In Memory of George Michael: He didn’t have anything to prove. Not to himself or to anyone else.December 26, 2016
It just so happens that last week, BBC Four’s Top Of The Pops reruns got to the week when Wham! landed in our TV screens for the first time. That clip of Young Guns (Go For It!) gets shown a lot, but the best way to see it is in the context of the rest of the show – a show in which old hands and ingenues would come and go with very little directorial instruction from the people who make the show. The impression you made on Top Of The Pops was very much down to how much you prepared for it, and within seconds of being introduced, it was pretty clear that Wham! were *really* prepared. In his memoir, Black Vinyl, White Powder, Simon Napier-Bell – who would later go on to manage Wham! – recalled seeing their prime time TV debut: “When Wham! came on to do Young Guns, they completely changed the way the programme looked. It was as if they’d rehearsed with the TV crew for days.” Within the space of three minutes, George Michael became a teen idol, commencing an ascent that would continue unabated for the best part of a decade, several years beyond the end of the duo he formed with Andrew Ridgeley.
For the longest time, he wasn’t what he seemed. Over time, we came to realise that the persona he invented for himself in Wham! was that of the guy standing next to him. If it worked for Andrew Ridgeley, why shouldn’t it work for George Michael? But regular readers of Smash Hits began to piece together a more uncomfortable passage into adulthood. The erstwhile Yiorgos Panayiotou, son of a Greek-Cypriot restauranteur, had been a pudgy teenager with unmanageable curly hair. He came from the suburbs outside London and he understood what people in these places wanted to dance to. Wham! honoured George’s profound love of pop – and, in particular, on Everything She Wants and I’m Your Man, soul music – but he was at no great pains to let you know he was more than a match for most of his more earnest contemporaries. With Wham!, there were no honest-to-goodness, sweat-of-brow attempts to let you know that the guy singing the songs was a brilliant songwriter. On those early Top Of The Pops appearances, the band was squirrelled away from view. The spectacle was almost entirely provided by George, Andrew and their two female foils (Shirlie and Dee C. Lee, later replaced by Pepsi). Everything you saw was a celebration of carefree young manhood. The measure of their success was that, when you heard Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Freedom and The Edge Of Heaven you rarely wondered if there was too much more to the person who was singing and writing the songs.
Careless Whisper was the first intimation that George was here to write songs that would be replayed constantly in decades to come. It was his first solo single – although, ironically, one of the few that featured an Andrew Ridgeley co-writing credit. I remember Lloyd Cole enthusing about the “guilty feet have go no rhythm” line in one of the supposedly serious music papers, and feeling glad that someone from the “alternative” world had recognised its greatness. Careless Whisper was great, but it was A Different Corner – the second of George’s Wham!-era solo hits – that really took your breath away. Prince was the only other solo recording artist who could have dared make a play for a top ten hit and leave it so sparsely ornamented. By then, we knew George was the whole package. He just did one song at Live Aid, but – with the exception of Freddie Mercury – stole the show, accompanying Elton John on Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me and absolutely claiming it for himself. A few years later, also at Wembley, he returned to sing at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert, but obviously, Freddie wasn’t going to upstage George this time. With the other three members of Queen behind him, he delivered one of the most fearlessly perfect vocal performances I’ve ever seen, locating pockets of melody in Somebody To Love that had even eluded Freddie.
By then, he was a solo star on both sides of the Atlantic. Faith, released in 1987, yielded six major hits, each of which seemed to hold a different aspect of his sublime talent up to the light. On Faith, he seemed to reinvent himself as an Eddie Cochran for a sexual era of post-Aids post-Aids circumspection; on the priapic, playful funk of I Want Your Sex, he made it clear – perhaps in a bid to persuade himself as much as anyone else – that monogamy needn’t be equated with abstinence. The audacity with which he travelled from one style to another was incredible: the wronged lover dispensing an elegant dressing down on Kissing A Fool; the world-weary, hymnal anguish of One More Try. Whatever he was trying to prove with that album, he must surely felt he had achieved it. And yet, three years later, when he returned with Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1, it became apparent that he didn’t necessarily feel that way. It wasn’t just the matter of an album title which pre-empted a level of critical scorn that wasn’t really out there any more. Freedom 90 was George taking care of unfinished business, venting grievances he had stored up from five years of on the teen-pop treadmill: “there’s someone deep inside of me/There’s someone else I’ve got to be.” In some ways, it shouldn’t have worked, but of course, it was magnificently catchy, from the balearic piano hook to the Aretha Franklin-referencing chorus, and as ever, his life-affirming singing. George’s first promotional undertaking for the album was a South Bank Show documentary in which he took Melvyn Bragg line-by-line through the album’s first single and opening song Praying For Time. He didn’t need to try so hard for that sort of validation. Praying For Time was a queasy, confused attempt to untangle the dichotomous position that so many A-list pop stars found themselves in a post-Live Aid climate. He sounded slightly repelled by his own fame, unsure of what it was good for at this point. In this context, his chillingly austere version of Stevie Wonder’s They Won’t Go When I Go made absolute sense – while Mother’s Pride, a song about a mother waving her child off as he goes to war – hardly leavened the mood.
The emotional distance George Michael travelled in the wake of that album, was hinted at with the first single from its successor, five years later. His lover Anselmo Feleppa died of a HIV-related illness, in the process inspiring the tender desolation of Jesus To A Child. In Fastlove, George sang about the need for instant sexual gratification in the aftermath of loss. It sat at the top of the charts for over a month, abetted by a heavenly extended version, complete with that inspired interpolation of Patrice Rushen’s Forget-Me-Nots as George sang, “I miss my baby.” It didn’t take a genius to work out what he was singing about, but two years later, newspapers and broadcasters still seemed aghast when news emerged that an undercover policeman in Los Angeles arrested George when the singer attempted to come onto him in a public toilet. For the best part of a day, talk show hosts debated whether this would end his career. Some experts proffered that he would have to show contrition for his actions, but George was having none of it. He seemed amused by what had happened, and confirmed that, yes, he was gay. What an incredibly brave and important thing to do.
But that was just the start of it. In a stroke of sheer genius, George played to his strengths, re-entering the studio and quickly recording a riposte to every pious homophobe pontificator who suggested that George Michael needed to beg forgiveness for anything whatsoever. Had the Cottaging Marketing Board specially commissioned him to write a song to set out their position and perhaps increase subscriptions, the result couldn’t have been more perfect than Outside – and that was before you even factored in the video with the glitterball urinals. In that moment, George Michael sealed the devotion of a constituency much, much wider than his existing fanbase. Outside might have been the coolest single thing any pop star did in the 1990s.
By then, of course, George Michael’s influence had spread beyond his songs. For Gary Barlow, Robbie Williams and any other boy band member who wanted to retain their commercial beyond the lifespan of the group which brought them to prominence, the objective was to “do” a George Michael. Every career-minded teen star of the past two decades has clung on to the idea that George earned the respect of a new demograph with his mature songs. The music industry loved that idea, too, because George Michael’s post-Wham! success had set a precedent: a boy band member’s career could now have a second act.
But the fact is that a star such as George Michael, who appears fully formed with a game plan for mainstream pop domination and a batch of songs that are fit for that purpose, comes along maybe once every 20 or 30 years. No-one in the industry needed reminding how rare a talent he was. By the turn of this century, George Michael still had enough currency to dictate his terms to any major label. In 2002, he took to holding Polydor to a one-single-at-a-time “trial” period before deciding whether or not to sign to the label (he didn’t in the end). It was Virgin who released his final studio album Patience, a largely introspective affair lightened by a smattering of life-affirming pop songs which – like so many of his best songs – seemed to find redemption beneath the lights of a dancefloor. Amazing and Flawless (Go To The City) sound no less electrifying with the passing of time. Among those slower songs through was My Mother Had A Brother – a pensive autumnal tribute to the gay uncle who took his own life on the day that George was born. When I went to see him in concert at Earls Court ten years ago, he told the crowd “there has never been a better time to be gay.”
That evening, it seemed to me that it was a pretty good time to be George Michael, period. It was his first London show for 15 years, and he had already confessed that he was terrified of the reception he might receive from a home crowd. But as the sound of 24,000 feet stamping out their adoration spread from the back to the front, George flashed a smile and pondered, “I should have known, shouldn’t I? I’m from Finchley.” His awareness of how happy his voice (and the hits for which it was remembered) made people never seemed to leave him. After his mother died, he put it to the best possible use, thanking the nurses who had looked after his mother when she died, by playing a free (unpublicised) show for NHS nurses at the Roundhouse. A friend of mine who was there told me, “The whole gig was so moving. He was all ‘I’m giving this all I’ve got because you guys are amazing and do incredible things that I could never do and the government doesn’t take care of you and you don’t get thanked enough’.”
If you didn’t read the tabloids and gossip mags, if your main interaction with George was all those wonderful records and that voice – truly one of the greatest singers of the past 50 years – it was easy to forget he was the “troubled ex-Wham! star” who got stoned and drove his car into Snappy Snaps. If you listened to the records, it wasn’t hard to locate the teenage soul boy that used pop as his escape vehicle; who planned his ascent to stardom with the precision of a bank heist. It didn’t even matter that he didn’t seem to want to make albums any more. You just wanted him to be happy, and perhaps once in a while, come out and sing all those imperishably great songs. He didn’t have anything to prove. Not to himself or to anyone else. We’ll miss him terribly.