“You know a good drag queen when you see one,” Boy George infamously declared after Culture Club won the Best New Artist trophy at the 26th Annual Grammy Awards. America had already embraced the outrageous singer by that time, but while the group’s 1982 debut Kissing To Be Clever had its moments (“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?,” “Time (Clock of the Heart),” and “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”), it was also loaded with substandard filler. It wasn’t until their landmark second release, Colour by Numbers, that Culture Club hit their stride, and the influence of its 10 colorful songs can still be felt today.
Powered by an insanely memorable chorus and a harmonica that wouldn’t stop, the hit “Karma Chameleon” dominated the airwaves in 1984 and became one of the year’s biggest hits (and the band’s only chart-topper in the U.S.). But while Colour By Numbers produced four big hits, its greatness can be measured by the fact that its album tracks are just as good as its singles. From the rock-flavored “Miss Me Blind” to the exotic “Stormkeepers,” Colour By Numbers is truly essential pop from start to finish, with bouncy piano and saxophone riffs sprinkled throughout and infectious hooks all over the place.
Simply describing Colour By Numbers as a “catchy pop record” would be a mistake, though. Boy George has said that Culture Club’s music was the soundtrack to his turbulent romantic relationship with drummer Jon Moss, and that background adds a layer of deeper meaning to songs like the R&B-tinged “Black Money”: “Somebody else’s life cannot be mine/But when you love someone/And they don’t love you in return/When you love someone/You’ve got money to burn.” Even the seemingly silly “Karma Chameleon” is deeply personal: “Everyday is like survival,” sings a frustrated Boy George, “You’re my lover, not my rival.”
Boy George sounded equally at ease whether singing flashy, upbeat numbers or somber ballads, and while his voice wasn’t the strongest in the world, he was able to find his inner Motown soul when necessary, especially when trading vocals with backup singer Helen Terry, whose captivating, gospel-infused voice is a highlight on “Black Money” and “That’s the Way (I’m Only Trying to Help You).” Boy George’s charisma and confidence as a frontman had grown remarkably since Culture Club’s debut, allowing him to carry songs like “It’s a Miracle,” a piece of sweet pop candy that, in another band’s hands, might have come off as a lightweight embarrassment. The same can be said of the album’s first single, the rousing “Church of the Poison Mind,” in which a carefree Boy George sings, “Watch me clinging to the beat/I had to fight to make it mine/That religion you could sink in neat/Just move your feet and you’ll feel fine.”
Flamboyant, vibrant, and fun, “Church,” like the rest of Colour by Numbers, fits the very definition of what pop music is supposed to be, and there were few better pure pop albums made in the 1980s. Part dance, part new-wave, part white-boy soul, Colour by Numbers helped establish the blueprint for the boy bands that would follow in Culture Club’s wake (the group disbanded in 1986 amid rumors of Boy George’s heroin addiction and his break-up with Moss). The album was re-released last year for its 20th anniversary, with five bonus songs, including the title track, which curiously did not appear on the original record. But, in the end, Colour by Numbers is an album that needs no tinkering.