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Jul 09

CULTURE CLUB – “Karma Chameleon”

FT + Popular63 comments • 7,889 views

#527, 24th September 1983, video

How to sell a contradiction: “Karma Chameleon” is a song about frustration and confusion that consciously transforms itself into colourful frippery, and by doing this it gets its hooks into you even deeper. And such hooks! Though true to the song the very best ones dance around the tune’s edges – those little harmonica licks in the chorus, for instance, or the gorgeous middle eight: “Every day is like survival / You’re my lover and I’m my rival.”

That’s a fantastic lyric, by the way. A lot of the time on Popular when I talk about the lyrics to songs people reply, well, I never noticed them. And I think on “Karma Chameleon” you’re meant not to notice them. George is hiding lines like that – such an accurate jab at relationship paranoia – in the plain sight of his song’s bubbly joy, there to ambush you if they need to.

It’s tempting to relate that to what we now know about Culture Club – a band built around love and fracture that had to conceal and code those facts, turn its private dramas and traumas into a public game of hide and seek. Hear it as being about Jon Moss (or as a moment of self-analysis on George’s part) and you can turn “Karma Chameleon” into “Knowing Me Knowing You”.

But that would feel like a massive disservice to the song’s glorious blitheness. George himself never sounded better than here – flirting, sighing, now pleading now diffident. The rest of the band play a calypso-tinted pop soufflé: only the march-time part at the end falls flat – yes, yes, you’ve written a killer chorus, have the grace not to fuss about it. But in general when you have a façade as lovely as this it’s only right to let yourself be seduced and not go poking around too much behind it.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    crag on 12 Jul 2009 #

    Never been a fan of this one-much prefer “Church of the Poison Mind” with its modernised motown sound and Helen Terry’s prominent proto-Beth-Gibbons backup vocals. KC strikes me as very contrived, its nonsense lyrical hook sounding like an updated take on the late 60s Katzen-Katz Bubblegum ethos but without any of the charming faux-naivety.
    I had a black friend who a few years back informed me he had a particularly strong dislike for the song due to the “red gold and green” line which he saw as an example of the white man’s cheap appropriation of Rastafarianism for their commercial benefit. I told him i figured he was barking up the wrong tree but, when pushed, couldnt think of a non Rastacentric meaning for the line. Obviously one of us had got the wrong end of the stick but does anybody have any idea which one? What DOES the line mean??

  2. 52
    crag on 12 Jul 2009 #

    Whoops! Did i just say Beth Gibbons? I clearly meant Beth Ditto-sorry…

  3. 53
    thevisitor on 13 Jul 2009 #

    The thing I remember being offputting about Victims was the sense of “You thought Karma Chameleon was good? [I didn’t] Wait till you hear THIS!” Victims is just a little bit too pregnant with a sense of its own importance. I can think of certain other songs by artists at their commercial peak whose arrangements and delivery radiate a sense of Really Thinking They’re It, but it would be premature to bring them up at this point (if you know what I mean).

  4. 54
    Darren on 13 Jul 2009 #

    “Boy George admitted in one of his autobiographies that this was ‘the sort of record that everybody bought but nobody really liked’.”

    I like that line. Pretty much sums up my feelings about KC (except I refused to buy it.)

    With that song, they went from being my favourite pop band of the period to the one band to ‘what was I thinking’?

  5. 55
    Darren on 13 Jul 2009 #

    Mmm, my comment was a bit garbled at the end. Apologies.

  6. 56
    MikeMCSG on 15 Jul 2009 #

    Never liked CC – I always thought they used an outrageous image to sell really bland music which my mum liked to kids. To me they closed the door on punk (as Dave Rimmer noted in his book “As If Punk Never Happened”) and opened it to Stock, Aitken and Waterman and Westlife.

    I have some time for George as a cultural commentator but when he slags off Simon Cowell he ignores his own responsiblity for letting the likes of him back in the game.

  7. 57
    DV on 12 Aug 2009 #

    I increasingly think that Culture Club were complete talentless no-marks, with all their supposedly great hits being utter rubbish. Though I suppose I liked them at the time, meaning that they did the job then, if not now.

  8. 58
    Erithian on 17 Aug 2009 #

    Channel 4 Top 100 Watch: ths is number 29 on the UK’s all-time best-sellers list. 1983 has three entries in the top 100 – this, “Uptown Girl” (93) and “Blue Monday” (76) which of course never got anywhere near number one but whose sales were a different phenomenon altogether.

  9. 59
    Billy Smart on 24 Sep 2009 #

    NME Watch: Single of the week from Danny Baker, 10 September 1983;

    “Karma: Quite literally, any act that appears in consecutive single colums with the same author. Chameleon: A thin sneaky lizard that absorbs its current background and grins a lot (though slap one on a piece of kilt and they cry like babies). And Culture Club chameleoze the West coast. Lying long in the sun they become as the sound of the surf. It’s ‘Marakesh Express’ and Todd Rundgren and The Eagles and the opening beats of ‘You’re So Good To Me’ by Beach Boys. It’s peace and love, team; perky, free and easy, clever and crafty and this country’s very next number one hit single. I love it pretty much to pieces and seem to play it all the time. Ha! So it wasn’t a mystical man-dress after all George. You’ve been wearing a kaftan, you silk-voiced foul mouthed old she-wolf.”

    Also reviewed;

    Will Powers – Kissing With Confidence
    Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Let Them Talk
    Donna Summer & Musical Youth – Unconditional Love
    Neil Young – Wonderin’
    Kajagoogoo – Big Apple
    Bee Gees – Someone Lovin’ Someone
    Status Quo – Ol’ Rag Blues

  10. 60
    Brooksie on 3 Mar 2010 #

    This had legendary school disco appeal. The fact that they had several decent hits prior to this just made this seem even bigger. It’s almost insanely catchy, and thus deserves it’s high mark, but its lack of depth is its Achilles Heel. It didn’t matter at the time though, ‘Colour By Numbers’ was right behind and it had a few songs which at least attempted some more substance. There was a little of everything in that cake, and Karma Chameleon was just the very sweet cherry on top.

  11. 61
    punctum on 22 Mar 2014 #

    “There’s still a lot of work to be done before it’s accepted that what I do is perfectly normal”; TPL addresses Colour By Numbers.

  12. 62
    hectorthebat on 23 Nov 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 637
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    NBC-10 (USA) – The 30 Best Songs of the 80s (2006)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 20
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 43

  13. 63
    Elise M. on 5 Nov 2015 #

    Red, gold, and green were the ‘gay colors’ of the 1980s. Use of the colors in the song represents the gay community as well as paying homage to the Rastafarian movement which B.G. so strongly admired and was influenced by. “Loving would be easy if your colors were like my dream/ Red gold and green…” proclaims that George and Moss’s relationship would be easier if Moss’s colors were indeed the ‘gay colors’ – if Moss was gay (which he is not). But instead, Moss is afraid of the “karma” of society, so he acts as a “chameleon”, altering his “colors” in order to blend in with his overwhelmingly straight surroundings.
    Hope this helps.

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