"I want a No. 1 American album; that's the next thing," Boy George told British journalist Dave Rimmer in early 1983. "I want, you know, I want fucking big hits." Sure. How about four of them? Culture Club's Colour by Numbers, released that October, made its intentions easy to figure out by front-loading each side with a big hit followed by a smaller one — the calculation is that precise, even as the band (and their videos) reflected a certain looseness.
Like a lot of albums in the lingering post-Thriller aftermath, the material on Colour by Numbers is lopsided — the hits really shine, the non-hits generally don't. That includes "Victims," the closing torch ballad, which hit in the U.K. but not the U.S. It was a duet with the group's ferocious backing singer, Helen Terry, who was as potent a symbol of gender possibility as Boy George himself. (In Robert Christgau's words, Terry packed "the voice of Merry Clayton into the body of Gertrude Stein.") Terry also stole "Church of the Poisoned Mind" right out from under its writer. It's still George's greatest song: Stevie Wonder's "Uptight" rewritten as a romantic admonition, a favorite stance for George as a lyricist.
One of the most important things about Colour by Numbers' success in the U.S. is the simple fact that it exposed so many people to Boy George. Neither David Bowie nor Elton John came close to inspiring the absolute shock George created, because he had neither Bowie's otherworldliness nor Elton's eager affectlessness. He was in your face, with a smirk: unapologetically bitchy, quick and (double shock) enamored of Japan at a time when the U.S. was beginning to lose economic ground to that nation. He didn't paint shapes on his face; he wore makeup, and even on an exaggerated white base, flouting it like that wasn't generally done.
But if George pierced the macho atmosphere of Reaganite America just by being himself, Colour by Numbers is what made him go from frightening to cuddly within a matter of months. The hits pretty much just walk up to you and start talking: short, impactful intros — even the easy build of "Karma Chameleon" works to settle you into its giant hook. George may have grown to hate the song ("I got sick of hearing it on the radio and miming to it on TV," he wrote in his autobiography, Take It Like a Man, calling it "the kind of song everyone bought and no one liked"), but artists are often wrong about their own work.
Still, "Chameleon" isn't the best thing here — just the catchiest. Not bad, considering how insistently both "Miss Me Blind" and "It's a Miracle" proffer their hooks, with "Blind" riding the album's sharpest funk-pop rhythm (in slap-bass mid '80s crossover mode, needless to say). None of which is a complaint.