The Soho / Covent Garden / Leicester Square / W1 area of early-to-mid 1980s London was a hedonistic mix of colourful people and big clothes, parading in a succession of incredible nightclubs: Blitz, Embassy, Le Beat Route, The Wag, Taboo, and many more. Getting into these clubs required a blend of chutzpah and eccentricity, as well as the confidence that you knew you belonged there. Queuing up and politely asking a doorman what time the venue might close was a sure-fire way NOT to get in. Once inside you might find Steve Strange, David Holah, Leigh Bowery, Michael Clark, and a whole host of gorgeous androgynous types, dressed in clothing located somewhere on the continuum between late 1970s punk and early 1980s New Romanticism – homemade, or possibly bought from Kensington Market, or Portobello Road street market. Look hard enough on the internet and you’ll find images of Boy George in and around these places and of the people who partied there.
It was a chance performance by Culture Club of “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” on the BBC’s most-watched music programme, Top of The Pops, in late 1982 that propelled the band into the mainstream public gaze. Many of those who watched it at the time didn’t know what to make of what they had seen. Was the singer male or female, boy or girl? With so much ‘slap’ on, it was difficult to tell.
Earlier, in June 1982, Betty Page, a Sounds music writer had interviewed George, who commented, “Culture Club are really getting together now – it’s really amateur anyway, so that’s good, we’re not a professional band, but we’ve been in the studio about four times now and we’re really learning, and that’s all there is to it really.”
Thirty-three years later, Boy George brought his highly professional, and incredibly experienced Culture Club back into London, to the Eventim Hammersmith Apollo on Saturday, September 5th; indeed, we learned that Hammersmith is bass player Mikey Craig’s “manor”. Long before doors opened at 7pm, hundreds of people, many wearing Boy George ‘costumes’, and some from as far away as Singapore and Canada, were milling around the Apollo, waiting for a chance to get a glimpse of the band.
And inside, at 9pm, just as the good-natured security team was valiantly failing to get fans to stay in their seats, on they came – one by one. Jon Moss sneaked onto stage first, and it was only when the vast video screen behind him lit up to reveal his silhouette twirling a drumstick that the crowd gave out their first shouts of unbridled joy. This, indeed, felt like a homecoming. Mikey Craig and Roy Hay followed, bouncing around the stage like teenagers, and in harmony with the adoring masses. And then the biggest cheer for George O’Dowd – resplendent in a red jacket, and sporting a wonderful, matching Philip Treacy hat, “an Irish genius,” according to George.
The band, with plenty of extremely talented supporting musicians and backing singers in tow, kicked off with hits “Church of The Poison Mind”, “It’s a Miracle” and “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”. Two hours with the most amazing set list followed, including a wonderfully delicate rendition of “Victims” – with a few costume changes thrown in too (more Philip Treacy hats!) – out of a back catalogue to die for. Covers included “Everything I Own” (Bread) and “The Crying Game” (Dave Berry). Introducing “Do You Want Really To Hurt Me”, the final song of the main set, George reflected that the band’s beginnings began just a stone’s throw from Hammersmith, in nearby Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush. Not one person in the capacity 3600 crowd failed to join in singing the chorus. And that continued into the four-song encore. A spirited “Karma Chameleon” was followed by a banging “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” (T Rex cover). The stage went wild; the crowd went wild, and no one was going home. George, in no mood to leave either, suggested, “A completely, utterly unrehearsed… let’s have a sing-a-long Bowie”. And Culture Club nailed it with “Starman”. I turned to Jimmy, George’s long-standing sound engineer of nearly thirty years, and asked him what he thought of it. He nodded, and smiled. He knew. Culture Club’s return to London was a triumph.
And outside, crossing the dark, London street to get to the Tube station, someone said, “That was really, really good – just like the old times.” I remembered Betty Page’s interview transcript, and I thought, “It was better than that – it was bloody brilliant!”