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Boy George

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Boy George shot to fame in the 80s as the lead singer of Culture Club, and his androgynous looks made him a poster boy for the New Romantics. But drug problems have followed him ever since.

George Alan O’Dowd grew up in a lively household with his four brothers and one sister. Despite being part of the large working class Irish brood, George has claimed to have had a lonely childhood, referring to himself as the “pink sheep” of the family.

To stand out in the male-dominated household he created his own image on which he became dependent. “It didn’t bother me to walk down the street and to be stared at. I loved it,” he’s reminisced.

George didn’t exactly conform to the typical school student stereotype and with a leaning more towards arts rather than science and math; he found it hard to fit in with traditional conformist masculine subjects. With his schoolwork suffering and an ongoing battle of wits between him and his teachers, it wasn’t long before the school gave up and expelled George over his increasing outlandish behavior and outrageous clothes and make up.

Suddenly, George was in the big wide world without a job. Taking the plunge with any work he could find that paid him enough money to live on; he worked on farms picking fruit, as a milliner and even a make-up artist with the Royal Shakespeare Company - where he picked up some handy techniques for his own personal use.

The famous British New Romantic Movement that emerged in the early 1980s was a calling card for George, whose flamboyance fitted their beliefs perfectly. The attention the New Romantics attracted inevitably created many new headlines for the press and it wasn’t long before George was giving interviews based purely on his appearance.

Around this time Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the infamous Sex Pistols, was also managing a group called Bow Wow Wow. Fronted by Burmese sixteen-year-old Annabella Lwin, McLaren wanted someone to give Annabella a bit of a jolt on the stage and strengthen her vocally - cue the talent of a certain Boy George.

After George made a few appearances, to much audience acclaim, inevitable friction between the two big personalities began to surface. However, George, by now, was inspired to form his own group and the answer came in the form of The Sex Gang Children. Bassist Mikey Craig and drummer Jon Moss were next to join the group, followed by Roy Hay. The group soon abandoned the name Sex Gang Children to settle on Culture Club, on the basis that the group consisted of an Irish singer, a Jamaican-Briton, a Jewish drummer, and an Englishman.

Success came early and the band signed with Virgin Records in the UK and Epic Records in America, releasing their debut album Kissing to Be Clever in 1982. It was their third single from that album, “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me,”, that scored a huge success by reaching the number one spot in 16 countries.

Culture Club already had the distinction of being the first group since the Beatles to notch up at least three Top Ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100 from only their debut album. The group’s second album was also a success (1983), with the single “Karma Chameleon” rocketing to Number One in numerous countries, including the U.S., where it stayed for four weeks.

George soon became a household name, making him a natural choice for one of the lead vocals on the Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” in 1984. However, the pressure of fame began to take its toll and by late 1985, George had become addicted to heroin. Culture Club began to lose their way musically and work on their fourth album - From Luxury to Heartache (1986) - proved more headache than heartache for the producers, with the recording sessions dragging on for hours. In July the same year, George was arrested in the UK for possession of cannabis and a just few days later, the band’s keyboard player Michael Rudetski was found dead from a heroin overdose in George’s home.

After their US tour was cancelled, Culture Club disbanded in late 1986. Despite his ongoing drug addiction battles, George began recording his first solo album. In 1987, ‘Sold’ was released successfully. But even though he scored UK success, George never really managed to duplicate the same level of exposure in the US.

Over the years, George has continued to release various solo albums and even formed his own record label in the early nineties. His most significant acclaim to replicate anything on the same level as Culture Club’s fame was his 1992 hit single “The Crying Game,” which featured in the film of the same name, reaching the Top 20 in the US charts.

After a fall out with Virgin Records in the mid-nineties, George’s work was poorly promoted and subsequently failed to alight any kind of praise to establish him as a serious solo musical artist. Culture Club did reform briefly back in 1998 at a Big Rewind tour in America alongside Human League and later the same year managed to secure a top five single in the UK with “I Just Wanna Be Loved.”

 In 2006, the band decided to again reunite and tour; however, George declined to join them for this tour. As a result, he was replaced and after only one showcase and one live show, that project was shelved.

Although George failed to reach the same level of acclaim as a solo artist in comparison to the Culture Club days, he has fared better in his second career as a notable music DJ. He began DJ-ing in the early 1990s and has since enjoyed many pats on the back from critics both here in the UK and in the US.

As an aside, in 2002, George was joined by a hoard of celebrities for the premiere of his new musical “Taboo.” The star had penned the story of his own rise to fame, including colorful characters from his past such as Leigh Bowery, Steve Strange and Marilyn. The musical featured a host of new songs written by George as well as Culture Club’s number one singles, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” and “Karma Chameleon.” Open auditions were held to find actors and singers to resemble the stars of the ‘80s and the Scottish actor Euan Morton won the part of the dread-locked George. Matt Lucas, at the time most famed for his George Dawes character on BBC’s “Shooting Stars,” took the role of flamboyant performance artist Leigh Bowery, who died of an Aids-related illness in 1994.

American comedienne Rosie O’Donnell saw the musical and was so enamored that she decided to finance the production for Broadway, too. The show opened in February 2003 but after just 100 performances it closed, hampered by a barrage of negative reviews and struggling to meet financial ends. The UK production however, continued to be a success and went on to tour the UK, with a DVD release and book accompanying it.

Eighteen years after his last album of original material, Boy George returns in triumph. The first thing that strikes you is George’s voice. Always fabulous, it now has a weathered fruitiness - something of Antony of the Johnsons about it - the result of added years and, perhaps, a somewhat adventurous lifestyle. He’s hepped up his already warm soul power. The second thing that strikes is the mammoth hook on opening track “King of Everything.”

It’s not just that lovely, pillowy voice. This is What I Do is characterized by big song after big song. “King of Everything” is a lush, soulful blockbuster, “My God (“Jesus loves me don’t you know!”) is a committed, slow-burning waltz and “Bigger Than War” is a funk groove that wouldn’t shame Bobby Womack.

Away from the muscular punches, George is equally comfortable with “It’s Easy’s” heartbreaking country ballad and moody Yoko Ono cover “Death of Samantha,” but perhaps more interesting are his plunges back into those Culture Club reggae roots.

“Live Your Life” is pretty trad lovers’ rock but “My Star” is boisterous and “Nice and Slow” is a little more dancehall. Most ambitious of all is “Play Me,” a lengthy dub throb through wobbly effects, quick-fire raps and hip hop scratches. This meld of reggae and large pop moments is a sweet snapshot of a career so far - and one that promises to endure. What a lovely surprise!

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