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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509. ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’, by Culture Club

Part two of a three-part reggae autumn, and here’s one of the eighties’ most iconic figures…

Do You Really Want to Hurt Me, by Culture Club (their 1st of two #1s)

3 weeks, 17th October – 7th November 1982

When I think of the 1980s, as someone who didn’t live through it (OK, I lived through almost half of it, but you know what I mean) certain images spring to mind. Huge mobile phones, Thatcher’s hair, Maradona’s hand… And that’s before we get to pop music. Madonna’s blonde curls, Michael Jackson moonwalking, ‘Frankie Says Relax’.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the eighties has begun, thanks to a glimpse of Boy George’s long hair and beautifully sculpted eyebrows. Again. The ‘80s keep beginning. I said the same thing when we met Adam Ant, and Shakin’ Stevens, and Human League. The ‘sixties’ had a very definitive start-point: the sudden wave of Merseybeat #1s in 1963. The ‘seventies’ meanwhile actually began sometime in mid-1969, with that string of apocalyptic chart-toppers. Stretch your mind back to the fifties and it was Bill Haley who kicked all that off. The eighties, though, has been harder to pin down.

We’re here to talk about music, though, not iconography. Musically, this record isn’t announcing a new dawn. It’s nice, very gentle, reggae. The intro meanders, and the rest of the song never really picks up the pace. My attention, I’ll be honest, starts to wander. Boy George sings it beautifully, which is probably what made this song stand out at the time. That, and the fact that he looks like a girl.

Sorry, that’s obviously not a very ‘2022’ kind of thing to say. But we’re talking about forty years ago, when appearing on Top of the Pops looking like that was to become an instant national sensation. He makes Ziggy Stardust era Bowie look like Dirty Harry. The music wouldn’t have had to be anything special, it was always going to be playing a clear second fiddle. The video backs this up, with George being thrown out of a nightclub, then a swimming pool, then standing trial for simply being himself. Do you really want to hurt me, Do you really want to make me cry…? The jury of black people in blackface is presumably a comment on people acting how society demands, rather than on being true to themselves. (Completely irrelevant side note: that makes two #1s in a row with a music video featuring the artists on trial.)

I do wish I liked this more. It’s a genuine moment at the top of the charts, but I can’t really get into it. The best bit is the middle-eight, when the emotions peak: If it’s love you want from me, Then take it away… But that’s followed by an empty space where some kind of solo should be. There’s just some bass noodling, some light drumming, and an echo. It reminds me of The Police’s ‘Walking on the Moon’, which I found similarly dull.

‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ was a huge breakthrough for Culture Club. Their only previous chart hit had made #100. Following this, for two years, every single they released would make #4 or higher. Maybe my take on this record is clouded by the fact that I know their monster hit is yet to come… In a year’s time they’ll score one of the biggest chart-toppers of the decade. Maybe that’s when the eighties will officially begin? Or maybe – more likely – I won’t know when the ‘eighties’ began until it’s all over, and I can look back.

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