The article “George Michael: Artist or Airhead?” was written by Rob Tannenbaum for Musician magazine, January 1988.
Is It Time to Take Wham!’s Architect Seriously?
“The entertainment world, more than any other, is a place where you have to sell yourself by having faith in yourself.” – From Liberace: An Autobiography.
George Michael has been called a lot of nasty things in a short period of time. A list of the published insults directed at the singer and his music includes: “a real bimbo,” “an arrogant bastard,” “tacky [and] tasteless,” “dreadful, [with] no taste and less intelligence,” “lacking in content and almost sinister in design,” “sexist, fascist, stroppy, untalented, arrogant, mercenary, manipulative, elitist, despicably commercial and wholly egocentric,” and, perhaps worst of all, “a young Barry Manilow.”
It’s not that George Michael is the most vilified figure in modern history – there’s Roy Cohn, for example, and God. But at 24, George Michael may still have a chance of catching up to them. George-hatred can surmount age boundaries, too, uniting right-wing moralists and hip London trendies in a single cause. The former group accused him of encouraging the spread of AIDS with the lascivious “I Want Your Sex,” while the latter have charged him with nearly everything but that.
George reads his press clips. “One month I’d be [depicted as] a fat, fascist homosexual with a huge Georgian house somewhere in Essex. The next I’d be a lean, virile left-winger,” he observes. He knows he has an image problem. He even understands that you can’t date Brooke Shields and expect to be taken seriously by critics. Nonetheless, he’s defiantly proud of Wham!’s chart reign from 1982 through 1986. And George Michael believes that his image problem should start to change with the release of Faith, his first solo album. He talks confidently about a new “maturity” in his music, and the album’s “strong lyrical overtone. It shows my age, really, and it shows what I’ve been through.” And he eagerly adds that he produced and arranged the record himself, as well as writing and performing the tracks with little assistance.
There’s one song in particular on Faith that shows a new side of George Michael. “Hand to Mouth,” the first topical track he’s ever recorded, examines England’s increasing disregard for the poor, an attitude the singer attributes to Margaret Thatcher’s “Americanization” of the U.K. “I don’t want to say it in too heavy-handed a way, because I’ve heard too many political lyrics which sound like s—,” Michael explains. “Another thing I liked about that lyric is that the imagery is quite soothing at first. And then if you think about it, it’s not at all soothing.”
But when advance tapes of Faith came back in early October, Michael noticed a misprint on the cassette sleeves. Instead of “Hand to Mouth,” they said “Hard to Mouth.”
“When I saw that yesterday, I was in hysterics,” he says. “Can you imagine what people would be expecting, with “I Want Your Sex” on one side and “Hard to Mouth” on the other Jesus Christ,” he mutters, “that’s all I need.”
Sitting at the dining-room table of his plush Manhattan hotel suite, cloaked in layers of black down to the shiny metal tips on his needle-nose boots, George Michael is uncharacteristically hesitant as he searches for an appropriate euphemism. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I would be taken far more seriously as a song-writer if I was not, let’s say – it’s very difficult to find the words here. If I was not particularly presentable, put it that way.” The crease between his thick eyebrows, which gives him an almost permanently dour look, is smoothed by a smile.
“I’d definitely get more respect if I was a little uglier. It’s a fact of life,” he continues. “If you do have a physical advantage, people will ignore the fact that maybe you have other advantages in ability that put you where you are. My biggest problem in being accepted as a writer and performer is that I’ve made it look too easy. Because I look and present myself a certain way, there don’t seem to be any cracks.”
At the beginning of 1984, he predicted that Wham! would have four number one singles in England. The string began with “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, ” a song so catchy and so annoying that critics started comparing Michael to Paul McCartney. Then the lush ballad “Careless Whisper” and the bouncy “Everything She Wants” rocketed to the top. The fourth single, “Freedom, ” was kept from the top position only by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” in which Michael participated.
In the three years prior to this October evening, George Michael has had nine Top 10 hits-more than Lionel Richie, more than Bruce Springsteen. more than Whitney Houston or Janet Jackson or Prince or Michael Jackson. Only Madonna has had more chart success than Michael in the previous 36 months. Sales volume hasn’t guaranteed him respect, but George Michael speaks with the self-assurance of a man who’s sold 36 million records in his first four years.
He’s a star because of his undeniable gift for melody and arrangement. and also because he understands the requirements of being a successful musician in the ’80s. He directs his own videos, he helps plot his marketing and publicity campaigns, and – more so than any singer except maybe
Michael Jackson – he realizes that multi-format songwriting can vanquish increasing audience fragmentation and establish him with different races and age groups.
His demeanor is more that of a businessman than of a pop star. “Okay. I have a certain amount of ability,” he says, “but the rest is pure hard work. I work my ass off to make sure that once I’ve made the record. everything else is up to the same standards. I think I am very good at those things. I think I have an ability to take my music as far as it can go in this industry.”
“His initial impression does not make you feel comfortable; in fact, it’s quite nerve-wracking,” notes former manager Simon Napier-Bell. “Unless he’s turning on the professional charm. He’s very adept at that, too.” Like all British pop stars since Oscar Wilde. Michael recognizes the importance of
headlines. The bluntness of his self-assurance guarantees good quotes, and is also ingratiating. Almost from the start, Michael has had a realistic, even cold-blooded approach to achieving stardom – when the press ravaged him and his record sales rose. he had the last laugh. “Whether they write good or bad about you, they are helping your career. Initially, it really hurts. When it first started, I was only 19 or 20. Now nothing ruffles me.”
In his struggle to earn more respect, perhaps Michael should decorate his next album with a picture of himself at 14. “People have no comprehension of what I looked like as a kid. I was an ugly little bastard,” he laughs.
The bronzed glow that often passes for a playboy tan reflects George’s Mediterranean heritage: His real name is Giorgios Panayiotou. Michael’s father was born in Cyprus, Greece, came to England “with 20 shillings,” George says, and worked until he could send back to Cyprus for the rest of the family. “Nine of them lived in a North London flat,” Michael explains. “All of them, with the exception of one, are comparatively wealthy now. It’s a very typical hard-working immigrant story, simply because the English are very lazy. and immigrants come in and clean up.” The Panayiotous had two daughters, and then a son. When George was 11. the family moved to Bushey in Hertfordshire, a suburb northwest of London.
Despite being overweight. ugly and having thick glasses, Michael says, “I never really lacked confidence as an individual. I was always quite popular. I had this cockiness about me that had no real bearing in any particular attributes. From an early age. music was his only interest. “I just wanted to be a musician, and I was convinced 1 would be a great one. I played the drums for about three years, starting when I was about 12. All the neighbors complained, by which time I was in combat with my dad about whether I was gonna be a pop star or a restaurateur.”
Like many immigrants. George’s father wanted his children to enter a profession. “I had a lot of problems with him when I was growing up, because he didn’t think music was based in ‘hard work.’ In all the time we argued and screamed at each other, I was frustrated because I thought he was wrong. But I always knew he was worried for me. I remember him saying once. ‘Son, everybody wants to be a pop star.’ I said, ‘Dad, everybody wants to be a pop star when they’re 10. I’m 19.'”
George Michael uses the phrase “pop star” frequently. He pops the two P’s when he says it, and his eyes gleam, giving the term a noble air. He has not outgrown his love of pop music. As a kid, he saved up until he could afford new records. “I was obsessive about listening to records, and I think that’s why arrangement comes so easily to me. I used to sit and listen to every single aspect of arrangement.” He discovered that by plugging a mike into his dad’s stereo amp he could tape himself singing over Elton John, Queen and Sweet. Eventually he wrecked his dad’s amp. When his grades fell off, George was banned from listening to records. So he bought headphones, and began to notice more nuances in his favorite tunes.
When he was 11, George met Andrew Ridgely. a handsome schoolmate who shared a fondness for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. As they got older, they discovered dance music and started collaborating on songs. They went to local soul clubs and danced all night to Saturday Night Fever. The punk coup starting just a few miles away in London had no impact on them. “I never even used to go to London,” says Michael. “I had no money to get into London, and no money to spend when I got there.”
George’s soul phase lasted until the ska boom of 1979. In honor of the Selecter, George and Andrew formed the Executive, Hertfordshire’s premier ska ensemble. “We had these two hippies in the band because they had equipment,” George recalls. He and Andrew wore second-hand suits and Hush Puppies. One hippie had long, ginger-colored hair, and the other played bass sitting cross-legged on the floor. “We were so bad. We were terrible, but everyone loved us.”
At one point. George thought the band would be signed to Go Feet, the label founded by the English Beat. “Our manager went to Go Feet with a band rehearsal tape – in the heady days of post-punk, you were allowed to do things like that. He came back and told us we were gonna do this deal with Go Feet. We were 16 and on top of the world. He gave us all this b——-, which we believed. We thought we’d be on Top of the Pops within eight weeks. Two weeks later, it fell through.” Hours before a big show at Andrew’s college, the hippies quit the band, taking their equipment with them.
“But one of the things on the tape was our version of the Andy Williams record ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You,’ which came out as an English Beat record about six months later. I remember walking up the road with my copy of Record Mirror and seeing this preview – I was absolutely furious, convinced my idea had been nicked, though they did it at a slow steady pace and we did a terrible 160-beats-per-rninute version.”
With the Executive’s modest success, George became confident enough in his writing and singing to quit school. Inspired by the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” he wrote “Wham! Rap, ” a song which gave his and Andrew’s new band its name. And, at 17, he composed “Careless Whisper,” Wham!’s breakthrough ballad. “I was convinced it was a number one, ” he says. “I wrote ‘Careless Whisper’ and… well, I’ll be fair. I wrote ‘Careless Whisper’ with Andrew. I remember saying to him, ‘For Christ’s sake, there’s no way that no one is not gonna want to make money on this song.’ We had no record contract, no publishing deal, nothing. And I told Andrew it was a number one song.
“I had a job as a cinema usher in the afternoons, tearing tickets for people all bloody day. Then I would get on the bus and go work as a DJ in a restaurant in the evening. And, clear as day, I remember where l was sitting on the bus when I wrote that sax line. I said, ‘Jesus, this is really good.’ That sax line is pretty much the most important thing in my career, just those four bars.
At the same time, Andrew Ridgeley was spending a lot of time with Mark Dean. the young managing director of a new indie label dubbed Innervision. Wham!’s tumultuous relationship with lnnervision constitutes a key chapter in Simon Garfield’s Money for Nothing, a 1986 book chronicling “greed and exploitation in the music industry.” The lnnervision deal has had a lasting effect on Michael’s career as well.
Dean, who’d worked with ABC and Soft Cell at Phonogram, arranged a distribution deal with CBS. and began looking for bands. Early in 1982, he heard the Wham! demos which major labels had rejected, and offered them a contract which – according to Simon Garfield’s account – the group’s lawyer considered “a poor deal.” When Wham! tried to negotiate a fairer contract, Dean hinted that he might sign another band. To George, such a delay might have guaranteed his future in the restaurant business.
So Wham! signed a contract not too different from the one first offered them. It was, Garfield writes, “a deal that any solicitor with any knowledge of the industry would have laughed off his desk in an instant.” The terms included a paltry £500 advance, substandard royalty rates for the group on sales of LPs and 45s, and no royalties on 12-inch singles.
“Wham! Rap” was released in the summer of ’82. With its sharp, derivative funk arrangement and celebration of unemployed youth (“I choose to cruise…/ Take pleasure in leisure, I believe in joy”), the single compares favorably with such teen anthems as “My Generation” and the Sex Pistols’ similarly pro-sloth “Seventeen. ” The BBC banned the record, and it went Top 10. Fantastic, the group’s debut LP, included three other British smashes, “Young Guns,” “Bad Boys” and “Club Tropicana.” (In the U.S., only “Bad Boys” charted, though the songs were dance club hits.) After their third single was released. Wham! began their first tour, “a thoroughly spectacular show” according to one reviewer, which included a 15-piece band and several costume changes. Along with Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, Wham! found audiences tired of punk and thirsty for glamour.
George had co-produced Fantastic with Steve Brown, written and arranged most of the songs, and performed one of the tracks almost by himself. But by his estimation, he and Andrew earned only £100,000 from one of the year’s biggest records. Desperate to get out of their contract with Innervision, Wham! hired Simon Napier-Bell, a former TV producer who earned notoriety managing Marc Bolan and the Yardbirds. His value to Whaml, Michael later admitted, was in his “reputation as a real asshole. ” At the end of 1983, Wham! took Innervision to court. After six months of what Simon Garfield calls “exhaustive litigation,” the two parties settled out of court. lnnervision’s contract with Wham! was voided. And CBS was so anxious to keep the group on their roster that they offered them an unusually generous royalty.
The fiasco with Innervision helped make Michael an autocrat. “It taught me everything about what not to allow. Also, it helped me because they weren’t particularly keen for me to have a manager, because they thought a manager would see through them more than I could. Therefore, for a whole year, we managed ourselves. The truth is, I managed Wham! It taught me so much; I had to make so many decisions myself that when it came to being managed, I knew what was going on. I was never in the dark about anything because I’d already done it myself.”
“We want to be a massive band, ” George Michael told one of his first British interviewers. “Not just here, but right across the world. I want us to be huge.” During Wham!’s second album, the bluntly titled Make It Big, George assumed control, producing and writing with minimal input from Andrew Ridgeley. “Andrew just quietly backed off and realized that if we were gonna take it as far as it was gonna go, it would have to be with my songs. His contributions would have diluted the strength of my musical ideas.” Ironically, Make It Big became the first album with three number one singles since George’s beloved Saturday Night Fever.
As a reaction to the negativity of punk, Michael says, Wham! offered ”60s escapism. ” Their videos and record sleeves showed two handsome young stars in tight tennis shorts, surrounded by busty babes in bikinis. “To a degree, we lost our sense of humor about it. ” George admits. “I can understand why people wanted to punch me out.
The music magazines that championed their debut recoiled. Even Pete Townshend denounced them: “When Wham! first began, their first ‘Wham! Rap’ record was in everybody’s top five at the New Musical Express and they were considered to be quite subversive… street kids who weren’t going to be part of the system. And now what are they? They’re actually completely integrated into the machine…”
George didn’t want integration; he wanted to build his own machine. The Wham! image, he says, “was totally divorced from me as a character – but I knew it was working. It meant that the music I wanted people to hear was getting into as many homes as possible.” Having vowed to make Wham! the world’s biggest pop group. he was willing to suffer whatever ignominy was involved: “I totally threw away my musical credibility for a year and a half in order to make sure my music got into so many people’s homes.” he said to one interviewer. “To be a huge success means that you cannot intrigue or provoke,” he told another. “Because the public don’t want it.”
Nor was Michael unwilling to get his hands greasy by oiling the Wham! juggernaut himself. Little of the band’s fate was entrusted to others. “It took me about two months to suss out that the business was full of assholes who didn’t know what to do with me. And I knew better than they did in terms of what I should be doing. That’s when I dug my heels in. I think I picked up on how the business worked really quickly.
“The way people in record companies respond when they see someone who genuinely and convincingly knows what they’re doing is unbelievable; they never say no. It starts with what to do for videos, then it becomes what singles should be released, then what date they should be released. The record company just doesn’t question me anymore. They haven’t for years. Because they know they don’t know what they’re talking about. It always stuns me when other artists come up to me in clubs and say they’re having a hard time with the record company. If you can make an impression early enough, you’re there.” Michael pauses. “As long as you do know what you’re doing.”
Throughout 1984, Britain’s crop of young pop stars spent much of the year insulting one another in the press. Then, at the end of the year. they gathered together to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” the benefit record for Ethiopia. With 30 stars in one room, and at least twice that many grudges, it must have been a strange session. “Oh, it was, actually. It was very strange,” Michael recalls. “The only person there who didn’t seem to succumb to the charitable nature of the day was Mr. Paul Weller, who decided to attack me in front of everybody.”
A few months earlier, Wham! had played a benefit for England’s striking miners. After the show, Michael denounced the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, which offended Weller, England’s staunchest pop music socialist “He was having a go at me because of the miners’ benefit. ‘Don’t be a wanker all your life,’ I said. ‘Have a day off.’”
There was one instance, Michael admits, when his label was smarter than he. In 1986, at Wham!’s peak, he wrote a downbeat heartache ballad called “Different Corner.” “I felt like s—. I went in and recorded exactly the way I felt, and that’s the way it sounds. It was partly Wham! and partly the end of a relationship. It was the farthest I’d ever fallen, and in a very short period of time. I had to get rid of it somehow, I had to write about it. That’s a really perverse side that I’m sure a lot of writers have -‘I feel like s—, but maybe I’ll get a good song out of it.’”
Because “Different Corner” didn’t match Wham! ‘s carefully cultivated “escapist” aesthetic, Michael released it as his first solo single. CBS urged him to put “Different Corner” on the soundtrack to Top Gun, but George refused. When the single made a disappointing showing – “a stunning number seven,” – George says sarcastically-he regretted the decision.
After a few more hits, Wham! broke up. Early in 1987, while Michael was working on Faith, he finished “I Want Your Sex” and decided to release it in advance of his solo album. So he contacted Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the producers of Top Gun, as well as Beverly Hills Cop and Flashdance, all of which have spawned number one soundtracks. They wanted “Sex” for Beverly Hills Cop II.
“I was nervous with ‘I Want Your Sex’ that I would be too far in front of the album and it would get lost again. If I’d had any real idea about the controversy that it caused, I would have realized I didn’t need a ****ing movie. And I do wish I hadn’t done it because Simpson and Bruckheimer were assholes to deal with. They ****ed us over. It was a compromise I didn’t need to make, and it convinced me that I should not compromise with things when I don’t want to.”
During a year when pop songs began promoting sexual prudence, “I Want Your Sex” stood out like a hard-on in a monastery. The video displayed Michael’s girlfriend, walking purposefully in half a pair of underwear. Mary Whitehouse, England’s answer to Tipper Gore, claimed that “the tone of the lyrics is out of keeping with sexual trends activated because of AIDS.” The BBC refused to play it, as did many American radio stations. MTV insisted the video be re-edited. USA Today wrote an editorial supporting Michael, who still maintains “Sex” promotes the joys of monogamy, and that “nothing in the lyrics advocates promiscuity.”
What about this quatrain: “Sex is natural/ Sex is good/ Not everybody does it/ But everybody should”? “Everybody should,” George retorts. “I don’t know anybody who shouldn’t have sex.” Including teenaged girls? “’Everybody should.’ I didn’t say when. It’s obvious there are certain guidelines.” And, of course, “Sex is natural/ Sex is good/ Not everybodydoes it/ But everybody should, providing they’re emotionally prepared and practice birth control” doesn’t really flow. It’s hard to find a rhyme for “condom.” “The whole point was, I thought everyone was getting so serious, and I thought, ‘Just say exactly what most people say, but use The Word and see what happens.
“Sex” was also Michael’s biggest dance hit in a long time. One sharp-tongued black critic – who has charged Michael Jackson with wanting to be white – subsequently identified George as one of the few “old school funky” artists left. “The big shame about modern black music is that, to a degree, anybody can pick up a machine and make a funk record,” Michael declares. “White people have always imitated black artists because black artists were doing something a lot of white musicians could only aspire to. And to have that reduced to a mechanical form of culture is really just a shame. A lot of white producers and white artists can make good dance records mechanically, the imitation is pretty much as good as the real thing.
“It’s a shame I can do it,” he says, laughing. “It’s a shame I can make a record which I think actually stands up to a lot of black dance records. Being able to express real emotion is something that’s always come a lot more naturally to black musicians than to white musicians. And to negate that difference by using machines just seems a shame.”
For a long time, Michael has gotten respect from black audiences. He was even invited to participate in the reopening of Harlem’s fabled Apollo Theater in May of ’85. “That was stunning for me. I couldn’t believe I was there.” When he arrived at the Apollo, Patti LaBelle was rehearsing onstage. “It was before she made her comeback, so I wasn’t sure who the f— she was. But she was singing her ass off. I said to myself, ‘Listen to this woman. I’m going home now.”
Michael stayed, and sang two songs: “Careless Whisper” with Smokey Robinson, and “Love’s in Need of Love Today” with Stevie Wonder. “The Smokey thing was a bit of a disappointment to me, simply because… Well. I wouldn’t like to go into it. The Stevie thing was either going to make me scared s—less and I was going to sing like crap, or it would bring something out of me – and it did. I sang as well as I ever had, live.”
Subsequently. Aretha Franklin invited George to duet with her on “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” another number one. “There’s not much to tell, really. She wasn’t cold to me, she just seemed unimpressed by everything. She stuck around and did things again and again until they were right, where apparently, if things are not right. she usually just leaves. I think it went quite well, because my performance was reasonably restrained. But I find myself fairly detached from it – I normally produce things, and because there was a producer, and I was just the vocalist. it doesn’t feel like part of me in the same way.”
Michael feels acceptance from black listeners has at times been crucial: “In doing what I’d always wanted – writing the
(remainder of interview not available)
[George Michael on the recording studio process.]
In terms of musicians, the majority of the album is me. I’ve never really been interested in big-name session guys. When I have come across them, I’ve found them extremely non-creative. The ones who’ve been session musicians for a long time tend to be jaded, and a little more interested in their fee than in what they’re playing. Also, I have a fair sense of loyalty to the people I started out working with.
George Michael played keyboards, bass and drums on Faith. When he needed help, he called on Dion Estes, a dynamic, underrated bassist who’s played with Michael since the first Wham! single, keyboardist Chris Coleman, and guitarist Hugh Burns, who played in the Wham! band. Shirlie Lewis… sang backups on one track.
“The limitations of what I can play meant that I had to keep the structures and the arrangements really air-tight and interesting,” Michael says. “They had to be something that wouldn’t need a virtuoso performance. It gives more of my personality, really.
“My engineer [Chris Porter, who has worked with Michael since “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’] knows what instruments I use as a rule, and depending on the studio we’re working in, he’ll get that stuff together. I’m pretty particular when it comes to equipment, especially about vocal sounds.” On Faith, Michael used the Yamaha DX7, Roland S-50 and D-SO, and Juno 106 keyboards. His bass is a Fender Precision. Drum parts were played on a Pearl drum kit and Linn 9000 and Roland TR808 drum machines, and a Roland Octapad. His vocals were recorded mostly through Neumann mikes, with an occasional Shure. The sessions were done at Puk Studio in Denmark and SARM West. Trevor Horn’s London studio.
- ‘George Michael, Seriously’ from Rolling Stone Magazine (1988)
- An Audience with George Michael: Interview with Chris Evans (1996)
- Last Wham! Interview: No. 1 Magazine (1986)
- Wham! Teen Dreams Come True (NME, 1983)
- George Michael Interview on Q Magazine (June 1988)