An interview with George Michael written by Philip Martin and published in the December 1987 issue of Graffiti Magazine.
A few years ago David Lee Roth remarked that the only reason why rock critics liked Elvis Costello was that they looked like him, and since George Michael has begun to accumulate the same measure of critical approval for his songwriting skills, one can only assume that these days critics are a whole bunch tastier than they used to be. Indeed, scanning the Graffiti offices, it is difficult not to be struck by the steely authority of Ted “Tech” Hanson and the insouciant charm of Buffy Brill, our fitness correspondent. But there seems to be more to the whole business than just looks. Perhaps the best way to rate Wham! is to cut out the visuals and imagine they are an R&B act from Minneapolis, for while it’s easy to smirk at their whole image – those shorts, the toothpaste smiles, the bottled tans – they certainly cranked out some soul classics. And, interestingly enough, the only North Americans seriously able to accept the twosome were members of the R&B scene: when the Apollo Theatre re-opened in 1984, George duetted with Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. Even their poppiest, most throwaway numbers all had a good angle and a different point of view. “Wham Rap” was a nifty parody that controversially championed the joys of unemployment, “Everything She Wants” a pretty tough-minded dissection of the economics of marriage.
For several years Wham! provided the perfect vehicle for George. He and Andrew Ridgeley made a wacky team – the premise being that whatever hassles you had with girlies, there was always your best mate, on whom you could rely. They enjoyed an incredible run of hits (the first American album, Make It Big, contained three number one songs) and their private lives kept the tabloids in business. However, it soon became obvious that the major force behind the band was George, and Andrew became increasingly unhappy with his role, which seemed to be exactly that: a walk-on guitarist backed up on stage and in the studio by session players. George had a couple of solo excursions – the global smash “Careless Whisper” and “A Different Corner” and, shortly after a farewell concert in which the bad boys headlined over Rod Stewart and Queen, Wham! split up.
Andrew embarked on a Keystone Cop-style motor racing career, while George put out a couple more solo singles and plotted his return. It came a few months ago with the controversial “I Want Your Sex,” which in the light of the AIDS problem was something of a scandal. He defended it on the grounds that he had a steady girlfriend (L.A. make-up artist and DJ Kathy Jeung) and that the song was about monogamous lust rather than frenetic promiscuity – but more on that later. The song is the first single from his new album, Faith, and when talking to George it’s pretty clear that music is his whole life – he writes all day and drives around all night in his black Mercedes, listening to what he’s recorded. In a sense all the elements are there for a slice of Jackson-lunacy: he’s sold 36 million records, had 71 worldwide number ones and seems to be a sex symbol right across the board. What is striking is how normal he has managed to remain: there are no nose jobs or pet pythons to be seen, just a good dose of self-confidence. And as it is in New York where we meet, the conversation begins with things Stateside.
You’ve always had a tougher time in the U.S. than in England, does it worry you that maybe you’re not being appreciated here?
I do think America’s had a very strong prejudice against me, which has a lot to do with the way that Andrew and I promote ourselves. I knew that it would be hard to come off, America being particularly … stubborn – put it that way.
Do you find yourself missing the format of Wham!?
No, not at all. It was a structure that everyone knew depended on me, so it feels the same now, except that it’s just much easier to be myself…
Well, it depended on you musically, but as a sort of concept, it was very much two boys.
Yeah, the pair of us. But I’m much happier now, because by the end of it, it was just me trying to make a solo project and make it not seem that it was obviously that. I feel all the pressure has gone.
So what sort of checking out process do you use now – or do you rely completely on your own judgment?
In making the music, I rely completely on myself. In terms of what should be singles, there are other people, but when it comes to creating, I’m pretty insular – definitely not a collaborator.
Is it as easy to react to music as intuitively as you did when you were younger: does that magic still exist, or do you just hear things in terms of good drum sounds or whatever?
I try very hard to keep things as intuitive as possible, which I do by completely ignoring theory. Even now, I honestly cannot name the six strings on a guitar, or tell you where a D is on the piano, or what key I’m singing in, or anything. I’m careful about the way I structure things, but ignorance is really important; it means you have to explore to find the right chord or something that sounds different. As long as you don’t know where your hands should be on the keyboard, you’ll look for the best place…
And yet there’s been a lot made of the whole issue of craftsmanship. Is there any contradiction in wanting popularity, and being judged by it, and yet still being thought of as a craftsman?
It’s very important to be popular. I love pop music and I’m totally fascinated by it. I love what it does to me emotionally, and the way that individuals can affect society as popstars – which they do, unbelievable as that may seem. I find it fascinating because it’s such a contemporary form of art; the only totally immediate artform. But I do like to be thought of as a craftsman; however, I don’t like the idea that that somehow detaches from what I do.
So why do you feel you have to defend yourself?
I’m very aware that I’ve gained a level of acceptance in England for the full merit of what I do, as opposed to here, where it’s still sort of cloudy. People seem to need to be told that it’s OK to like me. For instance, that Rolling Stone article that David Fricke did had pretty much the same tone that a lot of English articles have had over the past few years: George Michael’s actually an OK guy and quite a good musician, etc., etc., those kind of things. A Rolling Stone article here is very important, which seems really wrong…
What about the popular press in England?
Actually, that hasn’t been too bad. Last week I heard that I was a born-again Christian, and that I’m two stone overweight: I’m 13 stone and I’ve paid £25,000 for a gym. It said ‘Fat George’ (laughs)… I mean, they’re really subtle, ‘Fat George pays £25,000 for slim gym.’ Things like that. But I try not to notice them anymore.
There was that period when you were being portrayed as the Howard Hughes of pop – sociological articles on how you should learn to spend your money.
Yeah, that was very funny. I think I read about that in L.A. There was a point where it did hurt me, but now I can accept that they are part of my career, and even if they write rubbish, they’re still helping me. Which makes the insults easier to take.
THE TROUBLE WITH ENGLAND
So will you continue to stay in England, or do you find it too stifling?
Musically, it’s not a very exciting place, I’m afraid. The charts are like the Euro-charts – just full of crap. I don’t want to have anything to do with Top of the Pops; I can’t believe they’ve managed to sell the program to America, just at the point where every number one is a novelty record.
Maybe that’s why…
Yeah – because it doesn’t offend anyone, I suppose. I just find that I’m quite embarrassed by the whole English music scene and two years ago I would never have believed I’d be saying that. Music is far more exciting this side of the Atlantic, but the fact remains that I’m very English and I’m not really myself when I’m not there.
In what ways?
A couple of things, I suppose. One, I’ve always been based in London, and from a creative point of view, my feet are never really on the ground if I’m not there. Two, all my friends and family are there and I would have extreme difficulty moving away from them, because they’re 50 per cent of what I am.
Do you still keep the same friends?
Yes – it’s kept me sane, because it means that I’ve had people that I’m in constant contact with. People I can really trust, which is difficult in this business.
A LONG, QUIET WOBBLER
Has it ever got too much?
Actually, yes, I threw a very long, quiet wobbler last year. It was at that whole stage when I decided to finish Wham! and I was very depressed. I knew I was going to take the majority of the year off, but I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue in the business. I felt it wasn’t worth it and that it was damaging me. Which was wrong and a very negative and self-pitying way of looking at the things I’d achieved. It was tied into a lot of other things – I was coming out of one personal relationship and that was very tough. In a sense it was me pretending that I was trapped in this monster I had created, when the truth was that I’d created it, so I was just as able to get out of it. I went through about eight or 10 months of a real depression, but I’m a very private person, so apart from a few people, no one actually realized what I was going through…
Did you just go out a lot more?
I used to go out a lot; I went on holiday the whole time and I got completely pissed out of my head. I spent a lot of 1986 quite … drunk, really. But it was something that was necessary to do – things have to get to the worst and then you can pull yourself up. And I don’t think I’ll go through that sort of thing again.
So you reckon you’re more in control now?
Yes – really in control – more than I ever have been. The thing is that I went from having an ambition that was very strong – my parents tried to beat it out of me when I was a kid, but having fought against that, I left school with this incredible optimism and hope and confidence, and within one year of leaving school it had all come true. Ok, it was only the beginning, but I was on Top of the Pops and doing what I wanted to do. Then it got better and better; I discovered that I was not only a musician, but a popstar. People were chasing after me. I could have what I wanted, when I wanted it. I didn’t ever throw my weight around, but I was on a constant climb and waiting for a fall. I knew something had to crack, and when it did, I wallowed in it.
ON BEING ALONE
Do you still live on your own?
Yes, and I can’t see that changing for a while. I’m very … very accustomed to living on my own. Some people seem to be the sort who come home from work and hate shutting the door behind them, but I love it. I love to come home, close the door and there’s no one there and not a sound. I love that feeling of solitude.
And umm … what d’you get up to?
Come to think of it, I usually stick it for a couple of hours and then I go out and get drunk. No … erm, I’ll maybe watch a movie or something. But even when I do go out, it’s great just to come back and be on my own.
And how does a personal relationship fit into that?
Well, that’s just the thing. I’m in a relationship where luckily Kathy has a very strong sense of understanding – I think she’s very similar to me. If I were ever in a situation where someone wanted a constant companion, it would be impossible because I can’t really be with anybody – it doesn’t matter who, or how much I love them or anything – past a certain amount of time, I just start climbing the walls.
Were you always like that?
No, which is why I think it’s related to my career. I never used to have a problem living at home, although I used to spend a lot of time in my room. Now it’s absolutely essential, so it’s probably something to do with being on view all the time.
Do you feel you’ve been an influence on other bands?
Yes, but in a bad way. I think especially in England, a lot of people have tried to be the new Wham!, but with pretty bad results. I think the people who imitate me have always picked up on what I do as being ‘He’s so clever, he knows exactly what to write for people.’ But that’s not true; I have an idea of what I should do next, but for me. I really do write just to keep myself happy, and the lucky coincidence seems to be that what I get pleasure out of appeals to a lot of other people. The bands who imitate Wham! saw it as a clever little ploy – that if everything was right, then it would all fall together – but it doesn’t actually mean anything without a core of integrity.
Are you going to tour soon?
For eight months next year, which’ll be a nightmare, but worth it. A nightmare in the sense of all the traveling and living the part…
Living the part??
I meant that I really lose myself in my friends and my family and my house in England and can just be myself. There’s not much chance of that on tour – you have to be what people expect you to be…
Lots of groupie action?
Groupie action? Oh yes – lots. Not that I take any notice of it (laughs). At least it’s adult these days; it used to be 17 and under. It’s kind of my age group these days, which is obviously more distracting, but more … er, flattering as well. The thing is that when a 17- or 16- or 15-year-old girl is throwing herself at you, then it’s very nice but you think, ‘Oh, well, she probably hasn’t made her mind up about what she wants anyway’ (laughs).
AND WHAT OF ANDREW?
Do you still see Andrew?
I saw him last week, actually…
I gather he’s in some kind of self-imposed exile in Monaco.
Yeah, he’s in Monaco, but I saw him last week and we went out and got drunk, which tends to be what happens when Andrew comes over, because he misses his friends as well and umm … Monaco isn’t exactly the most exciting place to go out and have a few drinks.
So why does he live there?
Something to do with Monaco being totally tax-free … but he also has no real regard for England – he doesn’t like the place very much and is still smarting from their attitude toward him.
Which was that he wasn’t the real achiever of the group?
Yeah, just that he was a coaster, or whatever, which is OK – he wouldn’t have minded, except the press did it in such a bitter way. The English jealousy really came out in the treatment of Andrew.
Is the whole thing about “I Want Your Sex” still going on?
In England? It was nothing like as strong as it was over here. All that happened in England was that it got a few front pages. The only big deal was that they banned it everywhere – so even though it got to number 3, it was my worst selling single. Over here, there’s no doubt that the publicity was very helpful to the record. It’s going on 1 1/2 million, which is the most I’ve ever had for a single in America…
Do you feel that you’re very much public property – on the one hand there’s all the media sensationalism of your life and then on the other, you have some kind of responsibility to your audience. Do you find yourself thinking twice about everything?
I think it’s all down to your own conscience. I’m perfectly comfortable with ‘IWYS’ because there is nothing in that song which relates directly to the problem that’s going on now. AIDS has nothing to do with sex, it has to do with sex in excess; with excessive numbers of people. Or with drugs or whatever. I think if I’d written a song about what goes on in just about every rock video – like you’ve-got-a-cute-arse-walking-down-the-street – if I was doing that and using sex to push the message home, then it would have been irresponsible and not a very caring thing to have done. But I’m very proud of the song and I think it was something that needed to be said: the idea of lust, but directed at someone you really care about. Just because the word sex is in there doesn’t throw me.
Do you have some kind of huge career plan?
No, not really. I must admit, I’ve always thought I had a long way to go, and now the final challenge is with these next two albums, this one and the one after that. But I can see a point where I’ll start thinking, ‘Well, what d’you do now?’ That’ll be interesting, because I’ve always been able to look ahead and see possibilities. This time I’m going for the big one. Once I’ve gone for it – and I’m totally convinced I can pull it off – I’m not sure what my goals will be. I know for sure I’m not going to stop there…
And all this money – how do you spend it?
I buy a lot of cars – I buy cars for other people. The other day I was leaving my parents’ house and I saw four cars on the drive, and I’d bought them all. I thought maybe I should start a little garage. I like giving people presents – it’s good fun. Other than that, I eat out, which is quite extravagant. Also I can just jump on a plane and go where I like if I need a holiday. But I don’t really buy ‘things’ – I don’t really need them. What’s made me happy are the people around me, and being creative – having lots of things has always meant very little. Clothes and cars, that’s about it.
- George Michael Interview with Capital FM Radio with Dr. Fox (Dec 1998)
- An Audience with George Michael: Interview with Chris Evans (1996)
- Last Wham! Interview: No. 1 Magazine (1986)
- Andrew Ridgeley on Life With and After Wham! (Hello!, 1997)
- George Michael in Q Magazine Interview (October 1990)