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).
George Michael on the eve of Older, 1996. After a lengthy court dispute with his record label Sony, he was finally ready to put out more music. For this article I relied on two of George's closest acquaintances: his long-term publisher Dick Leahy, and his biographer Tony Parsons. It appeared in Arena magazine, April 1996.
For all his fame and artistic ambition, George Michael’s output to date has been surprisingly small: only five albums in 14 years – two with Wham!, his solo debut Faith, its follow-up Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 and the new one. That’s enough to have earned him 60 million record sales worldwide, but as a body of work it has not quite clinched his position as a major songwriter. At 32, his reputation is still in the making.
He’s been away for a long time by any standards. This will be his first album since 1990. Some take the view that his court case kept him in the public eye on an almost daily basis. But another record company executive puts it this way: “High Court hearings in the Strand may have put him in the London papers all through that period. But as far as the rest of the world is concerned, he just fucked off for five years.”
He has been touchingly open about his craving to be taken seriously, particularly in Britain, where the fight is not yet won. “That’s because of his past, and being very much a scream idol,” says Tony Parsons, the co-author of Michael’s autobiography Bare. “The first time I met him, mid-’85, it was A Hard Day’s Night, screaming schoolgirls in the street. If you come from that background, rather than an NME/Melody Maker instant-cred background, then you want people to take you as seriously as you take yourself. He did his growing up in public. He was on Top Of The Pops at an age when other people are swotting for their A-levels.”
Though Michael has been through several managers, he’s had a constant mentor in his music publisher Dick Leahy. A wiry, white-haired industry veteran, Leahy helped to extricate the young, green Wham! boys from their early record deal with Innervision, and has been George’s confidante ever since. By his reckoning, “George has got to a stage where he no longer has to explain himself. He was a kid who wrote Careless Whisper when he was 17, and did two Wham! albums and knew there were no more Wham! albums coming out of him. So he had to go solo. And of course there was frustration, having been in such a high-profile, good-looking teenage duo. Even though you win all the awards there is frustration, married to the fact that his life was impossible to live, not being able to walk down the street or do anything that normal people do.
“That frustration was reflected in the title of Listen Without Prejudice. But it’s gone now – I think he’s found his place. And maybe that’s something he got through taking on Sony. George is not a precious guy, and he’s not as image-precious as Listen Without Prejudice would suggest.”
But Tony Parsons concedes there were times when George appeared to take his image too seriously: “There was a danger that with Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1. It’s a ponderous title, but that record was a reaction against the legacy of Wham! and the fact that he was such a huge star. At the period when we did that book, he was the biggest star in America, a huge star in the way that he’s not how. And he would be the first to admit that he’s not. But what it took to get to that level of stardom was everything. He had to devote his life to promoting Faith for 10 months, to making videos, talking to everybody. He reacted against all that. And that’s why he had that Weegee picture on the cover – he wanted to disappear into the crowd.”
Sony though, were not about to let their platinum-selling artist disappear into any crowd. They were not best-pleased when Listen Without Prejudice, the follow-up to his 15 million-selling Faith, had a cover bereft of its creator’s face. Instead there was a black-and-white photo (by the renowned New York photojournalist Weegee) of a crowd of happy Americans on a beach in 1940. In the opinion of his record company this was not the way to market George Michael. Already there was trouble in the air. On that album’s Freedom 90 – a typically self-conscious reference to the old Wham! title – George declared his new, liberated self and crowed, “Think I’m gonna get me some happy." Well, the best-laid plans, et cetera. Actually, he was in for a stinking time.
First there was the historic court showdown, casting George against the Japanese-owned conglomerate who had swallowed up the CBS label in 1988. In October 1992 he began legal proceedings to escape his long-term recording deal. “Since Sony Corporation bought my contract,” came his opening salvo, “along with everyone and everything else at CBS, I have seen the great American company that proudly signed to as a teenager become a small part of the production line for a giant electronics company which, quite frankly, has no understanding of the creative process. Sony appears to see artists as little more than software.”
For all that George was once supposed to embody the getting-and-spending yuppie generation, it’s agreed that money was not his motive this time. More to the point was a breakdown in his relationship with his employers, especially the new regime in New York. The ’90s intake of top executives – by most accounts a hard-headed, kick-ass breed of man-managers – had little rapport with their one-time wonder boy, as he grew ever less inclined to play the pop star game.
If only – they might have sighed – George could be more like Frank Sinatra. It seems Frank had followed George’s tribulations and was not sympathetic: “Michael should thank the good Lord every morning when he wakes up to have all that he has. The tragedy of fame is when no one shows up and you’re singing to the cleaning lady in some empty joint, Here’s a kid who wanted to be a pop star since he was about 17 years old. Now that he’s a smash performer and songwriter at 27 he wants to quit what tons of gifted youngsters all over the world would shoot grandma for. I don’t understand a guy who lives in hope of reducing the strain of his celebrity status.”
There were some specific problems too. In Britain at least, Listen Without Prejudice was seen as a landmark in Michael’s development, and actually outsold its predecessor. Worldwide sales of seven million meant it was obviously no flop. But outside the UK Faith had sold twice as much, and mutual recriminations followed. Among the issues raised was Michael’s wilful non-appearance in videos and on CD sleeves. It’s been suggested that Michael became unhappy with the super-stud image he’d projected for the Faith campaign, and rather than perpetuate it he’d removed himself from the process.
There again, he’s said he’s never been satisfied with his image. If he overhauled his looks, he wasn’t re-creating himself like the “chameleon” Bowie or Madonna, he just couldn’t settle on anything he was comfortable with. Even in the Wham! days, according to their old manager Simon Napier-Bell, it was Ridgeley who’d defined the look. Wham!, he said, “was the real Andrew and the fake Andrew”.
“How much is personal, and how much is corporate?” ponders Leahy. “I don’t know. Maybe if there had been a change of personnel… One senior executive at Sony has gone, maybe others would go. Maybe Sony would be sold, every bloody company is being sold at the moment. Maybe Geffen would have bought it, or Richard Branson. What George said was, with the current philosophy behind this company and the way they treat artists, I can’t work with them. If that philosophy had changed maybe he would have worked with them again. But it didn’t happen.”
Ultimately the judge was unmoved by Michael’s predicament and found against him, issuing a comprehensive 270-page dismissal. Looking on, Jonathan King was more succinct: “The judge was sensible to throw this out of court. It would have been better if George had spent more time making music than being in court. I think he has behaved disgracefully. George is a star who had a temper tantrum and has been a prima donna stamping his foot.”
“We have great respect for George Michael and his artistry,” Sony declared, at its moment of victory, “and we look forward to continuing our relationship with him.” Bollocks to that, responded George, albeit in more legalistic terms: he announced he would appeal against the verdict.
In the event, it never came to that. While George languished in his legal limbo, neither writing nor recording new material, there were new suitors lining up for his hand. In July ’95 it was announced he was signing a two-album deal – in the US with Dreamworks and with Virgin for the rest of the world. News of a settlement with Sony soon followed. Among its terms. George agreed to write new tracks for Sony greatest hits set; Sony were also to get $40 million off his new companies, and three per cent from the next two solo albums. The legal bill of $7 million, previously awarded against George, was now to be shared by both parties.
“I frankly believe,” says Leahy, “that if he hadn’t been so determined, we wouldn’t have had the resolution that we had. In every musician there is a need to put something out, which I believe is what Michael Schulhof [of Sony US] was relying on, that eventually they’ll crack. But he didn’t crack. He believed what he was saying. When you have a massive fight you can’t have wavering. I know he would have gone to the Appeal Court.”
Tony Parsons concurs: “When he said he wouldn’t record for Sony again, he meant it. He’s a sweet-natured, generous, warm, lovely guy but he’s an incredibly stubborn bastard too. He’d have happily watched his recording career go down the toilet rather than record for them again.”
Thus he emerged at the other end, with a new and more favourable contract, and a new manager, Andy Stevens, who’d been one of his supporters at CBS UK. More than that, his creative juices were unblocked. “You could see the depth of feeling behind him not wanting to give that company another album,” says Leahy. “It wasn’t a financial decision, it comes down to trust, and if you don’t have trust it has a major impact on whether you can write and record.”
All he needed now was subject matter.
Grimly enough, that subject was handed to him on a plate in 1993, with the death of a friend, Anselmo Feleppa. Michael sat down to write Feleppa’s memorial, Jesus To A Child, in autumn of ’94 when, according to Leahy, “he was finally aware that the deadlock would get broken.” The loss of Feleppa, whom Michael had met in Rio two years earlier, was a shocking blow to the singer, though he maintained his usual public reticence about their relationship. Yet the lyrics of Jesus To A Child are printed on each CD sleeve and they underline the explicit intimacy of the song.
“What’s so strong about that single,” says Tony Parsons, is that it’s so clearly a love song. That’s what elevated it above most of the pap in the charts. It comes from the heart, from somewhere real. When I heard it, I was overwhelmed that he would be that honest with himself, and the world. I never knew he was capable of that kind of emotional honesty in a song.”
But the latterday Michael values only songs fashioned from the stuff of his own existence. He is off-hand, for example, about Careless Whisper, which he wrote before its theme of romantic betrayal had any personal relevance to him. It’s ironic that the song of his which has affected the most people is one he plucked from outside of himself, and disregards for that reason.
Dick Leahy: “George is not a Tin Pan Alley writer, he doesn’t just write, and he doesn’t store songs. The lyrical content can only be current. It can only be what he’s thinking today. The rest of his new songs post-date the court settlement: “It was the relief of knowing there was a reason to write, a reason to record, because it was going to go out. So this will be a 1995 album. He hasn’t written album like Michael Jackson where he’s pouring his heart out about all his problems. He’s written a George Michael album for the period of life that he’s living.
“I defy anyone to find anything on this album that has to do with the lawsuit. I can’t hear one single recrimination of this album about court cases, thank God!”
Only the most curmudgeonly now contest George’s talent, particularly as a writer, and it will be a shame if he stops playing to his strength – smoothly-crafted pop soul – in favour of maudlin self-absorption.
People who’ve heard the first results from his album sessions confirm the keywords to be “tasteful” and “subdued”. Early press responses to the comeback have likewise dwelt on George’s po-facedness: “There is something faintly, but fundamentally, ridiculous about George Michael, contended one writer. “He will get approval, but only commercially. The critical acclaim he craves will not be forthcoming.”
Yet the commercial prospects he craves will not be taken for granted either – one visitor to the studio speaks of hearing “some rather austere material, quite stripped down with no obvious pop hooks to it. A bit like Careless Whisper without the saxophone bit, in a way.”
He’s at the stage where many superstars are less concerned with market research than with the insights won from a deep, contemplative draw on the old Herb Superb. We should not be surprised if he returns with an album that makes more sense to him than it does to anyone else.
For now, it’s enough for his closest allies that George is back in a recording studio at all. Tony Parsons: “I was worried about the guy. It seemed during his long spell in the wilderness that that he was losing his appetite for making music. But he’s got it back, stronger than ever. As someone who likes the guy, I was very relieved.”
Noting that his sultry features did adorn the promotional imagery for Jesus As A Child, observers speculated that he was willing once again to take the necessary measures. “When artists change labels,” Parsons argues, “they want a hit for obvious reasons. When David Bowie left RCA for EMI he had his biggest record ever, Let’s Dance. It’s natural to want to stick a couple of fingers up at your old label. He’ll be a bit more pragmatic, he’ll realise that it doesn’t actually hurt his life or his art or his integrity to appear in the video for a single.
“I don’t think he’ll ever tour for 10 months again but he will soften his attitude, because he wants people to listen to his music. He’s not a hypocrite, he won’t go back on the things he’s said in the past, and go out there and hustle. But I think he realises it’s not a sin to put his hairy mug on the cover of a new record.”
There may yet be a Listen Without Prejudice Vol 2 – the planned album of covers that got lost in all the legal gunsmoke three years back – and it’s likely that he’ll one day revive the Trojan Souls project, recording other artists for a Warner Brothers set. (“It’s still very much in his mind,” confirms Leahy. “You’d be amazed at the number of people who want to be part of it.”) But in the light of all that’s happened, it’s to the new solo album that the world will look for evidence of his viability.
Leahy calls the new record “quite simply the best album George has ever made. And I go back through the 14 years I’ve worked with him. I’m his biggest critic, so I feel entitled to say it.
“He’s growing up. George is basically a person who writes about simple things – love, life and music. You have a natural maturity, but I shy away from using that word because it sounds old – I mean, he’s still only 32.”
Will his long absence tell against him?
“This is George’s fifteenth year of massive international success and he’s never been a person who puts out albums frequently. He’s been away a long time, but the injection of new blood has been positive. It’s that extra little something you get from feeling, ‘These people are committed to me, and it’s not just because they inherited me.’ The problem with the old system was that it was purely contractual. He will thrive on the fact that he’s in an equal situation for the first time in his life. Ever since he was signed at the age of 18 years of age, George was always negotiating from weakness because he was bound for most of his working life. That’s the freedom he feels now.
“He is one happy bunny. A very happy boy.”
Tony Parsons: “The only doubt in my mind was whether he wanted it any more. It’s like George Best at 27, when you knew this person was talented but he just didn’t feel like using it any more. Certainly George Michael had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life – not as much money as he had a few years earlier, but still a good few lottery wins. He hasn’t got the kind of fame that’s tied to fashion – it was difficult for the Stone Roses to come back, because they’d been the hippest creatures in the country. George wasn’t.
“The danger is that you get out of the swing of writing with conviction, writing to be heard, but he’s got that back. And he’s going to be better than ever.”