When the second British Invasion hit America’s music scene in the early 1980s, it hit hard: Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet, Thompson Twins, etc. Yet, aside from Duran Duran, none topped the charts like Culture Club, the enigmatic pop group — led by an androgynous young man known as Boy George — who unleashed myriad hits, from “Karma Chameleon” to “Miss Me Blind.”
Today, “Boy” George O’Dowd divides his time between London and Los Angeles. However, he hasn’t lived in either city in recent months. When The Santa Barbara Independent reached Culture Club’s candid frontman, he was somewhere near Dallas. Having just played Tokyo and Manila, Culture Club is currently touring nationwide, stopping at the Arlington Theatre on Wednesday, August 17.
Culture Club 2016 means business. After Santa Barbara, the group tours through mid-September, resuming in November after a break. Post-tour, they’ll get back to crafting more new material for an upcoming album, some of which (“Different Man,” “Like I Used To”) is already being road-tested on tour.
What’s stunning to anyone who saw the Behind the Music episode on Culture Club is that all four founding members — O’Dowd, guitarist Roy Hay, bassist Mikey Craig, and drummer Jon Moss — are performing together (and have been since their 2014 reunion). As the VH1 series revealed in 1998, O’Dowd and Moss were entangled in a love affair at the peak of Culture Club’s success, an affair Moss never acknowledged (not even after marrying a woman and starting a family). The resulting emotional turmoil that imploded the band by 1986 informed many of O’Dowd’s lyrics, including “Karma Chameleon.”
It’s ancient history now. “Strangely, it’s like it never happened,” O’Dowd said. “Life and human nature … Ten, 20 years on, I was like, ‘What was I thinking?’”
“They’re a moment in time,” continued O’Dowd, who still enjoys performing and reinterpreting those ’80s classics. “I would never play the victim.”
O’Dowd was only 21 when Culture Club’s breakthrough single, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” arrived in 1982. “When you’re 19 or 20, songs are questions. You want answers. When you get older, you realize there are no answers,” he said.
A few short years before Culture Club exploded, “I was quite young, going to gigs,” O’Dowd recalled. “I hadn’t thought about being in a band.” Then former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren discovered O’Dowd and plugged him into Bow Wow Wow alongside Annabella Lwin. “I sang songs written for me,” O’Dowd said. “With Culture Club, I began to experiment with writing.”
The varied ethnic backgrounds of the new quartet informed Culture Club’s name while MTV, barely a year old in 1982, was just becoming a household name. “We didn’t know what it was,” O’Dowd said of the nascent music channel. “To get our foothold in America, bands had to tour for months and years.”
The video for the reggae-lilting “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” (off Culture Club’s debut album, Kissing to Be Clever) held a certain power and allure. Yet, “we struggled to get it played [on MTV],” O’Dowd said, as the video’s controversial content — Boy George’s image decrying persecution through a black-minstrel-show analogy — proved too provocative during MTV’s white-and-mainstream beginnings.
O’Dowd explained how the situation was solved when record executives stepped in and said, “‘If you don’t play them on MTV, you won’t get anyone else.’ It was a weird experiment,” O’Dowd said of early MTV, describing it as a bit of groping in the dark before becoming a cultural juggernaut.
Culture Club got savvy quickly, taking advantage of the burgeoning video medium. The five-million-selling Kissing to Be Clever spawned more hit singles, and Culture Club became the first group since The Beatles to chart with three U.S. Top 10 hits off a debut album. Follow-up Colour by Numbers proved even more massive, selling 16 million units worldwide.
If David Bowie led gender-bending in the ’70s, certainly O’Dowd brought it to the ’80s’ doorstep, but not intentionally, said O’Dowd (whose 1992 U.S. career bump came tethered to “The Crying Game,” the title track of the soundtrack for Neil Jordan’s buzzed-about film with the transgender plot twist). O’Dowd was just being himself.
“You’re not thinking: What kind of impact? What are the social implications?” O’Dowd said, adding how human sexuality is so complicated and nuanced that “even LGBT doesn’t really cover it.”
Ultimately, “being yourself” may have been the most potent message Boy George could have conveyed.
Boy George and Culture Club play the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.) on Wednesday, August 17, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 963-4408 or visit thearlingtontheatre.com.