Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Today by Anwen Crawford

Melancholy undercurrents
Culture Club at the Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, 11 June 2016


You must understand: everything begins for me with Culture Club. By everything I mean pop music: an art form loose enough to accommodate so much else – history, fashion, politics, spectacle – and tight enough that all this abundance can be contained within a single song.

Aside from two soft toys given to me on the day I was born, the object that has been in my possession the longest is a 7-inch single of Culture Club’s 1983 song ‘Church of the Poison Mind’. When the song was released I loved it with a passion. Still do. It imprinted the template of soul music on my heart, via four British men in ridiculous clothes. When ‘Church of the Poison Mind’ was released when I was two years old. We all start somewhere.

When Culture Club take to the Hordern’s stage for their first Australian tour in 16 years, they begin with ‘Church of the Poison Mind’. Boy George’s voice is not what it used to be. Over time it has deepened and tightened – he sounds poised, but not so supple. There are three backing vocalists to support him, and a horn section, and sundry other musicians to go along with the group’s original line-up of bassist Mikey Craig, guitarist Roy Hay, and drummer Jon Moss. Boy George takes up more space than all the rest combined, metaphorically speaking. Visually, too. His enormous hat could host its own party.

George also does a nice line in stage banter. Before the second song, ‘It’s A Miracle’ (much of the set is drawn from 1983’s Colour by Numbers, the group’s massively successful second album), he talks of Culture Club’s melancholy undercurrent, of the human impulse to enjoy both sadness and happiness equally. “That’s pop music,” he says. And that’s Culture Club: sweet and soulful, innocent-seeming but bruised, apparently throwaway yet – so it has proved – actually enduring. Sure, everyone loves ‘Karma Chameleon’ because it has a tune like sticky toffee, but there’s something difficult at the core of it. “I’m a man / Without conviction / I’m a man / Who doesn’t know / How to sell a contradiction.” That’s kinda bleak, when you think about it.

But I am wary of psychologising. George warns me off it from the stage. He quotes an unnamed local critic who recently observed that George’s ego seems to have lessened these days. “Reviewers always have to say something a bit odd,” George says. “As if they’re inside your head and can guess your intentions.”

“As if,” he snorts. “Not even I know those.”

As if I know, or could guess, what it must be like to be Boy George. Son of a working-class London Irish family, shot to fame at the age of 21 because he looked just like a girl and sang a bit like one, too. An object of tabloid fascination as long as he conducted himself like a delicate porcelain doll, but an object of scorn when his drug addictions became known. And, during Culture Club’s heyday, a closeted gay man (at least to the public) who sold millions of records about infatuation while conducting a turbulent and secret relationship with his band’s drummer. “When you love someone,” he sings on ‘Black Money’, “and they don’t love you in return / When you love someone / You got money to burn.”

He claims from the stage that he still doesn’t know what the song’s about. Okay, George, have it your way. I won’t psychologise. But I will observe that even without the presence of Helen Terry, the incredible backing vocalist who was Culture Club’s secret weapon, the song still sounds good. The slow, stormy ballads – ‘Black Money’ is followed by ‘Victims’ – suit George’s voice better now than do the lighter hits like ‘I’ll Tumble 4 Ya’, which don’t move like they once did.

Nor does the audience. George keeps encouraging us to dance, but between the not-very-youthful crowd and some problems with set pacing, the energy dips. (‘Miss Me Blind’, which really does get people moving, is followed by George’s solo hit ‘The Crying Game’: a terrific song, but not exactly foot-tapping.) The majority of people gathered here are old enough to have first experienced Culture Club as young teenagers, and what’s missing is the teenage hysteria that once made the group a global phenomenon. That’s only to be expected, but no one on stage seems to know how to handle a crowd who are merely affectionate. “Am I too gay for you?” asks George at one point. And then, a trifle anxiously, “Am I the only gay person here?”

Along with Bronski Beat, Pet Shop Boys, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Culture Club led a wave of British pop in the early 1980s that changed the sexual possibilities of mainstream music forever. (It’s worth noting that immediately before Culture Club appear on stage tonight, the song playing over the venue’s PA is Bronski Beat’s ‘Small Town Boy’.) You’ll still hear Pet Shop Boys on the dance floor of a gay club, but it’s unlikely that you’ll hear Culture Club. Maybe they always were, well, too girlish. Their audience was and remains largely female. Without the space to properly examine the gender politics than run through Culture Club’s reception, let me just say that there seems to be a gap between what the audience have come for tonight and what they’re getting. Most of the crowd want the old songs done in the old way. But Boy George is no longer that person. As he reminds us during one of a handful of new songs, he’s a ‘Different Man’.

“Every day is like survival,” he sings, during the inevitable encore of ‘Karma Chameleon’. And I am glad that Boy George has survived both himself and the world: the headlines, the heroin, the homophobia. It’s just nice to see him smile, even if the show as a whole doesn’t get more exciting than nice.

Culture Club end with David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ and T Rex’s ‘Get It On’. (“The only decade I’m nostalgic for is the 1970s,” says George. “But the 1980s paid for my house.”) They lack gravitas enough for the former song, and cynicism enough for the latter. Still, their cover choices place them in a lineage to which I think they rightly belong. Culture Club are my pop ur-text, and Boy George is still my measure of what a pop star can be: a creature who brings new possibilities into the world. Boy George was the first thing in my life to be mysterious and queer and beautiful, before I had words for these things, or was even conscious of my need for them. As I drafted this review, the news broke of a mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Florida. Now we know that 49 people are dead in the worst shooting crime in American history. The world still needs beauty, still needs newness, still needs difference. And to sing of these things still takes courage.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.


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