Diversity and adversity often go hand in hand. In the case of England’s Culture Club, the two words have always come bundled together, even if the former is more descriptive of what the group represents, and the latter is something they seemingly love to create.
A product of the early-1980s New Wave explosion, singer “Boy” George O’Dowd and bassist Mikey Craig originally formed Culture Club in 1981 after Craig approached O’Dowd in a London nightclub about collaborating.
“I met George when he was DJ-ing at Planets [a famous London nightclub in Piccadilly],” Craig says. “I’d seen him prior to that singing, well, guesting for a band called Bow Wow Wow. I approached him, and I said, ‘Look, I think we should do something.’ He seemed to be in agreement with that, and things began from there.”
The band’s name came from the unique cross-section of British society the band represented. Few bands at the time boasted the group’s diversity, even being so close to the birth of punk and post-punk rock music movements in their home country.
“We are four very individual guys. ... You had George, who people, at first, were not really certain if he was a girl or a boy. You had myself, a black guy, you had [drummer] Jon [Moss], who is Jewish, and Roy [Hay, guitar player and token white hetero dude] as well. People looked at us and thought, ‘Wow. What an odd collection of people who somehow are working together,’” Craig says.
Relatively unheard of at the time, O’Dowd, whose “Boy George” persona became an international source of celebration and scrutiny, was openly homosexual. Many music fans, as well as the media, had no idea how to take his liberated approach to his sexuality. A huge personality, O’Dowd’s lifestyle and flamboyant look consistently overshadowed the immense singing talent he still possesses.
Drummer Moss, who was also romantically linked with O’Dowd during the early days of the band, was a product of the mid- to late-’70s punk scene, having played drums for the Damned and Adam and the Ants, among others, before joining Craig and O’Dowd in Culture Club.
“When punk came along ... the feeling [was] there was a place for me now. It wasn’t so much about what you can play, it was about just playing ... As a 17- or 18-year-old, you don’t want to be constricted to playing notes and time changes. You just want to go out there and let off some steam and have some energy. It was a perfect time for me,” says Moss, who even had an audition for The Clash at one point.
“Joe Strummer said to me, ‘No one leaves the Clash. You better put your nose to the grindstone.’ I said, ‘I’ll be fine, don’t worry, mate,’” remembers Moss.
Considering album sales alone, Moss was probably just fine, as Culture Club’s album sales have eclipsed the platinum (1 million records sold) mark multiple times. But he definitely appreciates the spark punk music provided the British music scene.
“The punk scene threw up people like George, who wouldn’t have been around or would have just been on the margins of the art scene. In the punk-rock days, if you said ‘fuck’ on television, people would go mad. They don’t give a shit now. Imagine two men kissing on television in 1978, forget it,” says Moss.
Craig saw himself as being on the edge of the punk scene, as he attended the same school as original Sex Pistols bass player Glen Matlock, but identified more with Jamaican music and a different sub-genre of British underground music.
“[Matlock] kind of turned me on to quite a few things here and there. I had already been playing bass, as I was about 14 or 15 years old. The Sex Pistols actually came to play at our school one lunch time. They never returned, by the way, because the headmaster had never heard anything like it in his life, and he never invited them back,” remembers Craig. “I was on the fringes of the whole punk thing through Glen. He introduced me to Vivienne Westwood’s shop [Let It Rock, which was also known as SEX and multiple other names over the years], and that’s where I could buy all the clothing.”
After guitar player Hay, who would later compose music for film and television, joined the band, Culture Club went on an incredibly successful five-year stint as one of the most popular and controversial bands in the world before initially breaking up in the summer of 1986. The on-again, off-again relationship drama between O’Dowd and Moss and O’Dowd’s rapidly escalating drug problems took a toll on Culture Club’s creativity; at the same time, the band was inspiring kids of diverse backgrounds across the world to come together and play music.
The staying power of the band’s influence is still apparent as Culture Club embarks on their first extensive world tour since 1999, and so far, the band has received good reviews and sold out shows. There is a new album in the can, Tribes, that the band has been playing songs from on the current tour, but neither Craig nor Moss was certain when it would be coming out.
“You’ll have to speak to George [O’Dowd] about that. George has a new manager now. He really wants to do the band, but he also wants to do his own thing. I don’t know what’s happened to the album, which is a shame, because it’s a great album. At the moment, I have to be honest, I don’t understand what’s going on with it. I don’t have the control I used to have,” says Moss with just a hint of frustration behind his supremely charming British accent.
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The lure of playing Culture Club music is still strong for both Craig and Moss, though, even if they aren’t always sure as to what’s happening with their latest record.
“We all love Culture Club. Whatever we think of each other, when we get on stage, it’s magic. It’s not easy to create that magic all the time, so that’s why we all do it,” shares Moss, who plays drums as often as possible, even if it is just jamming with friends at a local pub.
“I think there was always a feeling that we had a lot more to do, a lot more to tell, a lot more to say. There was always the feeling there was still a good album in us that we needed to do. It’s been unfinished business that now we can sort of put to bed our curiosity. Having recorded this album, we’ve seen that we were right. There are some great tracks on Tribes,” Craig says.
Culture Club is scheduled to play Celebrity Theatre on Tuesday, August 23.