George Michael

George Michael: 1963 – 2016

We’ve lost a lot of major figures in ’80s pop this terrible year, but George Michael was bigger than most.

Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in North London on 25 June 1963, the son of a Greek Cypriot father and English mother, Michael formed his first band The Executive with school friends Andrew Ridgeley and David Austin amongst others. When the band split Michael and Ridgeley stayed together to form Wham! Although Michael took on the lion’s share of songwriting, arrangement and production duties, he was augmented by Ridgeley’s guitar (and moral support), backing singers Shirlie Holliman and Dee C. Lee, as well as a host of additional musicians, and soon attracted the attention of Innervision Records, a minor label but with the backing of CBS.

Wham!’s first release, the introductory Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?) was a satirical piece of social comment which, at a time of mass unemployment, championed having fun over working for a living. Released in June 1982, the record was not a success, but George mined a similar vein for the follow-up Young Guns (Go For It!), this time rapping about his disdain for a friend’s decision to marry at a young age. This became Wham!’s first hit and was hovering outside the top forty when, like Culture Club a few weeks earlier, they were drafted in to fill a last minute vacancy on Top of the Pops. Their audacious performance rocketed the single to number 3 in December 1982; Wham Rap! followed it into the top ten in February 1983. May saw the release of Wham!’s third single Bad Boys which, although not a favourite of George’s – he claimed the ironic lyrics had been misunderstood and refused to include it on Wham!’s 1997 best of album If You Were There – went all the way to number 2. The irony in the lyrics of next single Club Tropicana, and even the title of their chart topping début album Fantastic, was also lost on many, although George’s claim to be a serious artist was not helped by his antics on 1983’s Club Fantastic tour, during which he and Andrew would infamously stick shuttlecocks down their shorts.

Towards the end of 1983 the band became embroiled in a dispute with Innervision over what were euphemistically referred to as “royalty discrepancies”. They were subsequently released from their contract, although not before the label had cobbled together a Club Fantastic Megamix single of songs from Fantastic, which Michael and Ridgeley disowned and urged their fans not to buy; it became the duo’s only single not to reach the top ten in the UK. Moving from Innervision to CBS’s Epic label, George took even greater control of the band, single-handedly writing, arranging and producing their first number 1 single Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go in the spring of 1984. This was followed in the summer by Careless Whisper, the only song on Wham!’s second album with a co-writing credit for Ridgeley, although as a slow ballad George felt it didn’t fit Wham!’s good time image and issued it as a solo single. As a measure of Michael’s confidence at the time, a version of the song recorded with legendary soul producer Jerry Wexler was binned and replaced by a self-produced version which duly reached number 1 in August. Still, the song appeared on Wham!’s second album Make It Big in November 1984, alongside Freedom, another number one hit in October. To crown a momentous year, Wham! decided to release a Christmas single in December 1984, but despite selling well over a million copies, the double A-side Last Christmas and Everything She Wants failed to top the chart, being held at number 2 by Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? in which George also participated.

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Wham! consolidated their success worldwide in 1985 with breakthrough hits in the US, a highly publicised tour of China and, curiously, a performance at Live Aid where George received top billing and Andrew was relegated to backing singer status. The only new Wham! material that year was I’m Your Man, another number one hit, but Michael was becoming frustrated with his teenybop image and audience. In the spring of 1986 he released another solo single, the minimalist A Different Corner and announced that Wham! would split after a farewell single in the summer. That turned out to be a double, comprising two rather risqué new songs The Edge of Heaven and Battlestations, a remix of Wham Rap and a cover of Was (Not Was)’s Where Did Your Heart Go?. After a farewell concert at Wembley, the duo parted amicably; Ridgeley tried his hand at a solo musical career, acting and even Formula Three motor racing, while George duetted with Aretha Franklin on I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) before starting work on a solo album.

Despite the rather adolescent nature of some of the lyrics, the album’s first single I Want Your Sex positioned George as a grown up artist and reached number 3 despite – or because of – a BBC ban. Released in November 1987, George’s first solo album Faith was a worldwide number 1, spending 85 weeks on the UK chart and spawning six top twenty hits from its nine tracks. It fared even better in the US, where the title track, Father Figure, One More Try and Monkey all reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Despite the success of Faith, Michael remained dissatisfied with fame and announced that he would do no promotion for his next album, 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. Although the album was a success, its more downbeat tone – combined with Michael’s refusal to make any videos for its singles – meant that it failed to emulate its predecessor. Lead single Praying For Time reached number 6 but further singles including Waiting For That Day and Freedom 90 failed to reach the top twenty. Michael subsequently fell out with CBS (now Sony Music) over the album’s promotion, accusing them of failing to support him as an artist, and again attempted to extricate himself from his record contract.

From then on, Michael’s releases were sporadic at best. A duet with Elton John on the latter’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me reached number 1 in late 1991; three tracks from George’s abandoned Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2 were gifted to the Red Hot & Dance charity album (one of the songs, Too Funky, became a top five hit in June 1992) and in 1993 he released the Five Live EP, a collection of live recordings including his version of Somebody To Love with the surviving members of Queen at 1992’s Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.

Setting up his own Aegean label to release his music, which he would then licence to major labels for distribution, Michael returned in 1996 with the album Older. After disappointing chart positions in the early half of the 1990s, Older spawned a remarkable six top three singles in the UK including number ones Jesus to a Child and Fastlove as well as number 2 hit You Have Been Loved. Like Jesus to a Child, You Have Been Loved was written for Michael’s boyfriend Anselmo Feleppa who had died in 1993, but in the wave of hysteria following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales it became a tribute to the late princess.

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Although Michael had not yet come out as gay, and indeed had struggled with his sexuality for some years, he was spectacularly outed in April 1998 when he was arrested in California for “engaging in a lewd act”. Receiving a fine and community service, George satirised the situation on his next single Outside, a song about the pleasures of alfresco sex which included the lyric “I’d service the community but I already have, you see” and was promoted by a video in which Michael – dressed as a policeman – dances in a nightclub complete with glittery urinals. The single was issued to promote his greatest hits album Ladies and Gentlemen – the Best of George Michael, the release of which formed part of his settlement with Sony Music.

Seeing out the 1990s with a jazz-influenced covers album Songs from the Last Century, Michael collaborated with Whitney Houston on the 2000 top ten hit If I Told You That and released two non-album singles in 2002, the sexually charged Freeek! and anti-Gulf War comment Shoot the Dog, which criticised George W. Bush and Tony Blair while sampling the Human League’s Love Action. These two singles were eventually included on Michael’s next album, 2004’s aptly titled Patience, which also spawned top ten hits Amazing and Flawless (Go to the City).

In 2006 Michael celebrated twenty-five years in music with another compilation album Twenty Five and concert tour 25 Live. A new track December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas) was made available for free from Michael’s website in 2008; co-written with long time friend and collaborator David Austin, it was given a proper single release in 2009. By this time, however, Michael’s troubled private life was beginning to overshadow his music; he was arrested in July 2010 after a well-publicised car accident and spent four weeks in prison for driving under the influence of drugs. In 2011, after releasing a baffling cover of New Order’s True Faith, Michael began his orchestral Symphonica concert tour, although the tour was cut short in November when George was hospitalised with pneumonia. He left hospital shortly before Christmas and appeared to have recovered, recounting the experience in his 2012 single White Light which he performed at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics that August. There was another largely unexplained incident in May 2013 when Michael apparently fell from a moving car on the M1, suffering a head injury. 2014 saw the release of Symphonica, a live album from his 2011 tour with a tracklist comprised mainly of covers and only a handful of his own songs. By the time of its release George had largely withdrawn from public life, even abandoning his hugely entertaining Twitter account, but rumours of a new album in 2017 had begun to surface and his death on Christmas Day 2016 – apparently peaceful, although no cause has yet been confirmed – was shocking even by 2016’s standards. A huge talent and a generous man who lived his life the way he wanted to, his loss rips a hole in the fabric of ’80s music.