Perhaps it’s a bit of poetry, or, if you’re looking at 2016 as the year that made so many people sad, it was just being cruel. George Michael died on Christmas day at age 53,6 on the day one of his signature songs, “Last Christmas” – a sad song, for sure, but a jolly-sounding one nonetheless – gets a lot of play. Of course, that wasn’t his only popular song: he was the force behind some of the biggest pop hits of the 80s and 90s, and continued to create music until just recently. So, with the words “the very next day, you gave it away” ringing in our heads, we find ourselves diving into George Michael’s work.
Born to a Greek father and an English mother, George Michael’s music success was buoyed in part by a chance encounter. He began as a busker in the London Underground, and later worked as a DJ for local clubs. He would later form a ska band, the Executive, with some of his high school friends, including Andrew Ridgeley. When that failed to take off, Michael and Ridgeley regrouped in 1981 as the pop group we now know as Wham! Their first single “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)” stalled in the charts, in part because the profanity on one version meant it BBC Radio 1 would not play it. Their second single “Young Guns (Go For It!)” also did not do well, but when the duo performed on Top of the Pops – they just filled in, as another act cancelled unexpectedly – captured the imagination of teenagers, catapulting the song to the third position on the British charts in December 1981.
Wham! played on an image of carefree playboys, and their music – light, preppy, bubbly, as opposed to other British pop acts like Culture Club and Duran Duran – reflected that. (The controversies that followed them – par for the course in the era – did the same.) A switch of record labels toned that image down somewhat, leading to the enormous success of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” in 1984. The song topped the charts both in the United Kingdom and the United States. Later that year they would release “Last Christmas”: it remains the highest-selling single to peak at number 2 on the British charts. Wham! would continue releasing songs until 1986, when George, now keen to make music for a more sophisticated audience – and already successful as a solo artist – called it a day. The split was amicable, capped off by a sold-out concert at London’s Wembley Arena.
In 1984 George flirted with a solo music career, and that first foray was a massive success: “Careless Whisper” topped the British charts for three weeks and became the fifth best-selling single of the year. It was released with Wham!’s Make It Big album, and in the United States, was credited to “Wham! featuring George Michael”. The song is actually co-written with Andrew Ridgeley, and was formed before Wham! was formed. George’s profile also increased with his participation in Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and its offshoot Live Aid concerts. His first solo release post-Wham! served as a fulfillment of a dream: “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” was a duet with the great Aretha Franklin.
In 1987 George released his debut solo album, Faith – a solo album in every sense of the word, as he performed most of the instruments on the record and wrote all and produced all but one of the songs (that one, “Look At Your Hands”, he co-wrote). While its first single, “I Want Your Sex”, was widely banned on radio because of its name – George, however, insisted it’s not about casual sex – the follow-up, “Faith”, was a huge success, topping the American charts for twelve weeks (including four weeks straight after its debut). The music video also proved to be quite iconic. Its success catapulted George to a world tour, which left him exhausted; he later decided to do no promotions for his next album, the more serious Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 – while applauded critically, did not sell as well, leading to George suing Sony Music, and the expected follow-up being scrapped.
After his tour for Faith, for the most part, George stayed away from the spotlight, although he did release an EP with Queen in tribute to Freddie Mercury. He unexpectedly returned in 1994 with the single “Jesus to a Child”, which he dedicated to Brazilian designer Anselmo Feleppa. The song’s subject and dedication triggered speculation about his sexuality, which he would not address publicly until 1998, when he revealed in an interview that he is gay. By the late 1990s onwards George was gaining notoriety for his personal life – he was arrested in 1998 for “engaging in a lewd act”, an event that led to his publicly coming out; he would also be accosted several times for drug offenses – but he continued to create music, and getting acclaim for it. His last albums, 2004’s Patience, performed well, and he was nominated for (but failed to get a slot at) the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2011. He also released two best-of compilations and a live album, Symphonica, just in 2014. [NB]