Boy George at home: 50-up but when will he stop pouting?
❚ ON TUESDAY JUNE 14 George O’Dowd celebrates his 50th birthday with a few select friends at the Vauxhall nightspot, The Lightbox. Yesterday an interview in the Daily Mail reunited him with Spencer Bright, the co-writer of his 1995 autobiography Take It Like A Man, which proved more cringingly honest and fuller of nasty settlings of scores than any popstar in their right mind should attempt. For that reason it was — and remains — a compulsively readable milestone in the endurance course that is Boy George’s life.
In recent years, interviews have been marred by self-serving psychobabble and improbable mysticism, but yesterday’s talk with Spencer Bright finds George momentarily on a more even keel. Finally, finally, Spencer elicits an astonishing confession from him: “Now, I can actually say that I do have lots of regrets.”
George had always been among the more highly visible of London’s style-setting Blitz Kids. By the mid-80s he had become one of the biggest popstars of the decade and his “blue-eyed reggae” band Culture Club was among Britain’s half-dozen New Romantic supergroups dominating world pop charts during the second British invasion of the US. Culture Club’s first two singles Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? and Karma Chameleon reached No 1 in several countries during 1982–83, and the band won a Grammy Award in 1984.
After four albums, songwriting had made George a millionaire several times over but he had also fallen prey to heavy drugs and at the age of 25 his band dumped him. He began squandering his life away, as outlined in Ex-jailbird George here at Shapersofthe80s, and fully documented at Wikipedia. A much sanitised account of his teen years was broadcast last year as the TV drama Worried About The Boy, after which ex-Blitz Kids gave their verdicts at Shapersofthe80s.
“ At one point it didn’t seem as if Boy George would make it much past his 25th birthday. Yet here he is, about to celebrate his 50th next Tuesday, and the transformation from the boy popstar to man seems astonishing. No one could be more pleased than me. George and I have a long history, from the days when, as a newspaper reporter, I used to follow him on the club and music scenes. In the early 1990s I helped him write his autobiography Take It Like A Man. We’ve been through a lot together. The book took four-and-a-half years, with much shouting and screaming, mostly from him at me, and moments where he’d crack me up so much I could hardly stand up. ”
GEORGE IS DESCRIBED AS A SOUGHT-AFTER DJ, PRODUCER, SONGWRITER AND PERFORMER:
“ People know me recently for lots of drama. For being arrested and going to prison. I’ve got my work cut out to remind them what I actually do. ”
The Mail interview airs various optimistic hopes which, for somebody with George’s track record, are a hostage to fortune. After claiming to have kicked many of his vices, we’re told he gave up smoking cigarettes six weeks ago — but ask any smoker how many times that gets said in a lifetime! “There are hopes of soon working with top producer Mark Ronson on a record with a reunited Culture Club, and an arena world tour next year.” But no mention of how his criminal records will bar entry into a significant number of countries.
“ I’ve never been a bad person and always had quite good morals. I cherish the moderate life now: I don’t want drama or complication. ”
➢ George performs with other 80s stars in the 2011 Here And Now summer tour from June 17. The single Sunshine Into My Life by Funkysober featuring Sharlene Hector, written and produced by Boy George, is out now on his own label, VG Records
OK boys and girls, fasten your seat belts. This Sunday sees another Boy George media event… and it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. The Beeb has turned the pop star’s teens ’n’ twenties into a TV bio-drama titled Worried About the Boy (BBC2, 9pm Sunday May 16). We get 90 minutes of foot-stamping, chair-throwing, cry-baby tantrums over his self-confessed “dysfunctional romances”, all of which were documented in his eye-wateringly frank 1995 autobiography Take It Like a Man, which has inevitably inspired Tony Basgallop’s script . . .
Culture Club IRL: Roy Hay, Boy George, Jon Moss and Mikey Craig in 1982
◼ NOBODY, NEITHER FRIEND NOR VIEWER, ESCAPES from Worried About the Boy without their heart and mind being put through the kitchen blender, though this biographical TV drama has been heavily sugared to make it palatable even for BBC2 audiences. Amusing acto-r-r-r chappies play George and his courtiers and, as a result of advertising for lookalikes to flesh out the cast – some lucky extra even plays The Hand of David Bowie – we see every one of you too who came within a gnat’s whisker of the Blitz Club in 1980. Three decades may have added a few pounds to those skinny Blitz Kids preserved in your Facebook albums, but nobody forgets how this London club proved to be the nightlife crucible where the decade’s new pop scene was forged, and where George was almost the last among the dozens there who put bands together.
Lookalike call: “You will be paid”
In this Red Production for the BBC we see Mathew (Gavin & Stacey) Horne playing Culture Club drummer Jon Moss, Marc Warren from Hustle playing Blitz host Steve Strange like some Cruella de Vil (George likens him to Caligula), but the one who’ll steal all the Bafta awards is Royston Vasey’s Mark Gatiss as a dead-ringer for Malcolm McLaren. Gifted. A far-too-pretty newcomer called Douglas Booth plays George himself – but then G. O’Dowd is down in the credits as a programme consultant, so there’s the prettiness explained. As Mathew Horne told GMTV: “George helped out by providing clothes and [coughs] rectifying any inaccuracies.”
We enjoy plenty of comedic moments, yet the crucial line is delivered wearily by Jon Moss: “You’re a needy bastard, aren’t you!” The heroes in the sentimental plotline – petulant boy can’t get his life into gear – are not only his long-suffering boyfriend and colleague in the band, Jon, but as depicted onscreen George’s infinitely patient Dad, Jerry O’Dowd.
The early scenes offer a visual Who’s Who of the New Romantics and the director jollies things along with a comic-strip approach, using captioned freeze-frames to make sure we can tick off the celebs from 30 years ago. The essential dinginess of Covent Garden’s infamous Blitz Club, with its ambience of a steam-age railway station buffet, has been captured in Salford’s Racecourse Hotel in Greater Manchester. For anybody who lived through the real thing, this recreation of the 80s and the sheer electricity of the Blitz itself look hyper-realistic onscreen in HD, yet much of it feels somehow only half-realised, and seriously short on pizazz. “Dressing for the Blitz was real theatre,” the St Martin’s designer Fiona Dealey once observed about the New Romantic credo. “It wasn’t just another uniform.” At full-throttle the 24/7 Blitz Kids became living works of art and crackled with charisma you could have toasted crumpets on.
Blitz Kids: Daniel Wallace plays “Christopher” in Worried About the Boy (BBC), while being closely modelled on fashion designer Stephen Linard (picture, Derek Ridgers); Andy Polaris is airbrushed out of the TV drama after appearing in an early script. (Picture: Richard Law)
◼ OF COURSE THIS PLAY TELLSonly one Blitz Kid’s tale. Your immediate reaction is: ah, well, this is a TV drama about, let’s face it, a very odd boy who dressed as a girl then called himself Boy and today still lives life as the Man in the L’Oréal Mask. In his 1995 book Take It Like a Man (TILAM for short), co-authored with journalist Spencer Bright, George wrote that as a teen “I felt like a freak… I was so paranoid, I never let anyone see me without my clothes or face on”. Yet on another page he claimed: “I craved normality.”
Blitz Kids: Christos is another of George’s friends airbrushed out of the TV drama, Worried About the Boy
Before Culture Club finally saved his bacon at the age of 21, his mum said of working in the Blitz’s cloakroom “That’s not real work”, to which he complained that “Mum didn’t understand the disco celebrity concept”.
What is George’s problem? You don’t have to be Freud to guess. His book depicts his life as an epic shagathon and the TV play gives us a quick glimpse of one love story. And another. And a third. “I chased after those boys with trouble in their eyes,” George himself wrote, elaborating his sexual deeds in far more detail than we need. After publication, one of those boys, Theatre of Hate singer Kirk Brandon, took a “malicious falsehood” charge against George to the High Court where it failed, and Brandon was ordered to pay costs which subsequently meant declaring himself bankrupt and George forking out £600,000. This Sunday, sorry Kirk, but you’re going to have to brace yourself for some perfectly respectable snogging scenes which your actor performs on nationwide TV, not to mention being captioned to make sure we’ve checked your full name.
Blitz Kids Myra and Philip Sallon: two more of Boy George’s circle airbrushed out of the TV drama, Worried About the Boy
Both book and play parade basketsful of dirty washing in public and some of George’s former pals will be grateful for having been air-brushed out of history. In this TV drama some names have been changed. The puzzle is that others have not. Kirk is Kirk, Jon is Jon… but Wilf becomes “Vernon”.
The past decade has produced a clutch of TV docs that reckoned the Blitz scene was full of “gender-benders” (the tabloids’ sanitised euphemism for gays and, worse, transvestites). In reality you’d be hardpressed to find any 100% trannies at the Blitz, not even George or his bitter-sweet sidekick Marilyn (a handsome boy called Peter Robinson who lived daily life as a Monroe doppelganger). Yes, the fashion was for New Romantic lads to wear mascara and frilly shirts and flouncy pants and even Big Tone Hadley makes jokes about wearing his grannie’s blouse onstage, but most Blitz boys didn’t actually wear girls’ clothes, at least not underneath. (Don’t ask me how I know; there are some things a man has ways of knowing.) Even the brief “men in skirts” era revolved round plaid kilts, not your actual skirts.
The truth is that for all the media-bending, the Blitz divided down the middle into a club of at least four or five halves where the screaming queens comprised but one of them. By mid-1980 when the Blitz standouts were clocking column inches as hot media celebs and record contracts began to look possible, at the earliest opportunity the straight factions broke away to establish distinctly less gay clubnights at Hell, Le Kilt and ultimately the legendary and exceedingly hetero Beat Route.
Inevitably there was always overlap. What certainly caused confusion among both the gay boys and the envious girls was the nonchalant gender-bending by some straight boys, either just for the sake of adopting a trendy stance before the cameras in this burgeoning Pose Age, or to bait the girls (campness can present a very effective challenge to the fair sex), or simply because being what today’s dating websites dub “bi-curious” was, you know, “a phase they were going through”. So feistier females became fighting termagants in order to stake their claims on the goodlooking males. Never doubt, however, that hell hath no fury like a jealous queen.
◼ THIS IS WHERE GEORGE O’DOWD’S TRACK RECORD landed him in the poo. By his own account in TILAM, life was a shagathon, he was always “eager” for one-night stands and landed “a long line of boys who couldn’t make their minds up until they’d had a few beers”. The BBC drama dwells on three nice straight lads who fell for him – “Vernon”, Kirk and then Jon (pictured here on their first date). Today IRL (such a neat online term) they are all family men whose pasts seem fated to guarantee them no chance of a private life.
Other onscreen characters have had their names changed possibly for fears of legal action, though probably out of sheer expedience and economy of casting. Actors play Rusty Egan and Marilyn under those names, but George’s immediate circle of friends has been creatively down-sized around the 1980 squat at No 19 Great Titchfield Street (an onscreen amalgamation of the four Soho squats the Blitz Kids liked to call homes).
An early version of the Worried script included Christos Tolera (expunged), Andy Polaris (expunged), and it had even changed Barry Brien’s pet rat to a guinea pig (both expunged)! The broadcast version sees Slag Sue and Myra seemingly merged into a punkette called Mo (guesswork, this), while Hilda is renamed Sarah and the tragic Mitsu becomes Dawn. The real offence against humanity is to have dispensed with two Blitz superstars, sarky Philip Sallon and witty Stephen Linard – the beacon of his year on the St Martin’s fashion course – and to see them combined into one sharp queen called Christopher. Both were (*are*) very possessive about their distinctive lines in banter which now tumble from one boy’s lips, even though he is dressed head to toe in one of Linard’s unique silhouettes, his renowned tartan Culloden outfit.
In fact, the script is mighty short on the acid oneliners that ricocheted between George’s bitchy friends, despite the talent assembled by Red Productions. The person who comes out worst is club host Steve Strange, depicted as a thoroughly nasty piece of work (which he wasn’t IRL), seated on a throne beckoning to his minions within the Blitz (pure fiction). This is naked point-scoring by George who was famously sacked by Strange for pilfering in the cloakroom. George used to rage with envy over Strange’s media appeal. “We resented his self-appointment as king of the weird,” George explained. His envy was impotent, however. At this stage George was, as Malcolm McLaren says in Worried, “notorious for doing nothing”.
Reluctant cloakroom attendant, 1979: George took the job at the Blitz for the money, and was sacked by Steve Strange for pilfering
Sunday’s play ends in 1986, with George an international superstar, millionaire and heroin junkie, sacked by his band, bravely facing the future. Yet within a decade he’d returned to point-scoring, writing the book, TILAM, as payback for his downfall, in which he tears to shreds virtually all his friends, outing straight lovers and settling scores with venom.
Only last month in Midge Ure’s radio documentary, Rocking the Blitz, onetime i-D editor Dylan Jones reminded us that along with the energy and the fun, many young people became casualties of that decadent decade, as some perceive the 80s. “The New Romantic period for a lot of people was just extreme hedonism,” he says. “And as we know extreme hedonism only leads to one conclusion. A lot of people got off the track. I know at least five people who died of serious drug problems during that period.”
Boy George tweeting, May 15, 2010
Sudden fame, fabulous wealth and tragic fates are not unique to 80s popstars, as the long saga of rock ’n’ roll testifies.
George O’Dowd did indeed sail a flagship for hedonism yet today at the age of 48 he is alive and kicking and back on the road singing, despite his jailbird past. After watching Worried About the Boy, any viewers looking for the secret to his survival, could give the book a glance. Take It Like a Man is an I-don’t-believe-it horror story and runs to 500 pages. It is also a page-turner, so do plough on. Examine his life because amid the histrionics George has quite a few lessons to teach us.
Breakfast outing: Boy George’s comeback on GMTV with Ana Lains, March 24, 2010
❚ THE SON OF A BOXING CLUB MANAGER, camp, skinny, loud-mouthed George O’Dowd was one of the most towering egos among the original Blitz Kids in the London of 1979. He famously worked as cloakroom attendant at the Blitz club where he has since happily admitted “rifling through pockets and handbags” while he was about it. His catchphrase was “Buy us a drink, then.” If you declined, or somebody otherwise offended him, he was likely to unleash all the vitriol his tongue could muster, on friend and foe alike. If they stood up to him and lashed back verbally, he occasionally awarded them an ounce of respect.
Because he was younger than many, he was virtually the last out of the Blitz stable to put together a band and win a recording contract in 1982. It was then a slow burn before Culture Club eventually hit No 1 with Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? in the UK and No 2 the next year in the US.
They soon became one of Britain’s international “pure-pop” supergroups with a blue-eyed reggae sound led by Boy George’s impressively soulful voice. The band won a Grammy in 1984. At his peak, George was Britain’s second most globally recognisable fashion icon after Princess Di. At home his unthreatening brand of androgyny had endeared him to mainstream audiences and he made himself every grannie’s favourite popstar with his line about liking “a nice cup of tea” in preference to sex. It was nevertheless a long time before he confirmed the obvious: that he was gay.
The glory was all over effectively by the third album.
George was developing heroin addiction and his romance with drummer Jon Moss fell apart. Grim headlines recorded the deaths of two friends from drugs and before long the tabloids reckoned that “Junkie George” had eight weeks to live. Culture Club broke up in 1986 and the singer’s life swung between unedifying extremes as it pretty much went off the rails for the next 20 years.
These were defined substantially by his drug habits, precipitating repeated encounters with the law, a community service sentence sweeping the streets of Manhattan, and the non-release of many new recordings. He turned instead to deejaying. One small highlight came in 1995 at the ripe old age of 34 with publication of his, for many people, shockingly frank autobiography, Take It Like a Man. This week he admitted: “Nowadays I probably would have said less. The new me would not have gone as far as I did.”
His fortunes hit their lowest ebb last year when he was sentenced to 15 months in jail “for falsely imprisoning a male escort by handcuffing him to a wall and beating him with a metal chain,” as reported in The Guardian. “The judge told the 47-year-old former Culture Club front man, whose real name is George O’Dowd, he had left the escort ‘shocked, degraded and traumatised’ by the ordeal… Passing sentence… Judge David Radford said the singer’s offence was ‘so serious that only an immediate sentence of imprisonment can be justified’.” After four months, George was released on home detention curfew wearing an electronic tag.
None of which was recycled of course in this week’s principal TV interviews as he returned to the commercial pop spotlight with a new dancetrack, Amazing Grace, the first release by a new label, Decode Records. They have boosted George’s vocals with luminous support from Portuguese singer Ana Lains.
ID parade: George on community service, New York 2006; before being jailed in Britain, 2009, and on the day of his release. Credits: Splash News, Pacific Coast News, Rex Features
In a cosy breakfast sofa chat for GMTV today, there were chill echoes of those other insouciant jailbirds, the former politicians Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken, when George showed little sign of remorse for the offences that landed him in jail. Neither did the airhead presenter Lorraine Kelly raise the issue. At least in his grilling by CNN viewers online somebody called Hillary asked: “What do you think the meaning of your life is?”
Later on Monday, George did allow one glimpse of reflection onscreen: “The biggest change for me in past two years was getting sober. I went into prison sober, with a completely clear head, in a very Zen frame of mind. I was a totally different person by the time I went to prison. It was a challenge. I discovered it was like being back at school.”
On the genesis of Amazing Grace, he said: “The song is about realising I have the best job in world. In my life there have been so many moments when I’ve been in amazing places and haven’t really been there because I’ve been arguing with someone. I’ve been at the Taj Mahal or the Grand Canyon having a row about something really petty. So what I try to do now is be present in everything I do, however mundane or however exciting… It’s also about searching for some sort of grace. It’s a spiritual song.”
There’s hope yet, then. Might we expect George, born into the Catholic Church, to follow the path of the saintly Aitken by discovering one god or another and some contrition? Let us all pray.
Boy George calls the press ‘sanctimonious’! What can a remorseless thug expect?
➢ Nick Duerden in The Independent this April gets the measure of the man jailed for assault on a younger man: “One thing he didn’t do inside jail was ponder the crime that had landed him inside in the first place. ‘No I didn’t. Why? Was I supposed to?’ ”
➢ Which spurs us to reread Alan Franks’ very thorough interview from The Times last October: “What should he feel about the crime that got him jailed? Remorse, surely. Isn’t that what we want to hear before we too can move on from it? The good humour vanishes from his eyes and he says tartly: ‘I’m not going to talk about that.’ ”
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MORE INTERESTING THAN MOST PEOPLE’S FANTASIES — THE SWINGING EIGHTIES 1978-1984
They didn’t call themselves New Romantics, or the Blitz Kids – but other people did.
“I’d find people at the Blitz who were possible only in my imagination. But they were real” — Stephen Jones, hatmaker, 1983. (Illustration courtesy Iain R Webb, 1983)
“The truth about those Blitz club people was more interesting than most people’s fantasies” — Steve Dagger, pop group manager, 1983
“See David Johnson’s fabulously detailed website Shapers of the 80s to which I am hugely indebted” – Political historian Dominic Sandbrook, in his book Who Dares Wins, 2019
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✱ If you thought there was no more to know about the birth of Blitz culture in 1980 then get your hands on a sensational book by an obsessive music fan called David Barrat. It is gripping, original and epic – a spooky tale of coincidence and parallel lives as mind-tingling as a Sherlock Holmes yarn. Titled both New Romantics Who Never Were and The Untold Story of Spandau Ballet! Sample this initial taster here at Shapers of the 80s
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✱ Jawing at Soho Radio on the 80s clubland revolution (from 32 mins) and on art (@55 mins) is probably the most influential shaper of the 80s, former Wag-club director Chris Sullivan (pictured) with editor of this website David Johnson
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