The article ‘A Meaningful Relationship’
The group is about my relationship with George,’ says Andrew Ridgeley. ‘You couldn’t get much stronger than the two of us,” says George Michael. Together they are Wham!, the most successful, sexual duo in pop. ‘No fans, just flies. Wish we were home,’ should be the message on the holiday postcards. But the two tanned young men sitting in Jacques Loussier’s recording studio in Provence are too preoccupied to write cards or notice the ubiquitous flies, the crumpled sleeping bags, the litter of empty wine glasses and ashtrays and the rain falling outside double-glazed windows on to ‘Cézanne Country’ (as it says on the local
‘It’s a clinical desk – not a very warm sound,’ says George.
‘It’s as warm as you make it,’ says Andrew.
‘Rubbish! It’s the desk. It’s a very clean-sounding desk,’ says George.
There’s been a lot of talk about Wham!. In their scant two years at the top they’ve sold records like gangbusters and had their pictures in the Fleet Street tabloids more often than Princess Di. The sound of screaming teenage girls has once more rung out across the land. But the critics hate them. Their music has been trashed as lightweight and derivative and their personalities parodied as two pretty boys, manufactured stars, manipulated by the sinister moguls of the music business. ‘It does make us laugh when people see us as manufactured,’ says George, whose affable nature struggles with his fixed opinions on any and every subject. ‘We’re probably one of the most independent bands in terms of how we’re seen and how we’re heard. We control everything – all our photos, our videos, we do everything in the recording process right down to the cut and checking the pressings, we programme all our tours and run all our merchandising. Yet they view us as people in the middle of something.’
In fact, they are in control, and George is especially. He is a familiar figure. Every successful group has one – the obsessive, the workaholic, the one who just wants to get on with it. Andrew is quieter, lazier and thinner. Yet since they were teenagers, they’ve been two minds with a single thought, to become, as George puts it, ‘one of the biggest bands in the world’. They’re halfway there. They haven’t cracked America yet, and rely on the new album (‘ten times better than the first one’) to do the trick. But they’ve come a long way from the North London suburbs where George’s Greek Cypriot father owns a restaurant and Andrew has a mum who’s a teacher and a dad who works for Canon cameras. They met at school where, Wham! manager Simon Napier Bell says, ‘George was a slightly shy boy from a Greek family, rather than tubby, not good-looking and there was this dashing guy in the class who behaved badly and everyone looked up to. He made everyone laugh. In those days, Andrew was the guv’nor.’
Today the positions are reversed. George writes the songs, sings them and produces the records. As with many marriages, his relationship with Andrew seems unbalanced to outsiders, but not to Napier Bell. ‘Their image is what Hollywood has sold films on for the past 50 years and it’s never happened in the record business. Think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Starsky and Hutch – the two bosom buddies. It’s sort of a homo-erotic relationship. It’s a sexy relationship. All the pop duos before have been sexless. The only other example was the Beatles, all the more extraordinary because there were four of them. It has to be a genuine relationship. You can’t create it.’ Or as George put it: ‘You couldn’t actually get much stronger than the two of us, image-wise. There hasn’t been a duo that’s reached this point who weren’t either related or ugly.’
They seem to have known exactly what they were doing from the start. In school, they played together in a ska band. It made them sixth-form heroes, Andrew says, but was just like The Comic Strip’s satire on rock groups. ‘Every time we rehearsed there were ludicrous arguments. People used to come to blows.’ In 1979 Saturday Night Fever hit Britain in a big way. For sharp suburbanites like George and Andrew, the film was a revelation. ‘In our age group it was huge. Clubs sprang up like wildfire, full of disco music.’ As disco waned and jazz-funk replaced it, George and Andrew withdrew to that traditional setting for aspiring pop stars, their bedrooms at home, where they started writing songs and later formed The Executive.
Says George: ‘What people don’t understand is we knew what we did was good. We knew we had material that would sell records, but we thought there were thousands of people out there in the same situation. In fact, there are people who have a sound and a talent which can take years to be discovered, but there’s a real shortage of songs. Those get picked up very quickly.’ So it proved for Wham! (they took the name quite casually from the song they wrote, ‘Wham Rap!’). Songwriting is the key to their success, and very commercial songwriting it is – ‘a couple of white soul boys,’ as George describes them, turning out catchy, infectious versions of black American disco and funk, just as the Beatles and the Stones built on Elvis, Chuck Berry and rhythm ‘n’ blues.
Given their songwriting ability, now monopolised by George because ‘we agreed we’d make it quicker if I did it’, their breakthrough was perhaps assured. What makes them more remarkable is their professionalism. Just as in Britain you’re not supposed to say you want to be rich, so entertainers are not supposed to be such shrewd guardians of their own fame. Over breakfast, over dinner, waiting for the engineer to fix the recording equipment, George and Andrew fill their spare moments by discussing business. ‘We could get the single out in September and go up against Duran Duran,’ says George. ‘It’s either that or go up against Culture Club. I’d rather have Duran Duran.’
‘Take the bull by the horns, yeh,’ Andrew agrees. ‘The only thing is, I’m not as confident of “Freedom”,’ says George, referring to the title of their new disc. How important is a No. 1 record anyway? ‘The most important thing for a band,’ says George, shocked at such a question. ‘It’s the status, the publicity. If “Wake Me Up” hadn’t gone to No. 1 you wouldn’t be here interviewing us. I’d like two more this year.’ Wouldn’t we all? But George and Andrew may well get them, just in time to start their British tour and, in the New Year, their world tour on which they will be accompanied, at the very least, by George’s two sisters and his mum and dad. ‘We’ve always taken it for granted our families would be involved and our close friends from before we were famous. Suddenly everyone started commenting on it. We didn’t go out of our way to spread this family image.’
They went out of their way to spread another image though. Image-making is Andrew’s department and he guards it so jealously that a suggestion he should be photographed with his guitar provoked an intense 20-minute debate between the duo. ‘Arty’ and ‘pretentious’ was Andrew’s feeling and it prevailed. The duo’s current image is shorts, tans and beaches, the pop equivalent of the suburban craze for elaborate cocktails. According to George, Wham! discovered it by accident. ‘A lot of it is that we’re young and friends and there’s something about that which appeals to a lot of young girls and is attractive to a lot of young boys in the sense that they’d like to achieve the same thing. Once we realised that, we thought, just let it go, wear the clothes we normally wear, look good in the photos, be photographed in the right places and make sure only the good photos go out. Since then everybody’s said, “image, image”.’
As if on cue, the studio door opens and a famous visitor arrives in the person of Derek Warwick, the racing driver. Fast cars are more a part of Andrew’s image: they’re a serious passion which George doesn’t share but doesn’t mind so long as Andrew ‘sits and reads about them and doesn’t talk about them too much’. It’s only when the subject of Formula One racing has been thoroughly thrashed out with Warwick that Andrew is willing to talk about Wham! again. ‘The group is about my friendship with George,’ he says. ‘Obviously George is the most creative musically so he takes on a lot of the work. But it couldn’t be the group without the two of us. I contribute a lot of the ideas. I designed the cover for the “Wake Me Up” single, for instance, and I work on planning our live shows. Performance is probably my strongest point. It’s the part I enjoy the most.’
Andrew also plays his part when Wham! aren’t working but having fun instead. When Elton John invited them to a barbeque they enjoyed themselves so liberally they had to sleep over at Elton’s house to recover. They were in no condition to go to Elton’s lunch the next day with Joan Collins, but they probably wouldn’t have been welcome anyway because ‘we do remember reeling along the quay shouting obscenities at her yacht’. Some Wham! party stories are exaggerated. There was an incident involving a flung ice bucket which either didn’t really happen or, if it did, was a smokescreen, an attempt to divert publicity from Andrew’s nose. Andrew had plastic surgery on his nose recently and, like everything about Wham! the nose became hot news. A newspaper photographer took part in a car chase between the recording studio and the beach, in pursuit of the new nose.
‘I heard they were offering £10,000 for the picture,’ Andrew laughs. In the end, he let the man photograph him, ‘but I wouldn’t let him do it in profile.’ Andrew fingers his new nose gingerly and props his feet up on the dud desk. With his tan and his off-white jacket and slacks, slippered feet and silk T-shirt he looks very California casual, much to George’s distate. ‘I don’t like what you’re wearing,’ he says. ‘That jacket. It’s crinkly. Well, it is unless you iron it.’
‘I do iron it,’ says Andrew.
‘Yeh, but it’s meant to be crinkly.’
They are both serious about clothes, a reflection of their nights in the clubs. For now, though, they are concentrating on their musical master plan, giving the new album ‘a 60s feel’ and discussing the competition with a kind of naïve egotism. ‘I can’t wait to hear the new Duran Duran single,’ says George. ‘I hope it’s good. They’re going to be up there for a while and it’s better if they make amazing records. If they make amazing records, you don’t mind somehow but if they’re just OK, it’s more annoying. I mean, we want to be up there with good people.’
- George Michael: Artist or Airhead? (Musician, 1988)
- Wham! Teen Dreams Come True (NME, 1983)
- ‘George Michael: The Naked Truth’ in No. 1 Magazine (1984)
- Wham! Make it Bigger: Smash Hits Magazine 1984
- George Michael: The Reluctant Pop Star (Calendar Magazine, Sept 1990)