Album of the Week, March 10: Colour By Numbers by Culture Club

Culture Club - Colour By NumbersGeorge O’Dowd was born in 1961; by the time he was 20 he had developed a distinctive, androgynous style of dress and a fascination with the growing New Romantic movement in British music. He was spotted at a club by Malcolm McLaren and landed a gig as Lieutenant Lush in an early version of the band Bow Wow Wow. He moved on, changing his name to Boy George, and gathered three other musicians. George, bassist Mikey Craig, guitarist Roy Hay, and drummer Jon Moss formed In Praise of Lemmings which became Sex Gang Children. Eventually, recognizing the diversity in the four men’s backgrounds, they settled on the name Culture Club. They landed a deal with Virgin Records (Epic in the U.S.) and had two failed singles as they put together their first album. The third time was the charm, and Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? went to #2 in the U.S. and #1 in the U.K. and many other countries. The follow-up, Time (Clock of the Heart), went to #2 in the U.S. as well and was tacked on to the American release of the debut album, Kissing to Be Clever. One more international Top Ten later, the band were a worldwide sensation, driven by their distinctive, video-friendly look and George’s powerfully smooth vocals.

Title Colour By Numbers
Act Culture Club
Label Virgin Release Date  October 1983
Producer Steve Levine
U.S. Chart  #2 U.K. Chart  #1
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Karma Chameleon [#1]
  2. It’s A Miracle [#13]
  3. Black Money
  4. Changing Every Day
  5. That’s the Way
    (I’m Only Trying to Help You)
  6. Church of the Poison Mind [#10]
  7. Miss Me Blind [#5]
  8. Mister Man
  9. Stormkeeper
  10. Victims

The first album was a very hit-or-miss affair, featuring lightweight rap, bland reggae, infectious grooves, and solid pop gems. Based on its success, expectations were high for the next disc. The band truly delivered. Colour By Numbers went to #1 in the U.K. and spent six weeks trapped at #2 behind Thriller in the U.S. It launched a rare (for the time) four Top 20 singles and solidified the credentials of the band as real musicians and pop masters. Since the first album, they had significantly improved their chops as a band and as songwriters. They also brought in a secret weapon for this disc: Helen Terry. She provides backing and duet vocals on several songs. Her soulful belting is a perfect complement to Boy George’s soulful croon and the result is magical.

The first song is Karma Chameleon, the band’s biggest single and most recognized tune. It was their only U.S. #1 and topped charts around the world. It’s a charming, infectious song about being true to yourself — and the perils of failing to be. Keyboardist Phil Pickett co-wrote the song with the band and helped shape its unforgettable sound. A lighthearted riverboat video helped cement the song’s success. The second track was the fourth U.S. single, the band’s first to miss the Top 10. It’s A Miracle arose from their initial experiences in America and the somewhat skeptical celebration is a buoyant, fun track with a joyous beat. It’s one of the tracks where Helen Terry adds just the right magic.

Black Money is a solid album track, showcasing George’s vocals. He has really come into his own, with a powerful blue-eyed soul groove that melts over the tune like honey. A song about passion, risk, and betrayal, it’s one of the band’s best offerings. Helen Terry provides an astounding backing vocal, scatting around George’s anguish to great effect.

Changing Every Day is a solid piece of 80s pop, better than most album tracks of the day but not quite up to most of the rest of the disc. From there, side one ends with the powerful That’s the Way (I’m Only Trying to Help You). A short (less than three minutes), menacing track, it features a George/Terry duet that showcases both of their vocal talents nicely. It’s a personal favorite and a surprise track for listeners just expecting the band’s usual brilliant pop confections.

Side two follows the first side’s pattern: two hits, two decent songs, and a powerful wrap-up. Church of the Poison Mind was the first single, released just before the album. It also features Helen Terry and was most people’s first exposure to her great singing. Both rockier and funkier than the band’s previous output, it hearkens back to 60s Motown with a very 80s spin. Infectious and very danceable, it’s 80s pop at its fun best. Miss Me Blind was the third single, a great love-gone-wrong track that features some of George’s best singing. Hits like this — paired with memorable visuals — demonstrated why the band burned so brightly (if briefly).

Mister Man is the weakest link, a harmless bit of fluff that hearkens back to the lightweight reggae of Kissing to Be Clever. Stormkeeper is mostly memorable for its very Asian feel and the relatively subtle use of flute. With its simple, mysterious lyrics, it’s still a strong enough song to keep things moving nicely.

The album wraps up with Victims, which was an international hit that was never released in the U.S. Based on George’s (then clandestine) relationship with Moss, it’s a slow, aching ballad which Epic thought was too dark to be a success in the States. That’s a shame, because it’s also arguably George’s best vocal ever (even competing with the first hit and the strong material on the rest of this disc). It’s a beautiful, sad song and a perfect ending to a wonderful album.

FURTHER LISTENING: After this, Culture Club crashed and burned. Boy George’s problems with drugs and internal tensions derailed the band’s cohesion and sound. The third album was a big mess and by the time the (relatively) cohesive fourth album arrived the momentum was gone and the band quietly broke up. The 2005 Greatest Hits package from Virgin offers all their hits and makes the best overview of the band.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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