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‘Bowie, Bolan, dressing up & going out’: the ‘last bonkers decade’ that was Boy George’s 1970s

It’s Tuesday 21 September 1982 and the singing Elvis clone that is Shakin’ Stevens can’t make his scheduled appearance on BBC’s Thursday mime show, aka chart-based music programme Top of the Pops.

Instead of just running with Shaky’s expense-spared promotional video for his song (a largely unforgettable cheese fest called Give Me Your Heart Tonight), panicked producers make the life-changing decision to fill the gap left by the Welsh windbag with an new pop group by the name of Culture Club. The singer was an unknown brunette in a red boater, overlong waistcoat and billowing white shirt.

Try to imagine it’s still the early Eighties and prepare yourself for a shock.

Minutes after the band’s debut television appearance on the show, phones start ringing at the BBC switchboard asking “What the hell did we just watch?”

The next day, newspapers run similar stories filled with offensive mock outrage questions: “Who is Boy George?” “Is he a boy or a girl?”*

Caught somewhere between a pirate and a china doll, he wore bright facial make-up, winged eyeliner and crimped hair braided and tied with ribbons and rags. Influenced by dance, reggae and blue-eyed soul, this was reflected in the pop-peacock’s appearance.

Unlike today, his appearance was a sartorial fight, and he was the first artist to place drag into the commercial mainstream. His club-kid persona was worn with conviction, each sequin, braid and bead laced with punk spirit.

Within weeks, Culture Club was number one and Boy George was the nation’s sweetheart, it says here.

Swiftly moving on, here are the awesome foursome on Top Of The Pops with hit No.2.

You’ll probably want to skip the lecherous introduction from a dead pervert. Oh, they have already.

But how did it come to this? Where did Boy George come from? What shaped the life of this brilliant, iconic gender-bending singer? These are some of the many questions answered by the lad himself as Boy George aka George O’Dowd takes the viewer on a very personal pop culture trip through the decade that shaped him — the 1970s.

The seventies are all too often dismissed by the more, shall we say, snobbish cultural critic as “the decade that fashion forgot,” ridiculed for its supposedly bad taste in fashion, politics, sex, music and hair. Yet for Boy George, the Seventies was a “glorious decade…all about Bowie, Bolan, dressing up and going out.” The “last bonkers decade,” when the young teenage George discovered all these “amazing things… punk rock, electro music, fashion, all of that.”

Of course, there was the downside to all of this heady excitement: the political crisis, the three-day working weeks, the strikes, power cuts, mass unemployment, grim poverty, anti-Europa sentiment and a helluvalotta racism. But George was too young to know much about any of that. Bullied at school, he sought escape in music and glamour and miming to Shirley Bassey in his parents’ front room in Eltham. He was about to hit puberty. He felt different from the other kids and was looking for a sign that he was not alone in this grey suburban south London landscape.

Then came the sign he’d been hoping for: the day he saw David Bowie performing on Top of the Pops in 1972. That’s when George knew he wasn’t alone. Bowie – a life-changing influence who lived four miles down the road in Beckenham – “made it OK to be a freak”.

George impersonated Bowie for Stars In Their Eyes in 2002, singing Sorrow

The androgynous Dame in his fire-red hair, make-up, and jumpsuit with his nail polished hand slung impromptu over Mick Ronson’s shoulder as they sang Starman, the lead single from Ziggy Stardust. This was a sign that life could be extraordinary and was just an adventure to be gained.

Airing on BBC2, Save Me From Suburbia is more than just Boy George telling his life story, it is an essential history of the events and pop culture that shaped a nation during ten heady years from skinheads and strikes to punk and Margaret Thatcher.

George takes us on an utterly fascinating tour through the decade with a little help from his friends and accomplices like Rusty Egan, Marilyn, Princess Julia, Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s Martin Degville, Andy Polaris (Animal Nightlife), and Caryn Franklin—and most revealingly his mother Dinah. When all dressed up with Boy George as a potty-mouthed host, Save Me From Suburbia is a delight of a documentary and a superb portrait of a revolutionary decade.

Steve Pafford

*And here’s my shameful admission: I watched the September broadcast and not for one second did it ever occur to the green little 13 year-old Steve Pafford that the songbird on stage was anything other than female. It’s enough to make you eat someone’s hat.

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