For a time England’s biggest pop sensation, heralded in America as leaders of a second British Invasion, Culture Club capitalized on Boy George’s outrageous nightlife cross-dressing and aimed-to-shock intelligence to slip their mushy mainstream soul-pop into respectable homes the world over. Phenomenology aside, the foursome never sounded anywhere near as bizarre as they originally appeared; regarding their albums in coldly critical terms reveals them to be nice but meaningless: sophisticated dance pop that is insidiously memorable but utterly disposable.
Kissing to Be Clever has such Club standards as “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” a warm reggae pulse supporting the catchy melody, and “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya,” a boppy, upbeat dance number. Spurred by the American success of the former as a single, the US label switched around the album’s track order to highlight it, and later reissued it with a subsequent 45, “Time (Clock of the Heart),” appended.
Dropping the silly “white boy” crypto-sociology that threads through the first album, Colour by Numbers gets right to the business at hand, which is the creation of irresistible pop hits in a variety of molds. And in that regard, the album is a real success, containing as it does the mildly folk-rock-psychedelicized “Karma Chameleon” and “Church of the Poison Mind,” as well as the more soul-oriented “Miss Me Blind” and “Black Money.” Easily the best of the four albums, Colour by Numbers prominently features singer Helen Terry, who provides a powerful foil to George’s smooth crooning.
Riding high on stardom, Culture Club blew their rock credibility and career momentum totally with the ultra-dull Waking Up With the House on Fire. George’s voice is fine and the band — drummer Jon Moss (ex-London), guitarist/keyboardist Roy Hay and bassist Mikey Craig — plays with maximum slickness and sophistication. But the songs are irredeemably awful. From the torpid velveeta of “Mistake No. 3” (apt title, that) to the juvenile stupidity of “The War Song” (“War is stupid…”) and the inane stop-start mess of “Hello Goodbye,” there’s no material equal to the early singles. With misguided intentions of achieving political relevance and added MOR acceptance, the album is an unmitigated disaster.
At that point, it seemed likely that the Club was on the verge of splitting up, and the lengthy delay in producing a new album only fueled speculation about the group’s future. Nevertheless, the quartet managed to deliver From Luxury to Heartache, which isn’t awful at all. Culture Club’s new problem is their irrelevance: lacking controversy, a style to call their own or truly catchy songs, the LP offers nothing to hold onto, just a bunch of well-produced (Arif Mardin and Lew Hahn) mild soul/funk disposables. Given that Culture Club had never really changed musically, From Luxury to Heartache underscores the inexplicability of their original reception: it was ever thus.
Billed as “Twelve Worldwide Hits,” This Time — The First Four Years consolidates all the essential 45s, plus “Love Is Love” from the Electric Dreams soundtrack. Despite occasionally brittle sound and the obligatory inclusion of dimwitted later material, “Karma Chameleon,” “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya,” “Church of the Poison Mind,” “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” and “Time (Clock of the Heart)” just about covers Culture Club’s basics for all but the most devoted aficionados. (The CD adds two cuts.)
In the wake of the band’s long-anticipated 1987 collapse, Jon Moss attempted to launch a new band, Heartbeat UK, releasing a debut single called “Jump to It.”
Following a public bout with drug addiction and a series of lurid and tragic tabloid scandals, Boy George (O’Dowd) attempted to resume his career but could only come up with the wretched Sold. Away from his former bandmates, George and Club producer Stewart Levine whipped up a forgettable, overblown concoction possessing none of the flair of the band’s better work. Indicative of the Boy’s total creative bewilderment, the album’s dubious high point is an absurd reggaefied version of Bread’s “Everything I Own” (styled after a Ken Boothe rendition which topped the British charts in 1974).
The singer’s next American album, stitched together from two overseas releases (one of which didn’t even come out in England), finally appeared as High Hat. Under any title, it’s slick, assembly-line R&B with nary a shred of personality. How odd that a performer who built a huge career on stylized outrage should end up making music this anonymous. Four tracks produced by former Prince drummer Bobby Z (including the almost-successful tortured-diva move “Whisper”) show a bit more musical and lyrical character but, in this context, that’s not saying much.
The Martyr Mantras, a dance-oriented compilation of non-LP singles and newer tracks recorded with a variety of producers (including one collaboration with ex-Culture Club confrère Jon Moss), is a significant improvement. Though most of the material is more functional than inspired, the uncluttered extended dance-mix settings allow George to deliver some genuinely soulful vocal performances, particularly on the disco number “Generations of Love” (included in two versions) and the ballad “One on One.” Of equal note is the return of his sociopolitical conscience on “No Clause 28,” an effective and good-humored anti-oppression rant.