How Culture Club blended the rules of new wave

What can you say about Culture Club that hasn’t already been said?

They were stylish, they were poppy, and they were one of the hottest bands of the new wave era. Their success wasn’t just due to the androgynous style of lead singer Boy George (b. George Alan O’Dowd), although that had a lot to do with the enormous press the band received.

Their music was pretty darn good, and it garnered the band a lot of hits between 1982 and 1986. Culture Club was part of a sub-genre of new wave called “new romantic,” which was started in the underground clubs of London in the late-’70s. and, by 1981, had spread into the new wave commercial scene.

Culture Club was one of the leaders of that movement, and their story is one of fast rise, a hard downfall, and a beautiful rebirth.

The year was 1981, and Boy George was becoming a regular at the popular London nightclub Blitz Club. There, he sang lead with an early incarnation of Bow Wow Wow, going by the stage name “Lieutenant Lush.” When that gig came to an end, George had gotten enough taste of the pop life that he would go on to start his own band.

The recruitment was fast as, by the end of the year, Roy Hay (guitarist), Jon Moss (drums), and Mikey Craig (bass) had all hooked up with the flamboyant George. As the new band represented a number of different cultures (Moss was Jewish, Craig was black, George was Irish, and Hay was Anglo-Saxon), the band would brand themselves as “Culture Club” to reflect their diversity.

By the summer of 1982, Culture Club had recorded and released their first two singles, the disco-tinged “White Boy” and  “Afraid of Me,” the latter of which would eventually become the template of their signature sound, which blended Caribbean rhythms with synth-laden pop. Both failed to chart, mainly because the new wave landscape by that time was saturated with bands that sounded similar to Culture Club. But that didn’t get the band down, and instead, they tighten the hatches.

Their third single would prove to be the breakout they needed.

That single was “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” a reggae-inflected tune that was an out-of-the-box smash in England. The song raced to number one on the British charts, and to promote the single, Culture Club made their first television appearance on the iconic British music show “Top of the Pops.”

It was here where fans got their first look at Culture Club, and, notably, Boy George. Now, men wearing makeup was nothing new in the music world. In fact, most of the new wave bands at the time, especially new romantic bands such as Duran Duran, were indeed wearing makeup. But what fans saw with George was different -- he tailored his look to actually look like a girl.

The performance and George's sense of style garnered, even more, press for Culture Club, as George was everywhere in the British tabloids. This only helped the cause of the band, as by the fall of ‘82, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” found its way near the top of the American charts, just missing out on the top spot of the Hot 100 (#2).

Culture Club’s debut album followed in October, Kissing to Be Clever, which was a Top Five smash on the British charts and would go to no. 14 on the Billboard 200 in the States. Two more singles followed the success of the debut up the charts, “Time (Clock of the Heart)” (#2 Hot 100/#3 UK) and “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” (#9 Hot 100).

By the time the band entered the studio to record their sophomore LP in early 1983, Kissing to Be Clever was certified Platinum and George would enter into a relationship with Moss that was, to put it mildly, a bit turbulent. Nevertheless, their winning streak on the charts continued, as the lead single for their second LP, “Church of the Poison Mind” easily sailed to the Top 10 of both the British and American charts (#2 UK/#10 Hot 100).

Karma Chameleon” followed later that year, and it would become the band’s biggest hit, giving them their first chart-topper in the UK and on the Hot 100. “Karma Chameleon” would eventually become the biggest-selling single of ‘83, and when their second LP, Colour by Numbers, appeared on store shelves in October, fans ate it up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, easily sending the album to the top of the British Album charts and just missing out on the same position on the Billboard 200 (#2).

Between late-’83 and early 1984, Culture Club was the biggest band in new wave as Colour by Numbers spawned two more smash hits in “Miss Me Blind” (#5 Hot 100) and “It’s a Miracle” (#4 UK/#13 Hot 100). The album would be a force in the pop world, going Diamond in Canada (the music group to achieve that honor), go 4x Platinum in the US, be certified Platinum in their native UK, and would garner a slew of awards on both sides of the Atlantic.

But as all things in the music world, what goes up, must come down, and that’s exactly what happened to Culture Club.

Their downfall started when their third LP, 1984’s Waking Up with the House on Fire, wasn’t a huge success in the States as their previous two records, struggling to a number 26 showing on the Billboard 200 (though it did go to no. 2 on the British charts). Second, George’s drug addiction (which was kept from the public eye for years) began to get worse when heroin came into the picture in 1985, and matters got even worse with the crumbling of his relationship with Moss.

To exacerbate an already free-falling situation, the landscape of pop music had dramatically changed by the time the band entered the studio to record their fourth LP, From Luxury to Heartache. By the mid-’80s, acts like Madonna and Michael Jackson were dominating the charts and changing the sound of popular music, and, all of a sudden, Culture Club’s cherry-new wave sound was now out of date.

From Luxury to Heartache enter the stores in March of 1986, and it became a Top 10 hit in Britain, but it was a disappointment in the States, stalling out at no. 32. But all signs pointed to the end of the road for Culture Club as later that year, George went public about his worsening heroin addiction, and when his relationship with Moss completely dissolved and their future as hitmakers numbered, Culture Club disbanded by the end of the year.

So what happened to Culture Club?

George would go on to have a somewhat successful solo career, but drug addiction and continued run-ins with the law would hamper his growth. George would eventually beat his addiction, and in 1998, the band was able to work out their differences to perform on “VH1 Storytellers,” their first live appearance together in 12 years. The album surrounding their VH1 appearance became a surprise hit in Britain, which further convinced the band that coming back together would be a good idea.

16 years later, their reunion was made permanent, and the band today is recording and touring, just like the good old days.

All they needed was a little time.