Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “Karma Chameleon” (1983) by Culture Club

Looks like the trajectory of gayness that my Every Number-One Single challenge had been taking of late took a brief detour with my last post on T.I.’s “Whatever You Like”. That song is as heterosexual as they come, but I had fun writing that review! Of course, since I recently reviewed Pet Shop Boys and Barbra Streisand, it would only be a matter of time before my randomizer would embark upon yet another gay icon of the music world. And here we are! I’m starting to think the randomizer knows me a little too well…

But I’ll digress. Culture Club are a pretty big deal, especially when the early 80s became the mid 80s. 1983 in particular gave us what many have called the Second British Invasion. As dance music continued its slow descent from the disco era and punk music became increasingly nihilistic and tougher to exploit in the mainstream, groups from overseas began flooding the charts with a new, fresh sound. With more textured instrumentation, strange lyrics, and charismatic identities, groups like Duran Duran, Eurythmics, and The Human League found themselves rubbing shoulder-to-shoulder with all the popular American artists like Michael Jackson and Hall & Oates. This is no better defined by the year-end Hot 100 of 1983, which finds UK band The Police nabbing the coveted top spot.

Also present amongst this clashing of cultures is one Culture Club, who have three of the spots contained within the top 100. Nonetheless, while all three of these songs (“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”, “Time (Clock of the Heart)” and “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”) were huge top ten hits in the States, it wasn’t until the following year where they would accomplish their first and only number-one hit in America: “Karma Chameleon”. As the second single from their second studio album Colour By Numbers, the song captured the colorful personality of frontman Boy George and the rest of his bandmates, topping the charts for three glimmering weeks. After a jaunty guitar riff at the start, the song transitions into what has become one of the band’s signature sounds – a quirky harmonica, played by The Hideaways’ Judd Lander (who also makes an appearance on Colour By Numbers‘s first single, “Church of the Poison Mind”).

From then on, frontman Boy George takes center stage, soulfully crooning the opening couplet: “Desert loving in your eyes all the way / If I listened to your lies, would you say”. Like much of Culture Club’s lyrics, the meaning to this song is relatively cryptic and requires a bit of reading between the lines. At face value, though, this song is magically, wonderfully poppy, with enormous hooks of which I’m sure had many a songwriter wishing they’ve composed. The chorus alone is instantly infectious: “Loving would be easy if your colors were like my dreams / Red, gold, and green; red, gold, and green”.

At this surface level reading, I actually consider this to be among the lower tier of Culture Club singles. As I briefly mentioned in my overview of 1984’s top 100 songs, I find Culture Club to be at their absolute best when their lyrics are sad and mournful, with more lush instrumentation to match. The easiest example of such would be their first US top-ten single “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?”, which is a beautiful display of not only Boy George’s androgynous vocals, but the textured midtempo production and the painfully poignant lyrics of heartache. The fact that it’s specifically gay heartache makes this song far more cutting edge than many people give it credit for.

This theme carries over with “Karma Chameleon”. As I mentioned, the lyrics take a bit of close reading, but there are also some lines that are a bit more upfront about it (“Didn’t hear your wicked words every day / And you used to be so sweet, I heard you say / That my love was an addiction”). As the story goes, this was one of many songs written about the troubled affair between Boy George and the band drummer Jon Moss – just regular foolish relationship stuff. While the phrase “karma chameleon” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it is implied that the impact of karma kicks in when one refuses to commit themselves fully to a relationship out of fear of alienation. Basically, this is a song that is less about heartache than it is about frustration; this is no more apparent than in the middle eighth, wherein the turmoiled singer sings, “Everyday is like survival / You’re my lover, not my rival“.

While more uptempo cuts like “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” and “Miss Me Blind” still contain these lyrics about romantic turmoil and are undeniably well-produced and polished, they don’t quite come off as amazing to me, maybe by virtue of being pretty loose and danceable. That’s basically where I stand on “Karma Chameleon” as well – it’s uplifting, incredibly easy to dance and sing along to, but a tad irritating to penetrate and relatively flat, compared to the Club’s previous output. For anyone who was relatively unfamiliar with the group and their other songs, I wouldn’t blame them for thinking that this is one of the best songs of the 80s (and they might even be right!). For anyone else, though, I would quickly turn their attention to “Time (Clock of the Heart)”… but that’s for another day.

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