By Michaelangelo Matos
Few pop stars so transparently wanted to be liked as George Michael. Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in London in 1963, he grew up in the suburb of Bushey and began dreaming of pop stardom at age 7. “It’s not the something extra that makes a star — it’s the something that’s missing,” Michael said in a 1989 MTV Rockumentary. “You know, it’s an old story now, but it’s true: I was fat, I was very unattractive [as an] adolescent — glasses, spots [laughs], all the best things. All my career I’ve tried to project myself in a sexual manner, that it must be trying to make up for something. And it’s weird, because I know it’s there; I know it’s subconscious. And I don’t see that person anymore in the mirror, but I know that deep inside, I’m still making up for that kid.”
Michael’s transformation began when he met Andrew Ridgeley at age 12. “The teacher ordered me to sit next to this horrible little boy, who then took charge of me,” Michael said. Andrew was outgoing and always had friends around, and the two of them formed a short-lived ska outfit, The Executive, before becoming Wham!, a proper pop duo.
In February 1982, Ridgeley played the Wham! demos to his friend, Mark Dean, who ran the small, CBS-distributed Innervision Records. Dean signed them the following month. Two songs on the demo stood out: “Wham Rap!,” a cheeky hip-hop takeoff about living on the dole (as both members of Wham! were), and “Careless Whisper,” a ballad Michael had written the previous year while riding a bus. Dean picked “Wham Rap!” as the first 12-inch, and it hit the U.K. Top 10 that November. The two of them appeared on Top of the Pops and quickly built a devoted teen-girl following.
The rock intelligentsia laughed, but Michael wore his teenybopper beefcake image proudly on his sleeve. “I think it’s brilliant being overtly sexy, ’cause it irritates the hell out of everyone who doesn’t like you,” he told Smash Hits.
I think it’s brilliant being overtly sexy, ’cause it irritates the hell out of everyone who doesn’t like you.
With “Wham Rap!” and its follow-up, “Bad Boys,” both hits, the duo were forced into the studio to scare up a debut album, Fantastic, a process the singer would term “the worst point in my career.” In October 1983, Wham! sued to be let out of their Innervision Records contract, alleging it unfair. The legal haggling went on for six months before Wham! was released from Innervisions and signed with Epic.
The first U.K. single was “Careless Whisper” — credited only to George Michael, not Wham! It was a clear test to see if he could cut it as an adult balladeer and, inevitably given the division of labor, a solo star. “I like to have a line or two that make your ears cock up when you hear them on the radio,” Michael said of the song. “Like ‘guilty feet ain’t got no rhythm’ ... How many people put a word like ‘feet’ in a love song? It’s hardly a romantic word.”
Michael knew exactly how much was riding on “Careless Whisper.” He’d recorded a complete version in the United States, then threw it out and started over in London. Session man Steve Gregory played the song’s key saxophone line. When Wham! appeared on Top of the Pops, Michael insisted Gregory join them, and paid his airfare from France, where the horn player was on vacation. But George was hardly modest about it. “A lot of people ... say, what a great sax solo. It’s as if I had nothing to do with it,” Michael huffed. “It’s a great sax solo because I wrote it.”
Michael’s blunt immodesty made him a darling of the period’s pop press. When the duo played a miners’ strike benefit in 1984 and got guff for performing with backing tapes, Michael retorted: “The fact that we were miming is irrelevant. Our band can play better than The Style Council’s.” Of archrivals Duran Duran: “We’ve been so aggressive in our marketing that we took the spotlight off them. And we did it with a grin, that annoyed the press even more. We’re helping Duran. Compared to us, they look like a serious band.”
In November 1984, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” released concurrently in the U.S. and U.K., hit No. 1 after only 10 weeks on the charts. “If a bunch of ugly bastards had got up on stage and done ‘Wake Me Up,’ it would still have been a Top 3 record,” Michael boasted. By February 1985, “Careless Whisper” also reached No. 1 after only eight weeks in the Hot 100. The Billboard reviewer noted of an L.A. show that month: “The audience went bananas every time George Michael wiggled his hips, and the audience went bananas every time the band changed clothes. They even went bananas during intermission.”
“Careless Whisper” and subsequent singles like “Everything She Wants” also gave Wham! an entrée onto R&B radio, where Michael’s husky, soulful growl crossed over with little haste. Michael noted that along with crossing over to the rock audience, R&B radio offered the “two types of credibility in America which help you to last beyond being a 21-year-old pop singer that girls scream at.”
George appeared on Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which scotched his hopes of “Last Christmas” capturing the holiday No. 1. On April 7, 1985, Wham! played the People’s Gymnasium in Beijing, the first major Western pop group to perform behind the Great Wall. “Tickets were sold for the equivalent of $1.60 each, with proceeds going to charity and cultural funds,” wrote Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. “Each ticket buyer received a free cassette of the Make It Big LP. Although Western albums are not available for sale in the People’s Republic, the Chinese people were already familiar with Wham!’s music, thanks to five Cantonese cover versions of ‘Careless Whisper.’”
On July 13, 1985, Michael took his seat for Live Aid next to David Bowie, Queen, Elton John, and Mark Knopfler at Wembley Stadium, behind the row featuring Prince Charles and Princess Diana, next to Bob Geldof. As much as “Careless Whisper,” this was an announcement of Michael’s ascendancy into the rock firmament. George sang “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” as a duet with Elton John while Ridgeley sang backup; John had introduced them as “Mister GEORGE MICHAEL and Mister ANDREW RIDGELEY,” not as Wham! The writing was on the wall, but it would still be another 11 months before Wham! officially broke up, playing their final show on June 28, 1986, at Wembley.
Even with that head start, though, very few pop singers had emerged from teen stardom and successfully occupied the same space on the charts in adulthood. Michael took a cue from Michael Jackson — to up the motion of his dance numbers, à la Off the Wall — and another from Prince, by singing directly lascivious songs about sex and then affecting innocence about it. Discussing a number of radio stations refusing to air the 1987 single “I Want Your Sex” in his MTV Rockumentary, Michael breathes: “I feel I’m projecting less of an image, but it’s coming across as more of an image — maybe because it’s, uh” — wide-eyed pause — “more” — even wider eyes — “more sexual.” Pop knows no shame.
Instructively, around this time he also told a British interviewer: “If I took off my sunglasses, everyone would see I was lying through my teeth.” Michael intended to come out as bisexual publicly at 19. “Basically my straight friends talked me out of it,” he said. “I think they thought as I was bisexual, there was no need to.”
Meanwhile, his 1987 solo debut, Faith, went through the roof in the States, yielding four straight No. 1 hits, something no one had done since the mid-’60s. “If you can listen to this album and not like anything on it, then you do not like pop music,” he bluntly told Rolling Stone. A global tour behind the album grossed some £35 million.
The albums that followed did not have the sparkle and velocity of Faith; 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 is a calm ocean of strummed acoustic guitars and slowed-down “Funky Drummer” breakbeats. Subsequent albums like 1996’s Older and 2004’s Patience barely rippled in the U.S., though he remained pop royalty in England for the rest of his days, where his 1998 double-disc best-of collection would spend 200 weeks on the charts. He released subsequent albums, singles, and another best-of, and didn’t tour for 15 years until launching tours in 2006, 2007, and 2008.
It’s not unlikely that Michael’s most famous act after 1990 was being arrested in Los Angeles in 1998 for soliciting sex in a public restroom from an undercover cop. The experience, he told GQ, made him “a better-off gay man.” Finally out, Michael could cut loose on the subject, mocking the incident in the video that year for “Outside.” It pushed Ladies and Gentlemen, a best-of featuring numerous duets and single-only tracks, including “Outside,” to No. 1 in the U.K.
Michael’s end is still unresolved, but heart failure at age 53 compounded by life-threatening pneumonia in November 2011 and a 2013 car accident, on top of persistent rehab rumors, make it all too easy to imagine what the circumstances may have been. But Michael’s ’80s are eternal, and he knew it. “I regularly sit back and think, god! I can’t believe what I’m doing,” he said in 1984. “What better job could you have than that?”