Culture Club are an English new wave band that formed in London in 1981. The band comprises Boy George (lead vocals), Roy Hay (guitar and keyboards), Mikey Craig (bass guitar) and Jon Moss (drums and percussion). They are considered one of the most representative and influential groups of the 1980s.
Led by singer and frontman Boy George, whose androgynous style of dressing caught the attention of the public and the media in the early 1980s, the band have sold more than 150 million records worldwide, including over 6 million BPI certified records sold in the UK and over 7 million RIAA certified records sold in the US. Their hits include “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”, “Time (Clock of the Heart)”, “Church of the Poison Mind”, “Karma Chameleon”, “Victims”, “It’s a Miracle”, “The War Song”, “Move Away”, and “I Just Wanna Be Loved”. In the UK they amassed twelve Top 40 hit singles between 1982 and 1999, including the number ones “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” and “Karma Chameleon”, the latter being the biggest selling single of 1983, and topped the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1984. “Time (Clock of the Heart)” is included on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.
Their second album, Colour by Numbers, sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. It appeared on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s and is also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Ten of their singles reached the US Top 40, where they are associated with the Second British Invasion of British new wave groups that became popular in the US due to the cable music channel MTV. Culture Club’s music combines British new wave and American soul with Jamaican reggae and also other styles such as calypso, salsa and country.
In 1984, Culture Club won Brit Awards for Best British Group, Best British Single (“Karma Chameleon”), and the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. They were nominated the same year for the Grammy Award for Pop Vocal by Group or Duo. The band were also nominated for a Canadian Juno Award for International Album of the Year. In January 1985, Culture Club were nominated for an American Music Award for Favorite Pop/Rock Band/Duo/Group Video Artist, and in September 1985, they were nominated for two MTV Video Music Awards for Best Special Effects and Best Art Direction for their video “It’s a Miracle”. In 1987, they received another nomination for an American Music Award for Favorite Pop/Rock Band/Duo/Group Video Artist.
In 1981, Blitz Club regular Boy George occasionally sang with the group Bow Wow Wow under the stage name Lieutenant Lush. After his tenure with the group ended, George decided to start his own band and enlisted bassist Mikey Craig, drummer Jon Moss, and finally guitarist Roy Hay.
Realising they had an Irish gay man as the lead singer, a black Briton on bass, a blond Englishman on guitar and keyboards, and a Jewish drummer, they eventually decided to call themselves Culture Club. The group recorded demos, which were paid for by EMI Records, but the label was unimpressed and decided not to sign the group. Virgin Records heard the demos and signed the group in the UK, releasing their albums in Europe, while Epic Records released their albums in the United States and much of the rest of the world since Virgin did not have a US presence at the time. George began sporting a look inspired by Siouxsie Sioux with “heavy make-up and swaggy hair”.
The band released two singles in May and June 1982, “White Boy” and “I’m Afraid of Me”, though both failed to chart. In August the single “Mystery Boy” was released in Japan. In September of that year, the group released their third single, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”, a reggae-influenced number, which became one of their biggest hits. The song went to No. 1 in the UK in late 1982 and became an international smash, peaking at No. 1 in over a dozen countries (No. 2 in the US), this track sold up to 6.5 million copies worldwide.
The band’s 1982 debut on Top of the Pops created tabloid headlines, which focused on George’s androgynous style of dress and sexual ambiguity. Magazines began to feature George prominently on their covers. Pete Burns, lead singer of the new wave band Dead or Alive, would later claim he was the first to wear braids, big hats, and colourful costumes, but George would cut back with a sharp-tongued remark, “It’s not who did it first, it’s who did it better.”
The band’s debut album, Kissing to Be Clever (UK No. 5, US No. 14) was released in October 1982, and the follow-up single, “Time (Clock of the Heart)”, became another Top 10 hit in the US (Number 2) and UK (Number 3). “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” also became a Top Ten hit in the US (Number 9) and in Canada. This gave Culture Club the distinction of being the first group since The Beatles to have three Top Ten hits in America from a debut album. Kissing to Be Clever sold over 1.5 million copies in the US, being certified platinum, and sold another 3 million worldwide at the time of its release.
The band’s second album, Colour by Numbers (UK No. 1, US No. 2), was released in 1983. The first single, “Church of the Poison Mind”, featuring backing vocalist Helen Terry, reached the UK and US Top 10. The second single, “Karma Chameleon”, gave the band their biggest hit, peaking at No. 1 in the UK (the band’s second chart-topper there), where it became the best selling single of 1983 and has sold 1.5 million copies there to date. It also peaked at No. 1 in the US for three consecutive weeks, and would ultimately hit No. 1 in 30 countries, thus becoming one of the top twenty best-selling singles of the 1980s sold up seven million copies worldwide, with one of the most iconic images of Boy George on the cover shot by photographer David Levine.
The album Colour by Numbers would spawn more hits including “Miss Me Blind” (#5 US), “It’s a Miracle” (#4 UK, No. 13 US), and “Victims” (#3 UK), and sold four million copies in the US and another five million worldwide at its time of release. The album gave Culture Club the distinction of being the first group in music history to have an album certified diamond in Canada (for sales of one million copies in that country). The band also won the 1984 Brit Award for Best Group and the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, where George gave a speech via satellite stating, “Thanks America, you’ve got style, you’ve got taste, and you know a good drag queen when you see one.”
The group’s back-up singer, Helen Terry, began work on her solo album, for which George and Hay wrote the song “Love Lies Lost”. The pair also wrote “Passing Friend” for the Beach Boys’ album. Culture Club wrote two songs for the soundtrack to the movie Electric Dreams. George and Hay wrote “The Dream” and “Love Is Love”, with the latter being released as a single in Canada and Japan, the E.P “Love is Love” became a major hit in Japan. George also collaborated on the song “Electric Dreams”, sung by P. P. Arnold. The song was written with Phil Pickett (former member of the 1970s band Sailor) who had also co-written “Karma Chameleon” and frequently played keyboards for the group.
Despite Culture Club’s commercial success, there were significant pressures within the band. George was using drugs with money from his new-found fame. George and Moss were also romantically involved with each other, which was unknown to the public and the media at the time. Their relationship lasted for over four years and was often turbulent, with alleged physical and verbal abuse. Their constant arguments and the pressure to hide the relationship from the public started to take its toll on the band.
In 1984, the group released their third album Waking Up with the House on Fire (UK No. 2, US No. 26) which sold 2.8 million copies worldwide. Although certified platinum in both the UK and the US, it was a commercial and critical disappointment compared to their first two albums. The album contained the hit single “The War Song”, which reached No. 2 in the UK, and Top 20 in the US. Other singles like “Mistake No. 3” (US No. 33) and “The Medal Song” (UK No. 32) would become modest hits. George later stated he felt the album experienced a lukewarm reception because of half-hearted material he felt they released due to pressure from Virgin and Epic to have a quick follow-up to Colour by Numbers. According to him, the band had just come off an exhausting world tour in 1984, and as a result the fatigue ended up coming off on the album.
At the end of 1984, Boy George was recruited by Bob Geldof to join the Band Aid recording, consisting of mostly internationally known UK and Irish recording stars. George was in New York City for an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman when Geldof called him, but managed to catch the final Concorde of the day to London and was the last singer to record a lead vocal track for the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?“. The song would become the biggest selling single of all-time in the UK and a huge international hit, raising millions for famine victims in several African nations, particularly Ethiopia.
Due to all the heartache from the break-up of his relationship with Moss, and all the ensuing tension with rest of the band, George turned to (something then very much out of character for George) relief in drugs. Consequently, he soon developed a self-destructive drug addiction, which in merely four months escalated from marijuana to heroin. By 1986, George had become seriously addicted; without Moss by his side, his zest for the band was greatly diminished. The recording of their fourth studio album, 1986’s From Luxury to Heartache (UK No. 10, US No. 32) dragged on for so long that producer Arif Mardin had to abandon the sessions due to prior commitments and leave it to engineer Lew Hahn to record the final vocals. Songs like “Gusto Blusto” and “Reasons” took days for the addicted singer to finish. Nevertheless, the first single “Move Away” became a hit, peaking at UK No. 7 and US No. 12.
By the time of the release of the second single “God Thank You Woman”, news of George’s drug addiction began to circulate in British and American tabloids, and the second single failed to achieve the same level of success.
George and Moss also no longer wanted to be around each other due to the constant relationship battles, and coupled with George’s addiction, a forthcoming American tour had to be cancelled. From Luxury to Heartache began to fade from the charts as well and the album ultimately sold one million copies worldwide, far fewer than their previous albums. By the summer of 1986, George finally admitted that he was indeed addicted to drugs.
In July of that year, he was arrested by the British police for possession of heroin. The band broke up and George pursued a solo career, having several European hits and a couple of US Top 40 hits, though George would continue to struggle with his drug addiction for several years.
The band first tried to reunite in 1989, after many requests from Tony Gordon, the group’s former manager and Boy George’s manager at that time. George agreed to try some songs with the band again, resulting in recording sessions and producing more than a dozen songs that are still unreleased to this day. George, however, was more excited about his future projects like his record label, More Protein, and his new acid house project Jesus Loves You. The proposed reunion ended up being cancelled.
- Kissing to Be Clever (1982)
- Colour by Numbers (1983)
- Waking Up with the House on Fire (1984)
- From Luxury to Heartache (1986)