The article “Will George Michael ever appear on stage again?” by Chris Heath was published in the Smash Hits magazine on their January 3rd-16th, 1985 issue.
Of course he will. But that didn’t stop people asking questions like that on the news the day he strained his back and Wham! had to cancel a concert. Chris Heath was there at the time, saw it all happen and traveled back with George to his parents’ place in London. (All photos: Mike Putland)
“I’m not doing it.”
George Michael walks despondently through the foyer of the Selby Fork hotel. The entire Wham! entourage – who are sitting impatiently, surrounded by their luggage, waiting for the word to heard off to Edinburgh for tonight’s concert – look up in amazement.
In just eight hours from now, 8,000 screaming Scottish fans are expecting George and Andrew to bound on stage. Some have been queuing outside the venue since early this morning. Not to get tickets – the whole tour is, of course, a complete sell-out – but just to get the best positions near the front of the stage. And now they’re being told that Wham! won’t be there. George woke up this morning with back pains. A lengthy inspection by an osteopath in nearby Wetherby has resulted in a diagnosis of “an acute strain in one of the lower vertebrae along the lumbar line of the back” (whatever that means). Or as the News Of The World puts it the next day: “Hip-wiggling Wham! heartthrob George Michael was ordered to rest yesterday after wrenching his back in a sexy stage dance routine!” But rest is the last thing Wham!’s lead singer can afford in the middle of their most successful British tour ever.
No wonder Jake Duncan, their usually unflappable tour manager, looks worried. What are we going to do now?
“Panic,” he answers.
And everything had been going so well. The previous night’s show was at the Queen’s Hall in Leeds. There total Wham! mania prevails. Outside beforehand, the queue stretches four abreast for at least a quarter of a mile. Inside the first girl faints when the first quiet background music is pumped through the P.A., a full hour and a half before Wham! even appear on stage. Already the hall is ringing with a feverish chant of “We want Wham!” that is only slightly dampened when wiry Gary Crowley of Earsay and Capital Radio fame comes on.
“Don’t be a poseur! Put your hands in the air!” he shouts, spinning a few hip records. Most do, but it’s clear they’re only killing time before the main attraction.
In the dressing-room upstairs the backing band sit around watching TV, munching sandwiches and fruit, drinking and putting the finishing touches to their make-up. “Careless Whisper”‘s familiar solo wafts in from a nearby room as the saxophonist warms up.
George Michael is fretting about his white shirt. “It’s shrunk! It’s going to fall out,” he mutters worriedly, tucking it tightly into his black ski-pants. No-one really takes any notice.
Then in bounces Andrew wearing his ankle-length red tartan coat. “Come on,” he says half-heartedly, “let’s go and do the show.”
They run onstage to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and the place explodes. 7,000 people, mainly girls in their mid-teens, go berserk. The flow of limp bodies being dragged out over the front of the crowd by the bouncers turns into a flood that keeps them busy non-stop for the next 80 minutes.
The show itself is pure pantomine. Wham! use every showbiz trick in the book. George never stops moving – splitting the audience into sections for singalongs, teasing them when Andrew goes off that he can’t remember who’s missing, getting shrieks from first the boys (“yeah!”) and the girls (“yeeeeeeeeeeaaaahh!!!”), throwing cups of water on everyone.
“I think we’re the most entertaining pop act on the road at the moment,” he says later. “I saw Duran Duran, Culture Club, and Spandau Ballet last year, and I think the people who see our gigs go away having a better time.”
Because George hasn’t “got the stamina to do what I do without a break in the middle of the show”, they disappear after about half a dozen numbers and a white screen is winched down. It’s Wham! movie time, which consists of lots of photos of the band, the odd bit of inaudible dialogue and the frivolous “Last Christmas” video. Hardly a landmark in the history of cinema, but no-one seems to mind. In fact everytime there’s a really moody close-up of either George or Andrew, especially kissing a girl, the crowd screams louder than ever.
Then back come Wham! in new clothes. After a couple more album tracks, they finish with the rest of the hits. Below the bouncers try to calm the audience with wet sponges and plastic cups of water. First comes “Freedom”, then “Careless Whisper” (“thank you very much for making this Number One,” says George earnestly, before proving once and for all that he can sing as well live as he can on record), then “Young Guns” (with cowboy hats and the usual play-acting). Then, as an encore, “Wake Me Up” again.
Out the back of the auditorium on the concrete floor of a huge bare car park are about twenty stretchers. On each is a fainted Wham! fan slowly recovering as the finale – a seemingly endless singalong version of “Last Christmas” – drifts in from the stage area. Most of those that are conscious are in tears. One girl is writhing uncontrollably while a St. Johns Ambulanceman covers her mouth and nose with a brown paper bag under instructions from his boss – “Quick! She’s hyperventilating” – to cut down her oxygen intake.
“We’ve had to treat about 200 people tonight,” one of them tells me. “No-one’s seriously hurt, though two have been taken to hospital.” He gestures at the surrounding chaos with a bemused expression on his face, as if to say ‘how can a couple of blokes singing a few pop songs cause all this?’.
“I used to feel worried about it,” George later tells me, “but there’s never been any injury or damage done. Last year, when we just had an ordinary limo leaving the gigs, I used to dread it because you used to get girls putting their arms through the hinge. That nearly happened once. I just have this recurring image of this arm on the floor of the limo. It would only take one thing like that and you’ve have to stop for good.”
These days, though, George and Andrew do a runner the moment they get offstage: they’re comfortably on the way to the hotel by the time any fans appear round the back to catch them. The fans are still waiting when the coach containing the rest of the band leaves three-quarters of an hour later. More girls are expectantly stationed outside the nearby Dragonara Hotel but their perseverance won’t be rewarded either. To stay somewhere that close to the venue was just too obvious – we’re all actually booked in a hotel half an hour down the road.
Where are George and Andrew? There’s no sign of them in the breakfast room. The coach should already have left for Scotland, but everyone’s still just hanging about downstairs. Some of the band are clowning about in the foyer. Shirlie and Gary Crowley run off hand-in-hand to buy some sweets. Everyone else reminisces in hungover whispers about last night’s visit to a nightclub until 4 in the morning. “Horrible,” is George’s verdict apparently; they were all crammed in the V.I.P. lounge with £500 of booze while the people outside stood on the stairs and ogled for literally hours through the huge window. “Just like being in a goldfish bowl.”
Andrew’s solution was to keep his eyes fixed firmly on his glass, with disastrous results. “He’s in a bad way,” reveals a recent visitor to his room, proceeding to describe in graphic detail the resultant mess on his bedspread, in his bathroom, and so on. This apparently “happens quite often”.
Andrew finally appears at 11.40. “You look like a Wild Woman of Borneo,” is the greeting he gets from Melanie, George’s sister.
“What time is it?” he groans bleary-eyed, then smiles. “Thankfully I don’t remember what happened.”
Then George arrives to announce the cancellation of tonight’s concert and a sluggish chaos ensues. Some of the musicians rush to the phones to fix up a substitute gig in London that night. Andrew wanders round in the freezing air while being chased round and lifted up by rather unsympathetic mates. Jake tries not to panic.
“At least we don’t lose any money,” he says with relief. “We’re insured against the takings of a sell-out concert – about £60,000. But it’s the kids: of course we’ll get it broadcast on the local radio station and stuff but there’ll still be chaos, girls crying outside the venue and everything.”
I find George having a meal in “The Happy Eater”. He’s trying to work out how he can pay the bill when he’s only got a £50 note – the problems these pop stars have) – and wondering how he hurt his back. He reckons it was probably due to jumping off the central stage rostrum or twisting his body awkwardly during the performance; later, he confesses that the impersonation of a Madonna dance routine he gave in the dressing-room beforehand may have been responsible.
“I hate pulling the gig,” he sighs, “but we’re only human.”
Everyone else is crammed into the tour coach but we’re in the more luxurious minibus with George, sister Melanie, girlfriend Pat, his minder and the driver. On the way George sings along to a selection of his favourite songs – Paul Young’s “Playhouse”, “The Riddle” by Nik Kershaw (who was at last night’s concert), Duran’s “The Reflex” (“I actually do like them”), Was (Not Was)’s “Where Did Your Heart Go?” (“we ripped off “Bad Boys” from their “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming”) – cleans his teeth (“Wham! always clean their teeth”), and chats about anything and everything.
“I feel really terrible when I think about letting all those people down tonight. But there’s the rest of the tour to think about. And there’s me to think about too. Would anyone who was coming tonight want me to mess up my back for their evening out?”
Last year George spelt out to Smash Hits the plan for 1984: “Wake Me Up”, “Careless Whisper”, “Freedom”, “Last Christmas” were to be Number One hits, in that order. We didn’t believe him.
“Everything just seemed to go our way so perfectly this year – over 3 million records in eight months. I think we’re the biggest-selling artists in Britain right now – including “Last Christmas” we’ve even outsold Frankie. Of course I don’t mind about the Band Aid record – to come in at Number Two was fantastic, and you couldn’t wish for a better record – in what it stands for – to outsell us. I’d rather it was that than some Black Lace record.
All my profits from ‘Last Christmas’ are going to Ethiopia too. Band Aid was great, but it was only one day out of everybody’s lives. I don’t think that’s enough. And you can’t not have a conscience about these things when you’re making a ridiculous amount of money. I tried to get the record company, CBS, to give their share too but they didn’t want to ‘set a precedent’. But I hope some other people in the Christmas Top Ten will do the same.”
You’d reckon George Michael ought to be disgustingly happy. He’s got youth, looks, success and bags of money (“enough to live very well for the rest of my life if I stopped tomorrow”). But now he’s discovering that fame does have its less pleasant side.
“This year – apart from the gigs themselves – being on tour has been horrible. All I do is hide away in hotels. It’s driving me mad. It’s making me think very seriously about whether it’s all worth it. Up to a certain point, fame is quite fun and just a bit of a pain, but then it goes over the edge and you realise you’re spending all your time writing your name.
If we decide to pursue our recent American success then I may well end up being a 22-year-old hermit.”
Apart from having a good break after the World Tour finishes to think about things, plans for 1985 are fairly vague.
“I’ve got one song, a very old song, which I’m thinking of releasing this year. It’s called ‘Stephen’. It’s a really depressing song about someone whose wife or lover is supposed to have died. It’s about how some people just don’t get over bereavement. It’s somebody that I knew. If it comes out it would have to be a George Michael single. Wham! singles aren’t about depression, broken hearts … ‘Careless Whisper’ would have sounded ridiculous as a Wham! single; so would ‘Stephen’. Wham! singles are pop singles with some energy.
Also Wham! is me and Andrew. There’s a huge difference between my idea of me alone and my image of both of us. If I stopped writing the type of songs that have made us successful this year then there’d be no point Wham! continuing.”
George is still chatting away four hours later when we reach the outskirts of London. He jokes with Pat (“his personal adviser, chocolate buyer and mascot holder”) – who teasingly describes him as “a lovely boy … warm and tender … but he was much more handsome and intelligent when he had brown hair” – and discusses women’s magazines with his sister.
“Those adverts!” he says. “There’s always a couple in them who look like they’ve just had the most perfect sex. It’s so unrealistic. The earth’s never moved for me. But,” he adds, “I’m open to offers!”
He also explains the ring he wears on the fourth finger of his left hand which says ‘YOG’: “The Greek for George is something like ‘Yorgos’ – you can’t really say it in English – Andy started calling me it. My Mum and Dad gave me the ring, though. Everyone thinks it’s an engagement ring – it’s not. It’s just the only finger it’ll fit on.”
At the end of a suburban lane, we stop in the drive of a large house fronted by white pseudo-classical pillars. Outside is parked a blue Rolls Royce. This is George’s parents’ house, where George still lives though he is moving out later in the year.
He’s greeted by his father who tells him off in a strong Greek accent for not phoning. Apparently a ridiculously exaggerated report of George’s back condition has been on the radio news bulletins – ‘Will George Michael Ever Appear On Stage Again? Shock! Horror!’ George reassures him and ushers us into the plush open-plan downstairs rooms. The walls are pictures of George and Wham!, and the odd gold or silver disc.
“I’m taking them when I leave,” he firmly reminds his mother when she returns from the shops a few minutes later. She makes us coffee, and George tea “with honey for my throat”. Then we sit and listen to them natter on, him explaining how fed up he’s getting with the public attention: “it’s what you’ve got to expect, George,” she scolds. Now and again he says very unmegastar-like things like “Can I have another cup of tea, Mum?”
Then it’s goodbye. Off we drive, past the place on the right where he used to have violin lessons (“for 6 years – and I only got grade 4!”), back to his manager’s central London office where he’s to meet another osteopath to get a second opinion on his back.”
And the rest of the tour?
“I’ll be at Bournemouth on Monday,” he states confidently. Which will mean more screaming, fainting and hysteria, and a good time for another 10,000 people.
“Ideally,” he says, “our gigs wouldn’t be ‘scream’ things but, as they are, I believe in being the best kind of band for that audience there is.”
- Last Wham! Interview: No. 1 Magazine (1986)
- Wham! In China (Part 1), Smash Hits Magazine (1985)
- Wham!’s Last Week, Smash Hit Magazine (July 1986)
- Wham!: Why We’ve Reached Breaking Point
- Wham! In China (Part 2), Smash Hits Magazine (1985)