Boy George: Were all clinging to a rock, and some people have got a better grip than others

Nine years sober and back on tour, the Culture Club star talks about the power of positivity and why pop needs mystery

I can tell you from bitter experience that there are more relaxing ways of preparing for an interview with a legendary pop star than reading their memoirs and unexpectedly stumbling across a page where they explain at some length why they think youre an arsehole. But there it is, or rather there I am, on page 133 of Boy Georges second autobiography, 2006s Straight, getting it in the neck as the result of an unnecessarily sour live review I wrote years and years ago. Worse, I think hes probably got a point; although I didnt say he had never written a good song, I did say Culture Club never had many good songs to start with, which rather reckons without Time (Clock of the Heart) and Victims and Its a Miracle, among others, let alone his solo songs such as 2013s gospelly power ballad King of Everything. At least I can console myself with the fact that Im in pretty glittering company on the old blacklist: over the course of Straight, he lets pretty much everyone have it, from George Michael (please shut up throw her a cerise boa) to Prince (the Artist Formerly Known As Get a Personality).

Nevertheless, its hard not to arrive at his publicists office with a degree of trepidation. But no, were all good. He has long distanced himself from Straight he told an interviewer a couple of years ago that it was the rantings of a deranged drug user, written during a grim spiral that culminated in him ending up in prison in 2009 for assault and false imprisonment. He says he cant remember the review in question, and he doesnt bear grudges. I forgive very easily, and I suppose, in the same way, I expect to be forgiven very easily as well. I grew up with that. My dad was very explosive, God rest his soul. He could fly off the handle like no one Ive ever known, and I have definitely got that in my personality, that ability to sort of smash the house up and then say: Put the kettle on, to have that kind of attitude of: Well, Im OK now, so everybody else has got to be OK. People are like: No, Im not OK, you just screamed at me, and Im like: Yeah, but get over it.

He laughs, an infectious, throaty, dirty chuckle: as the journalist Simon Price once noted, an MP3 of it should be available on the NHS. In fact, he seems in a particularly sunny mood. He looks great, dressed in clothes that would look completely ridiculous on anyone other than Boy George black and lime green, matching trainers and hat a bit of makeup around the eyes. Hes in London on a flying visit from his home in Los Angeles. He once said he thought he had destroyed his career in the US overnight by accepting an award at the 1984 Grammys with the words You know a good drag queen when you see one (I think what happened had more to do with the fact that the band was falling apart and I started taking drugs, he shrugs today). Now, however, he loves it there. I love American positivity. When I went back to America, five years ago, I got my visa and I was fully expecting to get all that You did community service, you went to prison, la la la, but nothing. Nothing. I think in America if they can see youre in a good place, thats enough for them, they dont want to dredge up the miserable shit and the negative shit and I like that. In the UK, they like to put you in a box, dont they? The National Treasure box: tolerated and occasionally revered. Its a bit restrictive.

Furthermore, Culture Club are once more back in business, touring the US and Australia, with a headline show at Wembley Arena next week, and it all appears to be going remarkably well, given the bands famously combustible reputation. The last time British audiences clapped eyes on them was on a BBC documentary about their attempts to record an album and play a tour in 2014. How well that went can be gleaned from the programmes title: From Karma to Calamity. Everyone knows that Culture Clubs stretch of success in the 80s Beatlemania-like scenes around the world, tens of millions of records sold was pockmarked by internal strife, mostly as the result of Georges frequently violent relationship with drummer Jon Moss. But watching them writing songs in a Spanish studio, you found yourself wondering how they ever functioned at all: the surprisingly geezerish band members seemed so utterly unlike their frontman, who, for his part, spent the programme looking like a man who would rather be almost anywhere else than in their company. And yet, here they are, 18 months on, knocking them dead at the Hard Rock Hotel, Tulsa, getting along famously.

Well, I think at this point, you just have to let people be who they are, says George. Youre in a band with someone, it doesnt necessarily mean youre going to agree with everything they think or do. Me and Jon have always bickered and well always bicker, because, you know, he says things like: Itll be great if Trump got it, itll be interesting, with a straight face. He uses a lot of hyperbole, he says extreme things, but me arguing with Jon has nothing to do with our relationship. I mean, people say: Do you get on with the rest of them? but I wouldnt go on the road with them if I didnt like them. I do love those guys, I really love them, and thats genuine. Theres a little bit of me that feels like I wouldnt be here without them. So, you know, I respect them, I dont always agree with them, and I always say that theres something very magical about us playing together, thats when it makes sense. Another laugh. And the rest of the time, its like: What the fuck am I doing on the road with you?

Culture
Culture Club in Washington DC in 1983 … (clockwise from top left) Boy George, Roy Hay, Mikey Craig and Jon Moss. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images
Still, he concedes, they have their moments. Oh God, we were doing Princes club in Minneapolis, and I decided we were going to do Purple Rain, and we had the biggest row weve had in 20 years. We had a row about the arrangement, then a runner at the club said to Roy [Hay, guitarist]: Oh, everybody does Prince songs when they come here, which just made it worse. I really kicked off, I had to go and apologise: Oh, Im sorry, I havent done that since 1984. Then we played it and the whole sound system broke down. I think it was Prince, up there he gestures to the skies shitstirring it.

He thinks at least one of the reasons why relations have improved is because he feels comfortable in his own skin. He used to be much more self-conscious when he was younger, he says: he would get dressed up as Boudicca or a geisha to go clubbing, then lose his temper when people remarked on how he looked. Yeah, kind of look at me, but dont look at me thats the dichotomy of exhibitionism in a way. You want people to look at you, but you dont want them to comment. You want to be a spectacle, but you dont want them to home in on you, you dont want to be analysed.

He says Culture Clubs vast success only compounded matters. He looked like someone born to be a pop star, but often found the experience weirdly uncomfortable. Onstage, he couldnt look at the audience: I used to go and see Bowie or Grace Jones, who were just awe-inspiring, they had that confidence, they were in command, and I would think: I need to be more like that.

Offstage, he continued to struggle with attention. Its all fun at the beginning because youre being carted everywhere in limousines and trucks and then when you start wanting to go out in the real world, it doesnt quite work. It takes years to get your head around how to have some sort of normal life whilst also enjoying the spoils of being Boy George. I think Ive got that balance now. If someone comes up and wants a selfie, Im not going to be rude or hostile or arsey. I just pull a silly face. If in doubt: pout.

He understandably doesnt want to talk about drugs or prison Im nine years sober in February, just short of a decade, so theres got to be a point where its like Move on, I have but its still pretty clear what happened in 2008 was the big turning point in his life. I unceremoniously fucked things up myself. There was a point, nine years ago, where I said to myself: You really fucked this up, and youve really got to fix it, and you can fix it. I knew it would take time, but I really believed it.

Certainly, his career now seems to be blooming again. His recent documentary for the BBC about life in the suburbs in 70s Britain was rapturously received. Theres talk of him launching his own makeup range and of a Vegas residency with Cyndi Lauper. Hes not returning as a judge on the UK version of The Voice; instead, hes currently a contestant on The New Celebrity Apprentice in the US, now helmed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, rather than the president-elect, alongside a lot of footbally, sportsy-type American guys and Vince Neil from Mtley Cre. There was even talk of his own US reality series, but he abandoned the idea. It was going to be about me moving to America, but I think I was too interesting. Im not really a fan of that whole reality show Lets create a scenario thing. I dont need to create scenarios. Look at my life! Ive got scenarios coming out of my ears.

You can understand the lure of primetime US TV, but it still seems a shame hes given up The Voice. For one thing, he was very good on it: funny and generous and engaging. For another, it was just nice to see someone try to flip the usual, boring script of TV pop talent shows on their heads. He went out of his way to pick the weirdest contestants, then gave them Antony and the Johnsons songs to sing. It was as if he was trying to singlehandedly will pop music back to the way it was when Culture Club broke. Watching their early Top of the Pops appearances on BBC4 recently, what was striking wasnt so much how extraordinary Boy George looks, but the fact that, with the benefit of hindsight, he doesnt look that out of place: the chart was still largely a playground for freaks and eccentrics.

It feels like the mainstream has been hijacked by hitmakers, people who are really good at writing songs that all drop in the right places, theyre all pleasant, but theres not many people who really give of themselves, if you know what I mean, he says. When I was 19, there was still the mystery of rocknroll, there was still the wizard behind the curtain. Kids now, they know how to make records, they know where to get their clothes. They dont have to walk to Deptford High Street to look at the platform shoes in the window, they can go online and get them from Asos, whereas we had to dream about it: is this possible? Now, its like: Yeah, you can be famous, you get on this show, you do that, you do this, but I think the thing is, I dont think it necessarily means that much. Im glad I had that exciting first part of my career in a decade when you could make a cultural difference of sorts, you know? Theres a lot of no-neck tracks around with 400m hits and you think they dont mean anything, whereas Madonnas cone bra still has some sort of resonance! But then, maybe if youre 14, they do. I still get excited about lots of music, but its not stuff that you hear in the mainstream. I love the Knife, the Lower Dens if it was the 80s the Lower Dens would be massive. I saw Lets Eat Grandma on TV and I fucking loved them. I can say I like Zayn Malik, hes got a beautiful voice, hes beautiful looking, but its not the same feeling as I get from looking at Jam Rostron from Planningtorock. I think shes amazing, so beautiful, but its a kind of distorted beauty. Looking at her and hearing the message of her music, for me, its just the same as it always was. Its great pop music and its about something.

Despite the reality TV and the makeup range, he says he still thinks of himself as a songwriter first. Hes been working with his old friend and sparring partner Marilyn, theres a new Culture Club album due next year and hes been mentoring a trio called Brando who he describes as total glam, total Roxy, massive Smiths fans. Worrying about the industry and the radio and all of that, its just pointless, you just have to get on with it. OK, that doors shut, lets go through another door. Thats always been my policy. Im very adaptable. Very Darwinian.

I start saying something about his new, positive outlook on life, but he corrects me. No, Ive always been positive. I wouldnt still be here if I wasnt. I think youre always who you are, but life distracts you, particularly because of fame everybody treats you different, therefore you end up with a distorted idea of who you are. Dont you think that lifes about growing into yourself in a funny kind of way? Youre looking for answers and I think as you get older, you realise there arent really answers. You just have to kind of get on with it. Life is kind of like clinging to a rock, isnt it? Were all clinging to a rock, and some people have got a better grip than others. Some people look bedraggled, he smiles, and other people look like Jerry Hall dressed as mermaid on that Roxy Music album cover.

Culture Club play SSE Arena Wembley on 14 December

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/dec/08/boy-george-were-all-clinging-to-a-rock-and-some-people-have-got-a-better-grip-than-others

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