Music Interviews
3:41 am
Mon March 24, 2014

For Boy George, Music And Style Is Just 'What I Do'

Originally published on Mon March 24, 2014 12:25 pm

Boy George's style and sound are unmistakable. In 1982, the Irish Catholic singer joined a Jewish drummer, a Protestant guitar-and-keyboard player and a Jamaican bassist to form Culture Club.

The band was groundbreaking not just for its multicultural makeup, but also for its music. Culture Club combined calypso, country, reggae and pop and hit it big. Its song "Karma Chameleon" was No. 1 in 16 countries.

After Culture Club, Boy George kept recording when he could. His first solo album in 19 years, This Is What I Do, comes out Tuesday.

Boy George has always been known for his unique and different look, even getting expelled from school for it. Morning Edition host David Greene asked him what it was like growing up "different":

"Well, I hated school from the minute I got there to the minute I was thrown out. I was different. Even from the age of about 6 years old I was kind of made to feel different by other kids — you know, I was a quite pretty kid, and I got called 'girl' a lot, and 'woman' and all of that. And school is really not a place to be different. School is not a great place to have feminine features or a big nose, or to wear glasses or the wrong shoes. School is a scary place for kids. So I didn't like it, and I didn't want to be there. And it was a great day for me when they threw me out."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The singer Boy George has a style and a sound that are unmistakable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARMA CHAMELEON")

CULTURE CLUB: (Singing) There's a loving in your eyes all the way.

GREENE: In 1982, the Irish-Catholic singer joined a Jewish drummer, a Protestant guitar and keyboard player and a Jamaican bassist to form the Culture Club. The band was groundbreaking, not just for its multicultural makeup, but also for its music. Culture Club combined calypso, country, reggae and pop, and they hit it big. This song, "Karma Chameleon," was number one in 16 countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARMA CHAMELEON")

CLUB: (Singing) Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma chameleon.

GREENE: Now, after Culture Club, Boy George kept recording when he could, but it's been a while. His first solo album in 19 years comes out tomorrow. When he joined us from London to talk about it, I asked him to listen back to an interview he did with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" in 1984. Boy George had grown tired of all the DJs asking the same questions about his childhood and his look. Here's Johnny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

JOHNNY CARSON: Yeah, but you can't blame them, can you, Boy George, for asking those kind of questions? Because you are rather controversial. It's something new that...

BOY GEORGE: But after, like, three years of seeing me, you'd think that people would be a bit used to me by now, you know.

CARSON: Yeah.

GEORGE: I mean, in a country that has Liberace, I'm hardly revolutionary, am I?

CARSON: Yeah.

GEORGE: Well, I tell you what, I mean, the best thing on that interview was the comment about Liberace. How genius was that? I don't remember saying it, but I'm quite proud of that. You know, at that point in my career, I was just so out of my depth, you know. I mean, suddenly, I'm, like, on national TV in America. And when you're that age, you know, and you're being asked to explain yourself before you really even know who you are, I mean, it's taken me, like, almost 52 years to work out who I am.

GREENE: You'll forgive me after hearing Johnny Carson and you not wanting to talk about your childhood for asking you about your childhood. You grew up in an Irish-Catholic family.

GEORGE: I did.

GREENE: And you were wearing makeup as a boy, flamboyant clothing, and you got expelled from school.

GEORGE: I did.

GREENE: Can you tell me what happened?

GEORGE: Well, I hated school from the minute I got here to the minute I was thrown out. I was different, you know. Even from about the age of six years old, I was kind of made to feel different by other kids, you know. You know, I was a quite pretty kid, and I got called girl a lot and woman and all of that. And school is really not a place to be different. School is not a great place to have feminine features or a big nose, or to wear glasses or the wrong shoes. You know, school is a scary place for kids. So I didn't like it, and I didn't want to be there. And I was very happy, it was a great day for me when they threw me out.

GREENE: Looking back now, how much of that time was about exploring your sexuality?

GEORGE: I wasn't really conscious that there was anything different about me until I got to about 10 or 11, and I started to look at boys. And my mom used to get this catalog, and we used to kind of gingerly finger through the pages, through the men's underwear section, and that was our pornography, you know, back in 1973. And it was very thrilling.

GREENE: Well, I want to ask you, I mean, 40 years later, you find yourself in New York City, in a bar, and the events there led to one of the songs on this new album. Tell me what happened.

GEORGE: This man walks up to me, gave me a Jesus pamphlet. And I ran after him and I was, like, why did you give me that? I mean, I just thought it was really, really presumptuous to kind of walk up to a stranger. He obviously knew who I was. Like all evangelistic people, he felt like I needed to be saved, I guess. And he may have been right. But at the time, I didn't really appreciate it. It was only years later when I thought about that incident, that I thought maybe he could see that I was in trouble or something, and maybe that's why he came up to me. So, it stuck in my mind for many years. And then when I was writing "My God," I included this story in that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GOD")

GEORGE: (Singing) Man gives me the book of God, and I turn to him and say, I wouldn't here, my friend, if I had no faith. Here in the darkness, I became the light. I had to get it wrong to get it right.

GREENE: I gather you think that he came up to you because he thought you were gay, and was trying to save you in that way, in his mind, the way he would put it.

GEORGE: Oh no, no, no. I think it was more to do with the fact that I was pretty drunk and wasted. And I think he probably just thought, what a mess. He needs saving. And, you know, I wasn't aware of how much of a mess I was in. But sometimes other people see it before you do, you know.

GREENE: Well, what were the dark times? I know you struggled with drugs, you were arrested rather publicly at one point. How dark did the times get?

GEORGE: I've been arrested about seven times in my life.

GREENE: OK.

GEORGE: So, that's not - home in on any particular one. The one thing I do know about myself at this point in my life is the one thing I'm not very good at is being a drug addict. And what I am good at is being a musician and being an artist and being a creative person. And I'm six years sober now and...

GREENE: Congratulations.

GEORGE: ...I'm very happy.

GREENE: I want to listen to one of the songs called "King of Everything," because I feel like it speaks to some of what you're talking about here.

GEORGE: It certainly does, and it certainly doesn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KING OF EVERYTHING")

GEORGE: (Singing) I down the booze, let the demons win the fight. I drop my gloves to the ground. You know I'm sorry for the times I made you cry. I made an art of letting you down...

GREENE: OK, Boy George, sort this out for me: You say, in a way, it sort of speaks to what we were talking about, and in a way, it doesn't.

GEORGE: Well, it's a man singing to his wife. He's talking about his kid crying. So that wouldn't be about me, because I'm a homosexual. I don't have any kids. So, it's not a literal song. So, it's a kind of filmic song. You know, I wrote it like a film script. And it's a song about messing up, and yes, I've done that, but it's not literally about me. You know, if it was about me, I'd call it "Queen of Everything."

GREENE: Well, one person who is considered very interesting these days, Lady Gaga - and there are some who feel you and Culture Club in the '80s paved the way for people like her to be out there and flamboyant and dressing wildly. I mean, do you feel that you had an influence that we're still seeing today?

GEORGE: Well, you know, I know that Lady Gaga has mentioned me, so I guess that there is a connection, in some ways. But everybody does their thing in their time. So, you know, to my little niece and nephew, Lady Gaga is the most revolutionary thing on Earth. But, obviously, for someone like me who've grown up with Ziggy Stardust and Marc Bolan, all of that and punk rock, I'm not so easily shocked.

GREENE: Does her bringing you up in an interview somehow validate the young Boy George who was expelled from school for wearing makeup and costumes?

GEORGE: No, I don't know about that. That's a bit deep.

GREENE: We're getting too deep, here.

GEORGE: She doesn't even follow me on Twitter. So, you know what I mean? Come on. You know, she mentions my name, but she can't even follow me on Twitter? That says a lot. I don't think she's validating me at all, but God bless her, you know.

GREENE: Well, keep an eye on your Twitter account. I want to wait and see if she actually starts following you.

GEORGE: I'm not holding my breath. But, you know, she knows about me. Don't worry about that.

GREENE: Boy George, this has been a real pleasure. Thanks so much for spending time with us, and good luck with the album.

GEORGE: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GEORGE: (Singing) Love is bigger than war. Bigger than you, bigger than me...

GREENE: Boy George's new album. It's called "This is What I Do." It comes out tomorrow. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.