Kissing To Be Clever

Culture Club

Virgin, 1982

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


In 1982, when new wave was cutting edge and disco was coughing up blood in its death throes, Culture Club was still a culture shock. Featuring a gender-neutral lead singer in Boy George, who wasn't the strongest singer out there but who could easily have been a purveyor of blue-eyed soul (see Rick Astley about seven years later), they were a band without a particular pier to anchor their ship to.

Listening to their debut album Kissing To Be Clever all these years later is the concrete proof of that. Spawning the worldwide hit “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me,” it would be easy – and wrong – to assume that the album was filled with songs of that genre. Instead, you have tracks with Caribbean rhythms, pseudo-disco dance songs, light rock, and even a little Dancehall thrown into the mix. If only this was one that, when the “blend” button was pushed, resulted in a tasty musical smoothie. At best, it's uneven. At worst, it's unlistenable.

(Eagle-eyed readers will probably want to call me to task for not mentioning the song “Time [Clock Of The Heart]” but this actually was not on the initial pressing of the record, but added on to the US version after the band's initial success. My copy just so happens to be the original track listing, but newer CDs include this track, along with a few other bonus songs.)

There are a number of issues off the bat with this particular record. First is, regrettably, something that was the scourge of the industry as a whole in the early '80s – synthesized drums. I understand that this was a product of its times, but it doesn't mean I have to like it. And in the dark recesses of my mind, I know that the drums on “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” are probably electronic as well...but, dammit, they my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 sound real, so I'll keep living in the thought that they are real drums.

Second is Culture Club's over-reliance on certain phrases that suggests either a lack of songwriting maturity (which is something that only comes in time and practice, to be fair) or trying to hammer home some points with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the groin. There are three songs with the word “boy” in the title, and two of them highlight white boys in particular. Even so, I'd call this and the synthesized drums to be minor points of contention.

The biggest problem with Kissing To Be Clever is it captures a band who has no idea what they want to be when they grow up. There are signs that they are still hanging on to their youth by making a dance mix (“White Boy,” easily the worst track on the album – even featuring George doing a little rap at the end), and there are signs they want to follow a Calypso-like beat (“I'll Tumble 4 Ya,” which, actually, is not that bad of a track, and “You Know I'm Not Crazy”). Still others just fall onto the plate like half-baked new wave tracks (“I'm Afraid Of Me,” “Boy, Boy (I'm The Boy)”). Yes, Culture Club was still growing as a band, but these sound more like demos that needed more studio polish – and maybe a session or two in the re-write room – before they were ready for prime time.

Yet not all is lost on this disc. “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” has proven over time to be a surprisingly good song, and one that suggested that, had George and crew followed this path (and had it been seen as a viable format by the powers that be), Culture Club could have easily been the purveyors of a re-emergence of soul-based rock. (I'm not including the song in my overall rating of this disc, but even “Time [Clock Of The Heart]” serves as further proof that this could easily have been a solid career path musically for the band.)

The hidden gem on the disc is “Love Twist,” which intermixes that British soul with some Jamaican dancehall rhythms (and the dub stylings of Captain Crucial) into a mix that works on all levels. I'm not suggesting that the whole album should have been like this, but of all the tropical rhythms introduced in the songs, this is the most successful (as well as the most enjoyable).

Kissing To Be Clever is naturally seen as the spark that lit the bright but short fuse on Culture Club's career, and it has a few moments to truly celebrate. But, as a whole, it's pretty much a forgettable disc, and unless you have to own everything an artist ever released, you're probably better off living with any one of the best-of collections out there.

Rating: C-

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