Wembley marks near enough to the midpoint of the 12 date UK and Ireland ‘Life’ tour, headlined by Boy George and Culture Club, and supported by Tom Bailey and the Thompson Twins, and Belinda Carlisle. Bailey and Culture Club have been touring together for the better part of this year and last year, while Belinda has only joined for this current run.
Entering the Wembley SSE Stadium I was struck by the idea that for many of the audience this won’t have been their first time seeing any of these bands – likely far from it. In fact, when we took our seats we talked to a couple who’d already seen the show (with the B-52s supporting rather than Carlisle) in Salt Lake City. One had first seen Culture Club when she was 17, and told us George’s voice had improved beyond compare, from even back in the 80s when he had one of the purest voices in pop music. Her husband said we’d really enjoy the show…and we did.
Tom Bailey as show opener was an inspired choice. Dressed in white, as were the members of his band, he was absolutely overflowing with energy, jumping about from instrument to instrument, dancing and singing and putting the rest of us younger folk to shame. It’s clear he enjoys what he does, and although his set only allowed for seven songs, we’re taking this as a taster, and will definitely go see him when he’s headlining. The set list was mostly Thompson Twins songs – ‘Love On Your Side’ and ‘Lies’, from ‘Quick Step And Side Kick’; ‘Doctor! Doctor!’, ‘You Take Me Up’, and ‘Hold Me Now’ from ‘Into The Gap’, and ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’ – with only the title track from his current album, ‘Science Fiction’.
Bailey’s set almost felt like church, with the audience as his willing congregation. A flashing light show with a disco ball on stage fully complemented Bailey and his band. Tom gave a brilliant demonstration of how gifted an artist he is, making his way around just about all the instruments on stage, from harmonica and percussion, to keyboards and guitar. My companion’s observation was that he’s “turning into Mike Oldfield”, but knowing Bailey’s love of music in all its forms and genres, I didn’t agree – this was Tom Bailey being Tom Bailey.
Belinda Carlisle was equally as enthusiastic as Bailey, with her set running the gamut of all her albums, and surprising me as to how many songs of hers I knew – including ‘Summer Rain’, which she prefaced with, “this wasn’t a hit over here but it was in other places, I’m singing it because I want to sing it”. My companion and I knew the song well, having come from Australia, one of those “other places” where it had been a hit. In fact, the track made it to number 6 in Australia, the only country where it made it into the top ten.
Opening with ‘Live Your Life Be Free’ from 1991, Carlisle swiftly worked her way through her back catalogue, including ‘(We Want) The Same Thing’ (from 1989 album, ‘Runaway Horses’), and ‘In Too Deep’, found on her 1996 album, ‘This Is’. Others which had the audience dancing in their seats were ‘Big Scary Animal’ – the idea of love being a big scary animal is likely a sentiment we can all get behind; and the fan favourites, ‘Circle In The Sand’, and ‘Leave The Light On For Me’. She closed with the one we were all waiting for, the song which marked her as a solo artist, ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’. Listening to Belinda Carlisle last night it was difficult to imagine her as having originally been a member of one of the most successful girl bands ever, The Go-Gos.
At about 9pm the lights dimmed and the audience hushed in anticipation of what was next. A stage set with stairs and drum cubicles, a grand piano, percussion, brass instruments and guitars told us we were going to be in for a treat. Gradually the band members came on stage and picked up their instruments. Next Mikey Craig appeared on the top of the stairs, greeted with cheers. Roy Hay’s similar entrance was likewise met with joy. Of course, the most rapturous applause was reserved for George – we were all mad about The Boy.
From the start it was clear that the space (“it’s too big to call it a room – let’s call it a space”, said George) was filled with love. Dropping his outer coat George quipped that he wanted to be like Cher in Vegas, and change his outfit every eleven seconds. The entire night was characterised with George’s humour, from his playful banter with Mikey and Roy, to his comments about how people have commented on his supposed immaturity over the years, to which he responded, “I’m a rock star, I don’t have to grow up!” The songs were from the entire Culture Club and Boy George discography, with George saying, they were “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something probably blue”. Official Charts recently suggested that the song which was the number 1 in the charts on your fourteenth birthday defines your life: growing up in Australia mine was ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’. While I don’t know that it’s particularly defined me, I certainly agree with George when he said that the song is possibly even more relevant today than it was when it was first released back in 1982.
The entire show was, as I said earlier, characterised by love. Opening with ‘God & Love’, from their most recent album, ‘Life’, I was deeply moved by how much Culture Club’s message has always been one of love and peace, but it’s only now that it’s being taken seriously. George gave shout outs to his family and friends, many of whom were in the same area we were sitting, several of his god children were behind us – as well as the countries people had travelled from, and a special shout-out to his original stomping ground of South East London. My companion and I live a few miles from George’s home town of Eltham, and so it felt all the more personal. He also added that Jean-Paul Gaultier was in the audience: presumably in the VIP section.
Second song was ‘It’s A Miracle’, and all those in the audience who weren’t already standing rose to their feet, as this was a song EVERYONE knew, as it was from Culture Club’s second album, ‘Colour By Numbers’. This was followed by a second song from ‘Life’, the beautiful ‘Let Somebody Love You’. George was wearing the same clothes on stage as in the video for this song, which made it all the more real, and the reggae style of the track suits his voice perfectly. It’s worth noting too that George’s voice has matured over time and is – if at all possible – even more beautiful than it was back in the day. My American seat neighbour was certainly right.
We were struck by how much George has made peace with himself. He’s clearly happy on stage and happy in life too. Perhaps it was because this was his home crowd in London, and he – as well as Roy and Mikey – knew they definitely had friends in the audience – but there’s a sense that something has changed in his life for the better. Wonderful! George also spoke of his trip to recovery, and mentioned his friend Tony, and said we’ve all recovered from something.
Scattered throughout the evening was some lively patter from George, and it was nice to get a deeper insight into the band. He said about how they originally started in Hammersmith, when he went to Mikey’s mother’s house to check out his guitar playing. George took his friend, “Claire With the Hair” – “the first white girl with dreads” – because he considered she might know a bit about music. Claire decided Mikey was suitable, and clearly he was, because he’s still here all these years later!
Speaking of his time growing up in Eltham, George commented about how the train was very important to him – because it meant he could get to the clubs he wanted to go to – “straight up to Charing Cross then down under the arches”. It was very poignant listening to this as we’ve done the exact journey on many occasions.
Culture Club’s show is more than just George, Roy and Mikey – there were a total of 12 people on stage, including 4 or 5 backing vocalists, a brass section, a few guitars, percussion, and drums, keys, and a grand piano.
Much of what we experienced last night felt like church, no less so than when Mary Pearce – the queen of studio and backing vocals – started singing. In fact ‘Miss Me Blind’ was definitely churchi-fied. There were some nice moments such as the medley of ‘Church Of The Poison Mind’ blending seamlessly into Wham!’s ‘I’m Your Man’, then back into Poison Mind. Culture Club dedicated the song, ‘Life’ to all of us in the space, and it really did feel like it was our song. He shared with us how at the age of 11 years and 11 months he went to see Bowie at the Lewisham Odeon, and wasn’t it a travesty that they’d pulled it down? This led into a rousing note-perfect rendition of ‘Let’s Dance’, causing me to reminisce on how I learned to sing to Bowie’s music myself, meaning that even now I sing in a South-East London accent. George already had the accent so he was ahead of me there. It made me think about how it must have been for that young boy to grow up in much the same area as Bowie – George’s Eltham and Bowie’s Beckenham are barely six miles apart from each other. He followed ‘Let’s Dance’ with T-Rex’s ‘Get It On’: Bolan of course had been another influence on the young George.
We knew by this time the end of our evening was nigh, and there was only one song left to sing. Of course it was ‘Karma Chameleon’, which we all sang with great gusto. George summed up the night quite well when he said, “well unless I’ve been at another show tonight, I’ve had a fucking amazing time, how about you?” Well I certainly did.
The Life Tour continues Friday night at Birmingham Arena. Tickets are available through Eventbrite, and Culture Club’s official website.