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Jul 09

CULTURE CLUB – “Karma Chameleon”

FT + Popular63 comments • 9,267 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. 31
    The Intl on 10 Jul 2009 #

    #27 – I hope you’re in agreement with me, because I’m right. I don’t give a f$%k if it went to #1. So did Debby Boone.

  2. 32
    Glue Factory on 10 Jul 2009 #

    #31, doesn’t the whole idea of this site rest on the fact these records went to number 1?

  3. 33
    Rory on 10 Jul 2009 #

    #31 – not really; see my elephant-in-the-room of a post at #23. I was just punnin’. I can see how some people wouldn’t like it (daft title, corny harmonica, George’s vocals were never all that), but it doesn’t set off my “gaaah” button the way that, say, “The War Song” does.

  4. 34
    Rory on 10 Jul 2009 #

    Speaking of war, this was very nearly the very last Australian number one. (Yours is coming up next.)

  5. 35
    Erithian on 10 Jul 2009 #

    If you don’t get Rory’s reference, a mesmerising Channel 4 documentary last year showed how 8 November 1983 – while Culture Club were no 1 in Oz and the next entry over here – was the closest we’ve ever come to nuclear war. Senior figures in the Soviet Union had convinced themselves that they were about to come under nuclear attack from the West, and the vast Soviet nuclear arsenal of missiles, bombers and submarines were put on maximum alert, ready to launch a full retaliatory attack on Western Europe and the US. It was soon after the shooting down of the Korean airliner in Kamchatka, and NATO had just begun an exercise which rehearsed how to launch nuclear weapons…

    As George didn’t quite say, “war is naughty / and people are naughty / and people who start wars should be sent to bed early”.

  6. 36
    Matthew H on 10 Jul 2009 #

    Got all the time in the world for George and his warm, soulful voice, but – and I always feel like a Traitor of Pop here – I never thought much of this and still don’t. The melody is thin to these ears; it’s got a hook, obviously, but no “catch” (although I might be applying my own definition here – I mean, there’s nothing that hits the spine for me).

    I don’t hate it, I just find nowt to love. Yeah, ‘Victims’ was better. And, ahem, ‘Church Of The Poison Mind’.

  7. 37
    Tom on 10 Jul 2009 #

    “Church” is great but I’m a bit surprised at the consensus regard on this thread for the noodly “Victims”.

  8. 38
    Rory on 10 Jul 2009 #

    #35 – I’ve whipped up a suitable end-of-days album cover.

  9. 39
    Billy Smart on 10 Jul 2009 #

    ‘Victims’ is great, not because of its noodliness, but because of the titanic scale of its moochiness, woundedness and sulkiness. If you think that the best thing about Boy George’s songwriting is in its portrayal of lovers hurting each others feelings – and the best thing about his singing is the ability to convey this hurt with a smoothness that belies the pain – then ‘Victims’ must be the definitive Culture Club song.

  10. 40
    Billy Smart on 10 Jul 2009 #

    Am I the only person who’d defend ‘The War Song’, by the way? I mean, obviously, its a stupid lyric, but I’m always glad when I hear it, and I rather admire the scale of the naievity.

    Hm, just realised that this topic might perhaps be witheld until summer 1984. But when we get to the Liverpool chart sensations, it will be interesting to think about them in relation to ‘The War Song’, ‘The Lebanon’ and the possible influence of U2’s ‘War’.

    ‘Move Away’ is also very good indeed.

  11. 41
    Tom on 10 Jul 2009 #

    1984 is YEAR OF WAR, probably as a morphic field recoil to the unknown crisis Rory just posted about.

  12. 42
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 10 Jul 2009 #

    a morphic field recoil that went BACK IN TIME to plink out into g.orwell’s brane!

  13. 43
    Matt DC on 10 Jul 2009 #

    This is pretty much the first pop song I can remember but I have never liked it. There’s a very naff jauntiness about it that I find incredibly offputting.

  14. 44
    pink champale on 10 Jul 2009 #

    this is a great record. what i particularly like is the way the whole thing seems to have been conjured up out of thin air. most times thre’s an inevitability that sooner or later someone will have decided to do a particular type of music only louder, or quieter, or faster, or slower; or with a brass band added; or with everything taken away except the cymbals. but culture club don’t seem to be answering a question that anyone has ever asked. if this particular group or people at this particular time hadn’t decided to sound and look the way they did then I can’t see anyone else ever would have done.

  15. 45
    wichita lineman on 10 Jul 2009 #

    The “titanic scale of its moochiness, woundedness and sulkiness” (very nice!) didn’t impress me about Victims when it came out. It was regarded as an “important” record by djs, press, C Club fans, and – not least of all – by George himself. I agree with Tom on its scattershot melody – I’ve heard it dozens of times and I still can’t remember how it goes beyond the opening lines. It’s no Say Hello Wave Goodbye, at any rate.

  16. 46
    Conrad on 10 Jul 2009 #

    Rory – “For some reason I remembered the video as having George on an open-topped bus” maybe you are muddling this with the “Church of the Poison Mind” video where they are in an open top car? Ok, a convertible…

    It’s funny this one. I didn’t warm to it at the time; I have a lot of affection for it now, partly because it is so, well so Culture Club. Pink Champale nails it for me in 44 – it is a unique concoction, and very effortless-sounding.

    I love that listing the colours Red Gold and Green works so well as a hook.

    And I love that this is the one and only pop record my Nan bought in the 30-odd years I was privileged to know her.

    So, an 8 from me.

    Not as good as Time though, but better than Victims, which like a lot of Number 1s from next year, turns the trick (largely through scale of production, hype/genuine or manufactured, sense of event) of seeming more interesting/important than it actually is

  17. 47
    Snif on 11 Jul 2009 #

    >>Rory – “For some reason I remembered the video as having George on an open-topped bus” maybe you are muddling this with the “Church of the Poison Mind” video where they are in an open top car? Ok, a convertible…

    Didn’t The Style Council’s “Speak Like A Child” come out around this time? Seem to recall the video for that having Paul, Mick, Tracoe et al motoring around the countryside in an open-topped double decker…though mistaking P Wellerl for B George is a bit of a stretch :-)

  18. 48
    Rory on 11 Jul 2009 #

    I think you’ve nailed it, Conrad – somehow I merged the two videos into one in my memory. Stupid memory.

  19. 49
    peter goodlaws on 11 Jul 2009 #

    Never really cared too much for this soft little pop song. Never really had too much of an opinion of Boy George either, although, like many, I found much credit in “Victims” and “Church”. KC, though, seemed to spin itself off in to a MOR hinterland where the chorus is all-consuming and you either sing along to it a la “Yellow Submarine” and “Lily the Pink” or you keep your mouth shut and the record off. CLICK!

  20. 50
    abaffledrepublic on 11 Jul 2009 #

    Boy George admitted in one of his autobiographies that this was ‘the sort of record that everybody bought but nobody really liked’. My view of it now is along those lines, that it’s not bad but not brilliant, catchy but not very substantial.

    I remember it fondly for another reason though. This wasn’t the first no.1 I can remember, but the first time I realised that there was such a thing as a chart, and that this was at the top of it. You know that feeling you get as a child (I was 8) when you discover something that was there all the time, but you never knew existed up to that point.

    That was expressed quite clumsily. But I hope you know what I mean!

  21. 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??

  22. 52
    crag on 12 Jul 2009 #

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

  23. 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).

  24. 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’?

  25. 55
    Darren on 13 Jul 2009 #

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

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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

  33. 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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