The article “George Michael: The Story So Far” was written by Chris Heath and published in the April 9-22, 1986 issue of the Smash Hits magazine.
George Michael was born on June 25. 1963 in the London suburb of Finchley. Or at least Yorgos Kyriakou Panayiotou was – exactly the sort of name you get if your father is a Greek Cypriot. “He was the typical Greek,”
George reminisced years later, “who comes to London and worked 24 hours a day and just sees the kids before they go to bed.” Because of that I George was never really initiated »n Greek culture – “I’ve really got very little I association with the Greeks other than that I’m hairy” – and spent most of his time with his English mother, Lesley.
His first memory is “of the goats at Whipsnade Zoo” when he was four, and his first ambition – a year later – was to be an air pilot “because I had this girlfriend who was going to be a stewardess.” But. alas, it wasn’t to be. When he was 7 he had his eyes tested and was told he was “slightly red/green colour-blind”. He decided to become a pop star instead.
The next few years were spent a) larking about in his bedroom with a cassette player his parents had given him and staring at the “sickly green wallpaper”, b) frolicking with the cats Whoopsy and Rover, c) visiting the fair at Birchington (where a friend of his Mum’s had a weekend house) with his two sisters Melanie and Yioda. d) trying to learn the violin (he wasn’t very good), c) riding the purple and blue bike he got for his seventh birthday (”l dreamt about it for weeks before”), and f) toddling off to school.
“My first crush.” he later confessed, “was on my teacher, Mrs. Wilson, when I was about six.” To begin with he did well at school, but ”I gradually deteriorated as I got older and I was pathetic when I left.” But he was, he admits, rather bossy. “When I was about 9, I realised that I was dominating all the people I went around with and that I felt slightly unpleasant doing it. I just changed and stopped bossing people about.” Not that he turned into a complete goody-goody…
“I was on holiday in Cyprus once,” he remembered with embarrassment years later, casting his mind back to a visit to his father’s old village, Famagusta. (Where he also, that year, bought his first record – Carly Simon’s “The Right Thing To Do”.) “I got caught stealing sweets. It was an awful experience. There was a shop underneath the hotel we were staying in and every day I used to go down and help myself. One terrible morning I came down from my bedroom and discovered that my parents had found all the wrappers in a jacket. I got a right whack from my Dad and no ice-cream for the rest of the holiday.”
Perhaps it was in penitence for this evil deed that George joined the 12th Edgware Scout Troup. Every Friday he would trundle off to Morcambe Taylor Hall ten miles away and, under the guidance of scout leader Jack London, would spend a couple of hours going “dib-dib-dib” or whatever. Scouting pals remember him “always screaming for Bourbon biscuits” and “his high pitched voice and giggle in the gang show”. Little did they know that they’d just witnessed the first-ever stage performance of a megastar-to-be.
At 12 George’s life started to change. After months of nagging he finally persuaded his parents to buy him a drum kit. He went to his first concert (Elton John at Earls Court). He briefly discovered literature (“our classroom was in the library and I must have read every single book in it,” he later gushed, expressing particular enthusiasm for C.S. Lewis’ stories about the fantasy land Narnia). And he went to a new school, Bushey Meads Comprehensive, where, on his first day, he bumped into a “loudmouth” who’d already been there a year. He was called Andrew Ridgeley.
Andrew, then as now, rather fancied himself and was generally recognised as being rather trendy and unapproachable, whereas George was, he says, “such a state”. So it seemed rather unlikely that the two of them would hit it off, but, on that first day in break, joining in a game called King Of The Wall. George sent Andrew flying off the wall onto the ground.
“I was a mite peeved.” laughed Andrew later, but he couldn’t have minded that much because “I made him sit next to me. I can’t remember why. It just developed from there. We were friends pretty much immediately. He looked a bit of a wimp in those days, because he had these great big steel-rimmed glasses and loads of curly hair. He was very, very plump and had one eyebrow going right across. He plucks the middle of it now but is used to go right across like a pair of seagull wings!”
“He wasn’t exactly God’s gift.” sniggered sister Melanie around the same time. George couldn’t disagree.
”I looked absolutely horrendous. I wouldn’t say I’m a swan now but then I was the traditional ‘ugly duckling’. I went through that bad phase of puppy fat and stuff .. I didn’t stand much chance with the girls.”
Obviously not. Slowly, though, he sharpened up: he cut his hair, got contact lenses and became a soul boy. “I was the first to wear dungarees in Bushey!” he’s boasted.
“Everyone called me a cissy.”
Still, that’s not as bad as the night in his early teens when he went to a party with Andrew, bursting with pride at the new green trousers he’d just bought down the Kings Road to impress this girl he fancied. Unfortunately she wasn’t interested so instead he got blind drunk.
“It was the first time he’d ever done it.” remembered Andrew. “I had to help him back home – he was staggering all over the place, could hardly walk. Then he fell over on the grass and got his now green trousers dirty. He just went (drunken tearful voice) ‘No-one said I’d g-got new trousers. No-one noticed and now I’ve got them dirty. Wah! I’m so-o-o-o-o ugly!!’ And he was off, bawling his head off for about half-an-hour about how no-one fancied him and how he’d ruined his green trousers. It was really funny.”
George takes up the story: “I tried phoning my Dad up at three in the morning to ask if he’d pick me up. I was going ‘ah, Daard, cannoo comund pickmeeee uppleez’ and he hung up on me.” So he slunk back to Andy’s where Mrs. Ridgeley put out a bowl for him to be sick in.
“That was really funny. She said ‘d’you want a bowl, dear?’. Then in the morning she brought me a glass of Andrews Liver Salts.”
Despite his lack of success with the opposite sex, George did manage to lose his virginity – just before his 13th birthday. It wasn’t very nice, though. “She was a right old dog.” How charmingly put. “I was so young and so absolutely inexperienced… it was so embarrassingly bad that I went to school and didn’t tell anyone. Sex is a great leveller — 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.”
Eventually, however, he found his first “real” girlfriend — Lesley Bywater. “She was in the same class as me and we got together after a bit of snogging at a party. I knew she had amorous designs on me because she kept crying on my shoulder.” George was overjoyed, and bought her “Dance Dance Dance” by Chic to celebrate one month together. “She got fed up in the end though and chucked me.”
At 16 George and Andrew finally decided to form a band. George sat down and wrote their first song, “Rude Boy” (“if it had been done by professionals it could have been a hit,” he said modestly afterwards) and formed a terrible ska band called The Executive. They soon folded but George was bitten, to his father’s horror.
“Dad was horrified.” remembered Melanie. “He didn’t think Yog (George’s nickname) had any talent. He wanted him to be a lawyer or a doctor and have a real career.” Instead George took part-time jobs to subsidise his music. He worked as a DJ in a sports club, as a building site labourer (which he hated and left after a few days), stocking shelves in British Home Stores (“so depressing,” he complained – he was sacked for wearing a tatty old jumper instead of a collar and tie) and as a cinema usher: “I must have watched Superman II at least 30 times. Working at the cinema heightened my realisation that people want escapism and that’s what we should be putting into music – not some sort of heavy message – so that people have fun and enjoy listening to it.”
One day around this time he was sitting on a bus when a melody came into his head. He remembered it and, with Andrew’s “help”, worked it into a song called “Careless Whisper”. His sisters named it “Tuneless Whisper” but four years later it was to become one of the biggest selling records ever.
But George wasn’t to know that at the time. He kept beavering away. Another bouncy ditty, “Club Tropicana”, came along easily enough and when, after listening to a Level 42 record and getting the idea of putting a very “un-disco” rap to a funk baseline, he wrote “Wham! Rap” and decided that they were ready. They made a demo costing £20, sent it out to about 30 record companies and… nothing. “It broke his heart,” says Melanie.
Eventually perseverance paid. A demo containing 15 seconds of “Wham! Rap”, 5 seconds of “Club Tropicana” and 5 seconds of “Careless Whisper”, got them a contract with a bloke down the road who had a record company called Innervision, and “Wham! Rap” was released. It wasn’t a hit but it got lots of attention (mostly as a very “trendy” song about unemployment – George lying that he was unemployed when he wrote it) and the follow-up “Young Guns (Go For It)” shot into the Top Ten. The re-recorded “Wham! Rap” followed it. Everything was going just perfectly, even if George’s dad did keep telling him “this is only going to last six months – don’t build your hopes too high”. George responded by having two more Top Five hits – “Bad Boys” and “Club Tropicana”, the first of which he explained rather pointedly at the time “is about having your life planned for you. That was very true in my case.”
But even the success they’d had so far wasn’t enough for George. When they reappeared at the beginning of 1984 (after months of legal wrangling to escape from the terrible contract they’d had with their first company), he announced that that year they’d have four Number Ones. Everyone laughed. At the end of the year “Last Christmas”, a song George had written that February while watching Match Of The Day, was at Number Two – only stopped from becoming his fourth Number One (after “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, “Careless Whisper” and “Freedom”) by the Band Aid single – which George had sung on anyway.
It was that year that George began to discover that being a pop star wasn’t all fun and games. “Sometimes,” he said, “I feel like I’m in a goldfish bowl with the whole world looking in. We’ve just got to accept it but some days it does get very upsetting.” But there were consolations. While shooting the “Careless Whisper” video, George, after auditioning all the prospective models with him wearing just swimming trunks to test their “temperament”, decided that he didn’t like his hair. “I normally manage to straighten it with a blow drier,” he explained, “but in Miami it’s so humid it went frizzy and I looked like Shirley Bassey.” So he got Melanie to cut it and shooting had to start all over again.
“That haircut cost me £17,000!” he boasted. “I’ve got the most expensive haircut in the history of pop!” (What he didn’t mention was that he already held the previous record. On holiday in Cyprus, just before shooting the “Club Tropicana” video, he’d got fed up with his hair and flew back for the day to get it trimmed – a “snip” (har har) at £495.)
Not surprisingly – with attitudes like this – people had been suggesting that Wham! were too much about enjoying yourself with a tube of toothpaste under one arm and a bottle of rub-in instant sun tan lotion under the other, and that they weren’t “serious” enough. George scoffed; when asked in 1984 whether he minded his records being sold in South Africa he had this to say:
“I don’t care really. I don’t care where I sell records. I don’t want to get involved in their political issues. I actually think it’s pathetic the way people are sanctioned for going there. I think people should go and then report what’s going on when they come back. All we think is that we’re far too selfish and ambitious to want to do something political and risk our careers.”
Slowly though his attitudes changed. Later in 1984, Wham! appeared (miming) at a Miners’ Benefit concert and throughout 1985 George would constantly murmur how important nuclear disarmament was. And at the beginning of 1986 it was strongly rumoured that George’s reason for leaving his management company (precipitating the final split in Wham!) was that it had been sold to a company with strong South African links.
And after finally finding success in America with a string of Number Ones and making Wham!’s individual mark by going to China (he readily admitted “the reason was not to introduce our wonderful culture, it was to do something – how many things does a band do that are of any significance?”), it seemed as if George’s ambition was running out. He was beginning to think “very seriously about whether it’s worth it… I may well end up being a 22-year-old hermit…
“Part of me,” he says, “feels a bit ridiculous being the centre of all this attention. I know I’m not that fat boy in glasses anymore… but there’s always that nagging doubt.”
- 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)
- Wham! Teen Dreams Come True (NME, 1983)
- BBC Hardtalk Interview with George Michael (2003)