The world almost ended on 8 November 1983 [via Mefi], a date with particular resonance for anyone who’s been remembering the year with Popular. If it had all gone mushroom-shaped, the very last number-one song we’d have heard would have been: Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” in the UK; Kenny Rogers’ and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream” in the US; Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Canada; and Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” in Australia and New Zealand.

Apocalypse Now That's What I Call Music

Culture Club, “Karma Chameleon”, 24 September 1983

After a gap of months, the UK and Australian number ones were back in synch, with the usual slight time delay: between “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and this, we had 7 weeks of Irene Cara’s “Flashdance... What a Feeling” and 8 weeks of Austen Tayshus’s “Australiana”, the 12” single of a stand-up routine that employed a lot of Oz-themed puns. (Fairly adult in nature, so the radio stations played only an excerpt, which I’m sure helped keep it on top for so long; kids bought it to hear what they were missing, especially once they got wind that it was a bit blue. I certainly fell for it.)

At last it was Culture Club’s turn, and of their two Australian number ones (the first being “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”), this is certainly the sunniest—the perfect hit for a southern spring. For some reason I remembered the video as having George on an open-topped bus, which makes me wonder if that Mississippi paddle-steamer ever got turned into a Sydney Mardi Gras float. That possibility feels significant, because in 1983 a Culture Club number one was more than a poppy tune, it was a challenge to straight ocker culture. The first Sydney Mardi Gras had been held only five years before, and homosexuality was still a crime in New South Wales in 1983. The NSW law changed the next year, and I suspect Boy George deserves some small share of the credit.

Even if George has admitted in recent years to being “militantly gay”, his persona in 1982-84 was more ambiguous. All those jokes about whether he was boy or girl (as if he hadn’t headed them off at the pass with his stage name) raised questions about gender rather than sex and sexuality, even if the people telling them were aiming at the latter. Suddenly everyone was talking about “gender bending” and androgyny, and thinking about what our costumes said about us. George’s choices of costume were masterly: they weren’t drag or camp; they weren’t pirate or dandy highwayman; they were something we hadn’t seen before, and couldn’t easily place. Androgyny didn’t only offer new possibilities for non-straights, it offered them for straights as well, breaking old stereotypes and giving all of us permission to play with our appearance.

I was too geeky to take the opportunity, but when I went to matric college in 1984 I met a bunch of arty teenagers who had grabbed it with both hands. My old friends mostly dismissed them as “trendies”, but as the only one of us taking art that year I got to know a few of them. One in particular was a bit like a young Boy George: funny, arch, fashionable and, in his own art-studenty way, fearless. He wore pointy shoes when it was utterly unheard of, and dyed his hair in fox-like shades. I didn’t see much of him after that year, but his example prompted me to buy some bright yellow socks (and worse, some orange ones) that stayed in my wardrobe for a good few years. Whenever I hear Culture Club I think of him, and wonder where he ended up. (I know where the socks ended up.)

I’m still unsure whether my arty friend was gay; it was hard to tell if his girl friends were girlfriends. If he had been, he would have been an old hand at maintaining the mystery, because there was genuine risk in coming out in my home state: Tasmania was the last Australian state to have its laws prohibiting gay sex overturned (in 1997), and the last man jailed under them was arrested in December 1984 (he was sentenced to eight months for having sex in a car by the side of the road). It seems amazing that the state is now one of the national leaders in recognising same-sex partnerships, only a couple of decades on.

That context gives just about everything Boy George did in the early 1980s greater significance; this was a time when naive teenagers could be blind to the real meaning of Freddie Mercury’s leather trousers, let alone Rob Halford’s, but you certainly couldn’t ignore George. He showed us how dated the 1970s stereotypes already were, and how restricted in possibility.

With all of that going on it almost didn’t matter whether the music was any good, but of course if it hadn’t been he would hardly have gained such attention. Although I wasn’t a particular fan, you had to acknowledge the catchy charms of “Karma Chameleon”, even if we were all thoroughly sick of it by the end of its run. The synth harmonica sound would become far too familiar over the coming year or so, but it sounded fresh then. George rarely sounded happier, and the inanity of “War, war is stupid” was still in the future. My personal response to the song would be a 6 or a 7, but it deserves more for what the band signified at that late-’83 moment.

(A footnote: it turns out my memory was conflating the videos for this and “Church of the Poison Mind”, which shows the band riding around in a convertible. Stupid memory.)

11 July 2009 · Music