George Michael recounting Wham!’s year to Peter Martin in this interview from the Smash Hits Yearbook 1986
A year in which they had number one singles all over the world, visited China, appeared on Live Aid, won Ivor Novello and BPI awards and George still had time to do his back in. He even had time for an interview with Peter Martin….
“In September we’d just finished recording ‘Make It Big’ in the South of France. ‘Wake Me Up’ had already been released and ‘Careless Whisper’ was coming out so I knew that there was another very big hit on the album. Other than that, I had no idea what was going on it. We had a nice relaxing time making it in the South of France. We decided to let it take it’s own time and if it was going to be late, then it was just going to be late. Once we actually had the songs and we knew it was going to be a big hit album then we thought we probably will make it big and annoy as many people as possible!
But, I must admit, when we went off to record the album we didn’t have any idea that things were going to go so well. I mean, I did say to Andrew at the beginning of the year ‘I want three number ones this year’: I want ‘Wake Me Up’ to be number one, and I know ‘Careless Whisper’ is a number one, but I’ve still got to write another!
But I mean, the idea is that you aim high and then probably you’ll come somewhere near it. Where, in fact, we actually went past it! I stil can’t really believe it!
Anyway, we finished recording that album in September, then we came back and we started a video for ‘Freedom’, but in the end we gave up and we decided to get a good director in and let someone else do the work for a change. Because normally Andrew and I storyboard the videos and we usually have a lot to do with them but at the time we had just got back from doing the album – there had been some promotion to do and everything – and I personally was absolutely exhausted. Obviously I had to do most of the work on the album, and I said to Andy – “look, we’ve just got to get someone in because there’s no way I’ve got the energy to do a video”. So we got someone in and it probably would have been a good video in the end but it wouldn’t have been outstanding, and it wouldn’t have been US. Really, it was silly to expect someone to come in and interpret what we wanted. We did one day’s shooting which was very unremarkable and then the second day I turned up at the Adelphi Theatre and poor Andrew was surrounded by all these dancers in leg warmers! All kind of prancing about. And he just said to me, “look Yog, this is absolute shit. What are we doing?” And I said, “I know – you’re right. We’re going to have to stop this, aren’t we?” So we took the director aside and said, “look, it’s really not your fault – we didn’t talk to you enough – but this is not going to work.” And we just canceled it. It cost us about ｣40,000 and we didn’t get anything out of it. I haven’t even seen the footage from that first day.”
“Most of October was spent promoting ‘Freedom’. The thing about ‘Freedom’ is that although it doesn’t seem it now, it was quite a move for us, because it was the first Wham! single which hadn’t been totally ‘up’. It was very energetic, it was powerful, but it was a bit of a pining love story, and it wasn’t a totally escapist kind of thing. A lot of people didn’t like it at first so the first couple of weeks it was out I used to rush to the radio and turn it off every time I heard it because I was so convinced that it sounded crappy on the radio. I’d never felt like that about a song before, so when it went to number one and stayed there it was just an incredible bonus. But at the time, I was just really nervous about it. Remember all the number ones from that time… There was ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’, then Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes’, then it was me – ‘Careless Whisper’ – then it was Stevie Wonder with ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ and then it was ‘Freedom’. We had three out of five number ones! And then I think Chaka Khan knocked it off. But Duran Duran had a go and so did Culture Club. Both of which I thought were going to do it, but they didn’t. We were on Top Of The Pops twice with ‘Freedom’. The first time I did this absolutely ridiculous dancing – my arms and legs were flying all over the place! I was so convinced it wasn’t a number one, I was putting everything into it – but I looked hysterical. When I got home I couldn’t believe it. And then we did another when it was number one, the third week I think, and that was really – a lot better. I’d calmed down a bit by then.
We had our first American number one in October with ‘Wake Me Up’. I was stunned! I was stunned because it had got there the way it did. I thought, well, if it gets in the Top 30 at all, it’s a number one. If it gets enough airplay. But I was a bit stunned because it jumped incredibly. It did really kind of unnatural moves for the American chart. It went six, five, four … and then I thought, well, that’s that, then. Then the next week it went to one! I think it just impressed upon me just how strong the record company were, apart from anything else. Obviously you have to have a good record to get to number one, but if your record company don’t go all out then you don’t stand a chance. CBS just happen to be, I think, the strongest company in the world now. I was shocked and it was amazing. You know, to think about, being number one in America. We didn’t even do any special promotion!”
“In November we had the ‘Make It Big’ party. That was awful. Absolutely dreadful. We’d just got off the plane that morning – I think we’d been to America or something. And we got back and went to the party and it was awful! It was packed – just about all of London had been told that this wonderful party was on – and I remember the worst thing about it was that there were so many people we invited, old friends and everything, and no-one could get anywhere near us because there were about eight bouncers around us.
Then at some point they said, ‘Right, we’re going to have a press conference now’. And I said, ‘look, please don’t announce this downstairs!, you’ll make us look complete prats’. Because we’d invited all these people along, and half of them were business people, but half of them were friends and you don’t announce yourself to friends. And they said, ‘Of course, of course, we understand.’ Then we got ushered downstairs, trying to wave to our friends through all the bouncers and everything. Then all of a sudden there comes this announcement. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we give you George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley!’ I just wanted to fall through the floor. It was terrible – you can just imagine all these people saying, ‘Well, they’ve really changed – they’ve got so big-headed.’ It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. We’ll never have a party like that again.
‘Make It Big’ was released on the 5th of November, and we spent most of the rest of the month getting ready for our world tour. All I was concerned about was getting round the world, seeing those places and managing to get back in one piece. I was so sure that this tour was going to really exhaust us both, because we were already exhausted anyway. We hadn’t stopped since the album. The day that the tour started, we had been up all the night before, finishing off the editing for the video that went with the tour. It was just ridiculous. I thought, this is really stupid, we are heading towards disaster. The tour is going to crumble halfway through!
As it turned out, it was an easy tour and we had lots of days off, which was a great relief. Of course, we couldn’t really relax mentally because we were always thinking about what we were going to do next, but at least physically it wasn’t too bad. We’d got a lot more professional since the last tour, and I think that really showed through on stage. Otherwise it wasn’t that much different to our first tour, although obviously we had a lot more material this time.”
“I did my back in December! I’d had this nagging pain for a while and then it would fade again and it would be alright. Then one night we played at Leeds, and we went to a club afterwards and I was in agony. I couldn’t sit down, I couldn’t stand up. It didn’t matter what I did I just couldn’t move without it really hurting. The next day I went to an osteopath in Leeds and she said that I’d be very stupid to play again until I’d had some x-rays. So I had x-rays and they told me that I had a vertebrae out of place, either congenitally or perhaps I’d had some terrible knocks as a child. It must have been that, but I can’t remember anything like that happening to me when I was a child. I remember falling down some stairs and cracking my skull; it might have happened then, I suppose, but I doubt it. Anyway I have actually done my back in twice since then. I go to a gym now and I am working out the muscles around the spine to try and make it stronger but there’s not a lot you can do. When you’ve done it once, it can easily happen again, you know. You just move it the wrong way, just once, and it falls out of place again.
Then we did our Christmas shows at Wembley. That was brilliant. With the exception of playing in Canton in China it was probably the best feeling I’ve ever had on stage. It was Christmas Eve and everybody had their party packs and everything and there was such a great atmosphere. Everyone was so – with us. Obviously a lot of people come to our gigs with their girlfriends – you know, kind of dragged along – so at the start there’s a lot of skepticism. But by the end of the evening every single person appeared to be on their feet, and clapping their hands. I’ve never seen a better reaction.
Of course, December was also when we did the Band Aid single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’. That was a very weird time in some ways. I mean, Band Aid was brilliant and I don’t have any bad feelings about it. But I’d written our Christmas single ‘Last Christmas’ the previous February, and as far as I was concerned it was a number one. Then, as Christmas approached there weren’t any novelty records out or anything, and I was thinking ‘I can’t believe it. There’s no real competition around’. People were saying it’d be the Flying Pickets, and I knew there was a possibility that Culture Club might have released ‘Mistake Number Three’, but apart from that it looked like we had a clear run at the top. Nothing looked like it could keep us off number one! And then I heard about the Band Aid record and wanted to get involved. At the time, it didn’t seem a very big deal. I think most people that turned up that day were really surprised when they saw all the cameras and everything – I was. I thought it was like a few people getting together to do this record and it wasn’t until I actually got there that I realised what was really going on.
So I was totally shocked by the whole thing. And then I heard it and I thought, oh well, with all these people on it I really don’t see how we stand a chance. Actually, there was this awful thing when someone came round with a tape recorder and I thought it was Smash Hits. So, you know, I said something light-hearted like ‘this record might be number one at Christmas, but then again so might ours, but I don’t care because I’m on both of them!’ And the next day, driving along in my car, I heard them play the b-side of the record and I heard that quote. It sounded so flippant. I thought I’d instantly be made public enemy number one. I sat there, listening to it, in absolute terror. And I went back to the office the next day and said, ‘I think we’d better give up on our number one.’ Of course, I was really glad about the way it turned out in the end. I know people have said that some of the people involved were just doing it to promote themselves, or they were being really self-righteous about the whole thing. Well, OK, some of them were, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, does it? I mean, who cares why they did it, so long as they did it and so long as it helped? Can you imagine how long it would have taken by any other means to raise the amount of money that has been made this year?
It happens to be very lucky that the Band Aid project has struck a time where people are incredibly aware of entertainment. It just seems that as things get worse and worse in most areas, people will turn more and more to sport and entertainment. It’s getting higher profile all the time. It really is – there is more sport and entertainment on the television, in the media generally, than ever before. It’s sort of taken over from the kind of status and influence that film stars used to have.”
“In January ‘Careless Whisper’ was number one and we played live in Japan and Australia. We’d actually done a promotional tour in Japan before but we’d never properly played there. And it was actually great fun. The first gig was like a nightmare. It was like playing at a school play. The curtains opened and there was just no atmosphere. We played the gig and the audience just sat there politely and clapped between numbers, which we’d been told to expect. We came off stage and everyone was really down. But after that every gig we did got better and better, until we got to Budokan and it was like playing Wembley. It was the best two weeks of touring I think we’ve ever done. Everybody listened so attentively and it was the first time I’d actually had the opportunity to hear myself sing on stage. I started thinking ‘this is what touring is really about’. Because much as I love being screamed at, it’s not a very musical experience.
I liked the Japanese people, but Japan itself I’m not so keen on. Obviously it was very heavily bombed in the Second World War, and that’s affected the way it looks. They obviously had to build residences very quickly and everything is very square and uniform and ugly. But Tokyo by night is absolutely beautiful – I’ve never seen so much neon in my entire life. Apparently Tokyo, on its own, takes up 20% of the Western World’s electricity. Can you believe that? But by day it’s ugly as sin, it really is.
Then we went to Australia and it was back to the screams! Australia was the loudest audience I have ever heard! I mean, they had a decibel count on the screams between songs and it was about 140 and that’s incredibly loud. The Who are famous for playing loud and they only go to about 120 decibels. Anyway I had a big advantage over Andrew in Melbourne because it’s full of Greeks! For a couple of days Andrew felt a bit left out! But it was incredible. The whole thing was a wonderful experience. The Australians are really, really nice people. They have a terrible reputation over here, for beer-swilling and all that. But they’re lovely people really. In fact I think it’s the best country I have ever been to. I want to go back there after the American tour for a while.”
“We played in America in February. Looking back, I think that playing there when we did was a big mistake. You see, there are two types of credibility in America which help you to last beyond being a 21 year old pop singer that girls scream at. One way of getting credibility there is through rock and roll, which is obviously what Duran have gone for. And the other way is by getting in through the rhythm ‘n’ blues chart, the black chart. And we automatically got into that. There was a struggle with ‘Wake Me Up’ but ‘Careless Whisper’ was number eight on the black chart and the album was top five on the black chart so we were getting there. We didn’t need to actually go to America just then because ‘Careless Whisper’ was already number one.
But we went anyway, and what happened was that we got incredible media coverage and every single news bulletin said ‘latest scream sensation, Wham!,’ which didn’t do much for our rhythm ‘n’ blues credibility. And then we played such small places that they were sold out within a matter of hours. But they were sold out to the hard core fans who were automatically the younger kinds, our teen audience. So we only saw one half of our American audience. And though that half is just as valuable as the other lot, they do tend to put the other half off. And we were seen automatically as just another teen group, another scream sensation and people couldn’t really reconcile that with ‘Careless Whisper’. They must have thought, ‘well I like it, but it must be a teeny record ‘cos it’s him’. So in a way, I think it set us back a bit.
I think we regained some of the ground when we released ‘Everything She Wants’. Playing China helped us too and playing those stadiums in August especially with Sister Sledge supporting us. It really is important to get that adult audience in America. Not just to sell more records or whatever, but in terms of longevity. And also, you want to be recognised – I want it to be recognised that ‘Everything She Wants’ and ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘Freedom’ are not teeny records, though they are available to that market. I think they are good records – especially ‘Everything She Wants’. I think it is an adult record. I am proud of my work and I want it to sell to people that it should sell to, you know. I want people to listen to it. And you’ve got to be very careful in America because Americans are much more aware of what their record collection looks like. You just have to be careful how you market yourself.
February was also the BPI Awards. That was a bit of a fiasco, really, because basically we got the very strong impression that if didn’t turn up for it, we might not get the award. What they wanted us to do was collect our award and then perform afterwards, which I thought was not only incredibly tacky, but lets the whole country know that you knew you were going to get it. So anyway we said we wouldn’t do that and we got the award, but what was very disappointing about it was that there were an awful lot of people there who were really grudging about our success. I mean, we’d had three number ones and I really felt that we had proved to the business that we had lasting potential. I really thought they’d be above that kind of petty criticism. And we got there and it was so perfectly obvious that nobody wanted us to win! So we got up there, and I just wanted to say, ‘sod you lot, you should be able to tell that we’ve deserved this, we’ve worked hard and we make good records.’ So I came away from it thinking that it was a bit worthless. I’ll probably never get another award from the BPI having said that! But I wouldn’t really care.”
“March was the time of the Ivor Novello awards. Winning an award really meant a lot to me, because apart from anything else, it was heightened by the fact that we had just got that BPI award, and there was such total resentment of us as a group. And yet sitting at the Ivor Novello awards with a group of songwriters and publishers, it was perfectly obvious that the people in that room wanted me to win it. And that to me was the first real acknowledgment that I’d ever received professionally, the first proper sign from within the industry that what I was doing was actually worthwhile. And that was the reason that I got so emotional.
But it’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life! People keep making out that I burst into tears all the time, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The ridiculous part about it is I’m one of those people who’s always wished they could cry, you know. Because I’ve never been able to. It doesn’t matter what happens – I’ve been at all kinds of things like funerals and wanted to cry because I get really worked up, but I’ve never been able to. I come from one of those families where you don’t really let things show too much – so for me to do it in front of millions of people was not really the best moment, you know! But I haven’t done it since and I probably shan’t for another ten years. I’ll probably never cry again now. Just in case anybody sees it.
Oh yeah, in March I went onstage with Frankie (Goes To Hollywood). That was hysterical! I had met Paul a couple of times before and Mark at the BPI awards, but I met them all for the first time at their Birmingham gig. Then I went to see Joan Rivers with them and I got on with them really well. They were a real laugh. They’ve been marketed as being really aggressive, but it’s not really them. They like to go a bit mad and have a laugh, you know, ‘just for the crack’. But they aren’t hard or aggressive, the way some people seem to think. Anyway, I had a good time with them and then one night we were all pissed up in their hotel room and they said, ‘why don’t you come on stage with us tomorrow night?’ And I said, ‘No, you’re joking!’ But they weren’t, they were quite serious. So I did it, I actually got up on stage with them the next night, and probably made a real fool of myself. I just kept running about from microphone to microphone. It must have looked crap. But was hysterical.
Then of course, March was when we left for China. God – when we got back it was ridiculous. Everyone kept saying ‘How was China? How was China?’ It got to the point when as soon as someone said ‘How …’ I went ‘Aargh’! I just got so bored with the whole thing. Eventually whenever anyone asked that question I used to say, ‘It was very Chinese actually.’ So how was it, really? Well, it wasn’t the Club Mediterranean, was it?!”
“In April we did the Motown anniversary thing at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem (New York). We were contacted two weeks before it happened and I was asked if I would like to appear, and then they phoned back and said they would like me to do ‘Careless Whisper’ with Smokey Robinson, and were there any other artists that I would like to work with from Motown? At which my eyes lit up and I said ‘Stevie Wonder’, thinking there would be no chance of doing it, and they said ‘yes’. And then there was backwards and forwards talk about what numbers we should do and I very tentatively put forward an old Stevie Wonder song called ‘Love’s In Need Of Love Today’ and he said he was delighted that I’d chosen that one. In fact, when we actually did it he worked this whole speech around it and it became the finale to the show. It was amazing. I was there in a daze, I just couldn’t understand why they had invited me. That was great for me because it was a kind of black acceptance for Wham!. I mean the records on that label are some of the best records of all time. To be one of three white people involved (along with Boy George and Rod Stewart) on a show like that was just amazing. George spent the whole weekend bad mouthing everybody. Especially me. I think he was a bit annoyed because he wanted to do one of his songs and they wouldn’t let him.”
May / June
“May and June were months when I seemed to be reading nothing but lies about myself in the papers. How I was buying such and such a manor house or whatever. The truth is that I have moved away from home, but I have only rented a little place, which is nowhere near where everyone thought it was. Mind you, some of the kids have already found out where it is. You know, one of them finds out from a taxi driver or something and tells all their friends. Still, it’s not too bad at the moment; they’re still letting me have some privacy, which I appreciate. Actually it’s really funny because I keep getting all these letters from Bombay because the boy next door goes to public school and he’s got a friend that lives in Bombay, and this boy comes back on the weekends and found out that I live there and he’s started to write to me.
And I went on holiday, to St. Tropez. The highlight of the whole holiday was when my friend Pat accidentally set her hair on fire! We were in a club and she did a real Michael Jackson! I turned round to talk to her, and she was leaning over a candle on the table and she didn’t even realise – that was the worst bit of all! She was wearing her hair up quite high, and her head was on fire that high in the air. So I jumped up and told her and she just started running, she really panicked. She didn’t know what was going on. We were in a club in St. Tropez and I had to run about bashing her on the head to put out this fire. She was fine in the end, but she was really annoyed. She had to have her hair cut and she kept going on about it at first. I was really angry with her because I said ‘you nearly burnt your scalp, you know, you nearly had a really nasty burn.’ But she’s alright now. I was taking the piss out of her the next day – around the pool I was saying, ‘look everybody’s pointing at you – there’s that girl who does the Michael Jackson impersonation!’
I also met the Queen in June! It was at a drinks thing in a marquee after some polo match. There were lots of other people there, but she did speak to me. She asked me about China, and said that she hadn’t been there but that she might be going there next year. She was really very sweet. And small!”
“In July all the papers got hold of the idea that I was having a big birthday party in the south of France. Apparently, they were all on the verge of coming down to find us in St. Tropez. They’d have found us so easily. I also did some recording with Elton John – I did some vocals on two tracks from the album and his single. But it doesn’t sound like me – it’s very high, it’s a falsetto thing. But it’s a great track, I think it’s a number one actually. And of course, July was when we appeared at Live Aid. It was a wonderful experience. I was really nervous before – I’d rehearsed with Elton John’s band and everything, and I was quite overwhelmed. They were the most incredible band I’d ever heard in my life! But I still kept thinking, it could all be a complete disaster! I was originally going to do a couple of numbers with Elton but the publicity for the thing was so misleading that I had to do at least one number, end to end, by myself.
It’s been like a dream for me. I mean, getting to sing with Elton and getting to sing an Elton song and getting to sing with Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson – all these things I would never have dared to hope to have done, and I would never ever have expected to do them this quickly. It just makes me wonder what I’m going to do next year.”
“August was the American tour, which I’ve mentioned before. We were also going to do a big concert in Hyde Park, which fell through in the end. Basically I think because there was a lot of talk of bomb scares, Westminster decided against it, but it’s probably just as well because it would have cost us an awful lot of money to put it on and have it ruined on the day by a scare. It would have been such a fiasco. And there were so many bomb scares this summer, I think we would have been an obvious target.
It’s funny looking back on the year that’s passed – which was obviously incredible as far as I’m concerned – and wondering what next year will bring. There will certainly be a Wham! album probably in March or April next year and I would imagine my solo album will be out by the end of ’86. But I think the only big ambition for the next two years is just that we manage to do what we want to do in terms of taking the group further musically and broadening the audience. And getting a bit more of our own age group audience back without disappointing anybody else because there is a fine line, you know. But in the end, if you do disappoint some people then it’s got to be because you think that the music’s worth it. Basically, I don’t think I’ve changed a lot in the past year. I suppose I pay more for my clothes now, and I’ve got a beard, of course … People keep saying I look like Bluto from Popeye! Or like Captain Haddock from Tin Tin! But really I don’t think I’ve changed that much. I just think I’m even more ambitious … I don’t have any qualms about saying I do have a kind of blind ambition to become a bigger star. I don’t understand it and I know it’s not going to make me any happier, but I do have it and I can’t ignore it. But, yes, there has to be a point where I’ll think, well I can’t get any bigger than this, and then at that point I suppose I will decide what to do with the future. I have thought in terms of what would I do if I suddenly decided I couldn’t stand this any more. Because there might come that day. And I can’t write obscure music; it will never be subversive, it will always be mainstream. It might become much more popular – it might become much more accomplished mainstream in which case it will sell more.
The public’s view of Wham! has changed over the past year, though I think it’s still not in line with the reality. One of the biggest changes I’ve found is that in people who think of us in terms of personalities but not in terms of us as a group. I think most people have got a lot of goodwill towards us now. I can’t speak for Andrew, because Andrew has different type of publicity and maybe his relationship with the public is different. But people seem genuinely pleased to see me. Maybe it’s because they can go home to their wife or friends or whatever and, like, they have a good story to tell in the pub or at work the next day … I don’t know. But generally I am getting a very good reception from people, which I didn’t always used to get. So things have changed on that level. It is always very, very dodgy trying to work out what people think of you but I know we are starting to bridge the gap that there was between the kids and their mums and dads before – there was that gap and it’s really starting to fill up. Andrew? I don’t really think he’s changed much, either. He has just been seen in far too many places! He was starting to fall into that rock ‘n’ roll pattern but he hasn’t really.
I think actually it is quite healthy having two very obviously different media personalities like me and Andrew, even though our personalities aren’t as different as the media makes them out to be. The only thing that pisses me off about it is this thing in the Sun, where they did A Day In The Life Of … I can’t believe it. I mean, it’s live they’ve decided because Andrew is the bad boy that they are going to make me look whiter than white and really goody-goody which is very distasteful to me. I mean, I don’t mind people thinking I’m not a drug addict or I’m not a total piss-artist or anything, but I’m not at the other extreme either.
I’m just normal. I am like most people – I go out and I do the things that most people do in their spare time … And for them to paint me as somebody that just works and sleeps is just absolutely disgusting. I find that much more distasteful than bad publicity about me being seen pissed on the floor or something. I would much rather have that. But it is all quite irrelevant. I am actually reaching the confidence in myself musically where I don’t worry about things like that so much…”
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