Since its inception two years ago, this blog has centered on the artists, albums and music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and the issues and topics that affected them. In 2016, as we watched many in that generation of rockers approach and surpass age 70, we suddenly saw an inordinate number of them passing away, and I found myself writing nearly a dozen obituaries/tributes.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the final rock star death of last year was the youngest. George Michael, who passed away Christmas Day at 53, became a star in 1984 at only 21, and made a significant impact on rock music, particularly on fans born in the 1965-1980 period. So he wasn’t really from my era, and I was only a marginal fan… But there’s no question he is deserving of one more obituary tribute here on “Hack’s Back Pages.”
Beginning with his band Wham!’s first UK hit “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)” in 1982 and proceeding through multiple hit solo albums and singles up to his 2012 single “White Light,” the man born Georgios Panayiatou went from pretty boy heartthrob to major pop figure to serious songwriter to LGBT cultural activist and philanthropist, earning the accolades of millions worldwide, despite his own overarching dislike for the spotlight that came with it.
He lived a modest childhood in London, with his Greek restaurateur father and British dancer mother and two older sisters. In middle school, he befriended Andrew Ridgeley, with whom he dreamed of forming a musical partnership, and the twosome honed their chops as buskers in the London Underground. They eventually adopted the moniker Wham! “in a blatant attempt to get noticed,” he said, and promoted themselves as hedonistic but socially aware, earning a reputation as a sort of dance/protest act in the UK.
Almost from the outset, Michael cultivated an image as a fashionable hunk, featuring everything from leather jacket and rolled-up jeans to short shorts and espadrilles, topped with a blown-dry hairstyle, all prominently displayed in Wham!’s popular music videos. Once they signed with Epic/CBS Records, the duo quickly catapulted to the top of the charts, first in the UK in 1982-83, and then in the US and elsewhere in 1984-85.
Wham!’s “Make It Big” LP did indeed make it big, going multi-platinum on the strength of four mega-hits:
“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was a somewhat cheesy but irresistible slab of jitterbugging bubblegum, perfectly suited for the mid-’80s synth-pop era, and the teen market made it #1 in the US for three weeks in November 1984. Said Michael decades later, “I think ‘Go-Go’ is undoubtedly the most remembered Wham! song because it’s much more stupid than anything else we did.”
“Freedom” and “Everything She Wants” continued Wham!’s run of MTV domination and Top Five chart success (#3 and #1 respectively) in 1985, using basically the same accessible pop formula of R&B/funk melodies and silky production.
But the clincher was “Careless Whisper,” actually written in 1979 when Michael was only 17. Its lyrical theme of remorseful infidelity, coupled with a soulful arrangement carried by a gorgeous sax riff, reached far beyond Wham!’s teen base, and gave Michael the broader foundation he needed to kick off his solo career. “I’m still a bit puzzled why it made such a huge impression,” he wondered 25 years later. “Is it because so many people have cheated on their partners? Is that why they connect with it?” It ended up as the #1 song of 1985 in US sales, topping Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson and other ’80s icons.
One more Wham! LP, two Top Ten hits (“I’m Your Man” and “The Edge of Heaven”) and a farewell concert at Wembley Stadium before 70,000 brought that chapter of Michael’s career to a close. Years later, Michael revealed that the Wham! years were a carefully cultivated manipulation of the pop marketplace. “I totally threw away my personal credibility for a couple of years in order to make sure my music got into so many people’s homes,” he said. “It was a calculated risk, and I knew I would have to fight my way back from it. It was a conscious choice.”
Popular music is full of stories of teen idols who, after reaching the limelight as part of lightweight acts, attempted in vain to establish themselves as serious musicians. Precious few have been able to shed their initial image, but Michael is a notable exception. Once Wham! announced its breakup, very few industry observers were predicting any sort of future for its front man.
But Michael had surprises in store for the unsuspecting critics. His first move came in early 1987 when he teamed up with The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, on the hit single “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” which reached #1 in both the UK and the US. As that infectious track was riding the charts, Michael was hard at work developing a deeper talent as a songwriter of substance, both musically and lyrically. The songs he crafted in 1987 explored sophisticated, sometimes controversial topics, and the musical styles he embraced included everything from Prince-like electrofunk to R&B ballads in the Marvin Gaye vein. What’s more, Michael played most instruments and self-produced nearly every track. Clearly, he was dead set on emerging from the cotton candy of the Wham! years to be taken seriously on his own.
To say he succeeded would be a huge understatement. The LP “Faith,” released in the fall of 1987, would go on to sell 25 million copies worldwide, spawn six enormous hit singles and win the Record of the Year Grammy in 1989. The Bo Diddley-inspired acoustic guitar foundation of the title track was a revelation (and the biggest single of 1988), and “Father Figure,” originally conceived as a dance track, instead became a powerful R&B ballad after Michael chose to delete the drums and slow the tempo.
The overtly sexual persona that defined Michael for the rest of his life was born when the breathy, infectious “I Want Your Sex” was released as the album’s first single. Naturally, it was banned by the BBC in England and by numerous US radio stations in conservative markets, but it still managed to reach the Top Five in both countries.
Those who took the time to actually listen to Michael’s lyric knew the song was actually a tribute not to lust but to monogamous love. “The media has divided love and sex incredibly,” he said a year after the song’s release. “For example, the emphasis of the AIDS awareness campaign has been on safe sex, but it has missed the importance of relationships, and emotion, and monogamy. ‘I Want Your Sex’ is about attaching lust to love, not just to strangers.”
It’s fairly remarkable how well the public responded to the new Michael. “I think it says something for the power of the music that I managed to change the perception of what I do to the degree that I did in so short a time,” he said. “A lot of people told me it wouldn’t be possible.”
The stratospheric heights attained by the “Faith” material proved to be a double-edged sword, however. He wasn’t yet 30, but he nonetheless found himself lonely, frustrated and exhausted from the relentless grind of touring and promotional obligations, and he started questioning the wisdom in being the object of so much adulation in a world from which he felt increasingly estranged.
In “Freedom ’90,” one of the primary songs featured on his next LP, Michael sang with some disdain about his past, and how things were about to change significantly: “Heaven knows we sure had some fun, boy…we were living in a fantasy, we won the race…got a brand new face for the boys on MTV…but today, the way I play the game has got to change…I think there’s something you should know, I think it’s time we stopped the show, there’s something deep inside of me, there’s someone I forgot to be…I just hope you understand, sometimes the clothes do not make the man…”
The 1990 LP “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1” was indeed a substantially different product from its predecessor, and he made it emphatically clear to the suits at Sony Music that he would no longer be a slave to the camera, the music video or the promotional appearances. The album’s title served notice that Michael wanted his music (and lyrics) to stand on their own without the rest of the commercial window dressing he felt was no longer necessary.
The tracks, by and large, were a departure from the danceable songs he’d been making up to that point. For example, two of the best songs, “Waiting For That Day” and “Mothers Pride,” are both slow-tempo, thoughtful pieces with little or no percussion. The somber ballad “Praying For Time” is almost a protest song in which he bemoans inequality and diminishing hope for the future: “It’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate, hanging on to hope when there’s no hope to speak of, and the wounded skies above say it’s much too late, so maybe we should all be praying for time…”
While the songs were far more mature, Michael himself seemed insecure and somewhat hypocritical, accusing Sony of not doing enough to promote the album even though he refused to participate in those efforts. “Listen Without Prejudice” did very well ($8 million worldwide) but nowhere near the numbers “Faith” had achieved ($25 million), causing Michael to initiate contract litigation that distracted him and ultimately hurt his momentum.
A hugely popular live duet with Elton John on his “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” single from 1974 gave Michael yet another #1 hit in 1991, and a show-stopping performance of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” at the Freddie Mercury Concert for AIDS Awareness in 1992 drew wide critical acclaim.
But by 1996 and the release of his “Older” album on a new label, it appeared the bloom was off the rose for Michael, at least in the US. It spawned two Top Ten hits (the haunting “Jesus to a Child” and funky “Fastlove”), but the other three singles failed to chart here.
Things really took a dive for him in the US market in 1998 when he was arrested in a Beverly Hills public rest room for “a lewd act” in an undercover police sting. He used the incident as an opportunity to finally confirm long-circulated rumors about his homosexuality, and even wrote about it in his next single, “Outside,” but it was largely ignored here. His 1999 collaboration with Mary J. Blige on Stevie Wonder’s superb song “As,” and his duet in 2000 with Whitney Houston on her “If I Told You That,” weren’t even released as singles in the US because of the fallout from his legal troubles.
His final album of new material, 2004’s “Patience,” reached #12 here but its effervescent single, “Amazing,” didn’t even crack the Billboard Top 100. Michael’s 25th anniversary greatest hits collection, “Twenty-Five,” managed to reach #20 in 2006 as his final chart appearance, a full ten years before his death.
In fairness, it should be noted that Michael’s career continued to thrive in England throughout this period, with multiple Top Five singles, albums, concert appearances and many positive reviews.
He unabashedly maintained a proud public defense of his hedonistic lifestyle, which included recreational drugs and eyebrow-raising promiscuity. “I don’t want any children,” he stated. “I don’t want the responsibility. I am gay and proud of it, I enjoy smoking weed, and my talent has given me the opportunity to do exactly what I want with my life. I have no qualms about cruising, and my lover doesn’t object.”
Michael nearly died in 2011 after a viral infection gave him a case of severe pneumonia. He became more reclusive, gaining weight and struggling with relationship issues. His death last week of an apparent heart attack at a relatively young age fueled suspicions that it was brought on by his much-publicized and openly celebrated drug use, but a coroner’s report is still pending.
“I have lost a beloved friend,” said Elton John last week. “He was a kind, generous soul and a brilliant artist.” Added Queen’s Brian May: “I don’t have the words. George? That gentle boy? All that beautiful talent? I can’t begin to compute this.”
Much like what occurred following Prince’s death last year, it has been recently revealed that while Michael’s private life was open to broad public consumption, his philanthropic activism had received little notice. It turns out Michael had donated many millions of dollars to multiple causes from 1988 on, most notably for AIDS awareness efforts, England’s National Health Service, and Childline, a 24-hour counseling service for British youths. He had strong convictions about using his wealth to help ease suffering wherever he could, through acts of kindness large and small.
For that, and for his enviable repertoire of beloved songs, George Michael will be fondly remembered by many.