Some songs are heard and never forgotten. Love Me Do by The Beatles? Check. Elvis singing Always On My Mind? Definitely. Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit? Yes. Karma Chameleon? Absolutely.
That last one, a number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 80s, was the second Culture Club single to reach the top of the UK charts after the group’s breakthrough success, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? I bet you can still hum the chorus from both songs. The videos are unforgettable too – remember the long boat in Karma Chameleon and a toff thief relieving guests of their jewellery? Of that track, Boy George has said: “The song is about the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It’s about trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren’t true, if you don’t act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that’s nature’s way of paying you back.”
If anyone has been true to himself since that song was released more than 30 years ago, it’s Boy George. The New Wave icon, now aged 53, is as recognisable as he ever was, all hats, make-up and sass. But he has trodden a rocky road – a well-documented drug addiction, arrests and a short prison term – and has come out the other side wiser and leaner. Today he is recognised for much more than Culture Club: DJing, writing books, designing clothes and taking photos are all on his CV.
Despite his reinvention, songwriting and performing have remained part of his DNA. Earlier this month, Culture Club announced they had reunited for a new album and tour, delighting a legion of fans and piquing the interest of a new audience with the promise of fresh material. Before hitting the road in December, however, Boy George has a date with the BBC Philharmonic. Due for broadcast on Radio 2 on September 27 but actually recorded last night in Salford, BBC Philharmonic Presents…Culture Club’s Colour By Numbers includes a performance of Culture Club’s 1983 album Colour By Numbers in full, including the hit singles It’s A Miracle and, happily, Karma Chameleon.
Ahead of his collaboration with a 90-strong orchestra, Northern Soul asked Boy George if he was looking forward to the show.
“It’s a big band and the orchestra is really interesting because it’s a lot of people having to work together to make one sound,” he says. “There’s more spontaneity in a rock and roll show but working with an orchestra is very contained. There’s no driving beat so it becomes a very interesting thing to do.
“Culture Club has worked with an orchestra in the past but this time there’s the orchestra and special guests like John Grant and Jimmy Somerville. So sometimes I’ll be doing songs on my own, sometimes with other people. John and Jimmy are doings songs without me. It’s really interesting to have people interpret our work. For instance, Jimmy is doing Do You Really Really Want to Hurt Me? and there will be orchestral remixes of our songs.”
Although the rest of the band aren’t taking part in the BBC concert, they have been hard at work as a group recording a new album in Spain. Given Culture Club’s well-publicised falling out, I wonder how this collaboration has gone.
“It depends on the day,” laughs George. “It was great working in Spain but there were some ups and downs. It depended on how much coffee and sugar intake people had had! When we are recording, that’s when it’s most magical. Everyone is focussed on what we are doing musically. On the other side of that, everyone’s got a personality. But the music is the important thing.”
Looking ahead to the Winter tour, George says that Culture Club will be performing new material “to breathe new life into the band”. But die-hard fans needn’t worry; the old favourites will be there too. So, of the group’s back catalogue, does George have a soft spot for any particular songs?
“Victims, the more emotional stuff. The classic songs are always exciting to play live because they have such a good reaction. People get very excited. It’s the love you get back.”
Mikey Craig, Culture Club’s bassist, adds: “It’s nice to be performing new songs. I’m looking forward to hear how they’ll be received.”
Both George and Craig seem to have a soft spot for new track Human Zoo which, according to George, is about Craig’s pet tarantula. It’s hard to know if they’re joking (although they insist that it’s not a metaphor), such is the easy camaraderie between the two. George in particular seems perfectly at ease and is a pleasure to interview. I raise the rumour recently circulated that he is considering reviving Taboo, a musical based on his life that charts the rise of the New Romantic movement in the early 80s and follows his journey from wannabe pop star through his chart success, heroin addiction and eventual discovery of Eastern spirituality.
“I’ve written a new script and I’m talking to people about doing a production and a new workshop. There’s a lot of love for Taboo. One of the great things about it is that theatrical students are doing it in their auditions. That’s amazing.”
The longevity of the musical – Taboo was first staged in 2002 – mirrors the timeless nature of Culture Club’s songs. What is the secret to George’s success?
“The songs are on YouTube and there have been many versions including by Babyshambles. There have been orchestral versions. It’s bonkers. But I think that songs like Karma Chameleon and Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? are not quintessentially 80s songs. They still sound good now. They stand alone.”
After covering the important stuff, it seems remiss not to mention George’s extraordinary weight loss. If you’ve seen any recent photos of George, you’ll be aware of this physical transformation. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s never looked better and, word is, it’s thanks to the ‘Metabolic Plan’, a diet based on mini-fasting (five hour gaps between meals), drinking lots of water and avoiding too many carbs, sugar and processed foods.
“I’m not a supermodel, I still have a few bumps and lumps,” laughs George. “For me, it’s about what you eat and when you eat it. And I don’t think that anyone can say that eating a big cream pie is going to help. But it’s lots of things working together: sleep, exercise, food. I changed my diet dramatically and I changed the times I eat. I try to avoid processed food. Basically, if they have to advertise it, it’s probably bad for you.”
Wise words from Boy George. You might say that he’s a man with conviction, a man who does know.
Photos: BBC/Simon Pantling
BBC Philharmonic Presents…Culture Club’s Colour By Numbers is on BBC Radio 2 on September 27, 2014