Andrew Cowen talks to Boy George about life beyond the mainstream and the many temptations available to musicians.
Boy George. He’s a national treasure. It was 25 years ago he became an overnight star with Culture Club, mixing glam, soul, reggae, pop and an androgyny never before seen in the mainstream.
David Bowie and Marc Bolan may have been the prettiest stars, but they were always blokes beneath the lipstick, glitter and tat.
The former George O’Dowd was different. When he first appeared on Top Of The Pops, you genuinely couldn’t tell if he was a boy or a girl.
And yet, rather than causing an outrage, the nation took Boy George to their heart.
He was charismatic, funny, honest and genuinely talented. Kids loved his doll-like make-up and clothes, teens could relate to his stylish rebellion while adults saw him as an innocent who would “rather have a cup of tea than sex.”
Initially part of the New Romantic movement, a narcissistic bunch hooked on icy electronic pop and dubious clothes and make-up, it didn’t take long for Culture Club to break into the mainstream.
Unlike everyone else in that same club, George had the songs and the voice to lift him straight into the premier league.
Karma Chameleon, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? And Time (Clock Of The Heart) came in swift succession, each one setting radios ablaze. I can think of no finer start by a band. Each of these singles is a masterpiece.
George was seemingly unstoppable.
He even matched the Beatles by holding down the top three positions in the Billboard charts.
The London smart kid with Irish roots and temperament was the most recognisable face on the planet for a while. He was one of the two lead singers on the Live Aid charity single.
Things went wrong, as they always do in pop, after a rather uninspired second album and the single The War Song (“War is stupid and people are stupid”) saw George getting his first taste of ridicule.
It was also around this time he had his first taste of heroin and he became an addict.
Suddenly, friends were dying around him, in the case of keyboard player Michael Rudetski, actually in George’s home.
The Sun, which had earlier uneasily embraced George (he is gay, after all), exposed his disgrace and Culture Club folded.
It’s a similar story to that of Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty today and George recognises the symptoms. However, he’s unable to help.
“I’ve been there and it’s messy and chaotic,” he tells me.
“No matter what people say, there’s only you can sort it out. I look at Amy Winehouse and think ‘you have so much going for yourself. Sort your life out.’ There are so many temptations in this business.
“We get paid a fortune for doing what we love, it’s a life that few will ever experience.
“The second verse of my new single is about Amy. I saw her just a couple of weeks ago and thought ‘God, what are you doing? She looked awful.’
“All the things that make her great are the same things that will destroy her. Yet she has so much to live for.
“It’s easy to give advice, it’s harder to listen to it.
“When I was at my worst, all the people who I loved were all saying the same thing, trying to help me, but I had to make the decision to stop myself.”
Knocking the pop on the head, post-heroin George bulked out, dropped the ringlets and androgyny and embraced rave culture full-on.
He became a successful DJ, ran a record label and seemed at peace. Despite kicking heroin, he continued to drink and take cocaine, and cultivated a rather bitchy personality, waging war on former friends, lovers and other pop stars.
An autobiography took the kiss and tell principle to a new low and people suddenly realised that maybe a cup of tea with George was not such a good idea.
Yet George could still write a classic pop song such as Bow Down Mister in 1991 and Why Go, a collaboration with Faithless, showed the blue-eyed soul singer at the top of his game.
If George has been absent from the charts and the radio for 15 years, he’s been beavering away on the underground scene earning the respect of his peers.
“There is life beyond the mainstream,” he says.
His new single, an excellent piece of enigmatic pop called Yes We Can, is a massive YouTube hit, although the song’s only getting a digital release in a week’s time.
“What’s happened over the last few years is that the power has been placed back in the hands of the artist.
“The old music industry is dead and radio is next. People just get their music from other channels now.
“I haven’t been on the radio for 15 years, yet people still know my music.
“Do you remember the 70s?” he asks me.
“That was so anarchic. You’d watch Top Of The Pops and there was such a range of stuff on there. Pop, punk, reggae, soul and all these other weird little singles.”
Boy George, 47 now, knows how to point the finger.
“It’s that Simon Cowell,” he says.
“Who made him the headmaster? I wouldn’t have had a career if it had been up to him.
“Can you imagine Bowie auditioning for the X Factor in his Ziggy gear? It would be a case of Simon saying: ‘Nice songs dear, but go away and change that costume.’”
George has just started out on a tour that sees him playing 28 gigs in 30 days in all corners of the British Isles. He pitches up at the Alexandra Theatre on October 11.
He’ll be playing hits from across his career and admits that he still loves singing Karma Chameleon.
It’s quite a gruelling tour, I suggest.
“It’s going to be great, I love having a packed schedule, if you have days off you lose momentum.
“The band’s great, we all get along well, which is essential when you’re couped up for a month in a bus.
“For me, it’s good to have the structure and touring the UK is always a fun experience. We’re all in it together.”
The single, Yes We Can, samples a speech from Barack Obama but it’s not a flag-waving exercise.
“It’s actually one of George’s more personal songs in which he describes his idea of heaven, surrounded by strong, usually gay and often dead, singers from down the years.
The video on YouTube makes explicit what the words only hint at. It’s also got a cracking chorus.
“There are several gay suffragettes that remain iconic for me. They were ahead of their time and never made it in the mainstream. The song is for people like Divine and Klaus Nomi who are no longer with us, but they’re in my heaven.”
The Obama hook refers to self-determination and George greatly admires him.
“It sometimes feels that there’s a greater will for him to be president here than in the States. He’s so much greater than the alternative.
“Mind you, I’m not falling for Cameron,” he says with that famous chuckle.
“I will always vote Labour. I feel sorry for Gordon Brown as he’s getting the blame for the current credit crunch and financial turmoil.
“It’s everybody’s fault. We’re all greedy and were happy to take advantage during the good times.
“Brown’s message is optimistic, he’s intelligent and calm. I trust him.
“We have such short memories. People forget how bad life was under the Tories.
“In politics, just like pop, you get what you deserve.”
* Boy George plays the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, on October 11. Box Office: 0844 847 2388
We have ten copies of George’s single Yes We Can to give away. These are an instant collector’s item, featuring several mixes and will never be available in the shops as the song will only be available for download. To win one, send an email with your address to email@example.com with the subject “boy george’. We’ll pop one in an envelope to the first ten entries received.