Colour By Numbers – Culture Club (1983)


‘Colour By Numbers” is the second album from the British Pop/New Wave group Culture Club. Led by front man George O’Dowd (known by his stage name Boy George) this album heralded much success for the group who were gaining much interest for the appearance of George as well as their music.

Ultimately though no matter how much fanfare surrounded Boy George it would be the music which would be the telling factor if Culture Club would be taken seriously and this album spawned a number of hits and sold in excess of 10 million albums.

I was pleasantly surprised by “Colour By Numbers” as it is a very enjoyable album to listen to and I defy anyone not to enjoy at least one track from the ten that it offers up.

The album is certainly 80’s in its production and whilst some will say ‘dated’ I will continue to point out that the 1980’s simply had its own unique sound which the word ‘dated’ never does justice to as it is always meant in the negative form.

The blue eyed soul croon from George is a massive factor in the albums success as at times he has enough to sound fragile and also defiant. The massive backing vocals from singer Helen Terry offer a harder edge when George is singing softly over some of the slower tracks and it is almost as if Terry is offering the real inner anguish that George would prefer to just bellow on these songs.

None more so is this evident on the third track “Black Money” where without the vocal from Terry I suspect the track just wouldn’t have had enough depth as the soft anguished vocal from George is met directly head on with some superb backing vocals.

The album opens with the detestable “Karma Chameleon” which is a real unfair snapshot of this album and Culture Club in general. Go to any 1980’s Pop compilation and its likely this song will be high on the track-list as it’s a piece of 80’s throwaway pop with a chorus everyone knows.

“Karma Chameleon” is arguably the most cheesy and cringy song of the 1980’s and despite it being the biggest hit in the bands history and the big song off this album it doesn’t fit to me. Musically it is almost a country-esq with a horrible harmonica being played throughout.

The bouncy pop doesn’t disappear on the next track “It’s a Miracle” and it is certainly a fun and bubbly track. I remember hearing Boy George say in an interview many years ago that this song was actually orginally called “It’s America” and because of that I couldn’t help but replace the lyrics with that instead which helped me make a lot more sense of the song.

The title “It’s a Miracle” therefore has no reference to the verses at all and if you say in your head “It’s America” lyrics like “Where Hollywood lay it’s footprints down” start to become clearer.

I’ve already mentioned “Black Money” which is a real standout track on this album and offers real diversity given what we have heard on the opening two tracks. The song is about love and not being loved in return.

“Changing Every Day” is a real treat. I didn’t know this song at all going into this album and have been playing it constantly since. Musically it is rich with atmosphere created by a piano which drives the song forward with the bass and the drums coming in to give it greater depth.

George puts in a great vocal performance and never over reaches which is important as it is one of those songs he could have gone off on a ad lib frenzy. The saxophone and Jazzy scatters of the final minute make this song the albums real high point.

“That’s The Way” is again piano led in what is the first real ballad on the set. It’s a song that takes from soul music of old with George and Terry almost singing a duet on this one. Lyrically it’s one of the most personal on the album and seems to be about a friend who has succumbed to some sort of addiction and the offer of friendship does not seem to be getting through.

“Church Of The Poison Mind” completely changes the mood of the album and gives it the required lift in tempo that we needed after the last few tracks. This song is uptempo and was a obvious choice of a single.

Again whilst George is the main singer it is the backing vocals on the chorus from Helen Terry which steal the show. With the title of the song having the world “Church” included the whole song sounds like a gospel take on 80’s pop. The harmonica from Karma Chameleon makes a return but sounds more at home on this one.

“Miss Me Blind” is infectious. The hook is memorable and musically I love this track. Even without the lyrics this would be a foot stomping pop funk frenzy.

Lyrically the song is self explanatory in the sense that it is about our protagonist know that he will be missed and telling this person he is with that this will be the case. I feel that George sounds his happiest on this track as with many of the others there is an almost clumsy fragility about his voice but this one he seems almost pleased that this person is going to miss him so much as it gives him that sense of control.

“Mister Man” has a tinge of Reggae influence in it’s music which we will see later in the career of Boy George that he likes to try his hand out. This track is not as interesting musically but again they have created a great hook in a song which seems more political than any of the others included on “Colour By Numbers” as George talks about violence, gun use, hate, and death.

“Stormkeeper” is a track dealing with sexuality and acceptance. Another personal lyrical track with George in a relationship with someone who doesn’t want to publicly acknowledge the relationship.

Don’t let them tell you
That this love is wrong
And don’t let them fool you
That this love can’t go on

The album finishes with the utterly over the top and ridiculously big “Victims”. This song is so overly dramatic that when those first piano notes start the song you could be forgiven for thinking that bad things are on the horizon.

But I really love this song. It may be a little indulgent especially when the song drops to silence for massive drums and wailing backing vocals to take over.

George is vocally on point on “Victims” and this is so far removed from “Karma Chameleon” it is almost like listening to a different band altogether.

The song lyrically is much darker than the other tracks we hear on the album and we get an insight into how George has dealt with the hard times in his life in terms of dealing with his sexuality and appearance.

The introduction of strings later in the song only add to it’s epic scale and this is right up there with the best of 1980’s ballads. It has all the drama required and Culture Club show again their diversity.

The word diversity is the important one to take from “Colour By Numbers” as Culture Club have offered up an album with lots of different type of song which never sound the same. It’s well produced, fun, enjoyable and I can’t deny that it has a few very good songs.

“Colour By Numbers” surprised me as I wasn’t expecting too much from it especially knowing that the odious ‘Karma Chameleon’ was the big single from the set but the rest of the album more than made up for that hideous song and offers some rich sounding and intelligent pop music.


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