Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 29, 2018)
During much of 1982 to 1984, Culture Club looked primed to enjoy a long career as chart-topping musicians. Underneath his glam androgynous image, vocalist Boy George provided enough witty charm to disarm his detractors, and the band created an effortless form of multicultural pop that showed room to grow.
And then came the fall of 1984. Rushed onto shelves to capitalize on the band’s then-upcoming tour, Waking Up with the House On Fire lacked the songwriting quality of the band’s first two albums and essentially flopped.
After 1983’s smash Colour By Numbers peaked at number 2 in the US, House sputtered to number 26. Numbers generated three top 10 singles, but House’s “War Song” only got to number 17, and other releases couldn’t crack the top 30.
Thus began Culture Club’s downfall. George got into drugs, 1986’s From Luxury to Heartache sold even worse than House, and the band split soon after that.
So much for the possibility that they would dominate the charts for years and years, but time can’t keep a good 80s band down, so Culture Club came back on occasion. 1999’s reunion album Don’t Mind If I Do tanked, but they band popped up a few more times.
These efforts led them back to the studio for the still-unreleased (as of January 2018) Tribes and a 2015-16 tour. Recorded at the end of this trek, Live at Wembley offers a snapshot of the band 35 years after their start.
As expected, Wembley relies heavily on Culture Club’s brief discography. From 1982’s debut Kissing to Be Clever, we get “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”, and “Time (Clock of the Heart)”.
1983’s Colour By Numbers brings us “Church of the Poisoned Mind”, “Karma Chameleon”, “It’s a Miracle”, “Miss Me Blind”, “Victims” and “Black Money”. 1984’s Waking Up With the House on Fire only provides “The War Song”, and 1986’s From Luxury to Heartache delivers nothing more than “Move Away”.
George’s 1987 solo single “Everything I Own” also appears, and the band previews Tribes with “Like I Used To” and “Different Man”. Finally, the show concludes with a cover of T Rex’s “Get It On (Bang a Gong)”.
I saw Culture Club pretty early on this tour, as I went to their local show in the summer of 2015. As I went into the concert, my main concern related to the state of George’s voice, as I’d heard more than a few stories about his loss of range.
Live in 2015, these fears proved true – for the first couple of songs, at least. Once George warmed up a bit, he sounded much better – or I got used to his altered tones.
Or both, probably. If you listen to the George of Wembley, you’d be wise to heed the example of modern-day Elton John. Like Elton, George can’t reproduce the work he did in his heyday, but he still musters a reasonable level of expressiveness.
That said, I suspect George would’ve benefited from a recording made earlier in the tour. While I won’t claim he sounded substantially better at the 2015 show I attended, I do think he boasted better range back then. Most vocalists display wear at the end of long tours, so it’d have been nice to hear George without all the stress on his cords.
As for the band, they provide perfectly competent renditions of the songs. No one stands out as exceptional, but no one flops, either, so we get more than adequate versions of the hits.
In terms of the home video presentation itself, Wembley comes from one flaw: too damned many crowd shots. These subside somewhat as the program progresses, but I still think we find too many of them, and they create a sporadic annoyance.
Otherwise, director Mark Ritchie shows good restraint. The program lacks any visual affectations, and Ritchie makes no attempt to turn this into a long music video.
Editing seems fairly sedate, and this allows us to enjoy the show without cheap, tacky attempts to “enliven” the proceedings. I appreciate that, as too many concert shows work overtime to throw visual “flair” our way.
All in all, Wembley offers a fairly enjoyable snapshot of Culture Club 35 years down the road. It never threatens to become a great concert, but it entertains well enough.