A short series of articles and reviews from the peak years of George Michael’s career.
Part 1: If You Were There: The Best Of Wham! (Q magazine, January 1998)
Part 2: A profile of George Michael, on the eve of Older. (Arena magazine, April 1996)
Part 3: Reviews of Older (Q magazine, June 1996) and Songs From The Last Century (Heat magazine, 9 December 1999).
If You Were There: The Best Of Wham!
For their fans at least, Wham! made a world where Every Day Was Like Friday. In the giddy rush of hits they made between 1982 and ’86 there was the music of teen anticipation, bought up in truck-loads by the young girls who comprise the infantry of pop. It was a sound that fluttered in time to the heartbeats of a pubescent generation sitting in bedrooms littered with chain-store make-up and new outfits with the price-tags still on. Wham! were a soundtrack to the tantalising hours before the party. They made music to be played at The Edge Of Heaven.
And “if you were there” (in the words of this new compilation) then you will probably take delight in being reminded of it. And if you weren’t… well, maybe now is the time to find a little forgiveness in your breast.
Wham!, in their own funny way, were absolutely the real thing. Their biggest rivals of the time – Duran Duran, Culture Club and Frankie Goes To Hollywood – all had roots in rebel sub-cultures, whether gay or punk. But George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley were authentic children of the kingdom they came to rule. Their roots lay in the suburban disco boom of the late 1970s, a world of glitterballs, Outer London soul boys and Saturday Night Fever. For all that music history hymns punk rock as a mighty revolution, there were vast swathes of British life that punk left untouched.
Here in this happy Wham! land lived people who turned on Top Of The Pops to discover Morrissey singing “Hang the DJ” and hadn’t the faintest idea what he was on about. Likewise, across a yawning chasm of mutual incomprehension, rock boys looked upon George and Andrew as some unspeakable species of evolutionary mutant. The reality about even very popular groups is that most people don’t like them. If your audience numbers five million then it's still a minority.
Admittedly there were some troubling things about Wham! – troubling even to George Michael, as we later learned. For one, they were inescapable. Like that of Boy George their rise coincided with the tabloids’ colonisation of pop music. As Michael remarked, ruefully, his duo “would be on the front page whenever Princess Do wasn’t having her hair done.” Also, they were so suntanned and upbeat that it could easily get on your nerves.
Then there was the Andrew Ridgeley question: What, exactly, was he for? Wham! fans didn’t need to ask, because to them he was just Andrew and he was gorgeous. Pop stardom was his job. To Wham!’s manager, Simon Napier-Bell, Ridgeley was there to be the perfect teen dream that George did not want to be – just as Brian Wilson had his Beach Boys, to embody the fantasy in his songwriting. Napier-Bell even described the Wham! pair as consisting of “the real Andrew and the fake Andrew”. As their career wore on, Ridgeley’s music input became even more enigmatic. But without him, Wham! would never have existed.
If You Were There may be the nostalgia-driven package that its title suggests, but it’s also a chance to assess George Michael’s talent in its formative years, back when his albums were called jolly names such as Fantastic and Make It Big, rather than frowny, thoughtful names like Listen Without Prejudice and Older. You hear the Wham! manifesto set out in their first two singles. Young Guns (Go For It) is pure naïve hedonism, where the boys enact a confrontation between the eternal teenager and the poor sap who’s walked into the trap of early responsibility: “Wise guys realise there’s danger in emotional ties!” Wham Rap! dramatises good times in the face of youth unemployment. Both are invigorating blasts of pop funk, pulling in the rap influence that had begun to reach the white mainstream.
They caught the ideas of their day in a cute, perceptive manner. In fact, there was a short spell in their early career when Wham! were deemed quite hip, and even a bit political. A year or two previously, in the onset of recession and inner-city riots, it was The Specials’ Ghost Town that had been applauded for capturing the zeitgeist. In 1982 Wham! Rap was articulating Malcolm McLaren’s new gospel that youth could defy Margaret Thatcher by reinventing itself as something golden and fabulous. Fashions turned around – instead of dressing as if it were winter all year round, a la Joy Division, trendsetters opted for a permanent summer of Ray-Bans and no socks. Wham! were momentarily on the money.
Since this album is a Best Of, rather than a Greatest Hits, there is no sign of the third big single Bad Boys, written by George to a formula growing familiar, and disowned by him ever since. It was the point, he reflected later, when he had “forgotten it was all supposed to be a joke”. But he relocated the chuckle trousers for its follow-up, Club Tropicana (“the place where membership’s a smiling face!”), a song so attuned to the early 1980s cocktail culture that it forever fixed Wham!’s image in many minds as giggling yuppie airheads.
Impressions were scarcely altered by Wham!’s first Number 1, Wake Me Up Before You Go Go – a big bouncy bastard, that one. No longer was George Michael even remotely hip. By now, he was merely the most successful pop songwriter of his generation.
There was a general expectation that he would eventually become the new Barry Manilow, but that was before anyone (myself included) understood what a complex, introspective cove he really was. First signs of the inner Michael appeared in two solo singles he released while Wham! were still in existence, the melancholy Careless Whisper and the almost sublime A Different Corner, suggesting a balladeer of real depth.
By now the hits were pouring forth. Freedom and I’m Your Man are perennially efficient floor-fillers. Last Christmas is one of those seasonal shanties that are destined to pass before our ears every 12 months for the remainder of our lives. Everything She Wants, of which he was justifiably proud, has a darker hue than most Wham! singles in its depiction of a young marriage turning pear-shaped.
But the underlying fact was that George Michael was getting restless to leave his Wham! days behind. It seemed to exasperate him how much people assumed he was the carefree youth of the group’s cartoon image. Surprising his detractors he committed Wham! to playing a benefit for the striking miners. Soon he’d be on a collision course with his management company over a proposed sell-out to a firm with business connections in South Africa. So he really wasn’t Tory Boy after all. The “fake Andrew Ridgeley” had decided it was time to become the real George Michael.
And that was that for Wham! In the week they topped the charts with their final single (The Edge Of Heaven), they played a grand farewell performance at Wembley Stadium, in June 1986. It all went out in fine 1980s style. Elton John installed a swimming pool backstage for the beautiful people. There were boys from Spandau Ballet there, and Patsy Kensit and everything, and afterwards they all went on to another party, at the Hippodrome. Andrew was left to ponder his future, make a sceptically-received solo album and prang the odd racing car. George worked on his stubble some more, and prepared for the solo years.
They were both just 23, and they’d done it all. This was Wham!’s crowning achievement: they didn’t outstay their welcome and they never lost their exclamation mark.