Saturday 22 March 2014

CULTURE CLUB: Colour By Numbers

(#290: 22 October 1983, 3 weeks; 19 November 1983, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Karma Chameleon/It’s A Miracle/Black Money/Changing Every Day/That’s The Way (I’m Only Trying To Help You)/Church Of The Poison Mind/Miss Me Blind/Mister Man/Stormkeeper/Victims

Two observations. First, Colour By Numbers was released in the same blowsy October week as The Jam’s double greatest hits compilation Snap!, and duly kept the latter at number two in the chart. While my dutiful buying of both had no effect on either’s chart position, Culture Club’s triumph did seem like a natural succession as far as pop was concerned. Paul Weller and Boy George; two young men brought up at enough of a distance from London to make the city seem exotic and desirable (both have lovingly recalled exciting childhood train journeys from suburbia to the capital, and never wanting to leave), and both musicians with enough ambition and chutzpah to want to reorganise the pop music they loved into new, relevant shapes, something which might actually speak to the people who, they hoped, would love or at least admire them. Beyond that, they were both young men for whom style (specifically, clothing; both the clothes they wore and the way they wore them) was of equal importance to music; they regarded the look and sound as indivisible.

Growing up in Glasgow as I did, too young to go to London and hang out at Billy’s or the Blitz – not that I would have ever been let into either – in an environment where reading a book was enough to mark you out as being potentially gay, never mind how you dressed, I have to admit that The Jam’s way was closer to my time and inclination than that of Culture Club. I spent the eighties attempting to dress as smartly as possible, rather than outrageously, which usually took the form of bright, primary-coloured suits – the sort you don’t really find these days outside of ludicrously priced limited edition items in Sloane Street - and suchlike. It was a Mod thing rather than a dodgy eighties television presenter thing. Moreover, as a naturally introverted fellow, I never had the cheek or the confidence to do any meaningful networking or push myself forward in any artistic circles. I’m not an expert, or even competent, in working the room.

By the time Colour By Numbers came out, I was still a student, away from London and therefore out of the perceived centre of early eighties pop activity. But I had learned enough about Culture Club and what New Pop was becoming, or turning into, to recognise what I was witnessing. And so it was that, if only for the briefest of times, Culture Club became to its followers what The Jam had been to their followers half a decade previously; a touchstone for how to look, how to sound, and, with any luck, how to live. Snap! in its original 2-LP (with bonus 7” live EP) form is not quite perfect, but as a Jam/Weller starter pack it was, and is, indispensable (avoid the unsatisfactory Compact Snap! CD which loses key songs like “English Rose,” “The Butterfly Collector” and “Tales From The Riverbank”; thankfully the record was released on CD in its original form in 2006). But The Jam no longer existed in 1983, and The Style Council were not (yet) really as popular as The Jam had been. Whereas Culture Club most certainly did exist, and Colour By Numbers sounded bright and confident, looked colourful, and was about as good, or as great, a pop record as you might find in the later days of the first wave of New Pop.

My second observation is to do with the 1982 film Tootsie, a light entertainment which skilfully skates over difficult questions, a movie which treats gender uncertainty as a source of amusement and completely avoids the question of whether somebody’s sexuality could be swayed or altered in an environment – show business – where such things had long been taken as read. Much of this, admittedly, could have been done despite the protestations of some of the screenwriters involved, Elaine May among them, by jittery studio executives anxious to keep the film “clean.” My point is that Boy George and Culture Club set up a perspective – in my view, a truer perspective – where sexual ambiguity and gender subversion, even if only to demonstrate that effeminacy in men was a valid attribute in itself, did not constitute some slapstick trick, but were part of the DNA of show business, the fuel which underscores all industry.

Furthermore, setting up such a perspective in the heartland of New Pop was itself a deeply New Pop gesture, and I suspect a big part of what New Pop had been working towards, for its audience to accept. It is a matter of documented fact that the gay community regarded Culture Club with some suspicion; they were not popular in San Francisco, George cheerfully admitted having been thrown out of gay clubs more times than he could remember, and some gay pop figures who would come to prominence in 1984, such as Jimmy Somerville and Paul Rutherford, wondered whether the singer had set things back rather than move them forward; George’s angry response was to say that he was pushing the envelope far further, pushing effeminacy into people’s living rooms, rubbing it in their faces, forcing them to accept it.

On the other hand, George was, at the time, legendarily ambiguous about his own sexuality; he would tend to dismiss any such suggestions with one-liners or sidesteps. But then again, his declared aim was to get, or persuade, as wide a demographic as possible to love him and his music, and while he got the balance between forthright and lovable right, he managed to do it; he won over America in the same way Elton John had done a decade earlier – in times of strife and uncertainty, cheerful and colourful reassurance was required – and in Britain he came through to the grannies in Arbroath as effortlessly and naturally as the hipsters in Soho. I saw him in early 1981 as a very temporary co-lead singer in Bow Wow Wow (as “Lieutenant Lush”) at the Rainbow Theatre in London, where the band were just one of many fairground-style attractions; there was a full-scale helter-skelter, candyfloss stalls, even a jazz big band (The Sound Of 17, as I recall), and it felt like pop’s future, but George in particular already carried an aura about what he did, and how he disposed himself around the stage, such that it was clear that he wouldn’t stay at this level for very long (my only comment at the time was that he could do with looking a little less severe).

In any case, the story of the people involved in those early days at Billy’s, etc., is the story of a London long since vanished; a world of cheap rents, of easily available squats in the centre of the city, a society where people who had nothing, indeed had been forcibly ostracised from mainstream life, could use that nothing to their advantage, picking up what they could find or scrounge or scrape together to create something entirely new and wholly individual. So when George and Helen Terry stood at either end of the front of the stage to sing “That’s The Way (I’m Only Trying To Help You)” to each other – this gangling six-foot transvestite and a small but full-bodied woman approaching thirty – it was like one misfit reaching out to, listening to and touching another misfit, and the recorded version, which is really only George and Helen, with Roy Hay (I think) on piano, is one of the album’s most moving moments for that reason. It touches the intended listener, too; the loose nail in the classroom or the office who wouldn’t be hammered in, the vulnerable teenager told by the Job Centre that they are nothing and have nothing to offer society – this, the song seems to say, is for you too, although it remains a song of substantial sadness; the piano introduction, briefly referencing “Oh You Pretty Thing,” is the record’s only real nod to Bowie, that lighthouse for dismissed and confused souls a decade earlier (and George was as keen a Bowie boy as Almond or Morrissey). The song sweeps along with a generosity and understanding of musical space which makes it worthy of peak-period Prince. And yet – “Hey, I woke up on my own this morning,” and the dread-filled “That’s the way we destroy baby,” which when sung sounds like “That’s the way we destroy a baby,” thereby placing this song in the unlikely lineage of the Pistols’ “Bodies.”

(And given the general importance of Helen Terry to Colour By Numbers – even though she was, strictly speaking, a session singer rather than a full member of the group, paid per recording or performance – it may be time to dispel the notion that she was a member of the group Thunderthighs, who appeared on “Walk On The Wild Side” and “Roll Away The Stone” and later released a few singles of their own, including 1974’s deeply disturbing Lynsey de Paul-penned anti-rape song “Central Park Arrest,” which was, though unimaginable today, a Top 30 hit; at that time Terry would still have been a teenager, and the singers who actually did constitute Thunderthighs were Karen Friedman, Dari Lalou and Casey Synge. Still, their subsequent two non-charting singles, “Dracula’s Daughter” and “Stand Up And Cheer,” remain strong and distinctive enough to justify a salvage job on/CD release of their never-issued album.)

I’m focusing on this song in particular because of the general reception and perception of Colour By Numbers as the apogee of cheerful, uplifting eighties pop. Certainly its music continues to carry a lightness and beneficence which, frankly, wipe the floor with many of the record’s TPL contemporaries. Like all great pop records, it plays like a greatest hits album; hit after hit after tune, every song different in style and approach, and all performed with this aforementioned confidence and ease, like multiple suns rising to blot out darkness forever. There is no reason why you should not be gladdened or elevated by this record – that is, until you listen to it more closely and realise what it is saying, or trying to say.

It is not the business of this piece to dwell on who had an affair with whom, or whom these songs are about; this information is well documented and can be found in many published sources, and all I will say here is that a good comparison would be with Rumours, a comparison which I am sure George would relish. My concern here is how well Colour By Numbers stands up as a record and what greater thing it is trying to say.

The record opens, as it had to, with “Karma Chameleon,” the year’s biggest single (and in terms of 1983 album sales, Colour By Numbers was second only to Thriller) and a song which, according to its singer and co-author, is about “the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It's about trying to suck up to everybody.” About avoiding ever having to decide who you are and express how you feel. It is, musically, superior bubblegum, complete with Mr Bloe harmonica, which superficially might have hit for Daniel Boone in 1972 or Jimmy Jones in 1960 (the chorus is slightly reminiscent of “Good Timin’”), ”), expertly moulded to provide an international smash, down to the Eurovision military tattoo of Jon Moss’ drums towards the song’s end (and in terms of expert moulding, one should pay due respect to the fifth composer of “Karma Chameleon” and unofficial Culture Club keyboard player Phil Pickett, formerly of Sailor – “A Glass Of Champagne,” etc. – who lent his considerable experience and knowhow to the Culture Club sound).

Up front, meanwhile, George repeatedly sings, or taunts “You come and go,” and further, “When you go, you’re gone forever” while paraphrasing  the bitching of the song’s subject (“I’m a man without conviction” and “you used to be so sweet” are both attributed to the song’s second person). “Every day is like survival!” George protests, smiling sweetly. “Sur-vi-val!” chant the band back cheerfully. “You’re my lover, not my rival!” An “empty” song about emptiness; what better song to signal its year? Though obviously unanticipated at the time, Lena looked at the 45 single cover and noted how much George resembled Lorde.

In terms of getting that international smash, it should be noted that “It’s A Miracle” (also co-written by the group and Pickett) was originally entitled “It’s America,” and the music on the album sounds expressly tailored to meet the demands of its hoped-for global market; it sounds transatlantic rather than specifically British or American. As jolly as the song’s surface skips along – with a keyboard riff which may owe something to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Matrimony” – the lyric, and its delivery, are no laughing matter, speaking as it does of “guns,” “counterfeit” and “plastic smiles.” “Monroe was there,” sighs a weary George of Hollywood, “but do you really care?” Nick Grainger’s saxophone solo is aptly grainy, whereas Terry’s brief scat-singing interlude serves, in this context, to introduce her as the alter ego who can express what George sometimes only hints at.

Whereas “Black Money,” the album’s longest song, is a superb ballad, probing, mysterious, compassionate and bleak, which borders on deep soul; again the subject is emotional betrayal (“Somebody else’s life cannot be mine”) and the interplay between George and Terry, if not quite Bobby Womack and Patti LaBelle, is exacting and gripping. Both this and “Changing Every Day” strongly suggest consolidation of things that the 1983 Style Council were still working towards but had not yet quite achieved; the latter’s Tropicalia-lite balances perilously on a fence separating it from The Jimmy Young Show, and succeeds mainly because of Terry’s determined and pushy supporting vocals and the unsentimentality of the lyric, which combines the theme of “In The Ghetto” (“Someone says/Wake up, child/And throw your life away”) with a critique of the free market (“Pushed into production/What a way to live our lives”).

“Church Of The Poison Mind,” which opens side two, is brilliant and poundingly angry pop, inhabiting a triangle whose borders are Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere To Run” and Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Back Of Love,” with Judd Lander’s harmonica now sounding closer to “A New Career In A New Town” and Terry’s co-lead vocal explosive; there are even hints of the Beach Boys in the middle-eight harmonies. As a huge “NO!” to everything that the rest of 1983 pop appeared to stand for, it remains a compelling listen.

“Miss Me Blind,” a single just about everywhere except Britain, is just terrific pop, with a lyric which skilfully skies between faithless lover putdown (it includes another rhetorical “would I lie to you?”) and cynicism about the ability of money in itself to save anybody or anything (such that the song’s second half is effectively a metaphor for capitalism; “And you’ll never be sure/If the way that you need/Is too much like greed”). Over this, Hay’s guitar – inspired, apparently, by Eddie van Halen’s solo on “Beat It,” but bearing the huge influence of Ernie Isley – rages (George originally bridled at the guitar, allegedly recorded by Hay one afternoon while the singer was at the dentist’s, but appreciated how it helped the song’s innate anger); from his solo the song segues directly, and miraculously, into a passage which could have come straight from Shalamar (specifically “A Night To Remember”).

The next two songs return to reggae from different angles; “Mister Man” more or less puts UB40 in the shade, with George’s highly nuanced and multidirectional vocals and a far punchier production (from Steve Levine) – and also a harmonic line which is strikingly similar to Jackson’s “Human Nature” (not that Culture Club’s magpie borrowings are any less valid than Springsteen’s enthusiastic ‘50s and ‘60s cut-and-pastes throughout Born To Run). The lyric, however, is one of the record’s darkest – there are yet more guns, as well as violence and hatred, but also culminates in a plea – or is it a threat? – to the concept of “man,” that other notions of “man” need to be introduced, understood and accepted (hence the blackly comedic double entendres about needing no gun to be shot dead by “the midnight cowboy”). “I’m much more black than blue,” sings George. He is singing directly to his deepest enemies. Patrick Seymour’s flutes on “Stormkeeper,” a fairly straightforward lover’s rock ballad, were allegedly influenced by Men At Work, although Boris Gardiner’s “Elizabethan Reggae” may be a better comparison point; and yet here too, love is receding, ignorance is replacing enlightenment and cowardice bravery. The resounding gong which terminates the song is reminiscent of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and I am sure that this was not an accident.

“Victims” is this not particularly happy record’s final word (note how there is no specific point on the record where the singer is uncomplicatedly happy and settled with somebody) and through its sorrowful arteries flow what sounds like a pocket history of pop music. Essentially a three-part ballad, first with George and piano, second with George, rhythm section and full orchestra, and third with no George at all, this complex and worrying song is about the end of a relationship, perhaps the end of love, coupled with a passion on the part of the singer for love NOT to end. They are not getting on, and the person he is singing about may be responsible for the post-Phil Collins gated drums which open the song up, like a preserved Babylon, but he is also addressing a greater, wider emptiness. There are passing references to Free (“What places our hearts in the wishing well”) and Joy Division, the group New Pop just can’t forget (“Take a ride into unknown pleasure” – need I even say here that the elephant in the 1983 TPL living room is “Blue Monday”?). But there are also interludes of unexpected tenderness amidst the grief, not least George’s defiant “Push aside those who whispered NEVER!” Although the theme of loss remains paramount (“The victims, we know them so well…/So well”) there is, somehow, still hope awaiting rebirth; “Victims” could almost be New Pop’s “Surf’s Up.”

Around George’s voice swirls an immaculate pop architecture. Drums give rise to a glum sunrise of strings, French horns and voices, Helen Terry now just a part of the detail of the overall picture (and one of the other backing singers on this and other songs on the album is the young Jermaine Stewart). It is as if George is moving forward and leaving the rest of the group behind him (although this clearly was not – yet – the case). There is a moment when high strings sail into the song which made me think of “When Two Worlds Drift Apart” – like Cliff, George boxes around the matter of love so deftly and endlessly that he can’t always tell what the real thing is until it ups and walks away from him. Mikey Craig’s bass work reminds me of Bernard Edwards, and hence makes the song a brooding sequel to “At Last I Am Free.” An oboe conjures up the spectre of “We’ve Only Just Begun” – the life of Karen Carpenter, a victim we knew so well, yet didn’t really know at all, had only just ended, in February 1983 – and the climactic, if reluctant, uptempo orchestral section is reminiscent of both “MacArthur Park” and “Mr Blue Sky.” As a singer, George is more like John Coltrane than Marvin Gaye – the voice as semi-abstract instrument with saxophone-like tonalities; see also the Cocteau Twins’ contemporaneous Head Over Heels – and probably more like Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaacs than either.

But “Victims” sounds like the end of something; the final chord is like the lid of a box closing down, to be forever sealed. Remember that this is the first unabashed New Pop album in this tale since The Lexicon Of Love, and its singer ends up similarly disappointed by what love had to offer him. But if New Pop weren’t to end here, it certainly had to move on from here. How was this done? Colour By Numbers is, more than anything else, concerned about people who just do not fit in (the opening piano of “Victims” is of course irresistibly reminiscent of Elton John); the jumbled religious and sexual symbols decorating the Assorted iMaGes sleeve suggest confusion rather than a new resolution or all-inclusive eclecticism. But within its grooves, the record somehow knows that this perfection cannot be reproduced or replicated, that there is perhaps no way out of the flawless utopia that it proposes.

It is therefore my conclusion that what George proposed was swiftly taken on board and modified by someone else in pop. A month after Colour By Numbers entered the chart at number one, “This Charming Man” debuted in the Top 40 singles chart, and the way forward abruptly became clear. Like George, Morrissey has a voice that is eerily capable of sounding both high and low (and therefore free of normative gender) at the same time. He is also a Bowie boy and well documented misfit from an Anglo-Irish family driven to achieve something just to prove that he ought not to be laughed at. And it may be that Morrissey’s subtler gender subversions actually pushed things further in the direction of acceptance. Hence it may well be the case that The Smiths, not Waking Up With The House On Fire, is the true sequel to Colour By Numbers (“Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body? I dunno,” “No I’ve never had a job because I’ve NEVER WANTED ONE”). In the meantime, I cannot listen to “Victims” without thinking of those first dreadful reports which came over from the States in the early eighties, or the song’s unexpected (1986) sequel from someone who, even if George didn’t particularly rate his music, was certainly cherished by George for his love of show business as thing in itself. Or, for that matter, the knowledge that an album which managed to sell over ten million copies worldwide has now almost entirely vanished from view, and the question of who is to blame.