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Like Punk Never Happened
Like Punk Never Happened: Culture Club and the New Pop
Faber and Faber, 2011 (first publication, 1986)
When Culture Club came to prominence at the forefront of New Pop, their lead singer Boy George was largely accepted as a figure of determined liberation: neglectful of traditional gender roles, a symbol of empowerment and individuality. At the height of their fame, the band’s story was documented in Dave Rimmer’s book Like Punk Never Happened – originally published in 1985 – recently reprinted as a Faber Find. The book highlights themes that remain resonant today. Rimmer’s account is a sour portrayal of the malign patterns that continue to shape the music industry: constant repackaging of old trends and the inevitable corruption of admirable ideals. Through intimate access to Culture Club at their most popular, Rimmer documents the unravelling of a band who initially styled themselves as a democratic, fan-friendly proposition. But as the band became increasingly successful across the globe, Rimmer witnessed behind-the-scenes manoeuvres more reminiscent of bloody-minded Thatcherism than populism.
While the group was certainly business-minded from the outset, particularly due to the pragmatism of George’s in-band partner John Moss, it is Moss himself who denies accusations of Thatcherism in the group’s mindset. Moss contrasts the pure materialism of the similarly successful Duran Duran with Culture Club’s ethos of celebrating what their fans can have, rather than what it is out of their reach. The group began life as a democracy, communicating with their fans closely and splitting the songwriting royalties four ways. Culture Club were regularly celebrated for their in-band cultural diversity, which encompassed class, sexuality and race. Similarly, in terms of the songwriting itself, postmodern eclecticism struck the dominant tone: a classic melody here and a riff there might be casually liberated to orchestrate hits and to suggest a modern, celebratory, unifying aesthetic, with nods to the enduring hits of the past.
Rimmer was initially impressed by the revolutionary mechanisms the group used to set itself apart from the past. However, it was not long before arrogance and prima donna behaviour set in: it was the band’s relationship with the musical and tabloid press that eventually came to break them. George insisted on playing the newspapers, but this strategy eventually backfired, as negative stories began to be printed alongside outrageous tales of decadence and drama – some of which were true, while others were concocted by George himself. It was during the 1984 Japanese tour that the masks began to fall. Initially, the tour seemed a huge success. In the repressive environment of 1980s Japan, George was idolised with Christ-like reverence, and viewed as a figure of promise, positive self-expression and hope. But underneath the adulation, Rimmer witnessed the cruel treatment of staff as the group looked for cutthroat strategies to keep the wagon rolling. These include demanding large financial cuts from Rimmer for the privilege of being alongside them for long periods of time, and a request for the right to veto any unflattering stories about the group.
After an initial run of hits such as “Karma Chameleon” and “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me”, Culture Club’s critical and commercial success began to grind to a halt. Feuds with controversial yet incredibly successful situationist-influenced pop acts such as Frankie Goes To Hollywood marked the point at which Culture Club’s rivals started to overtake them. Frankie’s Paul Rutherford poured scorn on Culture Club’s supposedly anti-establishment stance, comparing Boy George to Matt Monro and claiming that George was purely out for himself. There was a widespread sense amongst the public and the press that the band’s initial burst of triumph was followed by a deterioration in melodic and lyrical prowess. This view is borne out by the muted success of their second album, and by a third album put to bed with extreme haste. In Rimmer’s account, the time allocated to songwriting was instead taken up by petty arguments and increasingly decadent behaviour.
The story of Culture Club exemplifies the manner in which the canonisation of pop stars can destroy the characteristics that first attract us to them. The creative burn-out described in Like Punk Never Happened is rapid, as the band opens up to Rimmer about the fiscal and commercial rewards that come with sticking rigidly to an established formula, eschewing experimentalism in favour of cynically rewriting past successes.
Like Punk Never Happened concludes in 1985, before Boy George’s heroin overdose, but around the time of Band Aid, a project that saw George duet on a Christmas single, charitably cosying up to a plethora of his supposed enemies. The fourth Culture Club album sank almost without trace. Nearly thirty years after its original publication, Rimmer’s book is a depressingly relevant read. With the recent revolution in music consumption and the related decline in sales, some may argue that we need our pop stars to go the extra mile – to be controversial, and to maintain star qualities that enable them to stand out from the throng of musicians whose work is available at the click of a button. While we want our pop stars to be made of different ingredients to the man in the street, the appeal of showbiz media demonstrates how invigorated we feel when they are brought down a peg or two. Yet, as a lesson for history and a warning against the destructive tendencies of fame and fortune, Like Punk Never Happened is as relevant to 2012 as to 1985.
David Lichfield graduated from York St John University with a BA in Theatre, Film, and TV in 2006.