Culture Club & B-52’s Come to Jax: Interview with Boy George

“I should be wearing a Beverly Beach swimsuit and a straw hat.”

It was a steamy July night in 2016 the last time Culture Club played in northeast Florida. Boy George made it through the sweaty show at the Morocco Shrine Auditorium without a hiccup and only a brief mention of Jacksonville feeling like the surface of the sun. So, when Culture Club announced that a co-headlining tour with the B-52’s would get underway at the end of June in St. Augustine, it seemed the band was heading from the frying pan into the fire.

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“I’ve had a lot of conversations about some of the gigs we’re doing this summer and people are saying ‘it’s going to be really hot’. And I’m like ‘I’m going to be wearing a hat so stop complaining’. I’ll probably lose like half a kilo in weight so it’s going to be amazing,” says Boy George. “I should be wearing a Beverly Beach swimsuit and a straw hat. This is the thing. I don’t design the weather and as a rule, I don’t let the weather dictate what I’m wearing but it has to be said. I’ve never managed to get together a kind of hot look, you know what I mean? I’ll just have to suffer.”

It’s with that kind of cynical optimism that Boy George and Culture Club kick off the Life Tour with the B-52’s and special guest Tom Bailey of the Thompson Twins June 29 at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre. Life is good for Boy George these days. So much so that he’s written a song about it. The song will be the lead single from Culture Club’s first new album in 20 years. It’s an important milestone, both professionally and personally. He’s living clean, creating new music with his bandmates of over 30 years and willing to invest the sweat equity to bring it to his fans without the impropriety of shorts and flip flops.

Life is the first song on the record and it really is about my personal journey and it’s a song about second chances and the metaphor about getting on that train again. There’s a lot of metaphors in it and the message is very positive. I think this new record, from a writing point of view and a lyrical point of view, is very Gemini because it’s positive and a bit cynical which is what I do best, I think,” he says.

“When we were making this album, I was in Australia quite a bit of the time recording vocals and sending them back and listening to what they were doing and there are times where you say ‘I have to trust this and trust them to do what they’re going to do’. When I got back to London, I was really, really happy with the record and I actually wrote the producers a very nice message that this was probably the best record we have ever made.”

The “defiant twin” that exists within Boy George is a consummate observer, always watching, listening, asking questions. Over time, he’s become less rigid in his black or white response, having found contentment within gray except “my gray area is covered in pink spots.” He’s writing with an entirely new palette within that spectrum. Each song holds bits of truth set free.

“I think songs are questions and I feel at this point in the game, they’re questions I’m not necessarily looking for answers to. When I put those songs out there, they could be interpreted and heard in the way that people want to hear them. And once you let a song go, it becomes the property of the listener. I pride myself as being in the world, I like being out there, speaking to people, watching what’s going on in the world. I’ve always got stuff to write about and I read a lot of books and watch a lot of great films. I’ve always got interesting reference points, but I use a lot of magic realism in my writing now. Things that are kind of out there and colorful inform the things that I write,” he says.

“I try not to write about obvious things any more. If I write about love, I try to write about it from a more Morrissey angle than a Boy George at 25. I’ve learned to understand that love is a sort of weird, inevitable, bound-to-crash spaceship so I always write from a sort of cynical but optimistic point of view. When I was 19, I was very matter of fact. You love me, or you hate me. I didn’t realize it was possible to do both.”

Boy George is less existential when he talks about sharing a bill with the B-52’s. He shares a dreamlike scenario that paints a scene straight from a Jon Waters film. “I was having my beehive done at the same hairdresser as one of the B-52s. I overheard her talking about Fred Schneider and I was like ‘hey kids, you ought to go on the road with us. What a hoot that would be!’ And we got up and did a little 60’s dance, had a cup of tea and sealed the deal,” he says with a typical Boy George flair before addressing the realities of forming a tour with other artists.

“Whenever you go out on tour, you know this band is around and that band is around. Obviously, you have to ask the other band if they want to work with you. You never know until you do it whether you’re going to have smiles backstage or people are going to be avoiding each other. It’s always fun when you go out on the road with other bands because half the time you’ve only met a few times on a TV show or in an airport and suddenly you’re on the road and sharing catering. I always say if you want to find out what people are like, move them into your house or go on tour with them.”

Boy George can trace his history with the B-52’s back to a London club before Culture Club existed. He was a young club kid and the B-52’s was a hot American new wave band getting attention with hits like “Rock Lobster”. “I remember when they first came to London what a big deal it was. They had “Rock Lobster” and that whole album out and I went to see them. This was before I got famous,” he recalls. “I remember running up to Kate [Pierson] outside the Electric Ballroom and I had my face painted green and she looked pretty horrified. I think I may have said ‘hi Kate from Planet Claire.’ I’ll never forget it.”

He won’t speculate whether any artist will show up in each other’s sets. He is leaving that up to chemistry, but he looks forward to performing alongside artists with staying power. “We like to watch the other bands sometimes you get ready early and get to check out what they’re doing on stage. It’s always great to watch other bands, especially bands that have been around for a while. You see how they work the crowd or what they do and what they don’t do. It’s always fascinating to see that.”

It’s impossible to consider any of the artists on the Life Tour without the word “nostalgia” getting tossed around. The B-52’s formed in Athens, GA in 1976 and spent much of the 80’s churning out favorites like “Rock Lobster,” “Roam,” “Loveshack” and “Planet Claire.” The Thompson Twins were part of the new wave of the Second British Invasion in 1977 and by the 80’s members Bailey, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway were most recognized for songs like “Hold Me Now” and “Lay Your Hands on Me.”

Culture Club comprised of Boy George, Mikey Craig, Jon Moss and Roy Hay burst onto the scene in 1981 and went on to become one of the most influential bands of that period, selling more than 50 million albums worldwide with such hits as “Karma Chameleon,” “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”, “I Tumble 4 You” and “Church of the Poison Mind.”

“It’s a luxury to have nostalgia. Too much nostalgia is not good for you, but a healthy dose of nostalgia is okay. Growing up as a kid, long before I made records, I loved things from the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s and 60’s and that’s never changed. Everything comes from somewhere. Without the 50’s there would be no 60’s and so on. I think it’s important to look back because a lot of great things have been created in the past and have huge significant value in terms of social change. You’re never going to get another Ziggy Stardust or another Beatles or Elvis,” says Boy George.

“So, I think it’s important to look back at things that shaped the world. When you see kids today singing classic songs, they’re not singing them in the context they were written or why they were written. If you look at “A Change is Gonna Come” from Sam Cooke or “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, the political and social climate was entirely different, and people made music for very different reasons. They had things to say and it’s not like that anymore, do you know what I mean? People write really well-crafted pop songs, but they don’t reveal much about the performer.”

While the “old George” was known to be fiery and unpredictable, “new George” is no longer tempted to push the same tired buttons. Temperaments within the band have simmered thanks in part to separate management – “we just let them argue for 20 percent,” says Boy George – and recording on separate continents gave everyone the space to do their best work without dissolving into chaos. “The arguments that we have now will be about music not about the tour bus or which hotel we’re staying in,” he says. “You want to get yourself heard but now we can present a passionate case without throwing chairs.”

About Liza Mitchell