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Jul 09

CULTURE CLUB – “Karma Chameleon”

FT + Popular63 comments • 10,553 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. 1
    admin on 8 Jul 2009 #

    surely it’s “you’re my lover not my rival”

  2. 2
    Tom on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Whaat? Bah – my version is much better.

  3. 3
    Billy Smart on 8 Jul 2009 #

    It is astonishing just how massive this was at the time. IIRC the last time that something had been number one for six weeks was back in the 1978 height of Greasemania, and I can offer personal testimony of this record’s maximum reach, as my father sometimes irritatingly recollects “What was that song that Boy George had – Gumma gumma gumma?”

    When something gets this familiar I do tend to find that I never need to hear it again unless it has a bit more overt emotional heft to it than Karma Chameleon – perhaps unfairly, as Tom points out there are clever things in it if you’re listening out for them.

    And I have that awful pop snob thing in me with which I am sure many of us are familiar of asking “Why couldn’t it have been Victims, or Time (Clock of the Heart), when those are the two *best* ones?”

    Ultimately though, I think that the greatest achievement of this is still what struck me most about it at eleven – that any song which sings about karma, rastifarian colours and chameleons has got to be a good thing.

  4. 4
    Rory on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Before anyone races to the edit button, a watch just now of the video reveals that it’s both: “not my rival” the first time, and “and I’m my rival” the second. I’d never noticed that before–nicely spotted, Tom!

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 8 Jul 2009 #

    TOTPWatch. Culture Club performed ‘Karma Chameleon’ once on Top Of The Pops;

    22 September 1983. Also in the studio that week were; Howard Jones, Hot Chocolate, The Alarm, Nick Heyward and Soft Cell. Mike Read & Simon Bates were the hosts.

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 8 Jul 2009 #

    #2 Watch: A week of David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’, two weeks of Tracy Ullman’s ‘They Don’t Know’, then three weeks of Lionel Richie’s great and glorious ‘All Night Long (All Night)’.

  7. 7
    Tom on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Phew!

    I really didn’t like this at the time – total dominance and also I couldn’t understand the lyrics. In fact I thought that the band had made the word “karma” up and it was a nonsense song.

    (I am still not sure the phrase means v much)

    This wasn’t a case where I gradually realised the error of my ways: I heard it again years later and thought “hold on, this is terrific”, and that was that.

  8. 8
    Tom on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Modern Love: best Let’s Dance single.
    All Night Long: no problem there.
    Tracy: “BAY-BEH!!”

    Salad of all the 8s!

  9. 9
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 8 Jul 2009 #

    the title would make more sense if it had a numanesque comma in it: “karma, chameleon!” — ie “payback is a bitch, you flibbertigibbet, you can’t styleshift out of yr just desserts forever!”

    (disclaimer: i have bin trying to “make sense” of bowie’s “glass spider”, and am somewat anti-chameleon as a consequence… hats aside, BG really ISN’T a chameleon much)

  10. 10
    Erithian on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Not much to say beyond: yes, absolutely loved it. And in keeping with the era of fantasy videos – Adam as highwayman or pirate, Duran as travelogue stars – the Mississippi gambler video worked beautifully to fix the escapist ideas into our imagination. So what if, as some people claimed, that harmonica line was actually impossible to play on a harmonica so they must have done it on a keyboard somewhere? – the band take you with them on their journey and you can’t help but enjoy the ride. Great record, and I’ve no problem at all with that march-time bit either.

    “They Don’t Know” at two – writer Kirsty MacColl being denied a number one not for the last time. Further down, who’d have thought back in ’77, when those punk chappies weren’t expected to have a long shelf life, that Siouxsie and the Banshees would have a number 3 hit six years later (Dear Prudence)? And October, too, was the month when “Blue Monday” finally reached the top ten having entered the chart in March.

  11. 11
    Tom on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Important pun data: “Comma chameleon” (3,460 results) beats “Korma chameleon” (1,550)

  12. 12
    Martin Skidmore on 8 Jul 2009 #

    I think I read some review at the time, or just as likely at another time about another song, that said this is one of those times when someone produces a tune that you would almost swear you were born knowing. I love the harmonica swirls too. I gave this 9.

  13. 13
    lonepilgrim on 8 Jul 2009 #

    watching the video again made me realise that I like this song more than I remembered. There’s an appealing tension between the jaunty beat and the sense of melancholy and loss in George’s voice.

    Even the video, which I used to find irritating, seems to imagine an impossible (and knowingly so) fantasy of a racially integrated American South which now seems similarly bittersweet. The final scenes of the band and their friends in the warm glow of the sunset are sweetly nostalgic.

    It cracks me up when the video states definitively that this is 1870 – lest we confuse it with 1869 or 1871.

  14. 14
    LondonLee on 8 Jul 2009 #

    I have to be the pop snob and say this was a bit too fluffy for me, it has one of those choruses that drives you bat-shit insane after a while. Maybe it was just killed by over familiarity but it was a song I always skipped when I played the otherwise really excellent ‘Colour By Numbers’ album. I can appreciate it’s craft and always loved George’s voice but it crosses a line for me. I’d still give it a 6 probably though, but I’d have given ‘Time’ a 9.

  15. 15
    Duey23 on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Okay, so here’s your weird American cultural reference for the day. We used to use this song to “audibly torture” pledges to our Fraternity. I was the creator of the very special “Karma Chameleon (BeatBoxDuey mix)” to this very day I have young men who are at the University telling me of having to listen to this mix and that they now know almost all the lines to the song (right or wrong).

    I really was a sadistic bastard back then (1985-1988). I did the same thing with Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name”. Envision the “Shot through the heart” part looped about 20 times, each time it’s said.

    My only earlier version was a horrible chop-up of “My Sharona” by The Knack. Gotta dig out those old cassette tapes of those so I can share.

  16. 16
    Erithian on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Beginning with “Karma Chameleon”, the “weeks at number one” figures for the next few Popular entries are: 6-5-5-2-5-3-6-4-2-9-3-6. Just 12 number ones from 24 September 1983 to 20 October 1984 – you rarely get a twelve-month period with such a small turnover at the top. Some very chunky hits amongst those coming up.

  17. 17
    wichita lineman on 8 Jul 2009 #

    I feel like such a curmudgeon, but this is an early 80s Bye Bye Baby for me – ubiquitous, thin, and a number one that followed a couple of markedly superior 45s by the act in question. A slippery but predictable fall from here to War Song a year on. As for lyrical sleights of hand:

    “Karma chameleon
    You karm-an go”

    is pretty trite. Blegghh. I feel not being 11 when it came out may affect my judgment, but KC’s perky efforts still found a place in my heart.

    Pop songs as terrace chants pt.27: this was briefly “come-a come-a come-a come on you U’s” at Oxford United, presumably to derisive laughter from visiting fans still wedded to Gary Glitter and Chicory Tip.

  18. 18
    AndyPandy on 8 Jul 2009 #

    @17 completely agree with you obviously such a massive hit because it was released bang on the peak of their popularity and was extremely commercial in a big props down the primary school disco way.

    The only thing of theirs I ever really liked was “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” which at least of course also made it all the way to the top.

  19. 19
    richard on 8 Jul 2009 #

    i met george at bagleys warehouse in kings x. he was much shorter than my friend steven.

  20. 20
    Pete on 9 Jul 2009 #

    And Steven’s a short arse!

  21. 21
    TomLane on 9 Jul 2009 #

    Tom’s opening paragraph citing the best lyric in the song, “You’re my lover not my rival”, is the reason I love this song. Always thought of that lyric whenever I had a few words with my wife. Boy George as marriage counselor!

  22. 22
    Michael Daddino on 9 Jul 2009 #

    Is the song calypso, or is it zydeco with the harmonica in place of the accordion?

  23. 23
    Rory on 9 Jul 2009 #

    After a gap of months, the UK and Australian number ones were back in synch, with the usual slight time delay: between “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and this, we had 7 weeks of Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling” and 8 weeks of Austen Tayshus’s “Australiana”, the 12″ single of a stand-up routine that employed a lot of Oz-themed puns. (Fairly adult in nature, so the radio stations played only an excerpt, which I’m sure helped keep it on top for so long; kids bought it to hear what they were missing, especially once they got wind that it was a bit blue. I certainly fell for it.)

    At last it was Culture Club’s turn, and of their two Australian number ones (our first also being “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”), this is certainly the sunniest – the perfect hit for a southern spring. For some reason I remembered the video as having George on an open-topped bus, which makes me wonder if that Mississippi paddle-steamer ever got turned into a Sydney Mardi Gras float. That possibility feels significant, because in 1983 a Culture Club number one was more than a poppy tune, it was a challenge to straight ocker culture. The first Sydney Mardi Gras had been held only five years before, and homosexuality was still a crime in New South Wales in 1983. The NSW law changed the next year, and I suspect Boy George deserves some small share of the credit.

    Even if George has admitted in recent years to being “militantly gay”, his persona in 1982-84 was more ambiguous. All those jokes about whether he was boy or girl (as if he hadn’t headed them off at the pass with his stage name) raised questions about gender rather than sex and sexuality, even if the people telling them were aiming at the latter. Suddenly everyone was talking about “gender bending” and androgyny, and thinking about what our costumes said about us. George’s choices of costume were masterly: they weren’t drag or camp; they weren’t pirate or dandy highwayman; they were something we hadn’t seen before, and couldn’t easily place. Androgyny didn’t only offer new possibilities for non-straights, it offered them for straights as well, breaking old stereotypes and giving all of us permission to play with our appearance.

    I was too geeky to take the opportunity, but when I went to matric (senior high) in 1984 I met a bunch of arty teenagers who had grabbed it with both hands. My old friends mostly dismissed them as “trendies”, but as the only one of us taking art that year I got to know a few of them. One in particular was a bit like a young Boy George: funny, arch, fashionable and, in his own art-studenty way, fearless. He wore pointy shoes when it was utterly unheard of, and dyed his hair in fox-like shades. I didn’t see much of him after that year, but his example prompted me to buy some bright yellow socks (and worse, some orange ones) that stayed in my wardrobe for a good few years. Whenever I hear Culture Club I think of him, and wonder where he ended up. (I know where the socks ended up.)

    I’m still unsure whether my arty friend was gay; it was hard to tell if his girl friends were girlfriends. If he had been, he would have been an old hand at maintaining the mystery, because there was genuine risk in coming out in my home state: Tasmania was the last Australian state to have its laws prohibiting gay sex overturned (in 1997), and the last man jailed under them was arrested in December 1984 (he was sentenced to eight months for having sex in a car by the side of the road). It seems amazing that the state is now one of the national leaders in recognising same-sex partnerships, only a couple of decades on.

    That context gives just about everything Boy George did in the early 1980s greater significance; this was a time when naive teenagers could be blind to the real meaning of Freddie Mercury’s leather trousers, let alone Rob Halford’s, but you certainly couldn’t ignore George. He showed us how dated the 1970s stereotypes already were, and how restricted in possibility.

    With all of that going on it almost didn’t matter whether the music was any good, but of course if it hadn’t been he would hardly have gained such attention. Although I wasn’t a particular fan, you had to acknowledge the catchy charms of “Karma Chameleon”, even if we were all thoroughly sick of it by the end of its run. The synth harmonica sound would become far too familiar over the coming year or so, but it sounded fresh then. George rarely sounded happier, and the inanity of “War, war is stupid” was still in the future. My personal response to the song would be a 6 or a 7, but it deserves an 8 for what the band signified at that late-’83 moment.

  24. 24
    LondonLee on 9 Jul 2009 #

    Re: 19. Really? I saw him at Heaven once and was surprised how big he was, though I may have been thinking that he would be some frail little flower (I saw Marc Almond in the Next on Kensington High Street and he was) so he seemed quite stocky in comparison to my impression.

  25. 25
    Michael Daddino on 9 Jul 2009 #

    The funny thing about the Boy George was that when I was eleven and twelve, and not yet capable of accepting that I was gay, I could completely ready to believe he was not sexual in any way. It was a comfort, really: I understood him as an example of how the big awful confusing subject of SEX (not to mention GAY SEX) (not to mention GAY SEX IN THE ERA OF AIDS) could actually be avoided.

    Eventually I got over such squeamishness. Eventually.

  26. 26
    The Intl on 9 Jul 2009 #

    A corny sounding bullshit record. Were this released by anyone else at the time it would’ve died a quick death. NEGATIVE eight.

  27. 27
    Rory on 9 Jul 2009 #

    Re #26 – Corny, corny corny corny, bullshit number one…

  28. 28
    wichita lineman on 9 Jul 2009 #

    Re 24: He’s tall. I think that’s a fact!

    Re 25: My Nan was very impressed with George’s line that he preferred a cup of tea to sex. I get his drift but it kinda sorta depends on the circumstances. And whether it’s a bag-in-a-mug or loose leaf.

  29. 29
    Tom on 9 Jul 2009 #

    I’m sure I remember an interview where he admitted that line was a bit of in-public passive agressive cattiness to Moss!

  30. 30
    Snif on 10 Jul 2009 #

    Still, I wondered at the tim whether Tetley, Twinings or some other tea business didn’t offer him a motza to do an ad for them.

    Photo of George in your Edwardian lounge, cup of tea held delicately in one hand, giving the camera a hint of a wink.

    Copy: “Better Than Sex” and the logo at the bottom.

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