In The Quantity Ones, I’m reviewing each single #1 single within the historical past of the Billboard Scorching 100, beginning with the chart’s starting, in 1958, and dealing my manner up into the current.
“I’m a person who doesn’t know how you can promote a contradiction,” Boy George sang. Au contraire. On the early-’80s pop panorama, there may need been no one higher at promoting contradictions.
When American listeners have been solely simply transferring past the nameless studio-rock of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Boy George should’ve seemed like a mirage, a purring androgyne flirt who used the brand-new automobile of MTV to current a persona that was defiant in its femininity. After I was in center college within the early ’90s, folks have been nonetheless making homophobic Boy George jokes, though his band Tradition Membership had light into pop’s previous. However within the early ’80s, Tradition Membership turned ingrained systemic homophobia in opposition to itself, placing ahead a picture and a sound that was so proudly completely different that individuals had to concentrate.
One other contradiction: Whereas the members of Tradition Membership all got here from London’s punk and new wave scenes, they made tender crushed-velvet white soul that was sonically unchallenging sufficient to do nicely on American grownup up to date radio, not precisely a welcoming setting for gender-bending iconoclasts. Their softness may’ve been radical, nevertheless it additionally helped make them stars.
Tradition Membership actually offered these contradictions, too. For a number of years, Tradition Membership weren’t merely a novelty; they have been a pop juggernaut. Between 1982 and 1984, Tradition Membership launched three platinum albums and landed six singles within the Billboard high 10. I don’t even particularly like Tradition Membership’s music, however their potential to dominate in a time of rampant homophobia is fairly superb, and it speaks to Boy George’s singular charisma.
George Alan O’Dowd had been born right into a working-class Irish Catholic household in Kent. (The #1 single within the US when George was born: Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man.”) George’s father was abusive, and he additionally needed to take care of rising up homosexual in a profoundly unfriendly setting. However he discovered escape within the New Romantic world of the early ’80s, dancing at golf equipment like London’s Blitz.
One evening at Blitz, the previous Intercourse Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren noticed George and invited him to sing with Bow Wow Wow, the band McLaren was managing on the time. (Within the US, Bow Wow Wow’s highest-charting single is their 1982 cowl of “I Need Sweet,” a Strangeloves music that had gone to #11 in 1965. Bow Wow Wow’s model peaked at #62.) George, utilizing the stage title Lieutenant Lash, didn’t final lengthy in Bow Wow Wow. As an alternative, he left to start out his personal band, enlisting Bow Wow Wow bassist Mikey Craig. Additionally they signed on guitarist Roy Hay, a former hairdresser, and drummer Jon Moss, who’d already performed within the Stranglers, the Damned, and Adam And The Ants. For a minute, the brand new band going to name itself Intercourse Gang Youngsters. They went with Tradition Membership as a substitute.
Tradition Membership broke via large with their 1982 single “Do You Actually Need To Damage Me?,” a sweetly delicate lite-reggae bounce that turned a world smash. “Do You Actually Need To Damage Me?” went to #1 in 9 international locations, together with the UK, and it peaked at #2 within the US. (It’s an 8.) Tradition Membership’s subsequent single, “Time (Clock Of The Coronary heart),” additionally peaked at #2. (That one is a 6.) Tradition Membership’s timing was good. They’d arrived simply as MTV was beginning to take over, and Boy George was the type of telegenic determine that the community wanted. By the point they launched their sophomore album Color By Numbers in October 1983, Tradition Membership have been already stars.
Tradition Membership didn’t sound like different new wave teams. They used synths, however they didn’t use them for stark, confrontational functions. (The mere existence of Boy George was already confrontational sufficient.) Musically, Tradition Membership have been most likely nearer to Lionel Richie than to the Human League. The group made a lush, reassuring form of white soul, sometimes sprinkled with comfortable reggae or post-disco dance-pop accents. Boy George sang as very similar to Smokey Robinson as he might, taking pictures for that very same comfortable precision and that very same sense of energy via vulnerability. He was and is a far clumsier singer than Robinson, however he had an identical present of hiding deep disappointment in plain sight, translating it into upbeat and down-the-middle pop songs.
“Karma Chameleon,” like quite a lot of Tradition Membership songs, is a disguised lament concerning the tempestuous relationship between Boy George and his bandmate Jon Moss. On the time, George wasn’t absolutely out of the closet — he claimed to be bisexual — and he stored it secret that he and Moss have been a pair. George instructed The Los Angeles Occasions that “Karma Chameleon” was “about this horrible concern of alienation that individuals have, the concern of standing up for one factor.” Possibly. Nevertheless it’s additionally fairly clearly about an sad couple with a fucked-up stability of energy: “After we cling, our love is powerful/ While you go, you’re gone perpetually/ You string alongside, you string alongside.”
There’s a deep ache in “Karma Chameleon”: “Loving can be simple in case your colours have been like my goals/ Pink, gold and inexperienced.” George pleads for mutual help within the face of a hostile world: “On a regular basis is like survival/ You’re my lover, not my rival.” However he sings it with a breezy form of appeal, twisting its hook right into a near-gibberish chorus. It feels like a simple, carefree music — an impression solely helped alongside by the video, a live-action cartoon that takes place in a ridiculous alternate-reality multi-cultural model of Nineteenth-century Mississippi, the place Tradition Membership catch a con man on a riverboat on line casino and throw him overboard. (Director Peter Sinclair filmed the video on the Thames, not the Mississippi.)
The members of Tradition Membership all shared songwriting credit score on “Karma Chameleon,” however George says that he wrote it whereas on trip in Egypt. George additionally claims that the remainder of the band thought the music was too nation when he performed it for them. I don’t hear “Karma Chameleon” as a rustic music in any respect, regardless of the fixed, aggravating harmonica-tootles of session participant and Merseybeat veteran Judd Lander. As an alternative, “Karma Chameleon” feels like solely probably the most plastic model of uptempo American soul.
There’s no less than an opportunity that “Karma Chameleon” is a plastic model of a selected uptempo American soul music: “Useful Man,” a Jimmy Jones single that peaked at #2 in 1960. (“Useful Man” is a 5.) Boy George’s “karma-karma-karma” bit sounds a complete lot like Jones’ “come-ah come-ah come-ah,” and the music swings alongside at an identical tempo. Jones and “Useful Man” co-writer Otis Blackwell sued Tradition Membership, and the group settled. However Boy George has mentioned that he didn’t deliberately steal something from “Useful Man” and that Tradition Membership “gave them 10 pence and an apple.”
“Karma Chameleon” shares an issue with a complete lot of British takes on R&B: It’s skinny and clumsy and awkward. The beat is brittle and funkless, and there’s a sticky sheen on the entire thing that I’ve by no means been capable of get previous. The backing vocals sound like they’re doing lite-rock station identification. Boy George has sufficient charisma to maintain the music afloat, however solely barely. I’ve by no means been capable of hear “Karma Chameleon” as a determined plea for romantic reciprocity or as a pleasant piece of ’80s kitsch. It’s all the time simply been a slight irritant for me. Blame producer Steve Levine, I suppose.
“Karma Chameleon” hit #1 in much more international locations than “Do You Actually Need To Damage Me?” had carried out, and it was the UK’s biggest-selling single of 1983. Within the US, “Karma Chameleon” helped push Color By Numbers to quadruple platinum gross sales, and Tradition Membership received the Finest New Artist Grammy in 1984. Accepting the award by way of satellite tv for pc, Boy George mentioned, “America, you’ve acquired style, model, and you already know a superb drag queen once you see one.”
However Tradition Membership solely scored yet one more top-10 single within the US: The follow-up single “Miss Me Blind,” which peaked at #5 later in 1984. (It’s a 6.) The group’s later data offered much less and fewer. Boy George and Jon Moss cut up up, and George tumbled into heroin dependancy. In 1986, the group ended.
Boy George went on to a solo profession, and he loved a little bit of a resurgence in 1992, when his theme for the movie The Crying Sport peaked at #15. He additionally messed round with dance music and ultimately discovered a gradual profession as a DJ. He collaborated with a reasonably superb vary of individuals, together with Afrika Bambaataa, Faithless, and Antony And The Johnsons, in addition to with PM Daybreak and Mark Ronson, two artists that can ultimately seem on this column. Boy George additionally did a number of months in jail in 2008 for handcuffing a Norwegian male escort to a wall and beating him up with a series.
Tradition Membership have reunited a number of occasions over time, although by no means with out drama. In 2006, as an illustration, the opposite members of the group tried to stage a Tradition Membership tour with a special singer; Boy George was not amused. There have been not-very-successful reunion albums in 1999 and 2018, and Jon Moss lately filed a lawsuit in opposition to the remainder of the group. In any case that, it’s simple sufficient to neglect what Tradition Membership have been capable of accomplish at their peak. However they actually did have a run.
BONUS BEATS: Right here’s the bugged-out digital-reggae cowl of “Karma Chameleon” that dancehall pioneer Wayne Smith launched in 1983:
And right here’s the dancehall model of “Karma Chameleon” that Wayne Marvel launched in 1992:
(Wayne Marvel’s highest-charting single, 2003’s “No Letting Go,” peaked at #11.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Tradition Membership guested on a reasonably hilarious 1986 episode of The A-Staff; right here’s the scene the place they play “Karma Chameleon” in a rowdy cowboy bar:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Right here’s Lil Wayne singing a little bit of “Karma Chameleon” on his 2005 mixtape observe “Do It”:
(Lil Wayne will ultimately seem on this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Right here’s the bit from 2006’s Scary Film 4 the place a large iPod rises up out of the road and briefly performs “Karma Chameleon” earlier than turning right into a murderous robotic:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Right here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ 2014 snot-punk cowl of “Karma Chameleon”: