Culture Club conquered the world in 1982 with their smash hit Do You Really Want To Hurt Me. Two years later, when they arrived in Montreal to launch their 1984 North American tour, some 5,000 screaming fans greeted Boy George and his bandmates at Mirabel Airport.
Montreal hadn’t seen such pandemonium since The Beatles arrived 20 years earlier, for two shows at the Montreal Forum on September 8, 1964. And the first of The Beatles’ two concerts, at 4 p.m. that afternoon, didn’t even sell out. Culture Club, on the other hand, sold out both of their shows at the Forum, on March 31 and April 1, 1984. Now, 34 years later, Boy George and Culture Club return to Montreal to headline the 14th annual Strangers in the Night Gourmet Charity Gala on August 25. I recently sat down with George for a candid Q&A.
When Culture Club began their 1984 North American tour in Montreal, some 5,000 fans mobbed Mirabel Airport. It was complete pandemonium. How crazy was that era and what do you remember about your arrival in Montreal?
Yes, I do remember! Somebody pulled one of my fake dreadlocks out! (Laughs) I remember people were lining the streets and standing on bridges. It was completely insane! That sort of thing was happening all over the place. It’s that initial hysteria you have when you’re the new hot thing. Some of those fans are still with us now. We now have fans who are married and bring their kids to the show. It began with hysteria, but some of them stay with you. It’s just the most incredible thing.
We’ve lost some of your peers from the 1980s: Michael Jackson, George Michael, Prince and Whitney Houston. How do you feel about being a survivor and elder statesman of the ’80s?
I try to not make other people’s lives about me, do you know what I mean? Everybody has their own journey. It’s a strange question because I never really think about it from my point of view. (I think my surviving) is good luck.
From the very beginning, you became a queer icon at a time when the term LGBTQ did not exist. Why do you think you were so important to us?
Because when you’re young, in your early 20s, you don’t think about consequences, you just think you have the right to be who you want to be and you don’t really care what other people think. That’s a youth thing – “I don’t really care, what’s it to you?” I still feel kind of like that. I never understood why people have an issue with other people’s sexuality. I’m not a heterophobe. I don’t have an issue with people being straight, having kids and getting married. Why do you care and what difference does it make anyway? As long as you’re not being cruel to anybody, why get your knickers into a twist about it? So I’ve never understood the resistance of people and the fear of people, and I still feel the same now at 57.
You were a savior for queer kids.
When I was younger I was definitely less conscious of the effect I was having on young people. As I got older and smarter, I became aware. I am very proud when people come up to me and say, “The reason I came out was because of you and your music.” That is a responsibility that I take more seriously now as an older man. I am much more conscious about what I do and what I say since I may have more of an effect than somebody who isn’t in the public eye.
Most of your fans were – are – straight. What did Culture Club represent to this generation?
Roy (Hay) always used to say that if you grew up with Culture Club, you were more open-minded and less judgmental. That was the underlying message of Culture Club. I always thought we were a one-stop shop for anyone who felt disenfranchised. It wasn’t just about sexuality – though sexuality is a big thing for me as a gay man and a gay performer. It blows my mind that the world is still quite uptight. Some of the (disdainful) public looks I get – though I kind of like it – shows there is still work to be done. On the other hand I’m like, “Really? What did you expect me to look like? I’m Boy-fucking-George!” (Laughs)
One of my favourite reggae bands is Culture. The late great Joseph Hill told me in 2004 that you named Culture Club after his band. Is this true? How did Culture Club get its name?
You know, it may well be true. When I grew up I listened to a lot of reggae bands. Lots of roots and culture! (George says imitating a Jamaican accent). It may have been subliminal. Joseph Hill may have been right.
Out young pop stars owe much to you. What are your thoughts about out performers today, like Troye Sivan? How far has the pop landscape progressed?
I don’t think about it terms of any individual person. For me it’s always about songs. Being gay or not gay, is that the interesting thing? I think it’s what you do with your platform that really shapes who you are as an artist. These are freer times for young gay performers, they don’t really have to make a big deal of their sexuality because you hear people say all the time, “It doesn’t really matter anymore.” I (also) think it depends on what kind of queer you are. I‘ve always been a spokesperson for those of us who cannot blend. Do you remember that song by Phranc – Bulldagger Swagger – about all the lesbians who can’t pass? I feel like the same version for gay men who don’t really fit in. I was never able to hide what I was, even when I was dressed really normal. Somehow it always leaked out. (Laughs) So these (young gay pop stars) don’t need to make a scene about it now because I suppose people like me, people like David Bowie, Quentin Crisp and Oscar Wilde – and the list goes on and on – these people were part of the daisy chain of change. I’m happy young performers don’t have to make such a big deal out of it. But if they want to, I applaud that. I also want to hear something interesting and new.
The new Culture Club album is called “Life.” Are you playing new songs on this tour?
Some nights on this tour we are with the B-52s and other nights we’re on our own. When we are on our own we do four or five songs from the new album, a few classics and a few covers as well. What you have to be careful of is when you’re playing big hits, the audience reacts with great enthusiasm, and when they are listening to new songs, just because they’re not jumping up and down doesn’t mean they are not enjoying it. They don’t really know this song, so they’re taking it in. You have to be careful not to drop songs from the set because people aren’t jumping up and down and going crazy. Not every song requires that response.
You are very active on Twitter. How has social media changed the nature of fame?
Followers are a bit like Monopoly money. It doesn’t really mean anything. People go on about this one has 65 million followers! I still prefer Klaus Nomi!
Klaus Nomi! Another great figure we lost from complications from AIDS was Leigh Bowery. Could you speak about Leigh and his influence on you?
Leigh was a troublemaker, he was such fun to be around. You never really knew if Leigh was taking the piss out of you. When he walked into a room he was like an energy vampire. He stole the energy and lit up the room. He was endlessly entertaining and you just never knew what to expect. I really miss him. He was an incredible light in the world. I wrote about in in Il Adore: “Laughing screaming tumbling queen / Like the most amazing light show you’ve ever seen.” And that’s how I really feel about him. I have a tattoo of Leigh on my arm. That gives you an idea how much of an impact he had on me.
Leigh was a legend. How do you feel about being called a living legend?
I’ve had worse insults! (Laughs heartily).
Boy George and Culture Club headline the 14th annual Strangers in the Night Gourmet Charity Gala benefitting the Miriam Foundation, Lymphoma Canada and The West Island Woman’s Shelter, at Borough Hall Pierrefonds-Roxboro (13665 Pierrefonds Blvd) on Saturday, August 25. For tickets, visit strangersinthenight.ca
Boy George and Culture Club also headline the Centre Videotron in Quebec City on August 26, with opening acts Tom Bailey of The Thompson Twins and Murray Head. For tickets, visit lecentrevideotron.ca
Read Richard Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at bugsburnett