It’s hard to appreciate just what a big deal Boy George was back in the early 80’s. First of all the ‘is he a she debate?’ was, I recall, something of a national obsession, helping to catapult Culture Club into the big time all over the world. Then the drugs took hold and George was all over the papers again, this time literally fighting for life (at one point he was even outed by his own brother who claimed George had just days to live...looking at footage of the time he had a point). In recent years it’s been all about his battles with the law, culminating with what he tonight called his ‘holiday’ at her majesty’s pleasure last year. The fact that he’s arguably better known for all this other stuff right now than he is for his music is a real shame. Strip away the fuck ups (and boy, George has made his fair share) and there’s a lusciously rich vein of classic pop and dance anthems to get stuck into. Tonight, happily, George decided to do just that, covering all bases from early Culture Club through to his early solo stuff on to Jesus Loves You and right up to date with current single ‘Amazing Grace’.
The venue was packed out with its fair share of forty something Old Romantics as well as a handful of people who’d made a real effort to make themselves look as George-ous as possible. Two chaps in particular pulled off the current George look (Philip Treacy hat, jacket with a few sparkly bits and a little pattern drawn on the side of his face in eyeliner...I think...I’m not a make-up expert despite my priddy, priddy face...it’s all natural you know) really well.
There was no support act so, bang on 8 pm (that’s probably locking up time in Pentonville), George and co came on, thanking the crowd for making it through the volcanic ash, before opening up with a lively rendition of ‘Generations of Love’. Given his well publicised battles with all kinds of nasty shit and the fact that he’s nudging close to 50 the voice is holding up remarkably well. It’s got a richer, much more lived in tone now...bearing the scars of a thousand and one late nights and last chances no doubt. George then attempted to engage in a little political debate. The audience weren’t up for it. At last we the people seem to have realised that voting is about as much use as trying to empty an ocean with a teaspoon. George did come out as a Liberal Democratic though...so expect to see Nick Clegg havin’ it large down at Heaven in a pair of PVC hotpants sometime soon.
The next number, ‘Vote for Love’ was probably the weakest of the night, nothing bad about it in particular but it just sort of bounced along like a slightly deflated balloon at a children’s party. The rest of the set however was a celebration of the best of the Boy. ‘Everything I Own’ got the oldies up and dancing and from then on in there wasn’t a duff moment. I’m not a massive fan of ‘Amazing Grace’ but tonight’s stripped back reworking achieved the kind of hope in the face of adversity that I think George was going for in the first place. ‘Pentonville Blues’, also inspired by his ‘holiday’ and dedicated to Jonny Cash (another artist with a penchant for prisons...although not as an inmate) revisits George’s love of reggae and came off really well for a new track that, I’m guessing, most of the audience were unfamiliar with. Naturally the Culture Club numbers went down like lube at a fisting party with ‘Victims’ (probably the best song he’s ever done), ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ and ‘Karma Chameleon’ all getting an airing. Some of the tracks are so well known that I can forgive a little bit of karaoke-ness creeping in here and there. Lordy knows how many times he’s sung ‘Karma Chameleon’, but far from being naff, perhaps because George is such as survivor, it was a pretty joyful affair. The most surprising moments tonight were the cover versions, ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’ and ‘Down By The Riverside’ all of which made the best use of that rich, smokiness George’s voice now possesses. ‘Nobody Knows...’ in particular had the kind of feel that only comes from going through some serious shit in your life. Admittedly most of its self inflicted in George’s case, whereas the origins of the song lie in the struggles of people enslaved by others, but nevertheless it was a truly soulful rendition. Add ‘Bow Down Mister’, T-Rex’s ‘Get It On’ and an old, long forgotten track of George’s called ‘The Deal’ and, as sets go, it was a wilfully eclectic mix covering everything from gospel, soul, blues, pop, disco and reggae to Hindu devotionals. I’m struggling to think of anyone else who could pull it off? Despite, or maybe because of his trials and tribulations, tonight the Boy done good.