100 Best Albums of the Eighties

96

Culture Club, 'Colour By Numbers'

When told that Culture Club's Colour By Numbers had been selected as one of the Top 100 albums of the decade, Boy George said, with typical playfulness, "As well it should be."

The band's second LP, Colour by Numbers, was released in the fall of 1983 while a second British Invasion was dominating the American pop charts. But George insists the album's surprisingly mature pop polish wasn't motivated by competition with his peers.

"We used to call Duran Duran 'bottles of milk,' they were so white bread," George said. "We certainly weren't competing with Spandau Ballet. We wanted to be more like the older people we admired."

Colour by Numbers does display a respect for pop history. When George debuted the ballad "That's the Way (I'm Only Trying to Help You)" at a sound check one day, he said, "Everyone said, 'Oh, it's really like Elton John.'" After the album was released, George told a reporter that "It's a Miracle" borrowed from the melody of a Gilbert O'Sullivan song. And "Church of the Poison Mind" is nearly identical to Stevie Wonder's "Uptight."

But the familiarity of the group's songs bothered at least one person. "The guy who wrote 'Handy Man' [Jimmy Jones] tried to sue us over 'Karma Chameleon,'" George said. "I might have heard it once, but it certainly wasn't something I sat down and said, 'Yeah, I want to copy this.' We gave him ten pence and an apple."

Culture Club made its second album with the same producer (Steve Levine) and at the same studio (Red Bus Studios, in London) it had used for its debut. George attributes the band's improvement from the tropical pop of Kissing to Be Clever to the input of outside musicians, notably keyboardist Phil Pickett, who co-wrote two songs with the band, and singer Helen Terry, who electrifies several tracks.

Within months of the release of Colour by Numbers, George's plucked brow was on the cover of Newsweek, followed by a Tonight Show bitch-off with Joan Rivers, a Boy George doll and his infamous acceptance speech at the Grammys, when George thanked the audience for "knowing a good drag queen when you see one."

George said he last listened to Colour by Numbers three years ago, when he was trying to kick his heroin addiction. "I thought some of the singing was out of tune," he said with a giggle. "It's definitely the best Culture Club album, but I don't know if it's my best record." During three recent concerts in Australia, the only song from Colour he performed was "Victims," the album-closing ballad. Which doesn't mean he's not proud of the band he may — or may not — be re-forming.

"We had a good formula, and other groups obviously picked up on that," he said. "I think Wham! definitely picked up on it in the beginning. I've read things where people have said the songs were awful and the only important thing was the way I looked. Colour by Numbers definitely does have a place. Above who or below who, I'm not sure."

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