– Mark Ronson & The Business INTL. featuring Boy George.
A while back I was sitting with a friend at a party where they were playing Elton John. We’d been drinking but that just meant we were probably being honest. My friend said something like, “If I didn’t know this was Elton I’d rate his as one of the best blues rock voices.” I agreed.
Neither of us are fans of easy listening radio, where Elton earns his coin these days, so it’s not surprising that this epiphany had escaped us until now. But we were listening to The Bitch is Back, and yes, Elton was slamming the vocals pretty hard.
I’m reminded of that conversation as I listen to Mark Ronson & The Business INTL.’s single Somebody to Love Me. It features another singer whose artistry may have been swamped by his fame. Boy George.
I think Mark Ronson may have done a Quentin Tarantino on Boy George, bringing him out of obscurity to newfound cool similar to the way Tarantino brought John Travolta back with Pulp Fiction.
Seeing Travolta on the screen in Pulp Fiction, growing disgracefully old, helped us appreciate that a man’s decline can give him character and charisma. Travolta was no longer the teflon-haired Danny Zuko from Grease. Tarantino brought the life-hardened middle aged Travolta out from behind the poster boy image and he was far more interesting.
Boy George’s fall from grace has been more sad than Travolta’s. He didn’t just get fat or out of fashion, he fell into a lifestyle beyond the fringe of society’s acceptance and its sympathy.
Kidnapping, bondage, arrest, community service. The tawdry details of his sex crime were the last I’d heard of The Boy until Mark Ronson’s latest project.
And now in this song, I hear so much more behind one of music’s most iconic and original voices. The tone I hear in his soulful pipes has context now. Looking back, it was always there but now it seems to have a reason.
Hearing him sing Somebody to Love Me launched me on a nostalgia trip. I wanted to revisit the work of Boy George to understand if I could have missed hearing what I was now hearing in his voice. Was it hidden behind all the fame, hype and marketing that swamped Culture Club in hysteria?
I wanted to see if I could detect the moment that the sweet voice broke or the moment the man broke. When did it turn the corner from the sound of a pretty boy singing a white pastiche of soul to something more husky and prophetic, the sound of hard living to come?
The fame began for Boy George and Culture Club in 1982, with the release of the single Do You Really Want to Hurt Me. The image of Boy in hat and braids dominates my recollection of that song but I listen to it now and the vocal intro rings oddly prescient.
“Give me time to realise my crime…,” he sings.
I can’t remember thinking this at the time but the vocals are smokey, way too smooth for a young lad from the South East London. He was just 21 yet his voice sounded like it had been eroded by 50 years of whiskey and cigarettes.
Of course at the time, we all heard a boy offering his heart up to be broken. Not a grubby hormone-driven, teenage boy. A nice boy. When interviewed about his sexuality back then, Boy George would often say he preferred a “nice cup of tea” to sex.
He was clean cut and asexual, albeit in a frock. And Boy was in a groove that his voice was made for.
As stratospheric success came his way, the record company machine went to work, molding the Boy George brand. The songs were happy, singalong pop. His voice was used like an instrument in the arrangement, making pleasing sounds but not really saying anything. What was Karma Chameleon about? Or Church of the Poison Mind? Nobody cared. It was happy, soft, ridiculous pop.
It escaped me at the time but as I research Boy George today, I discover that there was indeed a dark undercurrent to his personality back then, even before the clean cut pop creature that he became. He once performed with Bow Wow Wow under the moniker Lieutenant Lush. Another name, Sex Gang Children was an early incarnation of the band that later became Culture Club.
Fast forward then to the breakup of Culture Club. Boy was on drugs. There was valium, morphine, and the sordid story of a band member found dead from an overdose in his hotel room to deal with.
The Acid House club movement was in full swing and Boy George was right there on the chemically enhanced club floor taking a solo sideswipe at English Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher’s conservative party policies in the song No Clause 28.
The song appeared in a different form on the Martyr Mantras album not as Boy George but as an alias artist, Jesus Loves You. The song writing was also credited to another incarnation, Angela Dust in a move designed pretty unsuccessfully to help listeners concentrate on the music rather than on his fame as Boy George.
As I listen to the song, Boy’s voice sounds the same, even though the lyrics he is singing are harder edged.
Don’t need this legislation
You don’t need this score
Don’t need this fascist groove
Just to show pornography the door
There was nothing pretty about Boy George’s life at the time but it can’t be said his voice was changed by it or the harder content in his songs, despite the fact that he was finally singing what he was living.
It was a little more smokey, bigger, but still capable of purity, positivity and clean cut sentiments. Just listen to Bow Down Mister on the same album. It’s a kind of devotion to the Hare Krishna faith.
If you don’t take the vow
you can eat the sacred cow.
You’ll get karma anyhow…
Boy George pulls the song off, without a note of cynicism, the voice still capable of working within its contradictions.
What did it take then for Boy George to come out so incandescently on the soundtrack of Neil Jordan’s movie “The Crying Game“?
For Boy George to agree to sing the theme to a movie about a performer with a hidden sexual identity seems like a turning point to me. An admission, rather obvious, of his need to come out artistically as well as sexually.
Like the film, with its twin plot and emotionally and sexually complex ending, Boy’s rendering of the song is dripping with nuance and experience.
He does sound like he knows all there is to know about the crying game for lots of reasons. It’s a red-eyed rendition and I hear it now even more than I did then. It’s a song that just keeps giving the more we read about Boy George’s descent into the depravity of the fringe.
Of course that depravity was always part of his personal aesthetic, even while the Culture Club phenomenon was playing itself out on screen-printed pillowcases in teenage girls bedrooms.
It was also very much the aesthetic of Leigh Bowery.
Google the guy. A brilliant, edgy and fascinating performance artist in his own right, Leigh Bowery was Boy George’s close club friend.
You can see Bowery’s influence or perhaps his reincarnation in one of Boy George’s latest underground projects, an album performed by another alter ego of his that he called The Twin. Painted up like a mad, overweight circus clown, The Twin produced music that was dark, aggressive and erotically charged. You can imagine it playing in a Berlin sex club.
The trademark soul can still be heard in the voice of The Twin but it is subsumed by another personality, perhaps the evil twin that seems to be winning the battle for Boy George’s soul. It’s an overly dramatic description but The Twin is a threatening image and an equally threatening sound.
Which brings my journey up to date. The Twin was the last I’d heard of Boy George until Mark Ronson’s track hit the airwaves.
I was surprised to hear Boy George on Somebody to Love Me, I admit because I thought his voice had been possessed by The Twin and was gone forever. But it’s not.
It’s there in all its gorgeous soulfulness and made even more powerful by an emotional depth only hard life lessons can deliver. It’s not the same voice that asked “Do you really want to hurt me?”. How could it be? The man is over weight now and in his fifties.
He also sings now like a man who is tired of offering up his heart to be broken in a voice so lived in it makes today’s pop stars sound like the Von Trapp children singing karaoke in a convent.
I don’t wanna see you go,
I want somebody to love me,
Why’d it take so long to know?
I want somebody to love me,
I want somebody to be nice,
See the boy, I once was in my eyes,
Nobody’s gonna save my life.
I give the song 9/10 for its authenticity.