ON THE RECORD: BOY GEORGE
A large bowl of fruit sits atop a table in the elevator lobby of New York’s elegant SoHo Grand Hotel. Boy George swipes an apple, winks, takes a bite, and presses the up button. “Hmmm, mealy,” he surmises in his familiar teary tenor. Each of his movements—gliding back to the front desk to apologize for needing another key card, wiping his forehead and eyes when the combination of exhaustion and a bittersweet memory gets to be too much—is graceful and done with intention. After surviving a wild youth at The Blitz, scoring massive international hits like “Karma Chameleon” with Culture Club in the ’80s, and burning the midnight oil in his second act as a club DJ, the 52-year-old singer is five years sober, has a new studio full-length, This Is What I Do—a voluminous, melancholic ode to the ’70s rock he grew up on—and is ready to take everything in. “A lot of amazing things have happened to me, but when I was younger, my ability to absorb them was so limited,” he says. “My mom used to always say, ‘Don’t count your chickens.’ It’s a very working-class attitude. I really hope the best memories are to come, because I’m more present now.” In addition to sobriety, he’s also developed a passion for raw, vegan food and Buddhism. A few days prior, he was doing his morning Gongyo chants and a hotel neighbor made a noise complaint. “I got a phone call, like, ‘Hey, can you keep it down?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry!’” he says. “That’s about as rock ’n’ roll as I get now.”
10 OF THE ALBUMS THAT HAVE SHAPED BOY GEORGE’S LIFE AND MUSIC, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER.
PATTY SMITH, HORSES: This was my punk period, but Patti Smith was unique in the punk era. It wasn’t just noise and anger—it was poetry and stories. You could read all sorts of things into her songs as well, you know. I loved the whole album, but particularly the title track. I’d play it over and over and make up my own stories as to what it was about.
DAVID BOWIE, HUNKY DORY: My older brother Richard was the Bowie fan, origi- nally, and I inherited Hunky Dory—the one where he kind of looks like Greta Garbo on the cover—after he’d moved on to Alice Cooper and Faces. It was such an unusual record if you think about the pop music climate then, with Harry Nilsson and Sonny & Cher. Songs like “Eight Line Poem” and “Kooks” were just bonkers. I remember reading the lyrics on the back and just imagin- ing this amazing bohemian existence that he must have led and that I wanted to be part of.
NICO, CHELSEA GIRL: One of my first boyfriends played this record all night long when I stayed at his house—it was the soundtrack to my first romantic experience. I had never heard of Nico, but listening to that album over and over really stuck with me. I particularly loved “Somewhere There’s a Feather,” which Jackson Browne wrote, and “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” which was a Bob Dylan song. When my mom heard Nico, she was like, “That’s not singing,” because it’s kind of atonal, but to me it was very beautiful.
PEARL BAILEY, APPLAUSE: My dad was a builder, and he used to clear out the houses of people who’d passed away or run off without paying their bills. He’d bring back piles of records, all of this really old jazz. I still have some of the records, like Applause. Pearl Bailey had this song, “Widow’s Weeds,” which is about knocking off one husband after another. She had a comic edge, and I loved her voice—she was always kind of giggling.
T.REX, ELECTRIC WARRIOR: A lot of my big musical discoveries happened when I was about 13 or 14, but this is still one of my favorites, with songs like “Rip-Off,” which is quite sexual: “Bleached on the beach/ I want to tickle your peach.” When you’re a kid, it’s quite exciting to hear things like that. This was before Marc Bolan went really glam—it’s more prog and a bit Zeppelin-y. I loved the feather boas and sequins as well, but I think Electric Warrior is one of his more credible re- cords. “What’s it like to be a loon?/ I liken it to a balloon” is such a lovely lyric.
LIZA MINNELLI, CABARET: This album played into my theatrical side. Sally Bowles, Liza Minnelli’s character, was quite like a lot of the girls I hung out with—feisty, carefree, tough chicks. It was basically the soundtrack to my youth. We used to play it before we went out. Even when we were punks, we’d play that. I still really love that record. “Here on the avenue....” I know all of the words.
GARY NUMAN AND TUBEWAY ARMY, REPLICAS: I’d heard “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and loved it, but I did think Gary Numan was a little bit of a Bowie clone, which, at that point, was a mortal crime. I still think the record is brilliant, just one of those timeless, unique albums. The sound on “Me! I Disconnect From You” was so unusual. It was quite an exciting time for music, really. On the TV show Top of the Pops, you could have The Sex Pistols next to Michael Jackson next to an old lady playing the piano next to Cliff Richards, and that was quite normal.
LOU REED, TRANSFORMER: I remember the first time I heard “Walk on the Wild Side” and just being so transfixed by that “doo, do doo” part. The production was theatrical, almost like a drunken version of cabaret, or cabaret on hard drugs. On the back cover was a picture of a woman whom everyone used to say was Lou Reed, but it wasn’t. You bought into all that stuff when you were a kid. It was quite exotic.
SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE, FRESH: I’d had this affair with one of my best friends from school when I was about 17 or 18, and it went horribly wrong. I had to get out of town, and I knew some people in Walsall, England, near where my grandmother lived. As long as I checked in with her once a week, I was allowed to move in with Martin Degville of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and some other freaks in this old den- tal laboratory. There I heard “If You Want Me to Stay” and became the biggest Sly Stone fan. I had a wild time for about six months, and then went back to London.
DISCLOSURE, SETTLE: There’s a whole wave of artists who are referencing the early Chicago/Detroit house sound, but also throwing in a bit of electro, like on “White Noise,” Disclosure’s track with Aluna George. Things are going full circle with dance music, but the sound is a little bit tighter, the produc- tion a bit more polished. A lot of those early house records were really badly sampled, and that was part of their charm. Nowadays, the technology is much better. A lot of the new dance records are minimal but quite bold, which I like.