Article written by George Michael from The Sunday Times, October 22, 2000
A FOOL and his money are easily parted. Too true. But sometimes it can be great being a fool, believe me. I am sitting in my manager’s office leafing through his copy of Music Week, the record industry’s weekly bible. As a publication read exclusively by the business, it has the difficult task of documenting the steady demise of British music both in terms of quality and sales, without ever reminding the readership that the two things are in any way connected.
The front page proclaims that Radiohead’s new and “experimental” (see ethereal, patronising, won’t sell much once people have heard it) album has “kick-started UK fortunes” in America. Sure. In 1986, British music accounted for 32% of record sales there. By 1999 that percentage had dropped to 0.2%. No, no, not 2%, one-tenth of that. But then I skip to the chart pages, read through the names and find myself sympathising with the Americans.
Why should they buy this rubbish? Even we aren’t buying it in any great numbers.
The saddest aspect of our slow fall from grace as pop culture’s primary source (and for the best part of 30 years, we truly were), is that it is perceived by most as evidence of a cultural decline, proof that there are no Lennons. No McCartneys either, for that matter.
Well that much may be true. The social environment that created the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Dylan and, of course, the virgin birth of rock’n’roll, Elvis, can never be revisited. But Britain is a hugely potent musical force – not least because it is possibly the most successful multiracial community on the planet. The trouble is, it can only squeeze its way into the charts in the form of (normally watered down) dance music.
By some strange coincidence, dance is the only aspect of the musical landscape that the industry leaves to its own devices. Not because it wants to, you understand, but because it doesn’t have a clue what it’s about. The corporate guys have spent the past 15 years doing their best to relieve artists of their art, and by now they have pretty much succeeded.
When I was an 18-year-old, throwing my weight around in CBS’s offices, I got what I wanted. And because of that, in the course of a year I went from the teen anthem Wham Rap (yes, exactly) to the grown-up Careless Whisper and Everything She Wants. These days, if I had been that stroppy at a point when I had yet to prove myself, I wouldn’t have made it past the doorman.
Why work with one really self-opinionated, uncompromising singer/songwriter when you can pluck four or five great-looking groups out of stage school, push them around big time, then take all the credit when they go to No 1? Well, I’ll tell you why. Because everyone over the age of six in this country is bored to death with your clumsy, cynical attempts to make money. And because in the process of ignoring real talent (and those of us who still search it out know that it’s there), in favour of malleable, pretty young things, you are depriving the country of one of its greatest assets.
And what has this got to do with John Lennon’s upright, I hear you say. Well everything, actually. Sure, I wanted to keep it out of tiny hands in Tokyo (xenophobic but true), and yes I think that it’s an investment, but in reality my true feeling is that Imagine, apart from being the most popular song in history, will one day be seen as the symbol by which we remember a zenith in the humanity of popular culture, a time when people expressed a naive but genuine belief that they could change the world with music and conviction.
These people wrote their own songs, sang them with a variety of untrained voices, drank, took drugs, drowned, marched, looked ridiculous and made amazing, beautiful music. And, in my humble opinion, the best of that music was British.
I wish I had been there. Born too late, as they say. But it’s never too late to play the fool. I know that when my fingers touch the keys of that Steinway, I will feel truly blessed. And parting with my money has never been much of a problem. Just ask my accountant.
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