Boy George interview
Boy George interview (photo by Dean Stockings)

In this Boy George interview, the Culture Club singer reflects on his recent 60th birthday when he released 60 new songs to mark the occasion as his “creative Diwali festival”. More than ever before, George’s new decade sees one of pop’s greatest pioneers at ease with both his past and future. With a new biopic on the way, is the singer – whisper it – comfortable? “If I am, it’s a fight,” he tells us… 

Boy George has lived in the same house in North London ever since his first serious pop star royalties arrived. Unfortunately for both George, and a nosy Classic Pop reporter hoping for a glimpse of where the singer has found refuge for decades, for our Zoom call to celebrate the singer’s 60th birthday, Boy George is not at home.

“I started renovating my house a long time before the pandemic,” he explains. “If I’d known then that I’d have a year of not working, I might not have started getting it done up. The same as all housing programmes on TV, the work has gone over budget and, of course, it’s slowed down with the pandemic. But, in terms of suffering, I’m very privileged. I don’t need more stuff in my life. Having more stuff doesn’t make you superior, although growing up in a two-up two-down house as a kid does mean that I want everything to be bigger. What all that means is, you find me in an undisclosed location in Camden.”

Boy George interview

We might not be at George’s home, but he’s still personalised the lounge view – as well as several candle diffusers, there are half-a-dozen of George’s small paintings behind him, cartoons that recall New York artist Keith Haring’s work in their bold lines and caricatures.

A drawing of a stiletto is especially glorious. Alongside his art, George has been phenomenally busy making music in lockdown, releasing 60 new songs to celebrate his birthday on 14 June. Not bad for someone who says of his initial mood during lockdown: “I was reluctant to do anything. I was distracted and unable to concentrate.”

George’s focus was helped by going back into therapy and taking acting lessons. He’s quick to stress he’s not about to return to acting, having played outrageous club owner Leigh Bowery in his own musical Taboo in 2002. Instead, George is working with RADA acting coach Charlie Walker-Wise to hone his stagecraft.

He’s told Classic Pop before how anxious he felt on stage throughout Culture Club’s rise; a worry that returned during the band’s tour for their comeback album Life.

“I started feeling out of sorts when we played CarFest two years ago,” George recalls. “It made me want to work on self-empowerment and strengthening my stage presence. Acting lessons have really suited me. When I first worked with Charlie, I told him how much I like being in control. Charlie told me that was a disaster, the worst place I could be was on stage. He’s right. I’ve learned that what’s terrible is having a tension where I’m just….clenched.”

He laughs loud and long, something Boy George does a lot. It’s a delight to experience, as George laughs with his whole body. 

Boy George interview

Even in “civvies” – his term for not having the full Boy George slap on – George looks great: black T-shirt, neat beard, grey bandana, a general look of conspiratorial mischief.

The laugh helps, as does the realisation that, at 60, Boy George is doing whatever the hell he wants: not least offering 60 new songs with no regular release pattern just because, well, how better to celebrate your birthday? “I don’t think about my age,” George insists. 

“Being 60 isn’t an achievement, it’s just what happens if you manage not to die. It’s random. How I choose to celebrate 60 is up to me, so I thought, ‘I’ll drop a bunch of music.’”

As George writes six or seven songs a week, creating 60 new tunes wasn’t as much effort as it would be for some songwriters. It’s also a pointed rebuke to potential record companies who want to realign Boy George’s career in a traditional way.

“People keep insisting I should make a covers album, which is just desperate,” he sighs, eyes rolling to the heavens. “There’s nothing wrong with covers – I do them all the time, and Ken Boothe’s Everything I Own got me to No.1. But I’m a writer. That’s what I do. If I was a carpenter, people wouldn’t tell me not to make a table. So, if the best offer I get is a covers album, I say, ‘No thank you, darling. I’m quite capable of writing songs.’”

Boy George interview

Another full-body laugh follows, but Boy George has very little time for the traditional way of doing things.

“All those old rules are done,” he emphasises. “I’ve known since I started DJing again in the rave scene in 1987 that the old rules don’t apply. The great thing about the music business is that nobody knows anything. It’s run by self-appointed geniuses who’ve never written a lyric or been on tour, yet I’m the one who’s constantly being told, ‘You’re wrong.’ Really? I’m 60. I’ve learned some shit, trust me on this.” 

As well as the 60 new songs, George has joined the likes of Janet Jackson and Kings Of Leon in releasing art and music as cryptocurrency-style NFTs. Then there’s new solo album Cool Karaoke Volume 1 on YouTube, its 13 vibrant and infectious songs joined together as a continuous 52-minute “video” on the channel. George is as hungry to experiment now as he was when running the cloakroom at the Blitz club in 1980.

“I’m surprised more people aren’t doing fun things,” he notes. “Everyone seems to be staying in parameters, so I tell people I work with, ‘Being safe isn’t really how I got here.’ Nobody wanted to sign Culture Club, after all. I feel like that Groucho Marx song – ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it.’ I don’t like being told what to do, as my entire existence has been a battle against authority.” 

Boy George interview
Boy George interview

It’s a sentiment that’s hard to dispute. One of George’s catchiest new songs, glam stomper Lift Up Your Head, was written for a campaign to improve LGBTQ+ rights in Ghana. How does George feel about current sexuality rights in the UK? Has it got any easier for young people than when he was growing up in 1970s Woolwich?

“I can only speak for myself,” he cautions. “I think how you’re treated is locational and from what your family tell you about yourself. Gay people largely hear about what they are through insults in the playground, or what their family say in seeing someone like me on TV.”

The Boy born George O’Dowd never doubted his own sexuality, explaining: “I always felt I was meant to be gay. I’ve never thought: ‘There’s been a terrible mistake, I need to be cured of being gay.’ Even aged six, I knew this is what I’m meant to be. I remember thinking at that age: ‘What I’m feeling is OK, but I’d better keep it quiet.’ I heard, ‘You’re a poof’ and, ‘You’re a girl’ a lot as a kid, but it didn’t change anything.”

Boy George interview

Of course, one of George’s earliest lovers was Jon Moss, Culture Club’s drummer, who inspired Do You Really Want To Hurt Me. Jon was initially part of the band’s comeback and plays on Life, but is taking Culture Club to court after leaving in 2019. George seems puzzled at his ex’s decision, but speaks fondly of his former bandmate, believing it won’t be their last time together on stage.

“I’d like to think we’ll get through this,” says George. “I’m a big believer in fixing stuff and that there’s no value in carrying on a feud. Who does that actually help? I’ve tried offering Jon an olive branch to sort this out, and we spoke very early on in lockdown. When I rang Jon, I heard one of his kids say: ‘What does he want?’, making it clear I’m persona non grata. That’s a shame, but Jon was very pleasant on the phone.

“I don’t really understand what Jon wants from this process, as he has far more to benefit from being part of Culture Club than being an adversary. But he wants his day in court and has chosen the legal route.” A theatrical sigh. “I’ll have to wear a veil in court. Maybe I’ll faint in the dock.”

Boy George interview

George is the first to admit he wouldn’t have been so sanguine about a courtroom battle during Culture Club’s commercial peak, joking: “I don’t talk about other musicians now unless I really love them. I can’t be as critical as I was in the 80s – I was just rude about everybody then.” 

He views early Boy George as almost a different person, having been surprised when a friend recently sent him a link to an 80s interview he did on BBC1’s Wogan chat show. “I watched it and thought: ‘Who is that woman?’” he says, another laugh emerging. “I was putting on this ridiculous voice, trying to appear like I was a concerned mother for everyone around me, saying: ‘People rely on me.’ I don’t know who that person is, but it made me laugh so much.” 

Boy George interview

As distant as he is from 80s Boy George, the current incarnation accepts some of the mistakes he made during his ascendancy. It would be easy to forgive George for snapping during the cringeworthy moment when the BRIT Awards panel chose to mark Culture Club’s first BRIT trophy in 1984 by having Frankie Howerd present it in an, at best, heavy-handed attempt at camp humour.

At 37 years’ remove, George is more horrified at his own behaviour than that of the show’s organisers.

“I’m not sure the BRITs intended anything by it,” he shrugs. “Even if they were teasing me, so what? How I behaved was so wrong. I was a massive fan of Frankie and I’m not proud of how I responded to him. It was a real mistake on my part, and I’m so pleased I had the opportunity to make it up to him.” 

Boy George interview

Months later, the pair met again when the comedian was doing a voiceover in a studio next to where Culture Club were recording.

“Frankie was just fabulous about the whole thing,” beams George. “He was full-on Frankie Howerd, going, ‘Ooh! You naughty thing!’ And that was it, end of story. During that time, I was often distracted by how other people wanted to see me. I was the same when I met Frank Sinatra. I was invited to meet him at his gig, and I took a drag queen with me. That was ridiculous of me – I should have been more upstanding.

“I quite like admitting those mistakes now. They weren’t just with people. I went to the Grand Canyon and completely ignored it. That’s where my head was at the time. I have more of a reverence for things now.”

That reverence has partly been instilled by George’s manager, Paul “PK” Kemsley, who helped his charge work out how best to combine his forward-thinking instincts with a renewed respect for Culture Club’s heyday. The band tour stately homes this summer, and George considers: “Until I met PK, I was a ‘Who cares about the past? Sod the 80s’ artist. PK taught me it’s massively important. I’ve realised it’s how I choose to react to situations that’s important, not that people think this or that of me.

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“There were chunks of my career where I was distracted by the job of being Boy George. Being Boy George is what keeps a roof over my head. It’s about finding the sweet spot between the gig of being Boy George and the love of being an artist. The sweet compromise, that’s what I’m looking for.”

Being a coach on The Voice for four years in the UK and Australia was no compromise, he insists.

“That was a fantastic gig, I loved every second of it,” he breezes. “There’s nothing to complain about there. I got some great duets out of it, and I’m going to release an album by one of the show’s singers, Vangelis Polydorou. What annoys me is when I get called a celebrity. What does that word even mean? I don’t just turn up at parties with a handbag – I do stuff.”

Presumably, Boy George turns down a lot of shows with the word “Celebrity” in the title? “Oh yeah! But I’m not a snob about it, because I watch those shows. Some of it washes over me, some of it offends me and mostly what I realise is that, a lot of the time, it’s emotionally and creatively skimming the surface. Whereas songwriting is about provoking an emotion and making people feel something.”

Boy George interview

George’s songwriting has been honed since Karma Chameleon. He doesn’t resent its success but, like the rest of Culture Club, he doesn’t exactly view it as their greatest song.

“Some greatness is universal,” he accepts. “There’s something wrong with you if you don’t like reggae or David Bowie. But I’ve come to realise it doesn’t really matter how good what you do is: that only matters to you. Mostly, the difference between a hit and a non-hit is repetition: repeating something in the song, and the song then getting repeatedly played. Now, I try to structure my songs like a painting, by putting texture and shine in, and by leaving things out.

“In the 80s, there was no space in my songs. It was all very crammed. If a song needs to be a relentless chorus, like Lift Up Your Head, that’s fine. But it can be nice to create drama with a beautiful backing vocal.

“The problem is, if I hear a song that I don’t like often enough, I’ll get converted. That’s how it was with Karma Chameleon. Even if you didn’t listen to the radio, you’d hear it everywhere. That still goes on with Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber songs.”

George believes his music has also improved by being more honest about his influences. He cites Netflix documentary The Creative Brain as changing how he views his creativity, reasoning: “Whenever people had told me before: ‘I watched this and it changed my life!’, I’d always say: ‘Oh, don’t talk piss.’ But seeing that film three years ago really did make me rethink everything I thought about originality. I realise we’re all a composite of what we love, which in my case is Elizabeth Taylor, David Bowie, Dusty Springfield, punk, Carmen Miranda, reggae and Bob Dylan.

“In the old days, I’d walk away if I didn’t finish a song straight away. I’d think it wasn’t worth my time. Now, I realise the great trick to get to a story in a song is to think about how Kate Bush or Steve Harley or Bryan Ferry would approach it. I wouldn’t have been so open about those influences before but, if you start by copying the caricature of Bryan Ferry, that’s exactly what you do when you’re 16 and singing in the mirror. And isn’t fame really just a continuation of that?” 

Boy George interview

One of Boy George’s primary frustrations about the music industry is how ageist the business is, especially at a time when older artists like Tom Jones often outsell younger stars.

“When you’ve been successful, people try to hold you back,” is George’s summation. “Once you’ve been around for long enough in rock and roll, you get told you’ve got nothing left to say. I’d argue that people start trying to write you off just as you start getting interesting. Look at Alison Moyet – her last two albums, The Minutes and Other, are some of her best work. At a certain point, doors get shut on artists, especially on the radio. It feels like you have to be grateful to them if they then play your song.”

As much as George has tried counteracting industry ageism by experimenting with new ways of releasing music, he’s concerned at the internet helping to make culture more staid, with artists afraid to speak out for fear of getting cancelled.

“The internet has given us great communication, but it’s also made us behave more, because we’re constantly being watched,” he reasons. “Also, people no longer have to work so hard to get attention and I’m not sure about that. Everyone feels they’re on an even keel where fame is concerned, because the internet means everyone has their own TV show, where you can build your own brand.

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“It’s just a mad time for culture, as if someone has pressed a giant Pause button. Attention to detail is key in songs, but we don’t look at ourselves enough from an emotional perspective. Life is so fast now, as the internet means everything is over before it starts. Nothing, no scenes, get to incubate anymore. That’s hard, because sometimes you need to sit with what you do and think about it.”

Does George miss the time when scenes like punk, rave and New Romantic were allowed to grow out of the spotlight?

“I don’t miss anything,” he counters, wary of sounding like he’s railing against modern music: he’s a huge fan of FKA Twigs and electronica musician Planningtorock. “I’m very much a ‘now’ person. What grates is being told to do things in an old-fashioned way. I’ve said for over 20 years that the 80s are over. But I’m the only person who’s realised it!”

The 80s might be over, but they’ll be celebrated in a new Boy George biopic written and directed by Sacha Gervasi, the filmmaker who previously helmed Hitchcock and My Dinner With Hervé. Daniel Mays is rumoured to be playing George’s father, but the singer himself insists he has no idea about casting.

“I just hope they get someone extremely handsome and skinny to play me,” he grins. “Other than that, I really don’t care.” 

Boy George interview

George hopes the film will match the success of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, admitting: “I wasn’t expecting to like either of those films. To start with, I couldn’t get my head around the idea of anyone else singing Elton’s
songs and thought Rocketman would be a disaster. I was very ‘Bring back Elton!’ But what they did is clever, it works. Sacha wouldn’t show me his script, but he has read it to me. Having my life read back to me? My God, that was something.”

Despite George’s frustrations with music business conservatism, at 60 is he finally – whisper it – comfortable? It’s about the only time in our 80-minute chat that he looks perplexed.

“Comfortable?” he considers, chewing the word over as if it’s a new type of fruit. “If I am, I’ve had to fight for it.” He’s resolutely single – “But I’m not lonely, so please don’t worry about me” – and is always cautious of believing he’s got life sorted.

“I thought I’ve had clarity before,” he admits. “When I released Bow Down Mister in the 90s, I thought, ‘Aha, I’ve got the elixir of truth!’ Then a thunder crash came out of nowhere and put paid to that idea. So, careful what you wish for. But I have got a different perspective now. There’s nothing worse than a disappointed pop star, and I’m not disappointed. I’ve got gratitude for what I do. I’m creative, optimistic, belligerent….” Then arrives Boy George’s biggest laugh of all. “I’m Boy George, darling.” 

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