years of their emergence, Culture Club was a bona fide act of great significance. Instantly, they became the first band since The Beatles with three songs from their debut album, 1982’s Kissing to be Clever, to reach the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. And it wasn’t just music they were influencing. It was fashion. It was politics. It was gender. It was the queer community as a whole.
Now Culture Club is back. After more than 12 years apart, the original members are reuniting for a tour and a new album — their forthcoming LP, Tribes, their first album together since 1999’s Don’t Mind If I Do.
George (né George O’Dowd), now 54, recently rang to sound off on a smorgasbord of topics: Culture Club nostalgia, the Madonna vs. Lady Gaga rivalry, his massive hat collection and the lack of any pop star “stand outs.”
Dallas Voice: Why is now the right time for Culture Club to reunite? Boy George: The idea first started about four years ago. With all the different management, and just so many complications, it’s taken this long to actually get everybody together. When I suggested it four years ago it seemed like a really simple idea; it turned out to be quite complicated! [Laughs]
Now we’ve gotten into rehearsing, and we recently did Today, although we didn’t have Jon [Moss] there, but it was our first live thing together in a while. The thing about Culture Club, but also just bands in general: The fun is always the playing and the recording and the writing. It’s the other stuff that’s kind of boring.
Culture Club makes the most sense when we’re on stage and concentrating on what we’re doing musically. [The tour is] gonna be interesting. It’s as much a surprise for me, but obviously, we know there’s a lot of affection out there for what we are collectively.
Do people expect you to be the same band you were 20 years ago? Are you still the same band? I don’t think anybody expects me to be what I was 20 years ago. If they do, they’re deluded. [Laughs] I’ve never spoken to anybody who said, “You’re nothing like you were 20 years ago.” There are some people in the world who believe you could be suspended in animation, I think, but we all get older and we all develop. And, in fact, I think I’m a very different performer. I actually prefer what I do now.
Why is that? I like the noise that I make now because I feel like I’ve earned it. I feel it’s a voice of experience. I feel I’m more connected to what I do. Vocally and emotionally I’m more connected to my life, full stop, and I’m kind of happy with who I am.
There’s always room for improvement, of course, but I don’t have the sort of insecurities that I had when I was a younger man. People say to me, “You were so confident!” I probably appeared confident but, perhaps underneath, I wasn’t. I think life is about growing into yourself, accepting who you are and maybe having a better relationship with who you are, sort of liking yourself, and I think I’m closer now than I’ve ever been.
How long did it take you to reach that point? It takes a long time to get there, but you know, some people just don’t get there. And I don’t know how you get there, and I don’t know how you know you’re there, but you operate with a sense of peace. In life, it’s very easy to do what you’ve always done. It’s very easy to slip back into bad attitudes, bad habits and personality traits.
Speaking of bad habits, you’ve been very vocal in discussing your drug and alcohol use early on in your life. These days, what’s the wildest you get? What’s a typical night for you like now? Obviously I don’t think of those past things as being wild days — I just think of them as being quite negative. I was talking about this last night at dinner. I think what you learn as you get older, if you’re smart, is that the joy is in the mundane things – the small things, like being with your family, taking a walk, having coffee with friends, having meals with friends, good company. It’s like that saying, “the devil is in the detail” — sometimes I have the most fun when I’m just walking around with no set plans. Because there’s so many special effects in my life in terms of the career thing and traveling and all of that kind of excitement, I counterbalance it with sheer ordinariness in a way, and that’s where I have the most fun sometimes.
How did your signature look come to involve hats? Going to clubs as a kid, we were always trying to over-exaggerate our look — a hat is definitely a way of over-exaggerating an outfit! Back then I was sometimes doing a kind of Carmen Miranda thing and wearing a turban! It was just basically plundering every kind of theatrical idea you could imagine, and hats — I just love hats. Hats have to wear you. You can’t buy somebody a hat because that’s like buying somebody a haircut.
How many hats would you say you have? I have quite a few that I can’t wear anymore because they’re damaged, but I refuse to let them go. [Laughs] I have about 40 wearable ones, and I’m always adding new hats to the collection.
You must have a hat room. They’re scattered around. Also: They’re a really good thing to give to auctions. People are always asking me for things for charity, so I’m always giving them to people to sell.
How many different hats do you wear onstage? At the moment I’ve got a few that I’m gonna try out. The thing about stage costumes is, they seem like a great idea until you put them on. Trying to dance around in them in the heat — the hat makes that decision for you. But I’ve got some quite fierce looks for this tour, and I’m gonna up the ante. I think it’s quite important, because at the moment everybody looks like everybody else. Everybody in a band seems like they’re in the audience. You look at a band on stage and you say, “Oh, it’s really nice that they’re on stage and they’ve wore their gym clothes to the gig.” [Laughs] There aren’t really many artists — just a lot of backroom boys pretending to be artists. A lot of producers who become pop stars. But there really aren’t many artists around or anybody that stands out. It’s a weird time for pop culture, and I suppose you can only measure current pop culture by what it was like when you were doing your thing. So, I’m always gonna measure it by what I’ve grown up with: David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Prince, Madonna… Of course I’m gonna measure it by that, and I don’t see any of that around at the moment. I mean, Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna — they’re working a bit of a hot look. More the girls.
What do you think it says about the current state of the music industry that Gaga ended up toning down her image? Actually, what I think is interesting about Lady Gaga is she’s an incredible theatrical vocalist. She has a whole Judy Garland / Liza Minnelli thing going on, and I’m actually more of a fan of what’s she’s doing now than… I mean, I loved what she did in the beginning. It was great. I remember seeing her on TV and thinking, “What’s she got on now?!” [Laughs] But in terms of her musicality, what she’s doing now is amazing.
I was in bed a few months ago — I had to get up really early the next day — and there was an advertisement for Gaga and Tony Bennett. There was a show on TV and I said, “Well, I’ll watch a bit of it and then I’ll go to sleep.” I ended up watching the whole thing and being gobsmacked by how great she was.
How fair are the comparisons to Madonna? I’m not saying this to diss Madonna at all — I mean, Madonna doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone; she’s Madonna! — but I really felt all those comparisons were a bit stupid. Of course someone like Lady Gaga, who’s younger than Madonna, is gonna be influenced by Madonna. It’s a complete compliment. That’s how you have to view it. Whenever I see anybody working a look that I might’ve had back in the day — I’ve done it. Why do I need to get upset about it?
As someone who’s always stood for gender fluidity and gender expression, what are your feelings on Caitlyn Jenner? I think it’s amazing, but there are a lot of other people being overlooked, like Candis Cayne. Caitlyn Jenner is getting the limelight because of the Kardashians, but there are a lot of people who have made that transition — her transition — possible.
I feel in a way we’re starting to, in part, live in a world I always wanted to live in. When I started my career, I was very naive. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to live in a world where it didn’t really matter if someone was gay or straight, transsexual, lesbian, whatever — and we’re certainly getting closer in some areas.
You gotta remember that myself and Caitlyn Jenner live in a celebrity bubble to a certain extent, and there are different rules in that celebrity bubble. But I think it’s great. I think it’s always wonderful when someone is allowed to be who they wanna be no matter how long it takes. I think that’s a beautiful thing to watch. When I saw that interview with Diane Sawyer, I was quite tearful.
I have to say, though: There’s a daisy chain of people who affected change long before I was around, like Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp. There are people no one knows about from the Victorian time. I’m always kind of coming across drag queens and Bohemians who were around 100 years ago who were a part of that daisy chain. So, I think it’s amazing that we’re edging toward the kind of liberalism that I always dreamed of.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 7, 2015.