Boy George will never write another Karma Chameleon – 'I wouldn't know how!' – and these days he won't let a record company tell him what to do.
IF YOU'VE been going to dance clubs in Europe you'll know Boy George is as big as ever, as a DJ. But anywhere outside Europe you'd think he'd retired from music. Not true.
When he was barely 22 his British band Culture Club got the Grammy as Best New Artist and had the biggest-selling single of 1983, which was to be followed by another nine singles in the US Top 40 alone.
His songs were sweet, very singable and easy to dance to. And the press loved his androgynous makeup and dress. Gaga owes him a lot.
That was 30 years ago.
The hook from his new single is especially ironic. King of Everything, from the album This Is What I Do, is geared to the world outside the dance clubs of Europe, to let us know he's still here.
He was on a fleeting PR tour of Australia and South-East Asia when I spoke to him by phone from Singapore. He was personable and very honest.
We talked about why he'd withdrawn from the limelight, why he changed management and record companies and why he'll never write another Karma Chameleon.
"I wasn't feeling the love" pretty well sums it up, but there was more to it. And he was sick and tired of being told what to do and how to do it . . .
❏ The press release for the new album says you wanted your new album to be "baggy". To me it's cool, relaxed, unforced – is that what baggy means?
Kind of. I’ve been working in dance music for the last 25 years and dance productions are tight and slick because you’re using a lot of technology. I just felt it was time to do something a little loose. I think, you know, for me it just felt too obvious to make a dance record although there is groove on this record, there's always groove in what I do. But I just felt like I wanted to do something loose with the band and I wanted it to translate to a live situation.
This album gives you the chance to say something perhaps you haven’t had the chance to say in dance music. I hesitate to call it a sad album but there's an awful lot of introspection and irony.
I wouldn't describe my album as sad either. I think it's melancholy. which is an area I've always kind of worked in but I think this album is really optimistic, not sad at all [laughs]. I think of my early work as being much more kind of "Oh, woe is me" and I think there's a lot of shrugging on this record. It's more kind of comme ci, comme ça. It's about not having answers, not needing answers. At the same time I'm happy for people to interpret it any way they choose because that's what I do with my favourite records. I take them away and I make them my own and I decide what they're about. It's important to leave room for that. So I'm not horrified you think it's sad! It's just not the word I'd use.
Yup, melancholy is much better! But even King of Everything is very bleak, about someone who's king of every damn thing in the world but if you lose those dearest to you what have you got?
I don't know how much you know about recovery but recovery is something that's quite triumphant and I get the opposite feeling from King of Everything because it's somebody taking responsibility for their life, you know, that's a positive thing. The first time I heard the finished mix I got quite emotional and I hope it has that effect on other people. Not that it's something I have any control over.
Watch Boy George perform King of Everything (04.19):
I love the lyrics to Bigger Than War. The line "[Love] holds us together, tears us apart" is so simple yet holds a huge truth.
Yeah, but what I'm saying in that song is I don't understand love, and I don't necessarily need to. I'll size it up if you want me to. "It's bigger than me, it's bigger than you." Love is a bit like fate. It's the kind of unknowingness where the power really is in the unknowingness. You can never prove love or fate exist. You have to trust they do. That’s where the optimism kicks in because I think I'm kind of romantic and naive and I do believe in all of those things; I want to believe in the wizard behind the curtain, you know what I mean?
How do you protect such innocence? You've had an amazing career yet you admit to being naive. How do you maintain innocence in a cutthroat industry?
I don't really think of it as being cutthroat. There have been times I've loathed and detested this business but I don’t feel like that now. I feel like I’m on top of things and the thing I've seen in the last couple of years is if you’re ready to get up off your arse and work there's lots to do. It's a really good time [laughs]. I’m really enjoying myself at the moment.
Also the industry has changed so much, it’s not the same industry I was in before. I'm not signed to a record label. I've done this new record independently so the rules are very different.
And the way we communicate with our audience is very different. We have the immediacy of social networking, it’s much easier to reach new people now. You can do a lot in a day. I’ve just been to Australia and I did a day of press and that was quite far-reaching. In the old days it'd take me two weeks to do that! Information travels so quickly now and people are less interested in music than they've ever been because there's so much of it. It's a bit like TV. There are so many channels but not much to watch. It's like that with music. So many people making records. One of the downsides of modern technology is almost anyone can make a record but I don't know that it's made the quality any better, you know?
I didn't want to work with people who wanted me to write another Karma Chameleon because it's never gonna happen! I wouldn't know where to start! I wrote that when I was 23. It's a great song and I wish I could write another one.
Why did you go independent?
I left Virgin in '95 with a very bad taste in my mouth. Listen, the music industry is a business. You make a lot of money for a record company and suddenly you're not making as much money and the love dies on their side [laughs]. And there's a lot of dishonesty. People you trust lie to you and people aren't honest because they think you're too fragile to deal with it. Now I know exactly where I am and exactly what I'm trying to do. I changed management three years ago because I wanted to work with people who can see me now and not how I was, you know? I didn't want to work with people who wanted me to write another Karma Chameleon because it's never gonna happen! I wouldn't know where to start! I wrote that when I was 23.
Hear Ian with Boy George on Radio 2UE (02.45):
Surely you don't disparage that song?!
Not at all! It's a great song and I wish I could write another one but I've never done music to order. It's never been my thing. When you're a young artist and you sign a record deal it's a weird thing that happens. You end up battling the record company because they don't really get you and they try to get you to do things you don’t want to do.
Watch Culture Club perform Karma Chameleon in 1983 (03.56):
They to get you to do interviews you don't want to do. TV shows you don't want to do. Going to the opening of an envelope. I think at 52 I'm able to say I don't wanna do that. An' I'm not gonna do that. Don't ask me! There are certain publications I will not talk to. Ever. Until hell freezes over! It's not gonna happen! I'm a grown adult and that's the end of it. There's a real freedom in that. I'm with Kobalt and there's no skullduggery with them. The Pet Shop Boys are with Kobalt. A lot of artists are working with Kobalt in a kind of independent fashion.
They try to get you to do interviews you don't want to do. TV shows you don't want to do. Going to the opening of an envelope. I think at 52 I'm able to say I don't wanna do that. An' I'm not gonna do that. Don't ask me! There are certain publications I will not talk to. Ever. Until hell freezes over. It's not gonna happen!
What's left that you really want to do?
Well, for a long time I haven't [launched a new album] properly so that's the job at hand. And a lot of what I’m doing is like a big PR exercise, you know, people haven’t seen me for a while and perhaps have misconceptions about where I am, who I am, what I am. I meet people and they're kind of surprised. I don’t know what they were expecting. But what they're encountering is somebody on top of his game who's ready to do business, you know what I mean?
The key thing is to enjoy it and I’m very lucky to do what I do. I get paid to do this thing I love. I've returned to it with the kind of gratitude I didn't have when I was younger because I didn’t have to be grateful. No one ever said to me at the height of my career "Be grateful because it's not always gonna be like this!". But I wouldn’t wanna have that kind of life again, I wouldn't wanna be that person again.
What was wrong with that person?
Nothing was wrong with that person, just a lack of experience, I think, a lack of worldliness, a lack of maturity. I'm still very much that person but a bit wiser, smarter.
Watch Culture Club perform Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? in 1982 (04.29):
Love is a theme of the new album. Are you in love at the moment?
Not officially, no [we both laugh]. I'm always in love with someone! But I'm not in a relationship at the moment. I'm not looking for one either. I'm really focused on my career and I don't know how anyone would fit into that. And I don't really want to have some kind of casual fling with somebody on the road. I'm just not interested. I really am not. It's kind of an age thing where you think, actually I don't want fast food. I want a sit-down dinner [laughs]. I'm always open to the possibility. But I'm certainly not longing or lonely.
How do you clear your head?
I used to find it very difficult to do nothing but now I find it very enjoyable! I like to be spontaneous with my free time. So much of my life is planned out ahead of time and scheduled, so those moments where I'm free to do whatever I go for mundane things like seeing friends, meals, going to museums. I see a lot of movies. I read a lot of books.
What was the last book you read?
I've just finished When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman. I've read three books in the last 10 days. That one plus The Fault in our Stars by John Green and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I read When God Was a Rabbit in a day which is a record for me. Reading has become very important to me as I’ve got older. It's great for songwriting 'cos it opens your vocabulary, it makes you think about things differently. That applies to listening to other people's music, too.
The last movies you saw?
Philomena. I cried. It reminded me of my relatives who are Irish. Judi Dench nailed the Irish woman. I’ve got relatives exactly like her. Everything she said and did it was, oh, my God! It’s a really important film and it’s important it gets talked about because what happened was awful. Why haven't those nuns been dragged into court? Why have they got away with it?
And I just saw Dallas Buyers Club. Extraordinary! It really makes you think. I lost a lot of friends to HIV and AIDS and this movie is unpleasant in a lot of ways. You think about all the people on those drug trials who didn't know they were being given a placebo. It was shocking. What chance did they have?
What's a song you heard recently by someone else which you thought was great?
I was just listening to the new Johnny Cash [archival but just released for the first time], She Used to Love me a Lot. I loved the simplicity of it. It reminded me a bit of It’s Easy (When You’re the One Who Stops Loving First) from my record because I’m always looking for those kind of killer lines. And if you get a great line like that the song kind of writes itself, you know? It's always important to find something very simple but profound to hang a song on.
Again ironic. Your song is called It's Easy, but breaking up never is.
It's hard for the person left behind. Once you don’t feel anything any more you’re off the hook and you can just merrily walk away. I've done that. I've been in that situation where I stopped loving someone. But it's true. There's nothing harder in the world than telling someone you don't love them any more.
It's hard not to give the last word to Lena Horne:
Not sad. Just melancholy. ❏
■ Boy George on allmusic.
■ Boy George on IMDb.
■ Read Ian's other interviews:
Danny Trejo for Machete Kills – 'I got Gaga her movie role with Gloria and me!'
Review of Privates on Parade – Parading Your Privates
Review of Twists and Turns cabaret – Matthew Mitcham drops his dacks
Simon Vowles for Queens of the Outback – A frock and a rock hit town!
Nick Atkins for A Boy & A Bean – Jack, the giant killer
Matthew Mitcham for Twists and Turns cabaret – Matthew . . . all singing, all talking, all dancing!
Debbie Reynolds for Behind the Candelabra – What a glorious feelin’, I’m workin’ again
Lily Tomlin for Web Therapy – Lily caught in Phoebe's web!
Todd McKenney for Grease – Todd’s got chills, they’re multiplyin’
Matthew Rhys for The Scapegoat – Seeing double . . . and the Walkers' wine was real!
Casey Donovan for Mama Cass tribute – Casey has found her own idol
Amanda Muggleton for The Book Club – A book club for those who'd rather laugh than read!
Rachel Griffiths for Magazine Wars – We owe a big debt to Ita and Dulcie
Simon Burke for Mrs Warren’s Profession – A timeless take on the oldest profession
Ellen's mum, Betty DeGeneres on marriage equality – Not supporting gay marriage is bullying
Amanda Muggleton for Torch Song Trilogy – Amanda returns to the spotlight
Matthew Mitcham for Twists and Turns book – He couldn't believe it would last . . . and it didn't