“Karma Chameleon” is a song by English band Culture Club, featured on the group’s 1983 album Colour by Numbers. The single was released in the UK in September 1983 and became the 2nd Culture Club single to reach the top of the UK Singles Chart, after “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me“. The record stayed at #1 for 6 weeks and became the UK’s biggest-selling single of the year 1983, selling 955,000 copies (according to Official Charts Company sales data confirmed in March 2021 for the Channel 5 show Britain’s Favourite 80s Songs). To date, it is the 38th-biggest-selling single of all time in the UK, selling over 1.52 million copies.
It also spent 3 weeks at #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in early 1984, becoming the group’s biggest hit and only US #1 single among their many top-10 hits. The single sold over 5 million copies globally. In 2015, the song was voted by the British public as the nation’s ninth favorite 1980s number one in a poll for ITV.
In an interview, Culture Club frontman Boy George explained: “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.” In response to claims from singer-songwriter Jimmy Jones that the song plagiarizes his hit “Handy Man“, George stated, “I might have heard it once, but it certainly wasn’t something I sat down and said, ‘Yeah, I want to copy this.'” In an interview with 60 Minutes Australia, Boy George said that he wrote the song while he was on vacation in Egypt, and that the other members of Culture Club were initially hesitant to record it as they felt it sounded like a country song.
The harmonica part was played by Judd Lander, who had been a member of Merseybeat group The Hideaways in the 1960s. The song was originally to be called “Cameo Chameleon”; the band was recorded in interviews in mid-1983 stating this was to be the title of their next single.
The group performed the song as a finale when they appeared in the 1986 episode “Cowboy George” of The A-Team.
The video is set in Mississippi in 1870. It depicts a large multiracial group of people in 19th century dress, including some dressed in red, gold, and green (as referenced in the lyrics). Boy George is dressed in what would be known as his signature look: colourful costume, fingerless gloves, long braids, and a black bowler hat.
A pickpocket and jewelry thief is seen wandering through the crowd, stealing from unsuspecting victims. The band and everyone board a riverboat, The Chameleon, as Boy George continues to sing. While four men are playing poker, the thief is discovered cheating by giving himself the Royal Flush, and is forced to return all his ill-gotten gains and walk the plank at the points of ladies’ parasols, falling into the river. As the video ends, day has turned to evening and the party continues on the boat as it cruises down the river.