Culture Club

Smoking in public in America is a sin. The Pope hasn’t pronounced on it yet but you might as well kick cats or steal from children for the disapproval it brings. But Boy George is happily dragging on a fag in a New York hotel lobby and worse, flicking ash onto the marble floor. It’s lunchtime. We’re almost on the tour bus off to Philadelphia and he’s pouting and puffing away. He’s in a terrible mood. He didn’t sleep well and he’s mislaid his credit card. And you can see he doesn’t just want to sulk he wants a fight. But no one, particularly the hotel staff, will play ball. All that’s left is to tease him. It’s a risk but it with no difficulty it provokes a smirk. His grin makes him look 37 going on 6. He knows very well that he’s being a stroppy little chap with his Silk Cut, and that he shouldn’t. But he wants to. He’s being Boy, not George.

He is an extremely mercurial character, simultaneously sophisticated and down-to-earth, man and woman, adult and child. It’s extraordinary now to realise that he even managed to keep the world guessing about his sexuality. But his ambiguity gave him an extraordinary appeal across all ages. From 1982 he had the entertainment world at his feet. He was the Queen of chat shows, as easily coy as he was frank, as charming as he was disarming. Both cuddly and bitchy after hours in make-up he was the love child of Joan Crawford and Rupert Bear. He appeared on the cover of Newsweek once, Rolling Stone three times and on a Diana-challenging string of others. He had a rain forest of newsprint charting his every waking moment, millions of record sales across the globe and three top ten American hits from his band’s debut album – an achievement only equalled by the Beatles. Frankly after all that attention it’s a real surprise that he’s not a total brat. Others do spring to mind.

But from the peak of fame he nosedived almost fatally into heroin. After two years, with two friends dead from overdoses, one in his house in Hampstead, he was arrested and convicted of possession in 1986. With considerable resolve he hauled himself through recovery. Now he feels older and wiser. The eighties icon has moved on to the cleaned up, regularly therapised, emotionally in-touch Nineties. Laughing at himself he knows that it’s true when he says, “Once you stop creating drama, you just change the atmosphere. People have the idea that I’m going to be a nightmare, which can work to my advantage because then I turn out to be much nicer than they think. But the last five years have been so much more enjoyable.” Why? “Because,” he says in his kind of camp throaty gurgle “I’ve stopped being a w***ker.”

Culture Club were huge. And then four years later they died. Their first album in 1983 was called Kissing to be Clever, their last in 1986 prophetically “From Luxury to Heartache”. Their multiple hits were lilting pop tunes whose beguiling melodies glided over the wrought emotions of the lyrics. “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?”, “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”, “Karma Chameleon”, “Church of the Poisoned Mind” charted worldwide. “Colour By Numbers”, their second album sold six million, but their last just under one, which in industry terms was the death knell.

The four band members were an eclectic bunch drawn from the laundry basket of pop in the eighties. Jon Moss, despite his North London public school background and a Jewish father in retail, had drummed for the manic punk outfits “The Damned” and “The Clash”. Roy Hay with his ridiculous long hair but neat guitar style came from a New Romantic band and Mikey Craig the bass player was, according to George’s autobiography, “black and that was a start”. More importantly for the sound of the band, he was into reggae. They called themselves “Culture Club” because they were a black, a Jew, an Anglo-Saxon and an Irish Queen.

In itself it was a creative rather than explosive combination. But the band that started as ‘Culture Club’ became ‘Boy George and Culture Club’ and finally when George appeared on the cover of Newsweek it was with Annie Lennox rather than with the others in the band. While the three of them were sidelined by the Press and put under enormous pressure by George’s drugs habit, what in the end blew the band apart was the break up of George and Jon Moss’ relationship. Far from “preferring a cup of tea to sex”, George and he had been lovers since the start but now could barely stand the sight of each other. Which makes it all the more surprising that a decade later Culture Club has reformed and is back on tour again and that I’m eating a hideous pork chop with mahi-mahi and zucchini flanked by both of them in the canteen backstage at The Mann Music Centre in Philadelphia.

“I want to tour”, says Moss. “It’s nice that we made up.”
“Made up??” pouts George, his tone sarcasm and affection in equal measure. But later on stage when he introduces each of the band he reserves Jon for last and of course gets him the biggest cheer.

“The Big Re-Wind Tour’ is an Eighties revival, which dramatically foreshortens the meaning of nostalgia. But it’s pulling a healthy 8000 punters a night. What has kick-started this resurgence in The States for Culture Club was a recorded gig in front of a studio audience and a documentary about their bust-up on the adult pop channel VH-1. The support acts are a dated if charming Howard Jones in sandals, whose 10 year old son Osheen videos most of supper, and The Human League who, despite ”Mirror Man” and plenty of other hits, still appear not to have spent any of the money on some singing lessons for the two women in the band. “Don’t be bitchy” says George; “they’re just quirky”. But George is just being generous.

Culture Club are by far and away the stars of the show. Not just on stage but off as well. We travel in two huge tour buses with black frilly borders on the windows, beds, a shower and little Olympic torches as lights. They’re like the kind of bungalows people who wear white stilettos live in. It’s the bus company’s attempt stop the phrase ‘luxury coach travel’ being a contradiction in terms. Touring with Culture Club is like being with The Waltons if it was directed by David Lynch. Everything’s going on between them but no one ever talks about it to each other. Perhaps Mikey is right when he says, “Things don’t need to be said. We’re family.” Yes they are. A dysfunctional family that is somehow highly functional. This is how it works.

George travels in one bus, with his assistant Kevan – surprisingly a Christian and, although dead camp, not gay – and the band’s big Diva singer for the tour, Zee Cowling. The lads – the rest of the band and the three backing musicians – go in another one. But Roy says “Sure I’ll get on his bus now without thinking about it. In the old days I’d never have done that. I really didn’t want to be with him. For this tour he said he wanted his own bus. But then when the three of us fly he says ‘why aren’t you on the bus?’ and when we’re on the bus he says ‘why aren’t you flying?’ ”. George is an emotional pushmipullyu and the two buses are locker room versus powder room. The boys play backgammon and shout a lot. And George does endless, splendidly camp phone interviews with radio stations, leaving donkeys hind-legless all over America. He still gives very good interview. He knows how to push the limits and still stay within bounds. “George Michael? Of course he’s gay, he’s always been gay. He’s Greek, they invented it.” “What makes me happy? Scaffolders smiling at me…” And the day before, on the Letterman show, he completely outflanked his host to the delight of the audience by saying when asked about Clinton and Monica Lewinsky “Well if he asked me to sleep with him, I would. Just to see the Oval Office.” And the audience carried on cheering when he added, accurately playing the current mood of young America, “None of these women were sixteen. They could have said ‘No’”.

The band’s relationships are more complicated than Fleetwood Mac’s. George is still in some kind of love with Jon. Later, in the privacy of the back of the bus Mikey says that George watches Jon the whole time, secretly. But Jon is on the New York leg of the tour with his new love. “The only other person apart from George that I’ve ever felt the bells go off for”, he says. He is talking about Babs. And Babs is a woman and they have a child. This makes George feel simultaneously sweet and awkward. Roy has also got a touch of the ex-es. He’s just been visited by his current girlfriend of three years, 25-year-old Casey, but at the same time by his ex-wife Alison. George and he have bonded a bit over this.

He tells me when he’s on his own “I’m not interested in that bitchy, flamboyant side of George anymore. But I do enjoy him when he’s a regular guy hanging out, when the make-up’s off, you’re having breakfast and laughing about your relationships…. … if he wasn’t gay, George would be a proper South London thug.” Alison and George used to be sworn enemies. Now they’re best of friends, which Roy clearly found pretty difficult. “Alison was making demands and George got right in the middle and loved it,” says Roy a little agitated, “and he started telling me that I’m not treating her right…” At this point I feel I should be charging family therapy fees. But the thought occurs that actually they don’t need it. As a band they have extraordinary chemistry and work together with an ease that only comes from this kind of family dynamic. And years of tearing each other apart.

George is continually rude about Jon even to his face. At one point he says, “Jon’s a good person…” and then adds lethally “.potentially.” It’s as if he can’t help himself. And he endlessly accuses Jon of denying their relationship, which has a certain irony because George was in the closet till almost the end of Culture Club’s first phase, a contradiction he cheerily admits. The fans didn’t know it but all the songs were written about their affair. Jon says in the dressing room “Of course I was in love with George. When I met him he looked so beautiful. In fact it was his fault for looking so great that I fell for him. The relationship was built on love not just sex.” Pause. “Why are you looking at me like that?” To see if your eyes are telling the truth. They were.

This argument ping pongs all the time I’m there. Jon says he loved George. George accuses him of recanting it. George says Jon can never communicate about their affair. And George never stops. When Jon is with the lads, in their dressing room or their bus, he jumps up and down like the playful ten-year-old man in his thirties that he is and jokes about the’ rogue gene’. When he’s with George it’s like he can’t quite make contact with the deep affection he must have once felt. And all the bruises are recorded in George’s frank autobiography “Take It Like A Man”, Moss’ public reaction to which in a magazine interview caused them not to speak for three years until they agreed to reform the band.

Philadelphia was “totty night” according to Jon after the gig. Despite the inevitable presence, when Middle America gets out its glad rags, of a catalogue of women in inappropriate shorts and appliqué, this audience surprised the band by being so young. After the show Roy says of one young man in the crowd that everybody agrees was gorgeous “I thought I was gay until I saw the blonde standing next to him.” George almost drags me back on stage with him for the encore to point out another man in the third row who took off his tee shirt to dance. The Mann Centre is on the schedule for all the major tours. The graffiti in the backstage loos has evidence of Kenny Loggins, The Allman Brothers, Tammy Wynette and all the others who drive their entertainment truck down the middle of the road. So in some ways it’s a surprise to find Culture Club there. But in some ways, maybe not. The crowd is a mix. Suburbia runs riot with young queens and men with pink tattoos. The tee shirts tell of holiday destinations and TV Specials. “Vermont’s Finest” – although finest what it doesn’t specify. “Poltergeist Legacy – Showtime TV”, “The Hard Rock Cafe”, “Puerto Vallenta – Mexico”.

The sign at the gate says “No re-entry”, and then adds in brackets, by way of explanation for those further down the food chain, “If you leave you cannot come back in”. The need for this elucidation becomes clear when it says at the bottom of the list of instructions: “No weapons”. Who on earth would bring a weapon to a Culture Club gig in 1998? Lipstick perhaps, but a gun? Someone might have done in the old days when George made his famous boo- boo at the1983 Grammy Awards. “Thanks America,” he said after they’d won Best New Artist, “you have taste, style and you know a good drag queen when you see one”. Uh-oh. The penny finally dropped for the hard of thinking in unhip USA that he must be a fag. So they burnt the records and stopped giving the band airplay. Perhaps those people would have brought weapons. But now as George says with no regret “I’m not at all shocking any more”. And every one I asked said the same things about him from a vast truck driver whose trousers were so large he looked like he’d shoplifted a duvet and who’d been a fan since the start in 1982 to a stick thin 16 year old improbably dressed in platform shoes, a drape frock, necklace and diving goggles. “Why do I like him? He dared to be himself”. “It’s just that he is so honest”. And the gig wasn’t bad either.

After the show Mikey was cock-a-hoop. He travelled back to New York on George’s bus. There had been sound problems, admirably coped with by Botty, the stage sound engineer who looked like something out of The Hobbit with his dreadlocks, shorts, beard and paunch and with whom George had had mime conversations all through the gig. The band had overcome the difficulties and Mikey felt that they had “really gone for it”.

The show is 13 of the hits straight through, then another two, Victims and Karma Chameleon, for the industry standard First Encore and then Bowie’s Starman to finish. It felt a lot more than a trip down memory lane. Any initial doubts were dispelled by the fact that they were always a good live band. As Roy said, having been away from playing live and instead buried in making film scores in LA for amongst other things Fitz the US version of Cracker “there is a real chemistry in the band”. Why? “Because George doesn’t play an instrument.” On stage the balance is reasserted. Together Roy and George were the main songwriters and what they produced was never based on technology. “There are no tricks. What you see is what we play.” says Roy “It doesn’t feel electric. The production technique is classic so it doesn’t sound dated.”

Mikey is still energised by the gig. “I could see that in Crying Game George was having such problems that he wanted to stop. But he didn’t.” “I don’t believe in stopping,” says George posturing a tiny bit and the conversation turns to his book. “He such a liar,” says Mikey to his face, “it makes me out to be a real stud. And I wasn’t….. really”. Talk meanders around the history of the band and Mikey says, “Jon and George were so powerful, I couldn’t fight it. So I retreated. But I don’t regret the course the band took. George and Jon were the core.”

The following day, worried that he might have felt inhibited, I ask him to talk on his own. He says nothing different than the night before. “I really do like George a lot.” Did he run the band? “No he was the focal point and he did know how to use it. But I see him as someone who is very vulnerable and all the make-up was a way to gain strength and overcome his vulnerability. It’s because he was vulnerable that I felt attracted to him as a person.”

Mikey was the one who had pushed most consistently for the band to reform, along with Roy. He had pumped money into a record label, which he had eventually sold and after bad tax advice when the band split, was faced with a bill for tax on Culture Club royalties of over £1m. “I just hope it went on welfare and not bombs,” he says wistfully. We were also in a terrible contract for the years of the band. We must have earned Virgin at least £60m but we didn’t get more than £2m to £3m each. Although I’m not complaining.” He is cautiously optimistic about the band coming back together. “You’re only as good as your last record, but when we got into the first rehearsal I just knew it was going to work. Of course we all rehearsed for weeks but George wasn’t there until the end. I think it probably frightens him.”

It’s a characteristically generous remark. As Roy says “Mikey is all heart”. And he does something very sweet as we draw our first conversation to an end. With a gentle boyish smile he says, like a pupil proudly announcing their project, “Before we stop I’d like to say a little about my wife”. He then goes on to sing the praises of Lilliana, a much younger Italian whom he met in a club 7 years ago. Mikey’s contribution to the unconventionality of the band’s various relationships is that he had two children when he was very young by the daughter of the Women’s Aid campaigner Erin Pizzey. But the two were taken away by their grandmother who decided he was a bad influence, and he barely saw them for a number of years. However Amber, his stunning daughter, has joined him in New York. And he says of Lilliana, clearly talking about his children as much as about previous girlfriends, “I was very lazy in relationships and she’s taught me how to work at them. She’s a real inspiration to me.” It’s properly touching.

On the second day in the no smoking lobby Jon Moss is chipper. “Morning boy chick, give us a kiss”. It’s more Lionel Blair than serious, but I do get a proper smacker on the cheek. He flirts for the world. They are all leaving New York so he is saying goodbye to Babs and his son and Mikey is leaving Amber. The tour manager is arguing about the bill, unaware that he is standing next to Jason Alexander from Seinfeld who has been at his co-star’s Opening Night on Broadway. As Alexander passes I say, “You’re a very funny man”. He says “Thank you” George waits until he’s out of earshot and says tartly “That show never makes me laugh”. And I’m not sure if it’s jealousy. So I ask him and he says “No. I just don’t think it’s funny”.

The bill takes an hour and a half to settle but they save $5,500. Finally we are on our way to Wallingford, two hours from Boston but a million miles from the Ivy League. The Oakdale Centre is a modern entertainment complex with an eight thousand seater indoor theatre. In rural Massachusetts, it looks like a machine that you put the cows in one end and steaks come out the other. As we drive in, starting on another comedy riff, Jon says in a pig sticking country American accent “Tonight the fat queer and his funny friends….” Inside the atmosphere is like a huge hotel lobby. Crowds mingle drinking the “champagne demi-splits” for $4.95. One of the sponsors has parked a brand new car in the middle of the foyer. Someone is trying to buy it. At the back of the auditorium where The Circle would be in real life, are the Platinum Club Private Suites. They look like airline Executive Lounges. And they are a weird thing to find at a live gig. You can sit on a sofa next to an occasional table and watch the show from behind glass and thus give yourself the simultaneous feeling of being on a night out and a night in.

George introduces the band by saying “it’s so great to come back to America and not kill each other…” They are playing even better than the previous night. “How many queens are there?” At least 40% of the audience hollers and puts up their hands, including one obviously married man and woman. “I don’t care what you’re into”, George responds to the huge cheer, “as long as you’re a lovely person”. Again they lift the roof.

Why do they so take to him? It may be because, oddly enough, he’s not in the least mysterious. What he does is expose possibilities as much for eccentricity as for sexuality. He is a wonderful fusion of opposites and is exotic without being out of reach. He expresses his contradictions unequivocally, and he shows his insecurities with absolute confidence. And the four of them in the band are so much more together than alone. They are that rare thing – the coincidence of individual talents with just the right moment. Never mind how much they bitch about one another they are glad to be back together. It’s a kind of home.

The gig ends with a typically George moment. Some pencil thin little queen who has been desperate to get near his hero has finally managed to climb on stage. He is such a sliver that a pensioner with a Zimmer frame would bowl him over. But the goons at the front of the stage decide he’s a major security risk. They first throw him off the stage and when he climbs back, despite George’s pleas, throw him out of the auditorium. George lets loose at the guards, throws a wobbler and won’t come back for an encore. Hay is stomping around in the dressing room wagging his finger in mock anger “Tell The Boy, we’re not happy with him”. And they aren’t, because they were having such a good time they wanted to do the encore. George however has already got over his temper. And backstage the two camps are doing characteristically different things. George is talking to a woman he knows from England who is a macrobiotic cook and who is at a conference close by. Amid much chat about purification and tofu, she agrees to come and cook for him for a week in London. Meanwhile the others are covering a different conversational terrain. “I burped all through your song tonight” says one of them to Dee. “Well I farted through your solo”, she replies. And I’m thinking just how really different they are from George, when one of them says to me “You don’t want to be on stage when George farts. He does really violent ones right by you and then just moves away.” As George says, “underneath all this make-up I’m just an Irish labourer with a hairy chest.”

Whether the band succeeds in reuniting will depend as much as anything on whether they can re-invent their fan base and appeal beyond the sentimental historians who remember the Eighties. As one senior A&R man says, “George has a whiff of the Danny La Rue about him. But he can appeal to the blue rinse brigade and at the same time be quite current. In fact what’s saved him has been his career as a DJ. Being in demand to do something creative has put him on the cutting edge.” He straddles the market. This month he has continued to DJ at the hippest of clubs and also recorded one of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s songs, ‘Try not to be afraid’, for an album of the Songs from Whistle Down the Wind, which also includes Tom Jones, Meatloaf and Boyzone. The others in the band are separately confident that Culture Club has a new future. There is a single out in October “I Just Wanna Be Loved”, another piece of soft sounding seductive reggae masking psychological trauma, and the inevitable Greatest Hits album. And the signs are good because George and Roy have already had a fight about the video for the single which is full of drag queens preening to the camera and could happily be re-named ‘I just wanna be filmed. “Roy rang his ex-wife and said it was ‘a f***ing freak show’. And I thought ‘Roy hates it, oh my God, we’re back’ ”. And if America is anything to go by, they might just be.

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