In 2018, one would think that an openly gay man with a flamboyant sense of fashion such as Boy George, fronting a multicultural band like Culture Club, would be considered the norm at this point. Or, at least, not at all shocking. Yet somehow, deliberately or not, Boy George has retained his ability to polarize opinions.
Despite his sultry blue-eyed soul and gentle pop demeanor, there’s always been a bit of a punk rocker bubbling just under the surface. Like the late Pete Burns of Dead or Alive, George has long embraced his natural ability to rock the apple cart while sitting squarely in it. At 57, that hasn’t changed at all. He still looks fantastic — a combination of boyish good looks and savvy makeup techniques — and he’s super-fun in conversation: razor sharp, extremely funny and just the right amount of snarky.
Back in the 1980s, when Culture Club had a string of hits with the likes of “Karma Chameleon,” “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and “Church of the Poison Mind,” Boy George was subverting the mainstream from the inside. People who would be terrified to venture into a trans-friendly club or gay disco would openly dance along with George. Meanwhile, young people perhaps experiencing confusing feelings for the first time could look up to someone who was on top of the pop world.
Fast-forward 30-something years, and much has happened within the Culture Club camp. The band members have fallen out and made up on more than one occasion (in 2006, the trio of Roy Hay, Mickey Craig and Jon Moss tried to re-form the band with another singer, Sam Butcher, but that didn’t last long — George is simply too big a personality to replace), but that innate ability to push buttons remains.
The Club are back in Los Angeles this week as part of a tour with The B-52s and Tom Bailey of Thompson Twins. That looks like a retro-heavy bill, but Boy George has always been somebody who has fought to keep his finger on the pulse — during the U.K. rave scene, he was a successful and respected DJ — and not necessarily one to embrace nostalgia.
“I don’t feel like this is an ’80s retro tour,” he says. “I just worry about what we’re doing. What we’re doing is, we’re not trying to be what we were. I talk about this a lot onstage because some songs travel with you and some you have to drag kicking and screaming. There are certain songs that grow with you. Certain songs like 'Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,' 'Victims,' 'Time (Clock of the Heart)' in some ways work better now because we’re more experienced. I can really sing those songs with a depth and integrity that maybe I couldn’t have at 22.”
That, plus the fact that the new material is going down really well with enthusiastic crowds, has resulted in what feels like a reinvigorated, refreshed and hungry Boy George. He’s comfortable with the fact that his audiences want to hear the old hits, and he knows how to balance that with his own artistic desire to unleash new tunes.
“You’ve always got to think about the audience when you’re doing a live show,” he says. “You’ve always got to think about what’s gonna work best. I don’t think nostalgia is a bad thing — whatever brings people to the theater or the event is all that matters. It’s what you do with their experience when you’re there. They don’t know what they’re gonna get, and they’ve got a lot of ideas about who I am. People meet me and they think I’m going to be like Joan Collins. People are intimidated, and it’s such fun to walk out onstage and dispel people’s ideas about who you are.”
That new material has been a long time coming. An album tentatively called Tribes, recorded with Killing Joke’s Youth, was scheduled for a 2016 release but was shelved while the four band members took their time figuring out which direction they wanted to collectively take Culture Club. On Oct. 26, a new album called Life will finally see the light of day — a few songs cherry-picked from the Tribes sessions, re-recorded alongside new tracks.
“Once [U.K. production duo] Future Cut started to work on it, I realized that the record had to have a kind of synchronicity,” George says. “So we decided to re-record everything. There are some tracks that didn’t make it onto this recording, but we’re gonna go back and do another record next year. I want to get back on the thing of putting out albums regularly and not having such long gaps between records. I love making records, and one of the things that has been exciting about this tour is playing new music, and doing it in a sort of unapologetic fashion. I know the new stuff’s really strong, so I’m not embarrassed about performing.”
With a hearty laugh, George say that it’s superglue and fairy dust that’s keeping the four original Culture Club members together after all these years and so many ups and downs.
“What keeps us together is wanting to be here,” he says. “That’s the bottom line. If you’re not enjoying it, then that’s a different story. If your passion’s there, that’s really the thing that holds it together. I think that, from my point of view, I really enjoy what I do now, in a different way to early on in my career. We went from playing small clubs to playing arenas to playing Madison Square Garden in the space of a few months. I can honestly say that at the time I wasn’t prepared for it. I was out of my depth, and I’ve really had to learn to be in control of the stage. You know that people have come to have a good time, nobody comes to a show to have a bad time, so to a certain extent you are in control of what people feel, and it can take a while to learn to be comfortable and relaxed onstage. To engage with the audience.”
There’s a point to be made that, under the current administration, when people of color, the LGBTQ community, women and just about every minority justifiably feel under threat, a multicultural band with an openly gay and outspoken singer is just what the doctor ordered. George cheekily says that, while it would be very exciting to get a tweet from the president, he’s not looking to add to the “noise.”
“We live in an age now with the internet where everybody is constantly making comments about everything, and a lot of the time they’re not thinking about it in a measured way,” he says. “I have had moments where I’ve ranted about this, that and the other on the internet. But I made a decision a while back to not to add to the noise. My message is, in a way, the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago. I think it’s still an important message. I think of Culture Club as being this one-stop shop for anybody who feels outside or left out or disenfranchised. That doesn’t necessarily mean because they look different or because of their sexuality. It’s really for any reason. It’s not about the way you look, it’s more about the way you think.”
Those wishing to experience that one-stop shop can do so this week when the Culture Club/B-52s/Tom Bailey show rolls into Los Angeles. George is looking forward to being back here, even if it took him a few years to learn to appreciate the place.
“I used to go to California and think it was boring,” he says. “When I first went to California, I thought the place was dead from the waist down. But I’ve discovered over the years that California is a great place to live. I have lots of crazy memories of California. It’s such a vast place. I remember in the very early ’80s, getting very drunk and ending up on Venice Beach in full stage costume, 7:30 a.m., with [fellow British ’80s pop star] Marilyn. All these people thinking, ‘What the fuck are those two doing?’ People who are free-spirited tend to head toward New York or California, hence the political climate there. I love California. It’s beautiful.”
As for the set, George promises that Culture Club will perform all of the hits, those new tunes, and some covers. But be warned — if you sit quietly or play on your phone, he’ll come for you.
“We’re big on audience participation,” he says with a sly chuckle. “I like to involve the audience in the show. If you’re going to sit there with your arms folded, I will pick on you.”
Boy George & Culture Club play with The B-52s and Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at the Greek Theatre.
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