The bouncy second single off the band’s second album, Colour by Numbers, Culture Club‘s “Karma Chameleon” was the English’s group only No. 1 in America, topping the Billboard Hot 100 on Feb. 4, 1984 and remaining there for three weeks. Cross-dressing frontman Boy George, 22, had already delighted (and confused) audiences with the band’s platinum debut, Kissing to Be Clever, serendipitously timed to coincide with the advent of MTV, which rewarded artists who loved playing dress-up for the camera (sorry, Journey).
For George, though, his band’s videos were never outrageous enough. “I never really liked any of them,” he laments. “Everybody wanted me to look as normal as possible. When we did the ‘Karma Chameleon’ video, it was a miserable English day and the lighting was shit. I remember thinking, ‘I spent all morning in makeup getting ready for this? What a waste of time.'”
Nevertheless, with its finger-popping Motown pulse and Stevie Wonder-esque harmonica, “Karma Chameleon” led the way for Colour by Numbers, which placed four singles in the top 20 and spent 59 weeks on the Billboard 200. The album peaked at No. 2, though, blocked by one of the few artists whose sexual ambiguity and visual brilliance topped even Boy George’s: Michael Jackson. Still, George knew his role in the pop-music pageant, a new-wave Dame Edna with a soul-music bent. When Culture Club won the best new artist Grammy in 1984, he said in his acceptance speech: “Thank you, America. You’ve got taste, style and you know a good drag queen when you see one.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.