Talented and unique: George Michael took a singular path to stardom

Scores of artists have tried to follow the Wham! singer’s route from teen idol to adult artist. Few have managed it the way he did

On Christmas Eve, the night before George Michael’s death was announced, BBC4 broadcast a repeat of a 34-year-old edition of Top of the Pops. Wham! appeared, performing their second single, Young Guns (Go For It!).

It was a fantastic single, clearly made by someone with an innate understanding of how to turn what was happening at the cutting edge of black music into brassy, funny, hook-laden pop, and it confirmed Wham! as 1982’s other big new pop phenomenon after Culture Club.

But they were not a band who many people felt seemed destined to leave a lasting mark. Quite the contrary. The more their records sold, the more they were sternly derided as symbolic of a shift in British pop from the socially and politically engaged post-punk era to something flimsy and depthless.

On Round Here, a song about his youth in Hertfordshire from his 2004 album Patience, Michael sang about Wham! being inspired by the Specials and the Jam among others.

They didn’t feel the same way. Jerry Dammers of the Specials was so incensed by Wham!’s debut single Wham Rap – with its apparently blithe attitude to rising unemployment – that he wrote a song mocking it, Bright Lights. The Jam’s Paul Weller was equally dismissive about Young Guns (Go For It!): “Go for fucking what?” he’d complained in NME.

Wham! – Young Guns. Top of the Pops

As it turned out, those first impressions were wrong. Wham! were a noticeably smarter and more complex band than their brash front suggested. Wham Rap was a song not so much about indifference to unemployment as resilience in the face of it.

A powerful streak of knowing irony and camp ran through their music that’s perhaps easier to see in retrospect than it was at the time. Frequently depicted as the musical incarnation of the Thatcher era, they played benefit gigs for miners during the 1984-85 strike.

Marketed as rampantly heterosexual – on their first tour, Michael and his partner Andrew Ridgeley earned a degree of notoriety by stuffing their shorts with shuttlecocks, which they then threw to the screaming audience – their songs kept offering oblique suggestions that all was not quite as it seemed: “I choose to cruise,” sang Michael on Wham Rap; there’s something intriguing about quite how furious the narrator of Young Guns (Go For It!) is about his friend announcing he’s going to get married. And its beautifully turned pop songwriting was no fluke. Michael, it quickly transpired, was capable of knocking out hits to order. Every single Wham! released over the next four years entered the top 10, save for a “Megamix” of previous hits released without their consent: four of them went to No 1.

Their success clearly wasn’t enough for Michael. He was maturing quickly as a songwriter, as evidenced by the six and a half minutes of Everything She Wants, a lyric about being trapped in a relationship with an increasingly demanding woman to a sublime synth-funk backing, improbably stuck on the other side of the deathless Last Christmas.

It was hard to avoid the suspicion that he felt constrained by Wham!: by their image, by the exclamation mark at the end of their name that seemed to suggest everything they did would be fun and frothy. At Live Aid, he appeared not with Wham! but duetting with Elton John on Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, Ridgeley relegated to the ranks of backing singers, alongside Kiki Dee.

Tellingly, Michael released the lovelorn Careless Whisper under his name, as if he felt it didn’t fit with the brand he had helped create. More telling still was the release of his second solo single, A Different Corner, shortly before Wham! announced their split.

Wham!’s later hits increasingly tended towards irrepressible 60s soul pastiches: Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Freedom, The Edge Of Heaven. A Different Corner was something else entirely: a sombre, fragile, drumless drift of a song with no hook-laden chorus. The fact that it went to No 1 perhaps said more about the degree of success Wham! were enjoying at the time – their farewell concert was in front of 72,000 people at Wembley Stadium – than its commerciality.

Michael had clearly been laying the groundwork for a solo career that was very distinct from Wham! The transition from teen pop star to adult artist is one of the trickiest moves to pull off successfully. He made it look bizarrely painless: Michael seemed to know exactly what he wanted and how to get it.

His next solo single was a duet with Aretha Franklin, I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), a transatlantic No 1 that went on to win a Grammy for best R&B performance. Moreover, the very fact that Michael was now working with the Queen of Soul automatically conferred a certain gravitas upon him – like the Live Aid duet with John, it suggested he had been fast-tracked from Top of the Pops into the orbit of musical legends – cementing the idea that he was now an entirely different artist to the shuttlecock-stuffing singer of Young Guns and Bad Boys.

In case anyone had missed the point, his debut solo album, Faith, opened with the sound of Wham!’s Freedom played on a church organ, as if at a funeral. It went on to sell 25m copies – as many records as his former band had sold over their entire career. You could see why. Faith had it all.

There was attention-stoking controversy in the shape of I Want Your Sex (anyone looking for evidence of how times have changed might alight on the fact that in 1987, not only was its video banned, some TV and radio presenters refused to even mention the song’s title).

Its contents offered a succession of beautifully crafted hit singles – six in total – that ran the gamut from slick funk to pop to heartbroken ballads. It crossed musical boundaries to such a degree that it became the first album by a white artist to top the US R&B charts, something Michael was proud of.

He was now arguably the biggest pop star in the world, but Michael still seemed dissatisfied with the nature of his success. “You look for your dreams in heaven, but what the hell are you supposed to do when they come true?” he sang, glumly, on Waiting, a track from Faith’s follow-up.

He called the album Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, as if he felt something of Wham!’s frivolity still clung to his image, and he refused to make a video for its first single, Praying For Time. The album noticeably failed to repeat Faith’s blockbuster success, although it still sold 8m copies.

There were far fewer pop hooks on offer, more social commentary, a sense of melancholy introspection that infects the only two songs you could reasonably describe as uptempo.

As with Wham!, you occasionally get the feeling that the still publicly closeted Michael was trying to alert fans to the truth about his sexuality: “I think there’s something you should know, I think it’s time I stopped the show, there’s something deep inside of me, there’s someone I forgot to be,” offers Freedom! ’90.

If you’re occasionally struck by the sense of an artist who had made his rise to fame seem effortless trying a little too hard to be taken seriously, it also contained some of his greatest songs, not least the impossibly lovely confection of jazzy drums and floating synthesiser on Cowboys And Angels.

The projected follow-up, Listen Without Prejudice Vol 2, never appeared: he gave music intended for it away to an Aids charity album and also donated the proceeds of another, Too Funky, when it was released as a single in 1992.

An acclaimed appearance at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert and an EP of covers aside, Michael more or less vanished for the next four years: when he reappeared, it was with Jesus to a Child, a shattered-sounding lament for Anselmo Feleppa, who had died in 1993 from an Aids-related brain haemorrhage.

The subsequent album Older was, understandably, even more bleak and solemn than its predecessor. Even the solitary dance track, the brilliant Fastlove, had a noticeable darkness to its tone: “In the absence of security, I made my way into the night.”

George Michael – Fastlove

Michael later claimed the album was another attempt to quietly reveal the fact that he was gay to his fans without involving the press. When the newspapers finally did get their story two years later, with his arrest for engaging in a lewd act in a Beverly Hills toilet, it seemed to reignite the sense of sly humour that had been largely absent from his work since Wham!’s demise.

His musical response was a witty celebration of the pleasures of cottaging, Outside, complete with a video depicting him performing in a toilet cubicle decked out like a disco. The police officer who arrested him claimed the video caused him “emotional distress”; his subsequent attempt to win damages was dismissed.

On his covers album Songs From the Last Century, he amended the lyrics of My Baby Just Cares For Me to make a reference to the pulchritude of singer Ricky Martin: when he released a protest single attacking Tony Blair and George W Bush over the invasion of Iraq, it arrived with an animated video that variously depicted Michael in drag, dressed as Homer Simpson and seducing Cherie Blair.

Over the past decade, stories about Michael’s drug use, sex life and ill-health overshadowed the music he made. He remained defiant in interviews and onstage, but it still seemed a shame: what turned out to be his final album, Patience, was often opaque, overlong and frequently required effort on the part of the listener – it really did sound like an album made by a man who smoked a lot of marijuana – but its highlights suggested his songwriting abilities were unimpaired: My Mother Had a Brother, Round Here, the glittery spectacular of Flawless (Go to the City).

His first tour in 15 years, 2006’s 25 Live, was an unmitigated triumph: boldly staged so that Michael essentially faced arena audiences alone, with his backing band relegated to the shadows. It grossed more than $200m.

The feeling that whatever else might have been going on in his life, he could be relied upon to create interesting music never faded: this month there was news that he was planning to make an album with Beyoncé producer Naughty Boy.

It sounded like the start of an intriguing new chapter, but Michael’s musical legacy was already sealed years ago. His career showed that you could escape teen pop stardom with aplomb, or at least you could if you were Michael.

It says something about the singularity of his talent that scores of artists have tried to follow it, and almost none of them has succeeded in quite the way he did.

When Michael’s life ended he was an entirely different artist to the one he began as. Once mocked as flimsy and depthless, he turned out to be anything but.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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