George Michael interview “The Grilling of George Michael: Tony Parsons Warms to Wham” in The Face magazine, August 1985.
It’s really bad. He has just moved into this flat but he can’t furnish it. Because every time he goes into a store he gets chased out. He really is shockingly famous! He stops traffic. Even when we’re sitting at a back table in a very discreet oyster bar – and he has his back to the window, for God’s sake – out in the street cars are slowing to take a look. If you had ever listened to the records you would think he was a real bimbo. If you had never listened to the records you would never guess that he really is exceptionally talented. At his best – “Careless Whisper”, “Everything She Wants” – it could be Cole Porter crying in the Wag. At his worst, great lines like “We’ve got plans to make, we’ve got things to buy, and you’re wasting time on some creepy guy,” are drowned by screaming. In America, where Wham! are about to play a sell-out stadium tour, their “Make It Big” LP has yielded three number one hits – the first LP to do that since “Saturday Night Fever”. He is the biggest thing since John Travolta (and he has yet to make a movie). To listen to his detractors you would think that under his tennis shorts was a 666 birthmark. To listen to his detractors you would think his politics make General Pinochet seem like Shirley Williams. It could be the classic pop life story except … he pulls his own strings. In every facet of his career, he calls the shots. He thinks the fan newsprint (“With his Moon in the sign of Leo, George loves to make every little thing about the home special – he probably likes a bubble bath, a teddy bear and loves to play little tricks on people”) is just as phoney as the stuff the grown-ups get from Fleet Street (“Wham Man in Hara-Kiri Terror!”) To listen to the gossip about him in the powder rooms of the music business you would think he was a belligerent glutton on the verge of a mental breakdown.
Lies, all lies. He is intelligent, touchingly loyal, ferociously ambitious, very down to earth. He is real. And – I’m sorry, but you are going to have to come to terms with this – he really is exceptionally talented. By the time you read this he will be celebrating his birthday. He will be 22. Are you ready to raise your glass to George Michael?
Are Wham! the cause of famine in the Third World?
I think so. I think most of the people who bought the last Wham! album would have given their money to charity had they not bought it.
Were you upset about the way the miners strike ended?
I must admit that when we did the strike benefit I was at a turning point. Not as to what I thought about the issue, because the issue was clear enough. But when I met Arthur Scargill I got a terrible impression of him. He really did annoy me. He just seemed to be enjoying it all far too much. When I met him I got the impression that the only place he was leading the miners was further and further up their own asses. It was good that they were fighting, because nobody had been fighting for years, but I started to feel that by carrying it on all they were doing was damaging their own industry and they were not going to make any ground. I was hoping that Scargill was going to become a realist and see that the Government wanted to make an example of the miners. He didn’t. I thought it was really sad when it came to an end because they really hadn’t got anything out of it. When we did the benefit, I really thought there was some kind of hope.
You got a lot of stick for doing that benefit from people who supported the strike. They didn’t like your hair, the clothes you wear. Do you get hurt by what people say about you?
They can knock shit out of you. But in the end it doesn’t really matter unless they call you a child molester.
Did you react to Saturday Night Fever the same way that a previous generation reacted to the Pistols?
Definitely. Andrew and I became fully fledged suburban soul boys at 15. We wore dungarees and bright colours and got sent home from school. All this shitty minor rebellion. I loved all that ’77-’78 disco stuff but then it started getting into jazz-funk and I thought, fucking hell, all these 17-year-old kids haven’t got a clue about jazz music, they just think it’s the trendy thing to do. We just got out of it, stopped going to those clubs. We got into 2-Tone because that was the next thing that happened that was young and energetic, then when that faded we were flailing around for about a year in terms of what we liked and what we wanted to write. Then there was this resurgence of soul-pop, stuff like “Burn Rubber”, and we decided that was what we wanted to do. “Wham Rap” was meant to be a piss take of rap records, it was meant to be a parody record – I am the most beautiful. Rap was quite funny at first but it got really boring. Punk-disco they called us. The ridiculous things they called us!
A lot of people thought you were black.
Especially in America. In America they were doing the old job where they send out your record to the R&B stations without your picture on. It’s disgusting, it’s so disgusting. Getting you through the back door.
You haven’t got any kind of rock heritage at all, have you?
None whatsoever. I have so little respect for the type of glamour that people see in rock and roll.
What’s that? And how is it different to your glamour?
Rock and roll glamour is MTV. Fast women, fast cars, larger than life.
While you’re still down on the street … (sings) “Easy girls and late nights, cigarettes and love bites”?
Rock and roll believes that music can elevate you into something you’re not. If you play aggressive guitar music then automatically your cock is three inches bigger. It’s brainless.
How was China?
The people in themselves seem blissfully ignorant. Any sympathies that I’ve ever had with extreme Socialist views, when you actually see it in practice it’s just a load of bullshit. The leaders there are just the same as leaders anywhere else. They were screwing us for money left, right and centre. Anything you want to do, anything at all, if you’re Western they screw you for a bit of money before you do it. That whole filming trip ended up costing us about a hundred million more because everything we did, they said we had to pay. Most of the people at the top are more Capitalistic than even the people in the American government – they have this basic greed about them.
So why did you go? Surely it was all down to ego?
You’re absolutely right. The basic reason for going to China was not to introduce our wonderful culture. It was to DO something. How many things does a band do that are of any significance whatsoever? Just for once it was nice that you were the first and quite possibly the last. There is a certain privilege attached to that. But once we got there I just thought the whole thing was a shambles. What was basically going on was that the Chinese government was trying to encourage the Western world to accept Chinese product. They were saying – look, we have our arms open, we are going to accept Western music. That was total bollocks! They used us. We were a propaganda item. There are factions in China who do want to open up but the people who are still in power are so fucking scared as to what might happen. At that first gig they disallowed dancing! The Minister of Culture made an announcement on radio two days before saying – go and see Wham!, enjoy the concert but do not learn from it. How can you say anything more ridiculous than that? Yet over there it works. The most incredible thing about China is that the people seem almost totally drained of any kind of initiative. There’s no point in using any initiative there because you can never get anywhere. It’s a denial of what all those people are capable of. Saying that everyone is equal is a denial of where we’ve got to. For all the awful things that one can say about America or England or the Western world, it is at least … honest. People follow their instincts. And in that country there doesn’t seem to be any.
What does it look like?
It is so barren – the drive between Peking and the airport is absolutely and totally barren. To me this is not an intelligent government. Twenty years ago they decided to kill all the birds because the birds were eating the crops. Now it doesn’t take much working out that if you kill all the birds then the birds are not eating anything else. So ten years ago when all the insects had eaten all the crops because the birds were not eating the insects, they just fucking pulled up all the grass! Can you believe it? There is no grass in China because if you have grass you have insects and if you have insects they eat the crops. What kind of government makes decisions like that? The latest one is they are encouraging the people to eat rats – because there are four hundred million rats in China so they are asking the people to eat them. In some ways it is so primitive it’s frightening. People were saying to us – if you had been here 18 months ago, you wouldn’t recognize the place. They are supposed to have come so far in 18 months! It is unbelievable. I’d never go there again.
Does this mean you won’t be touring Russia?
I think Russia is something totally different. I think it’s probably a lot more depressing.
Do you believe in trying to be faithful?
My honest view is that if you can actually find someone who you can be faithful with then you’re a lucky bastard. Because there are some people who are totally satisfied with one partner. I don’t believe that fidelity is all it’s cracked up to be. I think if your girlfriend or husband or wife or whatever is screwing other people on the odd occasion throughout a marriage or a relationship they get into a situation where somebody’s throwing themselves at them. If they’re sleeping with that person because they’re not getting what they want from you then you’ve got problems. If they’re just sleeping with that person because they’re curious sexually and they can’t control it – or not that they can’t control it but they don’t want to control it – then I don’t think there’s any big problem. As long as people still have affection and don’t think any less of you than they did when they first met you, then I don’t think your relationship is in any jeopardy. I don’t think it’s that much of a trauma. I think a lot of people believe that without saying it.
Mrs. Thatcher must love you – a self-made millionaire at 21. Born in Finchley?
We have capitalized on what we do well at the worst possible time. There’s a difference between getting rich and being right wing. A lot of people don’t see that difference. The music press is just so far removed from what is going on in the mind of the kid on the street where five or six years ago it wasn’t.
Did you grow up feeling like any kind of an outside because you come from a Greek family?
My dad’s Greek but my mum’s English. My mum’s very English. My dad was working so hard up to the age when I was about four that I got no Greek language. I didn’t like Greek music when I was a baby, when I was a kid. I’ve really got very little association with the Greeks at all other than the fact that I’m hairy.
Hirsute. Good word. I don’t feel any affinity for the Greek way of life and I never did. The only way that I did feel an outsider was the fact that from the age of six or seven I had no interests other than music. Everything else bored me. I would sit in lessons thinking about music, thinking about the record I was saving up for, I was so totally preoccupied with it that in that way I was an outsider. It made me stronger.
Did you have a happy adolescence?
I don’t look like the same person I was when I was 13. Andrew is one of those people whose faces never change, he looks exactly the same as he did then. I had all the things not going for me that 13-year-old kids don’t have going for them. Apart from the spots. But I was well overweight, taller than everyone else, I had really frizzy, curly hair, very thick glasses – nobody looked at me, absolutely no girl ever looked at me. Then suddenly when I was about 15 I cut my hair and I got contact lenses. The optician was saying I was too young but I wanted them so badly. It’s not vanity to not to want to have specs, is it? And it suddenly became fashionable to have curly hair – the perms, the perms…
he Kevin Keegan look! All of a sudden people started inviting me to their parties. I was still on very dodgy ground because I had no idea how to throw my weight around or how to pull. Andrew and I used to get absolutely pissed, every single place we went to we got paralytic. Then there was this one night when I was well over the top and just this one night, Andrew stayed totally sober. That’s the night that got around about me wandering home saying, oh, I must be so ugly, no girl will ever look at me. I burst a blood vessel in my eye that night, I was so pissed. I had a red eye for three weeks.
That’s how Genghis Kahn died. On his wedding night, old Genghis drank so much he burst a blood vessel in his brain.
I missed it by a couple of inches. But everyone throws one real whopper when they first start drinking, don’t they? I still throw a few now.
I know I’ve got too drunk when I lose a contact lens…
The worst thing about contact lenses is when you decide to go home with somebody and then, when you’ve done whatever you’re going to do with this person, you suddenly realize you haven’t got your contact lens case, right? And you lay there with nowhere to put your contact lenses. What kind are yours?
Mine are soft. If you put them in water they’re agony when you put them in the next morning. I’ve done it two or three times, I have had to keep them in and actually had to lay there in bed all night and in the morning pretend I’ve been asleep but I’ve just been laying there all night with my eyes glued open – it doesn’t look totally superstud when you say in the morning, I’m very sorry but I’ve been awake all night because I didn’t take my contact lenses out.
When did you lose your virginity?
I was 12, almost 13. There was a long, long gap between that one and the next one.
It’s supposed to be best to lose your virginity with either a virgin or a prostitute.
I certainly didn’t lose mine with a virgin! She was a right old dog. Basically, it was one of those jobs where I was so young and I was so absolutely inexperienced that – you know how it is, when people have their first screw they go back to school and they tell everybody – it was so embarrassingly bad that I went to school and didn’t tell anybody. Because I couldn’t lie straight-faced to them and tell them I’d had a good time. Sex is a great leveler – for those years between that time and the next I really thought that I’d been conned. I thought it wasn’t just me but that sex really wasn’t that much fun. I don’t think that many people do have much fun that first time. It’s a leveler. A great leveler.
Did you ever fall out with Andrew over a girl?
It’s strange … your sexual role is reversed when you become some kind of teenage idol. You become chased. Not chaste as in chastity but chased as in – down the street. You become the one who has to do the chasing. It makes you – you see it in our photographs time and time again – we suddenly adopted this feminine attitude to the camera. It’s very subconscious…
You’re coming on to the camera?
You’re coming on to the camera in the same way as a woman would do to a man. I try not to do it anymore. What I’m saying is – there’s a similarity between Andrew and I now which there wasn’t before. Because Andrew was always the feminine-looking one and I was much more masculine. Girls who liked me didn’t like Andrew and girls who liked Andrew didn’t like me. There was a definite barrier. But now they’ll take either of us. It’s the honest truth. And it’s something that I never saw before. If we both fell for the same girl now, that’s the girl we’d fall out over.
How do you feel about marriage and children and all that jazz?
I always looked at it and I always hated it. Except when I see a young bloke and he’s got a little boy with him I think, fuck, I would love that. I would love a little boy. I don’t want a little girl. I love little boys. And to still be young, that’s the thing. I know that by the time I get a kid I am not going to be very young. Because I know the way I think about my career I’m going to be easy 28, 29 before I get married. But I love the idea of still being a young man and having a little boy. The way I work now I can’t see it stopping for quite a while. I just would not be happy to leave the kid and go flying around the world.
“Everything She Wants” is such a great song – it’s not a song you would expect from a 21-year-old.
Actually I’ve been married and divorced three times. No, I’m very proud of that one. It’s the most hard-hitting lyric I’ve written, though I’ve got a lot more that I’ve started on that are a lot harder than that. To most people “Everything She Wants” is the same as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” because it’s just a pop record. To me it’s something totally different. That’s where being a scream band has held us back in terms of recognition of that we have actually been trying totally different styles over the past two years. There’s an audience out there that I desperately want to win back because I think the music we make merits it. But if you make uplifting, euphoric, optimistic records and you also happen to be 21 and not ugly – even if you’re just reasonable looking – you automatically get screamed at. You can’t say, fuck this, I don’t want it.
There’s an interesting quote from Springsteen where he says that for years his albums sold a million copies and he could still walk down the street then when he made a record that sold three million copies, suddenly walking down the street was a very difficult thing to do.
There’s a difference between people who are pop stars and people who are Fleet Street pop stars. Right up until the last four or five months, right up until the Christmas single when they decided that George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley would be on the front page when Princess Di wasn’t having her hair done – it’s hard to get across to people that you’re not trivia just because you’re treated like it – right up until then I could go on a train, in a store. I’d get a little hassle but I could do it. Now the honest truth is that I can’t go into a shop, I can’t go into a department store, I can’t get on a train. Because it is literally a joke! But up until a little while ago I refused to stop doing things like that because it worried me a lot, having to skirt round things, just as someone who writes, and as someone who has a career to live out. You have to have some kind of relationship with what’s going on. I still go to all the London clubs even though they’re fucking awful. I get stick. Before we were successful I was going to vaguely underground clubs for a couple of years and then when we became successful I felt the resentment from those people so I moved out of those clubs and started going to real shit-holes where the place would be full of real wallies but they still played decent music. Because I always like dancing to late-Seventies music. I like some of the stuff that’s come out over the last couple of years but that’s what I love – a nostalgia trip for when I was 15, 16 years old. These clubs were full of wallies but at least they were wallies who wouldn’t bother me. But then it got to the stage where they would bother me. So I had to go back to the vaguely underground clubs. By that time the people in them were so far removed from us – and those people are so self-important that they wouldn’t actually come up to you and hassle you. When I go now I tend to have a couple of arguments. Because if you’ve had a few drinks and some wanker comes up to you and says, “They shouldn’t let you in here because what you play is shit,” I can wipe the floor with them. So I tend to do that a lot – and then I dance till three.
But the girls outside your management offices are very relaxed with you.
Because they see me every day! They see me every single fucking day that I go into that place! They say things like, “Oh please please can I have another autograph because I’ve only got 42 of your autographs and Debbie’s got 46?” I’m not a board game! But what can you do? They think they love you or whatever. I don’t know what they’re using us for. It’s a shame because some of them are real bastards and some of them are really sweet. A lot of them are unemployed.
Although your marketing has always been very aggressive, a lot of your early stuff had a real sense of humour about it. I mean, when Duran Duran did that video for “Rio” they really looked like rich rock stars being filmed in exotic locations but your “Club Tropicana” promo looked like you were on a package tour in Benidorm.
At the beginning there was a real sense of humour. There’s no way that I’m going to deny that’s gone. You go from being two kids who have got this chance they weren’t expecting to being … professionals. My absolute all-time low career wise is the video to “Bad Boys” – because by the time we got round to making the video I had forgotten that it was meant to be joke. That video is the worst thing in our entire career. We look such a pair of wankers in it. How can anybody look at those two people on screen doing what we were doing in that video – with all those fucking camp dancers prancing around in the background – and think it’s good? We lost a lot of ground with that video.”
I had heard you’re an arrogant bastard, George.
I’m definitely very self-confident but people have different conceptions about arrogance. Some people who have got nothing have an arrogance. As far as I’m concerned it’s a ridiculous business and I happen to be very, very confident in the one thing that’s made all the success – i.e., the fact that I write songs. I’m confident as a writer, as a performer – but, all round, I am not an arrogant person. The way we act on stage, the way we act on video is definitely – I love me. The people who are best at that are nearly always totally, totally different off stage. I came into this thing as a songwriter. On stage I come on like I think the world of myself. It does two things – it makes people buy records, because people like to buy confidence, and it puts a lot of people’s backs up.
Do you feel like saying to your partner, “Who writes the bleeding songs anyway?”
In terms of songwriting, Andrew Ridgeley is probably my greatest fan. I think he’s almost as proud of me as I am. He had no qualms about standing back. At a certain point we decided that our ambition was to be the biggest band in the world. When we realized that was our ambition – and we certainly haven’t achieved that yet – the quickest way to do that, and the most likely way to do that, was for me just to let my own writing take its natural course. So he stood back, very graciously, and in terms of the relationship in the band since then we have the type of relationship where we tend not to argue about things and then we get to a certain point – it’s usually me – where we have to come clean with each other. Because otherwise we are really going to fall out. A real clear-the-air job. And that’s probably happened about three or four times in the least three years. But because of it, and because it always gets to that stage and we let it go, there’s definitely no kind of jealousy there.
I think on your gravestones should be inscribed – Honour Thy Mate. Do you love him?
Yes. I do.
Have you kept your other old friends?
Sometimes some of my old friends will say something and I will think, oh, don’t say that, don’t be that impressed – because you know me better than that. And then you think to a degree you’ve got to allow them that because you’ve never been in that situation, you’ve never had a friend of yours go from just being a friend to having all this crap written about them and all this kind of elevated stuff. But you have to allow for human nature. You can’t expect people to see it the way you do. You can’t expect people to see the truth. But I’ve got a couple that really do and I hang on to them desperately. Because I need them more than they need me … you see, I started off this interview answering in very interview-like answers and now because I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine I’m getting very conversational.
Yeah, a sniff of the barmaid’s apron and you’re anybody’s.
It’s true, it’s true.
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- George Michael’s Interview with the Gay Magazine ‘The Advocate’ (1999)