1984…The Hottest Hit On The Planet Was…
It’s “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club!
There’s a scene in Smash Hits journalist Dave Rimmer’s delightful little book, Like Punk Never Happened, in which Boy George – along with the rest of Culture Club – are in New York.
They’re not properly famous yet. But Boy George still looks like Boy George, and an old lady comes up to him in the street to ask him what his whole deal is.
I’ll let Dave tell the story:
“Well”, George starts to explain, “we’re from England and…”
“I can TELL you’re English” she interrupts. “You don’t have to be a mind reader to tell that!”
I love this exchange because it demonstrates everything about British pop music in the early-mid 80s – this scene happened in December 1982.
An era in which the UK was known for a handful of exports: Yorkshire puddings, bulldogs, warm ale… and freaky looking pop stars!
And Boy George, what with his plucked eyebrows, and all the ribbons, tassels…
…and who knows what else!?!?! – in his braided hair, combined with a seemingly endless supply of hats – George’s hair has long gone, but his hats remain – was probably the freakiest looking of them all.
At least until Pete Burns from Dead Or Alive turned up a year or so later.
“Karma Chameleon” is a happy sounding song about an unhappy relationship, specifically George’s relationship with Culture Club’s drummer Jon Moss. Presumably a “Karma Chameleon” is someone who is constantly having mood swings. That has nothing to do with “karma” of course – it has nothing to do with a cat, purring in George’s lap, because it loves him. But the alliteration is nice, particularly once you’ve said “karma” for about the millionth time.
The biggest mystery of “Karma Chameleon” is of course: what the hell is Boy George going on about with “Red, Gold and Green”?
Is it in support of Rastafarianism? Pan-Africanism? Was “red, gold & green” the pre-rainbow colour scheme for Gay Pride? Whilst the latter makes the most sense, it’s only during discussions of “Karma Chameleon” that this pre-rainbow-flag-colour-scheme is ever mentioned.
Is it because “red, gold and green” are popular chameleon colours, and because it rhymes with “dream”? It’s worth mentioning that chameleons also seem to quite like blue, however. The mystery continues…
“Karma Chameleon” isn’t perfect. For a song about a dysfunctional relationship, it sounds remarkably like a wedding band struggling to play reggae. And other than providing an excuse for Boy George to mime playing a harmonica, the video makes absolutely no sense!
There’s another story, later in the book, in which Dave’s brother is on a safari, in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro – and yet, somehow, still thousands of kilometres away from the Serengeti – and his jeep breaks down.
He approaches the local Masai village, worried at how they were be received, when what does he hear? He hears “Karma Chameleon!!*
Everybody starts smiling at each other. “Karma Chameleon” makes everything okay! How’s that for a global hit?!?!
“Karma Chameleon” is an 8.
(*Did the Masai think the lyrics were in support of Pan-Africanism?)
Meanwhile in Synth Pop Land: It’s “It’s My Life” by Talk Talk
Talk Talk. Nowadays – in certain circles – their name is evoked with something close to awe. As though they are one of the… if not quite “greats”, if not quite up there with Prince, U2 and The Smiths or whoever… then certainly very well respected B-listers.
And “It’s My Life” is now, in certain circles, almost inescapable.
I feel I hear it at least once a month whilst I’m just randomly going shopping. Maybe all the synthesized bird sounds makes customers feel relaxed enough to make a purchase.
But this was not always the case.
Let’s look at the evidence. Talk Talk never appeared on the cover of NME. The album that “It’s My Life” belongs to – also titled It’s My Life – never seems to have appeared on any contemporary best-of-1984 list. Neither was “It’s My Life” played much on college radio in the States.*
It’s as though nobody took them seriously until they recorded a proto-Radiohead album in 1988.
Or until No Doubt covered them.
Curiously enough, it was exactly 20 Years Ago that the No Doubt version of ‘It’s My Life” became a huge global hit. Will I discuss it again when I do “20 Years Ago” in a few weeks time?
I will not. But it is worth mentioning that No Doubt were considering covering INXS’s “Don’t Change” instead. I don’t know if I could imagine that.
Also, does anyone else think that Gwen sounded an awful lot like Kylie on that version?
But if no one else was taking them seriously in 1984, Talk Talk were making up for it themselves:
With a video that was nothing but footage of wildlife and Mark Hollis looking like the grumpiest person who has ever visited a zoo.
But then again, I guess it is difficult to take a band seriously when their euphoric radio-single is full of synthesized bird noises.
“It’s My Life” is a 9.
*Based on the CMJ Top 250 1979-1989, on which it does not appear…
Meanwhile in Duran Land: It’s “The Union Of The Snake” by Duran Duran
What the hell is Simon Le Bon on about?
One of the iron-clad laws of pop is that teen idol groups always have dead simple lyrics. Cases in point:
New Kids On The Block:
“Step by step, oh baby, gonna get to you girl…”
Or One Direction: “You don’t know you’re beautiful, oh oh, that’s what makes you beautiful…”
Or Justin Bieber: “Like, “Baby, baby, baby, oh…”
Duran Duran were obviously different to those bands/artists. They were a proper band, for one thing. A proper band, with artistic pretentions. But even proper bands with artistic pretentions need their fans to at least be able to guess what they hell they are on about.
“The union of the snake, is on the ri-i-ise!!” What the hell is Simon Le Bon on about?
At least with something like “Hungry Like The Wolf,” you knew what Simon and le boys were on about: – probably sex, even if the “smells like a sound” line was simply begging to be the butt of a multitude of fart jokes. Which indeed it was.
A quick Google of “union of the snake duran duran lyrics meanings” sent me down a rabbit hole of chakras.
It turns out that the Kundalini energy is a coiled snake located in your first chakra – tantric sex, and an Ancient Greek myth about a man who turned into a woman after killing a pair of mating snakes.
I’m still utterly confused – in fact, possibly more so – but I feel as though I have learned something.
The video doesn’t help matters at all. I don’t know what those monsters are – half man-half iguana? – but they sure as hell aren’t snakes!
“Union Of The Snake” is a 7.
Meanwhile, in Cheesy One Hit Wonder Land: It’s “Break My Stride” by Matthew Wilder!
Matthew Wilder is quite possibly the biggest dag in all of 80s pop.
I mean, look at him! He looks like a cross-between John Oates and Weird “Al” Yankovic, with perhaps a little bit of Kenny G thrown on top of his head for good measure.
Just look what he – or his choreographers – thought would be the best dance move with which to begin this performance.
Which seems to be the closest the song ever got to an official music video, because why would you make a music video for someone who looks this uncool?
A dance move I can only think of describing as a chipmunk-shoulder-shimmy. And indeed, a chipmunk-shoulder-shimmy is the perfect dance move for such a ditzy piece of 8-bit reggae.
But there is one thing that is cool about “Break My Stride.” It’s a song about Clive Davis.
And how much Matthew hated him.
Matthew had a song writing contract with Arista, but it was going nowhere. He was just sitting around, satisfying his contractual obligations by taking Beatles songs and writing them backwards. I’m sad to report however that “Break My Stride” is not one of those reverse Beatles songs.* You can tell by the fact that Matthew doesn’t sound like The Devil.
This raises a lot of questions. Most notably, what’s the deal with the first verse? Is Matthew accusing Clive of laundering money through a Chinese rowboat company?
But was Clive as dodgy as the guy Matthew would ultimately release “Break My Stride” through:
Joe Isgro, a man who, in 1990, would be indicted for – according to Vice Magazine – “drug trafficking, tax fraud, racketeering, and obstruction of justice.”
Also, for paying radio stations to play “Break My Stride” all the time.
Matthew would go on to record an album, Don’t Speak The Language, and produce “Don’t Speak” for No Doubt… who are getting mentioned surprisingly often in this post.
“Break My Stride” is a 6.
*Although if it was a backwards Beatles’ song, which one would it be? My money is on “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.”
Meanwhile in Goth Land: “The Killing Moon” by Echo & The Bunnymen
And adding a dash of sex appeal to Goth Land. Something that Robert Smith with his silly “Love Cats” dancing could never have accomplished, even if he had tried – with his great big staring eyes, partially obscured by the bird’s nest sitting on his head, not to mention his equally huge lips. This final facial feature was particularly useful when promoting their new album Ocean Rain, an album that Ian liked to describe as “kissing music,”
Ian McCulloch may also have possessed a third nipple.
I’m basing this solely on a quote in Simon Reynold’s post-punk history Rip It Up And Start Again in which Ian is discussing Echo & The Bunnymen’s performance of their previous hit “The Cutter,” on Top Of The Pops:
“And I thought, ‘we’re at No.27, do we want to go up the charts or not?
Get to get the nipples out. All three of them.”
So I’ve perused the footage, and… Ian only actually revealed one single nipple… so I guess that’s… inconclusive? I’ve come to accept that it was probably a joke.
Songs about the moon have been a popular pop standby since at least the days of Tin Pan Alley. All those moon, swoon, June songs.
But “The Killing Moon” is clearly not “Shine On, Harvest Moon.” On the other hand, the lyrical theme – that of losing your virginity on a moonlit night – is broadly the same. The main difference is that “The Killing Moon” is a moon, swoon, June song for vampires. It also doesn’t seem to be at all consensual.
Everything about “The Killing Moon” is perfectly creepy. The chorus – “fate… up against your will” – seems to be less of a chorus and more some kind of hypnotic chant or incantation, recited to put you under Ian’s spell. By about the 7th time he recites this incantation, the spell has well and truly been cast. By the time the song is over, you’ve given yourself to him.
“The Killing Moon” is a 10!
To hear these, and other 80s hits, tune into DJ Professor Dan’s Twitch stream on Friday – 26th January at 8pm (Melbourne time), 9am London time, 1am L.A. time (technically Tuesday, but really Monday), middle of the night New York time!!!
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