The interview “George Michael on Song” written by David Thomas appeared on No. 1 Magazine on April 13, 1985.
“The greatest songwriter of his generation” – that’s what Elton John called George Michael. In this exclusive interview George reveals the influences, techniques and secrets of his art.
You’re very aware of marketing. To what extent do you write your songs with a specific commercial aim in mind?
I never work like that with melodies. Usually I will get a melody and work right to the end of it before I know what type of a song it’s going to be. But quite often I’ll work towards a specific feel on a track – I’ll want a record to have a swing feel, or a straight-down-the-middle mid-tempo feel. There’s not much that I write that doesn’t stem from some other influence. For example, ‘Make It Big’ was a black album, which I was taking from the black sounds of the late 60s and early 70s, whereas on ‘Fantastic’ all I could handle was what I’d been listening to for the past five years and I didn’t have the guts to go any further back in my influences.
Aren’t you worried that you might be accused of lacking originality?
I have no shame about that at all. It’s very rare to get the combination of a great song and a totally original idea on the record. That’s what everyone aims for, but it’s very hard to get. I was thinking halfway through the making of ‘Make It Big’ that I was really pleased with the songs and they all sounded different, which was what I wanted, but I was worried that people would say, ‘Yes, but where’s his sound?’ The honest truth is that if I want a sound, and as a writer I know that I do, then I am going to have to find one. But I am in no hurry to do that. I’ve got a whole lot of influences that I have to get rid of first.
How do you think you could find that sound of your own?
I don’t know. I was sitting here just now thinking about my arrangements and I decided that the reason I could never drag myself away from a fair amount of imitation was that with the instruments that have been used in popular music for the past 50 years, eventually people have worked out which are the best possible arrangements – which instruments sounded best with each other, which rhythms suited which sounds, everything. If I’m writing a melody I might worry about an arrangement because it sounds too much like something else, but then I think, ‘Hell, that’s the best way for it to sound. Either I’m going to imitate or I’m not going to realise the full potential of the song.’ I really do try not to be imitative with melodies and with chord patterns too. But there is something about those cliched chord patterns that I love. I love pop music and I love those natural chord changes that people expect. I know that I could sit down and do everything very differently, but for one I don’t want to for the moment and two, I don’t have the time.
I guess that you, or anybody, only acquires a style that is not derived from other people once you decide what it is you really want to say.
Whatever I want to say eventually will be strongest musically, not lyrically. The things that I believe and that I would sit down and have a long conversation about wouldn’t be right for a three minute song. I don’t think that my personal politics, for example, are of any real value to the people who buy my records. Very occasionally somebody can do that with real punch, but it’s very rare. I think it’s fine that there are people who have that ability, but it’s not what I’m good at. That’s not to say that I am a shallow person, but my main ability is musical, it’s not getting my political ideas across to the general public. Also I don’t think that it’s always right for wealthy musicians to talk about things which they themselves don’t experience.
But what about something like the Band Aid record? You were involved in that and it did a tremendous amount of good.
Yes, but it didn’t cost anybody anything more than a day of their time. There was an incredible amount of wealth in that studio. People were singing, ‘Feed the World’, and saying it was the most worthwhile thing they’d ever done and I thought ‘Did you actually do anything else about it?’ I’ll bet most of the people there didn’t even go and buy the record. I couldn’t reconcile singing a lyric like that with just giving a bit of my time, so I did something about it. (Wham! have donated all the royalties from ‘Last Christmas’ to the Ethiopian appeal.)
To go back into your past – were you a great record collector as a kid?
Yes, as much as I could afford to be. I had Motown records that my parents gave me when they didn’t want them any longer, which was a good start. After that I listened to an awful lot of Elton John and Queen. I loved anything that had a good melody.
Were you affected by the punk revolution?
My reaction to punk was that I didn’t have too much to say about it. I was really into soul at that time, which was sexy, and punk was definitely not sexy. But I did understand at the same time that it was very healthy for the music scene.
I can remember your part of North London going crazy about Saturday Night Fever.
Oh yes. At the age of about 15 Andy and I were really getting into all that. I suddenly thought to myself, ‘What have you been doing with yourself going to gigs, when you could go and dance at a club and pick up a girl’. I was just at the age when I was getting old enough to go up to the London clubs. Then there was a brief flirtation with New Wave, things like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, which really good, but not too many other people around knew about. I think it’s really a pity that there isn’t the same kind of semi-commercial alternative around now.
Were you a good musician as a child?
No. I played the violin when I was a kid, but I wasn’t any good at it because I didn’t enjoy it. I played the drums when I was 12.
What do you use to compose on?
I compose in my head usually. I used to compose that way because I didn’t have a tape machine. I wrote all the melody lines to ‘Careless Whisper’ just sitting on a bus. I always write things in my head, let them go around in my head, then I forget about them. Later I come back to them and if the ideas are still there I know that they are commercial and that I like them. When I first got a record contract I bought all the equipment that I thought I should use, but when I looked back later at ‘Fantastic’ I realised that all the best tracks were the ones that I had made up in my head, so I went back to that for the new album. I would hum the melody lines and the bass lines to myself again and again and then once they were cemented in my mind and I knew them off by heart I would go down to the studio with the musicians, get them to play the songs on the keyboards or the bass, telling them the feel that I wanted, and then I’d fill it all in after that.
How competent are you technically?
Technically, not much at all, but I’m gradually getting there on the production side. I’m beginning to know quite a bit about the mixing desk. I’ve started to know which frequencies to ask the engineer to set for which instruments. My main job this year is to take on arranging and make sure that I understand it in every area and then what I have tended to do is just to get the most natural sound quality that I can. You can imagine that ‘Make It Big’ has been played in one take by a very polished live band. In fact a lot of the backing tracks are totally live. The basic track for ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ was done in one take without any drop-ins at all. To me the two options are either to be like Trevor Horn and go for stunning sounds of your own, or just get a great sound on each instrument and go for a live take. ‘Careless Whisper’ was the same – just one take. There was loads of stuff bunged on later, but basically the feel’s live.
There was a lot of confusion about that track – didn’t you have to re-record it?
Jerry Wexler did one recording of ‘Careless Whisper’ with me. Then we re-mixed that, which meant re-shooting the video and then we completely re-did the track about four weeks before it was due to be released. When we originally made it I was totally in awe of Jerry Wexler and it was the first time that I had ever felt like that about anybody that I’d worked with. Usually I have trouble convincing myself that people know what they’re doing. In this case I had to get drunk in order to sing, I was so nervous. Anyway, my publisher and I had loads of discussions about whether there was enough of me in it. I was blind to what was going on because the song was already two-and-a-half years old and I just did not have a clue about where else I could take it. Eventually I just though, ‘Sod this. I’m going to go in and do it as if it has never been done before with the musicians we normally use and see what happens.’ The track was so much better because I was relaxed and I think that our musicians did a much better job than the Muscle Shoals section.
There are some old soul greats who’ll be turning in their graves! They’d be shocked to hear that coming from someone that they’d say hadn’t paid their dues.
I think that both Andrew and I have always despised the whole old rock ‘n’ roll attitude of going on the road and paying your dues. There are still people who say of Wham! that we’ve just been thrown in and haven’t paid our dues and don’t know the background, that we don’t know what rock ‘n’ roll is. It’s all a load of rubbish now. It’s totally professional and it’s totally to do with respect for yourself. The old rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is old hat. There are still people who would like to think that it isn’t, but it is.
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- George Michael Interview on Q Magazine (June 1988)