Culture Club: Kissing To Be Clever / Colour By Numbers

June 21, 2013


Roll: 2-5-17
Album: Culture Club, Kissing To Be Clever/Colour By Numbers

Just in time for Pride Week here in Toronto, the dice served up this budget double-disc set of Culture Club‘s first two albums.

Though this happenstance shouldn’t really surprise me since, for the last year, I feel like everything’s been coming up Boy George. Every time I read an autobiography by a new wave or punk icon, without fail, he features in at least one anecdote. Either he got out on the town a lot more than any other UK pop star of his generation or he was simply the one who was able to make an impression strong enough to survive years of drug and alcohol abuse that the authors’ brains inevitably suffered. The anecdotes usually do involve him being a bit of a twat, so the latter is probably at least partly true. This goes for his own autobiographies as well, by the way.

I would have been in grade 5 the first time I saw the “Karma Chameleon” video and it was undoubtedly my first experience with the very concept of drag. You’d expect that my mind was blown like bits of paper from a confetti canon with the realization that she was a he. But it wasn’t. Kids tend to take things in stride unless they’re instructed not to. Except for a joke my dad made about George being “prettier than Cyndi Lauper” (to which I agreed), I don’t remember having much reaction at all.

Perhaps it could have been because his form of drag was oddly benign and asexual. More of a David Bowie-esque gender-bending androgyny than the highly-sexualized cross-dressing of Priscilla Queen of Desert.

In retrospect, my reaction seems kind of curious since—as I mentioned in my recent Billy Idol review—I was terrified of other kids thinking I was gay because I listened to the wrong musicians. This was the reason I suddenly stopped listening to Michael Jackson; word came down the pipe “only fags” listened to the King of Pop.

I suppose I wasn’t concerned with Boy George’s sexuality because I didn’t listen to his music unless it came on the radio (which was a lot). I remember liking “Karma Chameleon” well enough but hating “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” (sappy) and absolutely loathingI’ll Tumble For Ya” (which gave me a woozy, nauseous feeling for some reason). Unlike with MJ and Billy Idol, I wasn’t torn between love and fear. In the 1983-84 school year, Culture Club’s music was both omnipresent and non-existent for me. Like Duran Duran, it was stuff girls listened to while us boys listened to John Cougar.

Other than a vague awareness due to the singles on the radio, my oldest memory of Kissing To Be Clever (1982) and Colour By Numbers (1983) is from somewhere around grade 9 or maybe 10, long after Culture Club’s star had fallen (on this side of the pond, at least). A group of us were at the farm of a pair of brothers by the surname of Mant to partake in a sort of improvised version of paintball that involved paint-filled water balloons and squeeze bottles. Their back 40 was being cleared and provided the perfect landscape of muddy foxholes, toppled trees and dirt mounds to leap over and hide behind.

Before hand we were hanging out in the bedroom of the younger brother, Mike, who was my age. He had the two albums on tapes stashed away in this sort of cubbyhole at the head of his bed. Seeing me eyeing them quizzically out of the corner of my eye he said, with unnerving enthusiasm, “Culture Club were pretty good, hey?”

I offered a vaguely affirmative but non-committal response, hoping none of the other guys were listening in to this potentially embarrassing conversation. In those days we would have all been listening to AC/DC, Iron Maiden and Aerosmith. Pop music was verboten at the best of times and certainly five-year-old records by drag queens were completely out-of-fucking-bounds.  As far as I could see, these were the only two tapes Mike owned. I figured he must be a real fan and I began to suspect he was gay.


Mike had always been a little out of step with the rest of us. We were country boys and dressed like country boys: mullets, denim or plaid jackets and black t-shirts of hard rock bands. Mike was the only one of us who went in for a preppy, new wave look with his clothes and haircuts (one was a memorable Paul Hyde poodle-top which caused riotous laughter when he stepped on the bus the morning after getting it).

He was also relatively quiet and aloof . Especially compared to my friend and nemesis, his older brother, Ellis. In grade 8, Ellis had been the singer in my first punk band, The Toxic Wasteoids, but he’d since become an abusive jock bully like their dad.

We probably would have teased Mike about his fashion more, except he was far more popular with girls than any of us. Somehow it never dawned on us that he was probably popular with the ladies precisely because of his clean-cut, preppy appearance. While we were trying hard not to look “faggy” with out dirt bag clobber, he was the only one getting any action. So, despite his apparent affection of Culture Club, clearly he was not gay.

At the age of 15 this realization did my head in far more  than the concept of a drag queen did at the age of 10. You can listen to gay music and still be straight? This didn’t compute in my binary understanding of the universe. Never mind that my favourite band at the time was probably Poison who were far more convincing drag queens than Boy George ever had been.

I did, however, find myself wondering if Mike might be bisexual and maybe he’d be open to… well, of course I never let myself finish those thoughts.

So it was that I never intentionally listened to Culture Club for pleasure until I went to college and, due to the usual series of emotional setbacks, developed a sudden, nostalgic hunger for New Romantic bands and the pop music of what I (erroneously) imagined were the simpler, happier days of my childhood. Music, my father pointed out, I didn’t even enjoy the first time around.

Thompson TwinsA Flock of SeagullsKajagoogooHuman League, Duran Duran, and Culture Club were all bands I actively disliked in the ’80s but somehow had become long-time favourites in the revisionist history-center of my brain. I convinced myself I’d always loved New Wave pop but had hid this from my dad lest he deride my “faggy” taste in music. I’m not sure if he ever did say anything of the sort, or if he ever would have, but I decided this was the case and it became a quiet resentment I carried with me throughout my 20’s. Sorry about that, Dad. That wasn’t fair of me.

I’m not even sure this perceived injustice over my love of new wave pop music was something I’d ever thought about until I decided my bisexual tendencies were real and not just some Bowie-worshiping affectation. These days, I can’t even tell if I really did enjoy “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “I Ran” back in 1982 or if I’d just brainwashed myself into believing it at some point in the ’90s.

At any rate, the fact is I do honestly love this music now. Yet it still took a while before I developed a true appreciation for Culture Club’s albums, Kissing To Be Clever in particular. At first I was only interested in the big, nostalgic speedballs delivered by the hit singles,”Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” and “Time (Clock Of The Heart)“. I ignored the album cuts assuming they were, as was the case with most ’80s pop albums, mere filler. But at some point I gave the album a proper listen and even developed an appreciation for the musicianship of this “fluff” band.

I’d always taken  my headbanger friends at their word that pop bands “dunno how’ta play” and that only heavy metal musicians had any chops. Perhaps true for a few of the synthesizer bands who primarily used drum machines and sequencers, but anyone who’s listened closely to Kissing To Be Clever has to admit the Mikey Craig/John Moss rhythm section laid down some tight, funky and inventive grooves that a the guys in Mötley Crüe would have been hard-pressed to pull off.

And the music on Kissing is all a lot more genuinely strange and edgy than the hits would have you believe. “I’ll Tumble For Ya” (which has since become my favourite Culture Club song), is a prime example. The slinky bassline, the frantic Burundi-inspired drumming, the punchy horns stabs, the vaguely psychedelic lyrics… It’s a perfect little slab of post-punk pop-funk and not dissimilar (though smoother) to material on the more critically acclaimed debuts by Haircut 100 and Spandau Ballet. The Latin/Caribbean tinted “You Know I’m Not Crazy” actually sounds a lot like an ironed-out version of some of The Cure‘s 1983-1987 left-field pop ditties. The dancehall/dub of the bonus track “Murder Rap Trap” could have come off Sandinista!—though perhaps that’s praising with faint damnation?

This isn’t to say Kissing is in the same league as albums by PiL, Gang of Four, The Slits or Rip, Rig + Panic, but it isn’t trying to be either. It’s chart-focused pop music, but it’s under-appreciated, misunderstood, pop music that’s more pointedly political and artistic than people give it credit for.

Colour By Numbers, by comparison, isn’t nearly as adventurous. It’s straight-up ’80s pop, plain and simple, and tends towards torchy lounge lizard numbers in places. The obvious dig is that it’s “pop by numbers.” That doesn’t mean it’s without merit as “Miss Me Blind” is one of the best disco singles from decade of decadence and the “Church of the Poison Mind” b-side, “Mystery Boy” (included here), is delicious new wave funk in the Kissing To Be Clever mold.

While Colour isn’t a classic on it’s own, but paired with the Kissing (for less than the price of a single disc) is worth owning. Consider it a bonus disc of Kissing To Be Clever b-sides and it’s brilliant.



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