527. ‘Karma Chameleon’, by Culture Club

In which we arrive at a mega-hit. The biggest song of the year, a number one in thirty countries, the longest stay at #1 so far this decade, and the… checks notes… thirty-eighth biggest seller of all time!

Karma Chameleon, by Culture Club (their 2nd and final #1)

6 weeks, from 18th September – 30th October 1983

Right from its nifty little intro, this is a record that pulls out all the stops in its efforts to burrow into your brain. It’s jaunty, it’s fast-paced, with lots of little retro flourishes, and with a hook that just won’t quit: Karma (x5) Chameleon, You come and go… You come and go…. It’s the purest of pop, from the biggest pop group of the moment. You can see why it was so huge.

Purest pop, but not perfect pop. ‘Karma Chameleon’ falls short of the level of, say, ‘Dancing Queen’, or ‘Heart of Glass’. (Too much harmonica, for a start… And the lyrics are a kind of pretty-sounding nonsense.) But that’s a fairly unreachably high bar I’m setting. This song’s best bit – the middle-eight where Boy George’s voice soars through the Every day, Is like survival, You’re my lover, Not my rival… line – can rank among the best moments of the decade. Then it descends into a marching beat, which flirts very heavily with the cheesy side of things.

In fact, the entirety of this record is one big flirtation with cheese. It stays on the right side, though, for the most part (harmonicas excepted). In the video, Boy George sits astride a Mississippi steamboat, looking as fabulous as ever. It is interesting that a band as provocative as Culture Club have two such safe chart-toppers to their name. ‘Karma Chameleon’, as good as it is, could have been recorded by Bucks Fizz (the drum beat here is really similar to ‘Making Your Mind Up’…) while ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ was, to my ears, a little dull. Maybe, though, the fact that their music was so accessible is a good thing, meaning that Boy George was beamed into family homes around the world as they scored hit after hit. Fathers scowled, mothers tutted, and all the kids who didn’t fit in secretly saw hope…

Having said that, I’d still have taken the stomping, Motown-esque ‘Church of the Poison Mind’ to have been the mega million-selling hit over this. Culture Club did have an edge to them, it just isn’t to be found in their #1s. They were also at the peak of their powers here: between October 1982 and October ’84 the band saw seven singles chart no lower than #4…

They would split up soon afterwards though, in acrimony and drug addiction. They wouldn’t work together for twelve years, until their 1998 comeback. Which must have been a big deal, as it filtered through into the consciousness of twelve-year-old me. I remember their comeback single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Loved’ well, and liked it at the time. Boy George, meanwhile, will feature in this countdown under his own steam before too long.

I mentioned in the intro that ‘Karma Chameleon’s six-week stay was the longest run at the top since 1979, and it means that we are suddenly racing through to the finish of 1983. Our next #1 is a big ‘un too. I also mentioned this record’s ‘retro flourishes’ which, added to KC & The Sunshine Band’s disco touches, and UB40’s reggae rhythms, means the ’80s are suddenly sounding a little less ’80s’. Whether I think this is a good or a bad thing… I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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16 thoughts on “527. ‘Karma Chameleon’, by Culture Club

  1. I agree with Tom Breihan’s take that “Karma Chameleon” falls into the same issues that plague a lot of British pop acts attempting American R&B in how thin the song sounds, especially with that guitar sound, “The beat is brittle and funkless, and there’s a sticky sheen on the whole thing that I’ve never been able to get past. The backing vocals sound like they’re doing lite-rock station identification. Boy George has enough charisma to keep the song afloat, but only barely.” Culture Club also got themselves in legal trouble for ripping their chorus from Jimmy Jones’ 1960 hit “Handy Man” which has the same kind of cadence as “Karma, karma, karma” before settling out of court. A fun fact I like about “Karma Chameleon” is that the harmonica played Judd Lander would play the harmonica solo on the Spice Girls’ future #1 “Say You’ll Be There.”

    • I’d never have though of this as R&B, but I suppose it does sound a bit light and ever so slightly naff… A beefier production might have helped, but then it may have gone down the ‘too eighties’ route…

      And that is a fun fact re. the harmonica. I’d say the instrument is used to much better effect in ‘Say You’ll Be There’. That’s a song I’ll be completely unable to critique with an impartial eye, the Spice Girls being my first musical loves, aged 10, and SYBT being possibly my favourite single of theirs…

      • “Say You’ll Be There” definitely sounds like an attempt at American R&B and even hip-hop at least to my American ears especially with those g-funk inspired synths that run throughout. The harmonica is definitely a cool touch even sounding like Stevie Wonder. I mean how many other teen pop acts use harmonicas in their music. Tom’s actually going to be reviewing the Spice Girls in his column Friday when he touches on “Wannabe” which has gotten me looking at their career and realize just how massive they were at home. They were obviously big worldwide and in the US and function as a major piece of ‘90s nostalgia with Spice being the biggest selling album in 1997 but singles-wise it doesn’t compete with “Wannabe” being their only #1 stateside with “Say You’ll Be There” and “2 Become 1” going to #3 and #4. Yet looking at the UK charts, it’s impressive how they were able to have so many high charting songs in such a short time as an active hit making group. This is Beatles and Mariah levels of chart dominance.

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  3. The last current album my mum bought was Colour By Numbers, and she loved Culture Club, Boy George and Karma Chameleon. I played Karma Chameleon to her last week at home as she was declining over many weeks before passing away on Thursday with me holding her hand and Elvis Presley playing. The album is a corker, mum didn’t buy many albums but she really loved this one, Boney M and Queen back in the 70’s and 80’s. Overall I preferred Church Of The Poison Mind, too, or Victims or Miss Me Blind ( a US single but criminally not a UK single) but, hey, people still love this and it’ll always be special to me for my mum.

    • Very sorry to hear about your mum. It’s a beautiful thing, that the most banal song – not that Karma Chameleon is particularly banal – becomes incredibly important depending on when, or where, or with whom, you listen to it. The songs that get to #1 are often not the best, but they are the ones we live our lives to.

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