Boy George aimed to be sensible by the time he was 40. That didn’t quite work out but, now 50, he tells Peter Ross he’s happy for the first time in his life and planning a comeback with Culture Club
BOY George, according to a baby book reproduced in his new, mostly pictorial memoir, King Of Queens, started to talk at seven months old. He has never stopped since. He talked through the years when he lived in a squat and became a “disco celebrity” at the nightclubs Blitz and Hell and Heaven; he talked through his reign as the biggest pop star in the world; he talked through the heroin addiction when, it was famously said, he was only a few weeks from death; and he continues to talk now, at 50, drug and alcohol free and planning a Culture Club comeback, starting with gigs later this month in Dubai and Sydney and continuing with a planned new album and tour. Boy George, one might say, is the “sweetie wife” of pop – always up for a gab and blether, although one can’t quite imagine him hanging out a tenement window.
“My career has been a beautiful accident,” he says. “I had always planned to be dangerously weird, Bowie-esque, lock up your sons – that was what I saw myself doing. I never, ever thought little girls were going to dress up as me and scream. That was never part of my plan. The music I wanted to make was very different from what I ended up making. The audience that Culture Club attracted originally was quite selective – boys in make-up, New Romantic kids – and suddenly, literally overnight, it was just a sea of screaming girls in hats and plaits.”
In King Of Queens there is a photograph taken at Culture Club’s first concert – on 24 October, 1981, at Crocs club in Rayleigh. A year later, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? took them to No 1. The band was in Edinburgh when they found out, walking down Princes Street, signing autographs on the back of Jenners receipts. The night before, they’d played Rooftops on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. George had problems with his voice and told the booing crowd that he couldn’t carry on. The drummer, Jon Moss, George’s lover, fought with him about the walk-off and they came to blows. In the memoir, Take It Like A Man, the singer recalls Moss holding a broken pint glass to his face.
“I’ve decided recently,” he says, “that all my relationships were more drama than love. Now is probably a good time for me to fall in love. I’d like to think that at this time in my life, if I met the right person, I’d be able to tell the difference.”
That drama was the fascinating thing about Culture Club – the romantic relationship which made them a creative force and inspired such enduring songs as Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? and Victims was also a faultline which would, eventually, split the band. It makes me wonder, really, how it is possible that the band can get back together now. Are there really no aftershocks?
“No,” says George. “That was all so long ago. It’s fine. Jon’s got three kids. It’s not even an issue any more and it would be crazy if it was. I mean, we have our banter because I suppose we feel we know each other in a different way. Sometimes I talk to Jon and I feel like I don’t know him at all, and sometimes I feel like I’ve known him forever. But all of the band are excited about this, and we feel that we can do a lot more together than we can on our own.”
Next year will largely be taken up with Culture Club. “We’re writing and we’ve started recording the bones of one track. I’m excited about it. We’re hoping to do three or four tracks with Mark Ronson in the new year, and – if I can get to America – work with Pharrell.
“What we’re trying to do is just write great songs. Not trying to be trendy or sound like anything else. We’re throwing all our influences into a pot, all the things we’ve grown up loving – so bits of Bowie, bits of Rod Stewart, bits of John Barry, bits of Shirley Bassey.”
It will be fascinating to hear the results. What makes this comeback more than empty nostalgia is the emotional heft of Boy George’s voice which contains within it both a powerful sadness and a sense of joy at its own expressiveness. Heard, in recent years, on Mark Ronson’s Somebody To Love Me and duetting with Antony Hegarty on You Are My Sister, there is a strong sense that his is a vocal talent which has never had its critical due; a sense, too, that Culture Club represents unfinished business and a chance at personal redemption.
Boy George turned 50 in June and seems to be experiencing stability and serenity for the first time. The past decade has been turbulent. In 2006, while living in New York, he was caught with cocaine and swept the streets as community payback. In 2009, back in the UK, he was sentenced to 15 months for falsely imprisoning a male escort. His barrister said this was self-destructive behaviour caused by drugs.
“The idea that you get wiser as you get older is a myth,” George says now. “You have to make a conscious decision to change the way you think and the things you do. I always planned to become completely sensible at 40. But that didn’t work out. It took me another seven years of ‘research’ to find out how bad it could really get. But I’m almost four years sober now. March 2, 2008, was a turning point for me. That was a pivotal day. Since then, I’ve had so many emotional changes and my attitude towards work has changed. Turning 50 compounded that. There’s a lot of work to be done and I’ve wasted a lot of time.”
There is a fantastic moment in Take It Like A Man when George, aged 19, poised between a difficult childhood and intense fame, is sitting on the roof of a friend’s house and looking out over the lights of London. What did he want, then, from the city and from life? Was it wealth? Fame? Love?
“I wanted to be happy,” he says, “and I finally am.”
Highs and lows
compiled by Jaymi McCann
Their third single Do You Really Want to Hurt Me sits at No 1 in the UK charts for three weeks.
Culture Club become the first band since The Beatles to have three tracks from a debut album, Kissing to Be Clever, in the US Top 10.
Karma Chameleon, from their second album, Colour by Numbers, peaks at No 1 in the UK charts for six weeks and three weeks on the Billboard top 100 in the US. It sells 1.4 million copies in the UK alone, the biggest selling single of the year.
The band wins a Grammy award for Best New Artist.
Boy George finally admits to being addicted to cocaine and heroin and is arrested for possession of cannabis.
Keyboardist and songwriter Michael Ridetsky is found dead at Boy George’s home from a heroin overdose.
Culture Club split.
Culture Club reunite for a sell-out tour, releasing a compilation album that went platinum in the UK
Boy George’s musical of his life premieres in the West End. It is nominated for four Tony awards, and in 2003 he wins the Olivier Award for best supporting actor.
While living in New York, George is arrested for cocaine possession and falsely reporting a burglary. While the drug charge is dropped, he is sentenced to community service, a fine of $1000 and ordered to attend rehab.
Back in the UK, he is sentenced to 15 months in prison for assault and false imprisonment of male escort Audun Carlsen. After serving four months he is released to home detention.
• King Of Queens is published by Kitchen Sink Publishing, limited to 999 copies, each priced £499