Saturday, 11 April 2009

1983 Culture Club: Karma Chameleon

For their second number one, Culture Club ditched their earlier light reggae styling in favour of a more direct sound that was at odds with the New Romantic bands they were usually lumped in with.

In contrast to a lot of the music around it in the charts at the time, 'Karma Chameleon' has a remarkably chunky, almost 'indie' feel to it, with a straightforward bassline and guitar rhythm interconnecting over a simple drum pattern. Rather than lazily adding slabs of Roland filling to bulk out the sound the way certain groups were prone to do, 'Karma Chameleon' has a joyous harmonica counter melody that makes the whole track sound like it was recorded live in one take, meaning it's a harder song to date than most from the era. In fact, until George starts to sing, then this could easily be mistaken for something contemporary by Aztec Camera or The Woodentops.

So far so good, but it's when he does start to sing that 'Karma Chameleon' starts to unravel. Culture Club were never known for their insightful lyrics and 'Karma Chameleon' doesn't buck the trend. George sings sweetly of a temperamental lover but by the time this single was released, the world and his dog knew what Boy George was 'about' and so the knowing wink of the repeated line:

"I'm a man who doesn't know how to sell a contradiction"

suggests the unanswered rejoinder of 'Ah! But am I?' and it comes across as more irritating than playful, a cheap play to the gallery regarding an image that was there for all to see in any case rather than letting the music do the talking.

Not that this knowing self referential aside necessarily damns the song to hell, but the repetition of the chorus is also overdone to the point of annoyance, it's as if they knew they had a catchy refrain so were intent on wheeling it out at every opportunity:

"Karma karma karma karma karma chameleon

You come and go, you come and go"

As Oscar Wilde may have said (had he been tasked with reviewing this instead of me), to hear it once may be regarded as an enjoyable experience, to hear it again and again sets the teeth on edge. Neither is this chorus helped by some clumsy metaphor that tries to add a depth of meaning or mystery that just isn't there:

"Loving would be easy if your colours were like my dream

Red, gold and green"

George was always big on colours, but any personal meaning this may have is lost in the telling and what remains does not exactly make you yearn to break out the Rosetta Stone to try and decode it and it leaves behind a chorus that's all tune but with less substance than a roadsweeper's morning whistle.

In our times of eighties nostalgia, 'Karma Chameleon' is a dead cert inclusion in any 'Best Of' round-ups, but to my ears it's a shallow experience that's all gold plate rather than the solid 24 carat of, say, Oblivious' by the aforementioned Aztec Camera, a song released the same year.

'Karma Chameleon' is exactly the sort of breezy, giddy yet throwaway piece that Jonathan King would have written and then created a novelty band to perform it back in the seventies. Yes, it's a catchy tune with an infectious chorus that leaves you smiling, but then so is 'Una Paloma Blanca' and only your hardcore postmodernist would be trumpeting that as any kind of pinnacle of seventies music.

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