- 03 Dec 13
He’s topped the charts, spent time in the clinker and ran the gamut of tabloid drug infamy. Somehow Boy George is still here and about to drop a cracking new solo album. He talks about his unlikely love affair with inner city Dublin (he has family there), the exquisite heartache of overnight success and how he’s survived a lifetime of fast-lane turmoil.
Yeah, I’m over to Ireland a lot because my mum’s family are from places like Finglas,” Boy George reveals backstage at the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds, where he’s gigging tonight. “I’ve two aunts living there who I’ll hopefully get to see when I’m back doing a gig in December. It’s a DJ set by the way – other people’s stuff, no singing! I’ve had people tweeting me going, ‘The least you could have done is stuck ‘Karma Chameleon’ on.’ Er, no, that would be like masturbating in public! My dad’s relatives are spread out all over the place – Ballymena, Portrush, Thurles, everywhere.
“We were over pretty much every school holiday when I was a growing up. I used to be called ‘The Quare Fellow’, which was a bit cleverer than I first thought because of the Brendan Behan reference. Literary or not, it still wasn’t what you wanted to be hearing as a kid.”
It was literally minutes before sitting down with George that news of the 2015 Irish Gay Marriage referendum broke.
“It’s a funny one because for me, gay marriage is quite a conservative idea,” he proffers. “I uphold anyone’s right to do that, but it’s not something that appeals to me. It’s kind of gay people buckling down, doing the right thing, which you’d think these right-wing types would embrace. I personally like the fact that I don’t have to join the army; I don’t have to have kids; I don’t have any responsibilities. I mean, I can barely look after a hat!”
No one at George’s record company or management has told us not to quiz him about his heroin/assault/prison/obesity hells but given that they happened four years ago and have been mined to exhaustion by the tabloids, we’re going to take the revolutionary step of mainly talking to him about… music.
“You know that saying, ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity?’ Bollocks! ‘It’s better to be talked about than not being talked about at all?’ Bollocks too,” the once again svelte and highly affable 52-year-old resumes. “It’s totally my own fault, though, for fucking up. I’ve managed to stay out of trouble for quite a while now, and got myself back into the music pages. I’m focusing on the present and absolutely loving it. I never stopped writing, so I’ve got tonnes and tonnes of stuff that’s recorded or semi-recorded and which may or may not come out in the future. On the new album, ‘Live Your Life’ and ‘Play Me’ are respectively six and nine-years-old. They came back from the abyss whereas other songs are redundant because what was in my head then isn’t what’s in my head now.”
The first thing that strikes you listening to This Is What I Do is how George’s voice has matured from the falsetto of old into a weather-beaten growl that Leonard Cohen himself would be proud of.
“Somebody tweeted yesterday, ‘Boy George has turned into a baritone overnight…’ What a load of old rubbish, it’s taken 50 years. When I was younger I had more of a head voice – some of those early Culture Club recordings are very nasal. As you get older you go deeper and sing from a more gravitational place. Then there’s all my bad behaviour, which brought me down an octave or three!”
Off drugs, teetotal and mostly vegan, George joins David Bowie, Dave Gahan and Noel Gallagher on the list of people who look far healthier than they have a right to given their past misdeeds.
“All that stuff in the papers about Lou Reed ‘paying for his past sins’ – he was seventy-fucking-one when he died. I saw him supporting The Who at the Charlton Athletic football ground in 1974, although I was told not to. I was a very wilful 14-year-old and the opportunity of seeing Lou Reed in Woolwich was such a once in a lifetime chance. I got into a lot of trouble for being at that gig, but I was happy to take the punishment.
“It was around the time of the Rock N’ Roll Animal album, so he had the bleached hair and the guyliner on. I wanted him to be this exotic alien creature and he didn’t let me down! He was probably quite wasted at that gig. In my relative innocence I didn’t notice!”
How did George go from being a face in the crowd to the person the crowd wanted to see?
“We used to go to this weekly night at a pub in Blackfen called The Black Prince – it was in the middle of a motorway and has since become a Holiday Inn,” he recalls. “It was a bit of a pre-punk soul thing, with people wearing a lot of army gear and plastic sandals and Hawaiian shirts. There were a few bin-liners too, which is maybe where Malcolm McLaren got the idea! ‘Funkytown’ by Lipps Inc was one of the big anthems there. I met some older kids who were a little bit more trendy than me and we started going up to the West End.”
When I asked Nile Rodgers recently to sum up the Studio 54 madness, he said, “Bianca Jagger celebrating her 27th birthday by taking to the dancefloor on a thoroughbred white stallion while the rest of us consumed our bodyweight in champagne… amongst other things.”
Are there similar tales of Bacchanalian New Romantic excess?
“Compared to Studio 54 it was actually a very, very small scene with lots of hairspray and even more ego,” George grins. “That it spread all over the country and then all over the world is one of those happy accidents that none of us anticipated. For me the ’70s were the most important decade because that’s when I discovered all the artists and music that I loved from glam to punk to electro. Being a teenager then was really exciting. 1980 and ’81 were good too, but then Culture Club took off and for four years it was non-stop obsessive work.
“It used to be a huge bugbear that while we were parked up in some motorway service station Duran Duran and their leggy model girlfriends were off in the Seychelles making videos on the back of a yacht. Roy, Jon and Mikey hated that! Looking back now, nobody was really in control. When you’re that successful so quickly you’re not really at the driving wheel. You’re young and happy to go with the flow because it’s all new and exciting. It’s only when you’ve done it 400 times that you suddenly go, ‘Fuck off, no!’”
George did get to cameo alongside H.M. Murdock, B.A. Baracus, Hannibal Smith and Templeton Peck on an episode of The A-Team though.
“Duran Duran did Miami Vice, we ended up with The A-Team,” he grimaces. “It was one of those things that sounded like a good idea at the time, and then once you’re doing it it’s, ‘Oh my God…’ When they’re enticing you to do these shows you’re told, ‘You’re going to be playing yourself, it’ll be really easy.’ Then you get there and they want you to talk in a fake American accent. George Peppard was very, very charming and apologetic because Mr. T and all the other guys were rowing like a band. Well, rowing like our band! It was towards the end of ’87 when things between us weren’t good.”
Culture Club derived their name from the fact they had a gay Irish singer, a black English guitarist and a Jewish drummer in their ranks.
It was a wonderful two-fingered riposte to the National Front, British Movement and Combat 18 who ruled the racist roost back then. Three decades on and, sadly, the knucklehead element remains, with the British National Party and the English Defence League both doing their best to portray every UK-residing Muslim as a potential suicide bomber. What does George make of the, “Is Islam compatible with democratic western principles” debate that’s raging across the Irish Sea at the moment?
“To burqa or not to burqa… that is the question,” he notes. “I know this isn’t the answer you’re looking for, but I don’t really think in terms of race or sexuality. I’ve this comedian friend, David Hoyle, who says, ‘There’s two types of people – nice ones and cunts!’ and he’s spot on. You can sit down with six drag queens at a dinner table and hear the most horrific things coming out of people’s mouths. You know, just because you think you have something in common with someone, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you do.
“Unfortunately, we tend to put each other in boxes and say: ‘Well, if you’re this, you must be that.’ Some people conform to the stereotype, but then there are a lot of others who don’t. It’s very dangerous to look at someone in a burqa and say, ‘Oh, they’re a fundamentalist.’ I don’t want to pull rank, but as an obviously gay man who grew up during the ’70s and ’80s, I know what it’s like to be an outsider.”
Does George still feel like an outsider?
“No,” he shoots back. “I was lucky because I’m from a very supportive family who never disowned me. When I was 15 and came out, they didn’t necessarily want to talk about it but I was very wilful and made them include it in their lives. I never allowed them to brush it under the carpet. We went from, you know, ‘Spare us the details’ to, ‘It’s normal now.’ My family discovered recently that I’ve a gay cousin and no one batted an eyelid. If that had been 20 years ago… Society needs to have somebody to be frightened of and at the moment, sadly, it’s Muslims.”
Getting back to musical business, and This Is What I Do’s numerous highlights include a version of Yoko Ono’s ‘Dear Samantha’ that was originally intended for a covers project that George may revisit in the future.
“A make-up artist friend of mine who’s since died, Paul Starr, introduced me to Yoko a few years ago. Up till then I’d thought, ‘She just screams and it’s all ethereal’ like everybody else. It’s a song that I wish I’d written. I did the Meltdown festival that Yoko curated during the summer in London. She did a Double Fantasy concert, so there were people like Peaches, Bishi, Julian Lennon, Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux and me plus this brilliant violinist named Amadéus Leopold. You have to check him out.”
Patti Smith, I have to say, is one of the people on my interview bucket-list. What kind of a character is she?
“It’s funny, she fell on me backstage at Meltdown but we only met properly for the first time two weeks ago in New York. It’s always best to wait for the right moment with the people you really admire. I spotted her leaving the restaurant we both happened to be in, stood up and was like, ‘Hey…’ and she was lovely.”
Any sightings of the aforementioned Mr. Bowie while he was in The Big Apple?
“No, I had dinner with David in 2005 but haven’t seen him since I don’t think. Having a long break can be good for you and your audience – well, that’s what I’m hoping! It’s wonderful as a relative youngster to think, ‘Yeah, you can still be musically relevant when you’re in your seventies.’ Bowie’s still got it.”
Whereas Culture Club were purveyors of reggae lite, a couple of the tracks on George’s new record are the real roots radical deal.
“Around ‘72/’73 there was a lot of poppier reggae like Ken Boothe, Susan Cadogan, Johnny Nash, Pluto Shervington and Dave and Ansell Collins,” he says, switching into musical historian mode. “Then I got into the more kind of righteous stuff – Bob Marley obviously, Dillinger, all those guys. But earlier it was all lovers’ rock, really.”
If anyone doubted that George could still cut it live, they were proved spectacularly wrong earlier this month by his Later… With Jools Holland appearance.
“I love it because it’s such a musical show. We did three songs and got a great reaction. The Killers were on too. I said to Brandon Flowers, ‘You’ve the best name in showbusiness after Ban Ki Moon and Condoleezza Rice.’ He’s a proper rock star. Lorde, Lana Del Rey… there are some interesting people around at the moment. There always are if you’re bothered to go looking for them.”
Casting a steely eye over the past 35 years of mischief making, what are the moments George wouldn’t swap for the world?
“The first time ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’ got played on the radio – I think it was ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton – was amazing,” he reminisces fondly. “And then obviously the first number one – you can’t match that. Playing Madison Square Garden and getting a Grammy are things you don’t forget either. To be honest though, I get way more excited now than I did back in the day because as a 20-year-old you’re full of your own self-importance. I felt like it was always going to be like that – and then found that, no, shit happens to everybody including me. To hand on heart be able to say I’m loving life at the moment is a pretty good result!”
This Is What I Do is out now. See hotpress.com for news of George’s upcoming Dublin DJ gig