By JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
CULTURE CLUB – COLOUR BY NUMBERS (1983)
First off let me just type the following: guitarist Roy Hay, bassist Mike Craig and drummer Jon Moss. It might seem a strange way to start off an article about Culture Club’s smash hit second album Colour By Numbers, but I think it is worth mentioning the three members of the band who aren’t Boy George. Let’s face it, when it comes to Culture Club, despite the heavy contributions to the songwriting and the actual playing of the music, it is no great statement of fact that Hay, Craig and Moss are deeply overshadowed by the monolithic figure Boy George became in the early and mid-1980’s.
When this album was released in 1983, I was still thoroughly mixed up in my love of all things Top 40 pop music. Sunday mornings were given over to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdown radio show and I had my big notebook full of week-to-week listings of each week’s chart.
And I have no problem admitting that I loved the song “Karma Chameleon”. That song still has to be seen even to this day as the group’s signature hit song. The funny thing thought is that despite loving the song and the other singles from the album, I never bought Colour By Numbers at the time. I can’t remember my reasoning for that but it never found its way into my collection until I started buying cassettes for this series.
While listening to the album, I was quickly reminded of the four hit singles. But when I first pulled the cassette out of the box, I took a quick peak at the track listing and I really only recognized two of the songs. Besides “Karma Chameleon” (which leads off the first side of the album and rose to #1), the song “Church Of The Poison Mind” (which was a Top 10 hit) is the only other song I remembered solely from the title. I find that strange for me because the song “Miss Me Blind” was a Top 5 single and “It’s A Miracle” peaked at #13. However, I don’t think either of those songs really gets much airplay on the safe for work radio station that I listen to at my job and so they seemingly faded just a bit from my memory. But as soon as they started playing on my cassette, I remembered them quite well.
For “Church Of The Poisoned Mind”, I loved the raucously upbeat tempo of the song. For “Miss Me Blind”, the fast pace and the overall construction of the song made me enjoy it. Both of those tracks are on the album’s second side. “Karma Chameleon” and “It’s A Miracle” are the two lead tracks on Side One and both are fast moving numbers as well.
As for the rest of the “album tracks” on Side One, I thought the ballad “Black Money” and “Changing Every Day” were okay. Nothing to really write home about but certainly not a drag on the album either. But the last track on Side One is a piano-centric track called “That’s The Way (I’m Only Trying To Help You)” was phenomenal! As I said, I’d never heard the remaining six songs that weren’t singles in the US before now, so this was a big surprising discovery for me. If I’m not mistaken, pretty much the entire musical soundtrack for the song came from the piano (performed by Roy Hay, if the online material is correct). But the vocal performance from Boy George and I’m assuming Helen Terry (the only female musician credited in the liner notes) was so impressive.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? For all the handwringing that Boy George’s image brought from everyone that wasn’t the music’s target audience, he had one hell of a voice for the band’s material. I know that British new wave pop music isn’t exactly what most people would expect me to be writing about but I did quite enjoy getting to focus not only on the music of Culture Club but hearing the breadth of Boy George’s singing was kind of impressive to me.
After Side Two of Colour By Numbers opened with the two songs that would become big singles, the remaining songs didn’t quite capture my imagination like Side One did. “Mister Man” and “Stormkeeper” trod the mid-tempo road but each song kind of just fell flat. My more metal music outlook couldn’t help see the song title “Stormkeeper” and think of it being some kind of dark and intense rocker. Yep, you guessed it, that couldn’t be further from the truth if it tried.
The closing song “Victims” was never released as a single in the US but the ballad did get released that way in both the UK and Australia. However, I can understand why a US release didn’t happen. It is just a flat out pedestrian at best song. Without couching my opinion, I didn’t really like it at all.
That said, I do have to admit that as I finally got to listen to Colour By Numbers for the first time, I was surprised at just how much I liked most of the album. By the time this article is published, it will be just three days short of 38 years since the release of this benchmark Culture Club album. I think that any pop music fan would do well to avail themselves of the anniversary to take the opportunity and give Colour By Numbers a new listen. You just might be surprised to discover that it still holds up remarkably well all these decades later.
NOTES OF INTEREST: The Colour By Numbers album has sold more than 10 million copies since it was first released, including more than 4 million in the US. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard albums chart, stuck behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.
When the album was reissued in 2003 it came with five additional bonus tracks.
Singer Helen Terry performs backing and/or accompanying vocals on five Colour By Number tracks. She had a Top 10 hit of her own in 1984 called “Love Lies Lost” and released the album Blue Notes in 1986. She would go on to become the executive producer of the BRIT Awards TV show.
My cassette copy of Colour By Numbers just barely made it through the listening process, so I’m likely to find myself upgrading to a CD copy of the album at the earliest opportunity.