Boy George explained in The Billboard Book of #1 Hits
by Fred Bronson, "The song is about the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It's about trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren't true, if you don't act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that's nature's way of paying you back."
Phil Pickett, the former keyboardist of the '70s UK band Sailor, helped write this song. He contributed keyboards and backing vocals to Culture Club and did some songwriting with the group.
Songwriting in Culture Club was mostly a group effort, with Boy George writing the lyrics. Many of his words were inspired by his relationship with the group's drummer, Jon Moss, with whom he had an affair during the height of the group's fame. George admitted that their first single "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?
" was about Moss, and their difficult lover-professional relationship was the inspiration for the line, "You're my lover, not my rival" in "Karma Chameleon." The relationship was hidden to the public and Jon never admitted it during the '80s, so in a way Boy George was communicating with him through their songs.
This was Culture Club's biggest hit in the UK, where 1,405,000 copies were sold, making it the biggest-selling single of 1983. It also won the 1984 Brit Award for Best Single.
Boy George was a very colorful character, and a fixture on MTV in the early '80s before American artists began regularly making videos. The video for "Karma Chameleon" was directed by Peter Sinclair and shot on a steamboat. It's a period piece, set in Mississippi, 1870, although it was actually filmed on the River Thames in England. George is an anachronism in the video, with fingerless gloves and multicolored hair that would not have appeared in Mississippi at that time.
Judd Lander played the harmonica on this track, which is up front in the mix. Lander, who also played harp on "Church of the Poison Mind," joined the group on many of their performances. Lander, a Liverpool, England native, studied the instrument under Sonny Boy Williamson and became a top session player in London.
Culture Club were sued for plagiarism in this song by the writers of "Handy Man," a 1960 hit for Jimmy Jones. Boy George admitted, "I might have heard it once, but it was certainly not something I sat down and copied. We gave them ten pence and an apple."
The video is one of the few in which the band appears but doesn't play any instruments. The only instrument to show up is a harmonica, which is played by a black man on the river. The real harmonica player, Judd Lander, is white, but directors seem enamored with the image of black players - Lander's part was also mimed by a black actor in the Robbie Nevil video for "Wot's It To Ya?
In Canada this topped their charts for seven weeks and was the first single by a group to sell a million copies.
Culture Club performed this song in the 1986 episode of The A-Team, "Cowboy George." In the episode, a series of misadventures leads to the band playing a country bar to a bunch of cowboys. They win over the crowd, along with the A-Team (played by George Peppard, Mr. T, Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz), who bob along to the tune.
This song has been used in a number of movies and TV series. Among them:
Electric Dreams (1984)
The Chain (1984)
Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997)
Rock Star (2001)
In America (2002)
Scary Movie 4 (2006)
Brooklyn Rules (2007)
Madea's Witness Protection (2012)
The Call (2013)
Sex Tape (2014)
The Bad Batch (2016)
3rd Rock from the Sun ("Frankie Goes to Rutherford" - 2000)
The King of Queens ("Bun Dummy" - 2002)
Cold Case ("Greed" - 2004)
Dexter ("Blinded by the Light" - 2009)
The Office ("Here Comes Treble" - 2012)
Life in Pieces (Pilot - 2015)