19 June 2010
The War Song by Culture Club. Boy George claims it ruined his life. It certainly ruined Culture Club's ultra-dominant career.
Even as an 11 year old, I could tell that the chorus of this song was all wrong. I marvelled at pop songs and wondered what these heroic lyricists were really trying to say. That was part of the appeal. But, well, "war is stupid and people are stupid" is a line that basically starts with the bleeding obvious and then cuts into sweeping generalisation. That the rest of the chorus does go slightly more profound thereafter is neither here nor there.
I can only assume that George wanted to create a message so fundamental that any nationality or creed that had discovered (or been allowed to discover) western pop music could understand it from their own rudimentary grasp of the English language. The problem with that is, worthy though it may seem, it just got the band hugely ridiculed by their core fans in the west. It is easily the most annoying song in Culture Club's canon and from it they would not recover.
The War Song was released in the autumn of 1984, at a time when Culture Club could do no wrong. Their star had only waned because of a six month absence from the charts between albums, during which time Wham!, a band that regarded Culture Club as their fiercest rivals, had grabbed hold of the UK charts by ditching the politics and the mardiness and embracing sex while wearing coloured gloves and clapping along to the songs. They had got their first No.1 in doing so. George was never out of the headlines but had not been in the charts since It's A Miracle had been released in the March, which just acted as the obligatory fourth-single-from-multi-platinum-album that record companies insisted on. Colour By Numbers had been that album, which had included 1983's biggest-selling single Karma Chameleon. George was great for a quote, had an enormous female following as well as obvious gay icon status and was photographed with a new hairdo every week. The band could afford to take time out to record as the force of personality their frontman possessed made it impossible for them to be forgotten.
And then out came The War Song. And that wretched chorus.
If you were going to write a song about war and conflict, then 1984 was the time to do it. But we'd spent the year being told by Nena, Ultravox and Nik Kershaw, among others, about how dangerous a world we were living in. For Culture Club, a band so influential on adolescent attitudes in 1984, to then dictate to us that "war is stupid" and "people are stupid" was an insult.
The verses were, of course, more fleshed out and considered and educational. But only hardened pop kids of that era remember them. On television appearances, George did his usual cutesy shtick to the camera and oozed charisma. But the song was lightweight and, irrespective of message, wrong. It entered the charts at No.3 and climbed to No.2 the following week. Even upon its high entry, nobody believed it would go to No.1. Stevie Wonder's calendar-defying stint at the top was ending, but Wham!, in the ultimate test of how far they had really come, issued their latest single seven days after Culture Club brought out The War Song. Wham! climbed to No.1 after a week, Culture Club stayed at No.2.
The album, called Waking Up With The House On Fire, was panned by inkies and teen mags alike. The follow up single was called The Medal Song and was as rotten as its high 30s chart peak - not much more than a year after Karma Chameleon racked up seven-figure sales - suggested. All we saw of George in a positive light at this end of 1984 was his mock-egotistical late entry into the SARM studios for Band Aid at the end of November, flying across on Concorde to record his orange-haired, Cognac-laced vocals for the song and interrupting Culture Club's tour of the USA in doing so. The band survived as business partners without much friendliness until their fourth album in 1986. Then they split.
There were, of course, other factors in this remarkable demise of Culture Club. George's relationship with drummer Jon Moss is oft-quoted, and there was George's own uncontrollable descent into drug dependency which earned him television news time to go with the infernal column inches written about him. But so many major bands down the years have been inspired by factions, or been professional to put them aside, while music on drugs can be the best ever recorded. Culture Club might not be rare as an example of a band that disintegrated because of drugs and egos, but the speed with which it happened, and the height from which it made them fall, were quite astonishing. And one song - The War Song - kicked it all off.
It got pretentious with the "sento hantai" business in the lyrics at the end, and if there are redeeming features, then they are that remarkable head-spinning noise that separates verse from chorus (and Roy Hay always mimed on television in close-up, as if it had been done by a guitar) and the traditional scat-like warble that the marvellous Helen Terry managed on so many Culture Club singles. Must dig out my copy of Love Lies Lost...
The video? Kids playing at war while camp dancers did their stuff as squaddies and grainy footage of tanks ominously interrupt. I don't have much to say about it, except that scarlet hair looked quite nice on George, actually.
The War Song did not appear on the Greatest Moments album that Culture Club issued when making their 1998 comeback. The band seemingly blamed that song, symptomatic of the whole period of their existence, for where it all went wrong.