Something was definitely happening. We turned on the radio, and white-boy black rhythms boomed from the speakers. We went for our MTV, and there were dozens of dandies parading across the screen. We danced at the clubs and noticed it was getting hard to tell the boys from the girls, the girls from the boys, and no one seemed to mind. A trend, perhaps. A new British Invasion. Indeed, the American charts now list more records by U.K. acts than at the height of Beatlemania, nearly twenty years ago. Some of these performers — like U2, Big Country, Eurythmics, the Alarm, Aztec Camera — probably would have made it here in any era. But they're not what we're talking about now. The British Invasion refers to all those other guys. The ones who call themselves Boy George, Limahl and — get this — Simon Le Bon. The ones who put as much effort into their looks as their sound. We wanted to know why they're so insistent on making us pay attention to them. And why we have been. Now we know, so read on.
BOY GEORGE IS TELLING THE TALE ABOUT the time he got felt up by a drunk right here amid the swank-strewn rattan expanses of Langan's, the popular Mayfair brasserie. This guy — some randy old sport with the better part of une bouteille or two under his belt — tottered up to George's table and, attracted by the fashionable chatter, took a seat, squeezing in next to George. The Boy, of course, was dolled out in one of those capacious Bulgarian-bag-lady dress numbers he's since made so predictably ubiquitous around London, and from the side, this wine-swacked character could see only a ribbon-festooned riot of long black braids, one wildly penciled brow, a powdered cheek, pursed crimson lips — a hotcha vision. George was babbling happily with his pals when he felt this guy's hand groping his knee. Then he felt it on his thigh. Then again, higher. Then—
"Oh, my God!" the drunk cried, rearing back in befuddled horror. "You're a bloke!" His alarm abated a bit, however, as he focused more closely on George's face, which was now regarding him with some amusement. Drinking in the full Boy effect — those eyes, those lips — the old tippler was transfixed. Lurching to his feet with renewed admiration, he said with a parting wheeze, "Yer still fuckin' beautiful," and reeled off down the room.
With a toss of his dreadlocked head, George lets out a laugh that would knock Martha Raye back in her rocker. Imagine! Probably put the poor geezer on the wagon. "But I don't find myself particularly physically attractive, "he says, tucking into a generous dish of strawberry sorbet. "That's why I wear baggy clothes. I know what makes me successful: I'm funny. I'm not a very serious person. When we make videos, I want people to laugh at them. I want them to be able to feel affection for this image, you know? 'Cause that whole New Romantic thing was very unaffectionate — that's what I found."
Ah, the New Romantics. Kings for a day, for a brief media season, of the London pop scene. Exactly two years ago, four figureheads of that phenomenon sat here in this very bistro describing the new mood of do-it-yourself and damn-the-depression elegance that was then transforming the local nightlife and making fashion waves as far away as Düsseldorf, Paris, Milan and New York. Rusty Egan and Steve Strange, arbiters of the new social order at the Blitz, the one-night-a-week club they had until last year run in Covent Garden, were full-fledged, column-gobbling celebrities. Midge Ure and Billy Currie, of Ultravox, the seminal New Romantic band, cranked out the cool, new Eurodisco sounds that oiled the scene. All four were members of the ad hoc dance-floor band Visage — a group that never played a live gig. All were veterans of the punk upheaval and had been galvanized by the conceptual revolution wrought in 1976 by the Sex Pistols. And all of them, as it's turned out, were astute businessmen; not so much New Romantics, in the end, as new entrepreneurs. In Margaret Thatcher's brave new Britain, the distinction is anything but derogatory.
The New Romantics had a glittering season, but it's long gone. Today, Steve Strange is referred to in the English music press as a fat socialite, Midge and Billy have bailed out of Visage, and Ultravox is regularly lambasted for having outlived its usefulness. But do any of them care? The last Ultravox album, Quartet, was the biggest seller the band's ever had in America, where big sales count. Nowadays, Billy Currie parks a chocolate-colored Mercedes 280-SL convertible outside his elegant Westminster townhouse, and Midge Ure indulges a pricey passion for the artnouveau furniture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in his even more spacious digs in suburban Chiswick. As for Steve and Rusty, they've turned the Blitz-night concept into a collection of different "clubs" under one roof at the hugely successful Camden Palace, a cavernous hall in the tatty Camden Town district. There they now cater to the cultural whims of a whole new influx of hip young kids, leading London yet another step down the path toward Total Nightlife. Blitz dead? Its heavy-breathing synthesizer sonorities may have been superseded by a lighter, less portentous style of simple dance funk, and you won't catch many people prancing out in pirate gear these days, but on Fridays and Saturdays, when the new breed of peacocks packs into the Palace for the weekly "Sweat Attack" and "Dance Your Ass Off" nights, the Blitz legacy can be seen to be very much alive. And its creators are still cashing in.
All of which brings us back to Boy George — as George O'Dowd is known to his undoubtedly overburdened accountant and most of the rest of the record-buying world. George was one of the original Blitz kids; used to check wraps at the club in fact. Now he's the king or queen or whatever of the new London scene — or at least, as we shall see, of the most commercially profitable part of it.
British music in general is ballooning in all directions these days, filling the U.S. charts with everything from fast, new heavy metal (Def Leppard, Fastway, Iron Maiden) and epic guitar anthems (Big Country, U2, the Alarm) to sleekly sculpted synthesizer pop (the Human League, Heaven 17, Altered Images and the now-disbanded Yaz) and the free-standing songcraft of Aztec Camera and the Anglo-American Police. Nor is all the action in London, not by a long shot: Big Country, Aztec Camera, Altered Images and Orange Juice all hail from Scotland; U2 and Minor Detail come from Ireland; and worthy acts keep cropping up in Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds — not to mention Wales. But London is the magnet. It's where the major media are, and thus the most intense scene. The most intensely self-promoting aspect of that scene is the cluster of clothes-conscious, dance-beat performers that includes Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Wham!, Kajagoogoo and, rising above them all, Culture Club's Boy George.
Only a few years ago, the chances of a rather hulking youth who dressed like some incongruous cross between Joan Crawford and Grace Metalious and who wore more makeup than most premenopausal women this side of Miami Beach — the chances of such a curious figure capturing the hearts and wallets of straight, young (not to mention old) pop fans around the world would have seemed, well, remote. But George and his band, Culture Club (rounded out by guitarist Roy Hay, bassist Mikey Craig and George's creative partner, Jon Moss, on drums), have scuttled several of pop's moldier sexual and stylistic assumptions and struck international gold and platinum with their first album, Kissing to Be Clever, and its hit singles, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," "Time" and "I'll Tumble 4 Ya." And their latest hit, "Karma Chameleon," off the new Colour by Numbers LP, is a song of similarly undeniable craft and quality.
It's true that the Boy's neck-whipping ascension to the top of the London style heap hasn't been made without some resistance. "When I first met Jon's parents," George recalls," his mother said, 'My God, what's he?' And when we first appeared on Top of the Pops, the next day in the papers it was like WALLY OF THE WEEK — you know: 'What is this creature?'
"I was really annoyed at first. But then you started seeing letters in the News of the World saying: 'Leave him alone! He's really lovely! Signed, Mrs. Jones from Swansea.' It's great, because what's happened is, I've put my outrageousness into a very sane, very traditional kind of frame. So it's not outrageous anymore. Obviously, there's a lot of people who are gonna look at Boy George and say he's an asshole — great! Those people can only enhance me, you know?
But the question, as always in trend-addled England, is: how long can the Boy stay on top of this slippery pop game? Is he really anything more than just another transient geek pooped out of the ever-churning U.K. celebrity chute? Do not darker forces — the Oi boys and other rock & roll reactionaries for whom Boy George and his whey-faced imitators represent all that is musically wan and wimped-out — already plot his downfall? Does not a pretender to the poser's throne already hunker in the wings, waiting to take George's appealing androgyny one sexier step further — to render him passé on the field of fashion? Can Boy George somehow out maneuver the man they call… Marilyn?
I SAW MARILYN LAST NIGHT," SAYS MALCOLM McLaren, swatting back a glass of white wine in a pub not far from his modest office in Denmark Street, London's one-time Tin Pan Alley. It is a warm evening in late June, and McLaren, who will be off on a promotional visit to Vienna the following day, is in an expansive mood. Maybe it's the wine — or just the fact that someone else is paying for it — but he's feeling good. He is wearing white Adidas, a pair of size-eighty pants with the cuffs rolled and a billowing gray jacket that's big enough to wrap a horse — his "Duck Rock" look. A geranium of strawberry-blond hair blossoms above his ears. McLaren has been explaining the English pop scene, in which he goes back a long way. This is the man who gave the world (and three different record companies) the Sex Pistols and later foisted upon the industry the nymphet-rock act Bow Wow Wow, of which Boy George was briefly a part. His most recent project is an album called Duck Rock, on which he's pulled together Zulu chants, Appalachian fiddlers and Dominican merengue numbers into a startling synthesis of pan-ethnic pop. This plundering of world musical traditions, he feels, is the wave of the future; the Anglo-white-oriented Western record industry is doomed. "Tradition never dies," he says. "Only business dies. And this business is dying."
McLaren traces the current musical malaise back to its roots on Carnaby Street in the early Fifties. This was before Bill Haley, before The Blackboard Jungle, back when Carnaby Street was a gay strip and the regulars in the nearby bars along Marshall Street began sporting felt-lapeled zoot jackets and strange new hairdos. The straight young clerks and stockboys in the area's shops picked up on these styles, and soon they spread across London and beyond. Dressing up has a long and honorable history in England, of course; but instead of announcing one's class, as clothes had always done before, these new styles lifted off the gay scene offered kids the chance to step outside of one's class — in fact, out of the oppressive class system altogether. Rock & roll, when it came along, offered the same possibility — membership in a new, classless elite — and so, not surprisingly, the two phenomena fused, style and music forming a single bright avenue of proletarian escape that still beckons thirty years later.
This was a perfectly agreeable situation for the English music industry, as long as people bought its records. But when the business went soft in the late Seventies, U.K. record companies were caught at a disadvantage.
"We're just not great salesmen," McLaren says. "Americans know how to sell — that's the wonderful thing about your country. The English frown upon promoting oneself; it's not part of the 'tradition of the gentleman.' So pop music kind of conflicts with English culture generally."
By 1976, corporate rock music had lost its intimate appeal for many European kids, and they stopped buying records. According to McLaren, it was style — in the form of punk rock — that saved the day. "Look at the Sex Pistols," he cackles. "They couldn't play! They were terrible! But they sold. Everybody caught on to that. And then nobody cared anymore. All these A&R people started getting the sack. Why? Because they were trying, in their naive way, to sell music. But it wasn't what people wanted — they'd had that. People just wanted style. And so now bands are signing to record companies with contractual obligations that a thousand pounds a week be spent on their clothes. The record companies ask, 'Don't you want guitars?' But the music's all done with synthesizers. They want a thousand pounds a week for clothes.
"So now these guys in the record industry are thinking this is the way pop groups should be. 'We understand it now! Get rid of that A&R guy that keeps listenin' to Muddy Waters. Get me a fashion stylist!' Because we may not be good salesmen, but we're great presenters. In the Sixties, we presented you with the Rolling Stones — selling you back your own rhythm & blues. This time we're selling you back the beat of the discotheques in Harlem — but it's white, and it's pretty, and you can all identify with it. And America is bringin' in Boy George and A Flock of Seagulls and all these bands, because it's desperation time — they don't want black music to take over."
Right: that's the new British Invasion we've been hearing so much about, the one that's clogging the American charts with such mild-mannered U.K. combos as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Kajagoogoo, Wham! (a white rap act). McLaren can't help himself; he's hooting out loud. British Invasion? It's teen-scream time again, that's all — the last gasp of the British record business.
"The fact is," McLaren says, "they're simply packaging their own industry now. Spandau Ballet, Kajagoogoo, whatever — they're just the wheels and cogs. They're part of the machinery. They don't quibble, as long as they've got their thousand pounds a week for clothes and their photos in all the magazines and every girl-next-door wanting to marry one of them because mother likes them, too. The record companies are delighted: they haven't got the Sex Pistols, they haven't got all this lunacy anymore. These groups are nicely behaved; they know what it's about.
"Listen," says McLaren, draining yet another glass. "If someone told me that Spandau Ballet were now the A&R department of Chrysalis Records and Kajagoogoo were working in accounts for EMI — I would believe it. In their spare time, they go downstairs and make some records! They call themselves Kajagoogoo! It's perfect!"
Just another spin of the pop carousel, another generation of jobless kids stepping in off the streets of London for a grab at the golden ring. New entrepreneurs opening up dress shops, dance clubs, even their own little record labels, and selling themselves when all else seems unlikely. Everybody's climbing aboard.
"I saw Marilyn last night," McLaren says again. "Do you think he's not gonna get on the wagon? Are you crazy? He said to me, 'Listen, everybody's doin' it, I might as well.' And I said, 'Sure, man, get in there.' So he's recording next week, and he's off. He's the new one. Boy George this year, Marilyn next year. That's London: all kids wanting to step out."
ACTUALLY, I BELIEVE I SAW MARILYN LAST night, too. It was at the Wag Club, and it was late. I remember a flash of lissome hip, a flurry of blond dreadlocks. The place was packed, of course. The Wag Club, inconspicuously nestled among the peep shows and chow mein joints at the end of Wardour Street in Soho, is a current hot spot. Stephen Jones was there — the skinheaded milliner who made those famous fezzes for Steve Strange back in the Blitz days and who has since whipped up some really wild fruit-and-feather-filled fantasies for Boy George — and so was Philip Sallon, who runs the Mud Club in Leicester Square on Fridays and may be George's best friend. Clothes designer Stephen Linard, another now prospering Blitz kid, was there, too; and the willowy black androgyne fluttering from booth to booth like some alien honeybee, I learned, was Dencil — actually, Dencil of Troy — who runs the White Trash Club in Piccadilly. And back in a corner, detached from all the glittering silver- and gold-lamé goings-on, oblivious to the giant funk beat roaring out across the dance floor, sat Bernard Rhodes and Kosmo Vinyl, manager and tour captain, respectively, of the Clash. Funny place to find them, I thought; but then, nobody really takes the Clash and their entourage for revolutionaries anymore, and in London, the lure of new hipness is irresistible. Of course, Rhodes and Vinyl are determinedly unimpressed. "Dull days," says Kosmo as Dencil dances past. "There's nothing going on in London. A lot of the new groups are just manufactured by the record companies. Look at Wham!: two good-looking guys and a song. Kajagoogoo, same thing. Most kids aren't as interested in music anymore. If it weren't for the thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls, no one would be buying records."
"When Malcolm and I invented punk in 1976," Rhodes says rather grandly (punk having been invented in the U.S. by the Ramones, among others), "we wrested control of the music from the record companies. Now it's back in their hands again." He believes that the next important musical impetus will come from America, the country with which the Clash were once so bored. "American kids will take this British music," he says, "and synthesize it into something important and meaningful.
Important? Meaningful? Surely the current dance-scene spasm is those things and more to the designers, artists and musicians who are riding its crest. This is the full flowering of the Blitz entrepreneurial ethic. Making it — up, out — is a large part of the point. In fact, several of the more celebrated achievers here at the Wag Club had made it up and out of the same place — a lowly squat on Warren Street, not far from Regents Park.
It was Stephen Jones, the hatmaker, who originally broke into the deserted building with a friend and set up a little workshop. Soon the house on Warren Street became, along with a few similar squats nearby, a hub of ambitious activity.
"Basically," says Jones, "most of the people who lived there were from St. Martin's School of Art. This was at the time of the Blitz — we were those people. We all used to go out together as a group, as a gang. Magazine writers came round and started doing articles on us; we even used to have Japanese tourists coming through. It was so mad."
Among the Warren Street regulars were designer Stephen Linard, Paul Caplin, who now produces and generally pulls the strings behind Haysi Fantayzee, and Jeremy Healy, who currently functions as the Haysi duo's masculine half. Another steady presence on the scene was George O'Dowd, who'd gone to school with Healy in suburban Bexley Heath. Sartorially outré even then, George had been tossed out of school at age fifteen and had come into London to escape the cultural restraints of working-class suburbia. His father, a builder and former boxing coach, didn't say much about this most peculiar of his five sons, but his mother saw the way he was turning out and didn't like it.
"Now she says, 'I never complained,'" George observes. "But she did. She was always sayin', 'Take that shirt off! You can't go out like that!' I always used to dye my hair and then go to bed and hide, and she'd come in and say, 'Get up!' And she'd see my hair and she'd go, 'You little bastard! I'll kill ya!' She used to get furious. Not really because she was ashamed, I don't think; more because she was worried about what would happen to me."
It was an understandable concern. But George, a strapping lad beneath the flounces, was determined to make his own way in the world. He dressed windows; he worked briefly in the makeup department of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He got a job in a Carnaby Street clothes shop called Street Theatre, and its owner eventually launched him in a store of his own called the Foundry. It was there that he hooked up with Sue Clowes, the young designer who created the original Culture Club look — billowing tops, baggy bottoms. Hebrew lettering all over the place. At night he would hit the clubs, dressed to thrill. He was being seen, getting written up in the dailies, the style mags, the Gay News. It was almost a full-time occupation, and the pressure to perform — or at least to pose brilliantly — became intense. Sometimes the strain showed, even back at the normally supportive Warren Street squat, where Jeremy Healy was also keen to be seen and worked hard on his look and his hair — the latter done up at the time, rather arrestingly, in the manner of an upended ice-cream cone.
"George and Jeremy always had this sort of love-hate relationship," Stephen Jones recalls. "Who looked best, who gave the most amusing replies; you know — who was the coolest. I remember I came out of my workroom one day, and they were screaming up and down the stairs, in and out of rooms. George was running after Jeremy because he'd stolen his hair spray." The spat spilled out onto the street and even into a nearby snack shop, says Jones. "It was hilarious."
Okay, so people laughed. But George knew exactly what he was doing. He assiduously courted the press — phoning in personal anecdotes, mailing off his own photos — and soon his name was popping up all over the public prints. "Delectable George." they were soon calling him. He was a pure celebrity — innocent of any actual accomplishment, noted only for being noted. This amorphous notoriety suited his purpose, though. "Each week," George explains, "people would say," Who the fuck is this guy? What's going on?"' The question then became: what next? Now he had to do something, or else risk winding up as another withered blossom on the youth-worshiping club circuit. "You have to use that publicity," he says. "Use it like roller skates, really — to get away from the clubs."
The logical escape route was pop stardom, but since George had never been in a band, and in truth could not so much as tinkle a triangle in time, this seemed to be the hard part. But he did love to sing (Gladys Knight was his idol), and he did have a voice — that's what all his Warren Street friends told him whenever he crooned them a tune in the back of a car on the way to some terrific party or another. The Boy had pipes, and he soon put them to use.
George's first encounter with actual show business came when Malcolm McLaren picked him out of the passing parade of London club life and had him sing a song one night at the Rainbow Theatre with Bow Wow Wow, whose lineup was in some turmoil at the time. "He was just another guy." says McLaren, "hangin' around with Adam Ant and everybody else. He was one in a line."
But his appearance went off well, and for a while he rehearsed with the band — McLaren even had a stage name for him: Lieutenant Lush. But most of the group's members despised him, and he departed in something of a suit. "If he had stayed," McLaren admits, "he probably would've made Bow Wow Wow a bigger hit. But the band was terrified he might commit some licentious act one black night up the road in Watford or somewhere."
George's one gig with Bow Wow Wow got good word-of-mouth, however, and even an admiring mention in the press (from a reporter George had been carefully cultivating). One night in a club a young, black bass player named Mikey Craig approached him and suggested they start a band of their own. George liked this idea, so they roped in a guitar player and started thrashing things out. Unfortunately, the guitarist turned out to be "a real rock king," according to George, and since neither he nor Mikey had any experience at whipping a group together, they were temporarily stymied. Then George met Jon Moss.
Moss, now twenty-five, was even then a wizened veteran of the pop game. He had drummed with a group called the Nips, once auditioned for the Ramones and spent a brief, nonrecording stint with the Clash (about which he recalls, "Mick Jones was a real asshole"). He connected with George through a mutual friend, guitarist Kirk Brandon, former leader of Theatre of Hate, currently with Sphere of Destiny and a pal of Moss' from the old punk days. (George's relationship with Brandon is something he no longer discusses, although its nature seems well-known in London music circles.) Moss realized immediately that the guitar player would have to go, but this Boy George kid, whatever his story was, definitely had the goods.
"It wasn't really a band at that point," says Moss. "There were two songs, but it was a completely different kind of music. George and I sparked each other, though, and then it went off in a completely different direction. He was just what I'd been looking for."
George, for his part, was equally impressed by Moss' professional savvy and take-charge attitude. "Jon was like, 'Let's get on with it! Let's chuck this guitarist out, he's no good. Come on. Come on!"'
The nascent Culture Club cadged some studio time from EMI Records, which remembered George from his Bow Wow Wow spot, and the band began cutting its first demos. "We did these two awful songs," says George." One was called 'The Eves of Medusa,' and the other was 'I'm an Animal,' which was the worst: 'I'm an animal. I'm an animal — pure elephantasy!"' The songs rapidly improved, though, and the group made its stage debut out in the provincial sticks late in 1981. They had their first hit single with "White Boy" and kept clicking with "I'm Afraid of Me" and the international smash, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me." And suddenly, there it was: the golden ring, the ticket to ride. Goodbye, Bexley Heath! Goodbye, all you pathetic poseurs down at the Palace, you wankers at White Trash. Boy George had made it: up, out — and over.
It hasn't all been roses, God knows. Sure, Culture Clubs music is meticulously crafted, and the songs are insidiously melodic, but not every concert crowd can quite figure out where the Boy is coming from. Not long ago, for example, they did a live taping in Los Angeles for Rock 'n' Roll Tonite, a syndicated TV show. It seemed simple enough, but Todd Rundgren was the headliner, and, as quickly became apparent, the audience was all his.
"There were all these hamburger queens," George says, "like truckers' daughters, you know? And I went on in this big baggy shirt, like a dress."
"They were shouting, 'Fuckin' faggot bastid."' says Jon, who remembers the evening vividly.
"So then," George continues, "I said, 'Next time, I'm gonna get a dress that fits me.' And they all sort of looked, you know? Then one of them shouted something, so I shouted back: 'Fuck off, you lesbians! I think it was a Todd Rundgren show."
"Yeah," says Moss, gesturing with both hands. "Hair like that, thinks he's a genius?"
"Well," says George, brightening a bit, "his girlfriend was really nice. She was sayin,' like. 'Oh, Boy George,' you know? He was really annoyed."
And so Todd Rundgren joins the list of unamusing musicians who will not be getting Christmas cards from Culture Club this year. It's not a long list, but it's a permanent one. "The Fun Boy Three were really rude about me." George recalls, "so they can fuck off — I hate them, you know? And Suzi Quatro was rude about me as well — she's a real bitch. Said I was ugly. Her band was gonna support us in America, but we chucked 'em off."
Who needs them? Who needs all that old wave rock & roll backbiting? No wonder rock is on the outs these days. "All the imagery has been very antiestablishment, antiparent — sort of antieverything. I like it when I come out of a TV studio and see a load of old grannies there. They're so nice. They always go, 'Ooh, come over here, Georgie! I've got something to show you!"'
And that, of course, is the secret of Culture Club's extraordinary commercial success: crossover. It's the Liberace vote.
"We did this David Frost show," says George, "and when we came out afterward, there were all these old women at the bus stop goin', 'Woooh!' Dancin' and shakin' their tits at me — these old grannies! They went, 'Woooh! Get you!'"
A fond sigh. A fetching blink of the violet rimmed lids. "It's really nice," he says.
NICENESS IS SOMETHING THAT'S IN DESPERATELY short supply here at the Batcave, where I am standing at the crude bar and contemplating the life-size feet of a mock corpse that's dangling from a noose several inches above my head. This is the sleazy underside of dance-mad London, the flip side of the Culture Club coin. Eerie red lights burn through the thick haze that hovers above the length of the long, boxlike room, and bloody-headed mannequins dot the scene. The music is…well, loud, for one thing, ranging from vintage Velvets and ancient Iggy Pop rants to the Doors' "Soul Kitchen" and "Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix. There are also overamped interludes of mysterious whimpering, vast metallic clangs and what sounds like full-scale civet torture. The regulars — vampire punks, zombie priests and assorted other black-cheeked wraiths — all share the appearance of having been chewed on by wild dogs. It's like a splatter movie come to, uh, life. And if none of this seems morbid enough, there's real hard-core silliness downstairs, where tonight's attraction is a topless snake charmer. "Brilliant," says Oliver Wisdom, flashing the only smile in the room.
Ollie and his horror-rock band, the Specimen, convene the Batcave once a week in the same Leicester Square building that hosts the Mud Club and other portable scenes (although both the Mud and the 'Cave have since shifted quarters). But the Batcave is unique, a poof-free bastion in what Ollie and the boys see as an otherwise wimp-filled world.
"There's not a lot of excitement going on in London at the moment," Ollie says. "I think the chart scene is absolutely full of shit." And so, in true new-entrepreneurial style. Ollie and his mates — all apparent victims of the same ravening canines who've been having their way with the customers — have rushed to fill the fun void with a bizarre new vision. This music is most authentically heard on Young Limbs and Numb Hymns, an album-length compilation of Batcave-style bands, and on the Specimen's own ace single, "Returning from a Journey." It is emphatically and unabashedly rock & roll, and thus refreshing by definition in a scene now dominated by dancing grannies and dewy-eyed dolly boys of indeterminate gender. This, in short, is the Boy George backlash.
The Batcave isn't the only pocket of fop-funk resistance, either. Because punk never died, friends. It's true. A veritable legion of working-class Oi bands (the genre takes its name from an all-purpose Cockney expletive) continues to held the punk banner high: Chron-Gen, the Exploited, the Toy Dolls, Beergut 100. The list seems literally endless. According to Garry Bushell, who chronicles the fast and furious scene for Sounds (and who has put together three volumes of Oi compilations to date, with a fourth, Son of Oi!, due out soon), the male of the Oi species answers to the term herbert — herberts being regular working-class kids. There is also, apparently, a rather scabrous, beer-swilling female species of headbanger known as renees, the most alarming example being a heavy-set, all-girl quarter called the Gymslips. Oi is everywhere: according to Bushell, there's even a wild-eyed clan of Oi-based synthesizer bands up in Scotland who call themselves techno-herberts — although it should be noted that a lot of people think Bushell makes up some of this stuff.
Neverthless, Oi, or whatever one chooses to call this ultrahard, guitar-fueled rock, is real, and its practitioners share a common loathing for the upscale image — the clothes, the clubs, the whole popelite lifestyle — propagated by the hustling young hitmakers of the post-Blitz scene.
"A lot of kids just can't afford it," says twenty-year-old Lee Wilson, leader of Infa-Riot, one of the best of the new hard-rock outfits. "It's sort of expensive news, you know? It's really a totally false image, because people do get acne, they do have problems. Not everybody goes to Spain for their holidays, you know? You watch Duran Duran videos and you feel inadequate."
And the Oi boys aren't the only ones who've had it with synth pop's preening poseurs. Signs of opposition are everywhere, from the chart-crashing guitar anthems of U2 and Big Country to the rising young renegade rock sounds of the Chameleons and the Smiths, two new Manchester-based bands.
"I absolutely detest popular music in its present state," says twenty-three-year-old Morrissey, the monomonikered vocalist for the Smiths. "It's so nonhuman, so cold and sterile. We're totally into human emotions, the cause of the heart. These synthesizer bands sell so many records, but they don't raise anybody's consciousness in any direction. To me, that's an absolute sin — to sell millions and yet keep people in utter darkness. But it's just a job to them. They'd be just as happy baking cakes or something."
Even Mark Dean, the young A&R whiz who signed ABC and Soft Cell to Phonogram Records and who now runs his own Inner Vision label, home of the teen-rapping Wham!, admits there's reaction in the air. "Kajagoogoo, Duran Duran — in a sense, those are fun records," Dean says. "But they're also very bland, very commercial. Kids are going to rebel again. They're going to rebel against this whole scene."
A DAY OF RECKONING ON THE dance floor? It's an appealing idea, all right. The winds of change may already be blowing: Bow Wow Wow recently gave the boot to its aging nymphet vocalist, Annabella, and Kajagoogoo has likewise dumped the lovable Limahl. But such early tics in the teen ranks hardly augur a clean sweep of the scene. Certain synth-centered bands will stand, one suspects — Heaven 17, Ultravox and the Human League are three likely survivors. As for Culture Club, they are by now beyond the reach of fad or fashion. Their music may seem to have only the most tenuous connection to rock at times, but it is executed with the sort of consummate style that, in pop, usually passes for art. Boy George is no longer just a face; at twenty-two, he's a distinctive voice — perhaps the sweetest white soul singer of the Eighties to date. And by refusing to mute his natural flamboyance in the process of making it, he has probably struck a blow for tolerance in the pop mainstream that can only be applauded. He has also, it should be pointed out, made his mother very happy. At last.
"When I left home," the Boy says, "my mother was a very dowdy woman, all curlers and misery, you know? But she really has changed. Both my parents used to be so old-fashioned; now they like to listen to records. They've sort of turned around. They're very young now. They've grown up."
AND WHAT OF THE SPECTER THAT'S been shadowing George's stylish throne? Well, since he's pretty much abdicated the scene, it looks like Marilyn may get a clear shot at the Boys title. So who is this guy?
When I finally catch up with Marilyn at the Haysi Fantayzee loft off sunny Goodge Street, he is listening to Barbra Streisand on the stereo and sorting through a sheaf of press clippings and promo photos. He is an extraordinary-looking individual, with very finely planed features and a startling bush of snakelike blond braids. Paul Caplin, Haysi's manager, has taken Marilyn under his enterprising wing, and they're about to sign a deal with Phonogram Records. He speaks so softly, one strains to hear his voice above Streisand's assertive warble.
Yes, he says, Marilyn is the name on his passport (although, according to George, "His real names Peter"). He was born in Jamaica ("I was an accident"), was a part of the Warren Street squat scene and until last Christmas had lived for some time in Los Angeles, in the seedy environs of the Chinese Theatre, where he engaged in various pursuits he'd rather not talk about. No, he does not consider himself a transvestite.
"The thing is," he says earnestly, "what is a transvestite? Someone who dresses up in women's clothes? Well, what are women's clothes? Women wear trousers now, and they don't always wear makeup. Look at Annie Lennox with Eurythmics: she's not a transvestite, she's a girl."
Marilyn aspires to be a pop star, he says, because "I want to do something worthwhile, something I could be remembered for if I got run over by a bus tomorrow." Well, his name is certainly memorable; where'd he get it?
"I used to really, really like Marilyn Monroe," he says, measuring his words. "And people at school used to think it was funny to call me Marilyn. So I just thought: fuck you, I'll keep it."
Sounds like he had a tough time as a kid, I venture. "Yeah," he says rather hesitantly, "I did. 'Cause, you know, when people are young, they don't understand. They think it's clever to call people names and… victimize them." A brief, pained pause. "Bastards," he says.
As a pop star, of course. Marilyn could step away from all that — from them — forever. The English pop scene may even be offering him a new and most tantalizing possibility: revenge. Does he think he'll have the last laugh on his erstwhile tormentors?
"Hopefully," he says in the manner of class-hopping British kids through all the pop decades. "Hopefully."