George Michael died at the age of 53 on Christmas Day 2016; despite his success, it was hard not to think of what might have been. He was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou on 25 June 1963 in East Finchley, London, to Jack Panos – a Greek Cypriot restaurant owner who had anglicised his name – and his English wife, Lesley Harrison. Georgios (‘Yorg’ to the family but mispronounced as ‘Yog’ by Andrew Ridgeley, whose version stuck) was the youngest of three children, and the only boy. He was six months old when Lesley’s brother Colin overdosed on schizophrenia medication while on temporary release from psychiatric care. Lesley’s father had committed suicide four years earlier. ‘Depression runs in my family,’ Michael said. He first showed signs of musical talent aged six, when he was overheard by a neighbour singing Stevie Wonder’s 1969 hit ‘My Cherie Amour’. He soon began writing songs with a friend, inspired by the Supremes and Tom Jones’s ‘Delilah’ (his mother had bought him a wind-up gramophone).
In 1966, more than 40 per cent of the singles sold in Britain were by Black artists, many of them on Motown Records. Local doo-wop groups were recruited from street corners and sock-hops and given in-house lessons in deportment; it was crucial to present an image of Blackness that could attract a mainstream audience. The Supremes, the Four Tops and the Temptations were the flagship groups, and the best songs – minor key, four-to-the-floor pop stompers with bittersweet lyrics – were reserved for them. Recordings were designed to be accessible, but also to last. ‘From the Supremes,’ James Gavin writes, ‘Michael got his first taste of the catchy hooks and beats that made a pop song unforgettable.’ Or as Michael put it, ‘I knew how to make these records and make them jump out the radio.’
In 1975, when Michael was twelve, his family moved to Radlett in Hertfordshire, where he met Ridgeley. Gavin, with an American readership in mind, gets a little muddled trying to tell a Grease-style story about an unlikely lad’s rock’n’roll indoctrination, with Ridgeley as Rizzo and Michael as a chubby, unibrowed Sandy. Ridgeley might have been a fan of Adam Ant but he wasn’t one at twelve, as Gavin says he was: he was fifteen when Adam Ant starred in Derek Jarman’s 1978 punk film, Jubilee, which wouldn’t exactly have been the main picture at their local Odeon; the hit songs came even later. There are many errors of this kind in the book.
In 1979, both aged sixteen, Ridgeley and Michael – who around this time stole the surname of a classmate – formed a two-tone band called the Executive with David Austin (who would become a lifelong collaborator) and Ridgeley’s brother Paul. Michael was lead vocalist but hadn’t yet found the right style: his attempts at a Jamaican accent fell flat. A fifth member, Andrew Leaver, directed homophobic slurs at James Sullivan, a gay American student friend in whom Michael had confided his supposed bisexuality – a half-step commonly taken by cautious gay men. Sullivan told Michael about the outbreak of gay-related immune deficiency in the US. Then it turned out that Sullivan’s boyfriend had slept with Leaver, who died in December 1982 from what his family said was ‘cancer’. If Leaver actually died of Aids, as Gavin implies, he would be one of the first British victims, within six months of Terrence Higgins.
By that time, Michael and Ridgeley had formed a new group, Wham! Michael chose the name when Ridgeley, on the dancefloor, started chanting ‘Wham! Bam! I am the man!’ – a mash-up of ‘Wig-Wam Bam’ by the Sweet and David Bowie’s ‘Suffragette City’. It also inspired their first significant song, ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)’. The Executive’s two-tone pastiche was gone, replaced by another intrinsically Black genre: rap. ‘Wham Rap!’ captured a British working-class punk sensibility and celebrated the freedom of being on the dole. Michael and Ridgeley put together a cassette demo (which included an unfinished version of ‘Club Tropicana’ and an early version of ‘Careless Whisper’) and shopped it around to record labels, but ‘Wham Rap!’s message clashed with the post-Falklands mood of triumphant Thatcherite aspiration.
Only Innervision, a start-up label backed by CBS Records, would take a chance on Wham! (the name of the label evokes Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album). It was good timing: Michael’s father – never an unequivocal supporter, and depicted in Gavin’s book as a ‘homophobic bastard’ who only thawed when his son became rich – had told him to get a record deal or get out. Michael wanted a new band member who could legitimise their forays into Black music, and Innervision came up with Dee C. Lee, later a solo artist and member of the Style Council. Deon Estus, a dreadlocked Detroit-born bassist who had studied with James Jamerson of Motown’s Funk Brothers and had recently toured Europe with Marvin Gaye, also joined the band. (In Gavin’s book, Lee is touted as a proto-Sade and Estus is described as ‘mahogany’, as though he were a wardrobe.) Things were looking up, but the Innervision contract, effectively a bond, was the source of Michael’s later problems with Sony. In his ‘self-portrait’ film, Freedom Uncut (first released in 2017), he says:
The deal that I was working from [at Sony] was based on the deal that I had signed with Andrew under duress … The head of the record company [Mark Dean of Innervision] turns up with these contracts and we go to this greasy spoon café and he says: ‘Look, if you don’t sign this now, the deal is going away, you won’t have finished demos to take away with you, you won’t own them.’ We were on our own, we had nobody with us, and we signed them. When you start a career with a ridiculous contract where somebody is paying you nothing on 12-inch records, 1.5 per cent on the records you do sell … you know from that moment on not to trust the industry.
Wham!’s first hit, in 1982, was ‘Young Guns (Go for It)’, which seemed to stall at No. 42 in the charts, though the band had performed it on the kids’ show Saturday Superstore. But Michael Hurll, a producer at Top of the Pops, had been watching and invited them on after another act cancelled. They looked and moved like a party, and Innervision was swamped with orders. ‘Young Guns’ climbed to No. 3; ‘Wham Rap!’ was re-released and got to No. 8. Wham! were suddenly a headline act of ‘new pop’, which, according to Simon Reynolds, evolved the DIY codes of punk to ‘take on the mainstream and beat it at its own game’ and ‘involved a renaissance of glam’s interest in artifice and androgyny’. Other acts included in the category – the Human League, Eurythmics and Depeche Mode – were examples of synthpop, but with his arrangements for Wham!, Michael stood at the intersection of disco, with its ‘intricate production’, and the ‘Black sounds of the 1960s [soul, ska], when a record was barely more than a document of the band playing in the studio’ (Reynolds again). Wham!’s next single, ‘Club Tropicana’, sent up Club 18-30 holidays and was released simultaneously with their debut album, Fantastic, in June 1983. The album went to No. 1. Dee C. Lee looked stunning in the videos, but the only time her voice was heard on a Wham! record was at the end of ‘Club Tropicana’, harmonising with Michael on one syllable: ‘cool’. Frustrated, she left, but not before finding her own replacement, someone whom Gavin says ‘provided the same striking contrast to the blonde and sunny Shirlie Holliman [Ridgeley’s girlfriend]’ but didn’t care to be heard: Helen DeMacque, also known as Pepsi.
Soon after this, Wham! succeeded in ending their contract with Innervision, signing with Epic, a division of CBS that was basking in the record-breaking success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The band was rewarded with a bigger budget and full creative control: ‘I was supremely confident I was writing pop classics,’ Michael later said. Ridgeley didn’t do much more than look good while pretending to play guitar, but he remained a reliable source of absurd material that Michael could use for songs. A hastily written note Ridgeley left his mother asking her to wake him ‘up-up’ before she went to work inspired ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, their first No. 1 single. ‘Careless Whisper’, credited as a Michael solo single in most territories, was three years in gestation, before finally being recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alabama: it was a worldwide chart-topper. ‘Freedom’, coinciding with the release of their (aptly titled) second album, Make It Big, hit No. 1 in November 1984. Something on an episode of Match of the Day triggered ‘Last Christmas’, which was released in time for the holidays as a double A-side with ‘Everything She Wants’ – to my mind one of Michael’s best songs. It was held off the top spot by Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, to which Michael had contributed vocals; ‘Last Christmas’, already one of the biggest-selling singles of all time in the UK, finally reached No. 1 in January 2021.
I have a special relationship with ‘Freedom’, which is often forgotten or confused with Michael’s solo single, the later, greater ‘Freedom! ’90’. My earliest memory – listening to the radio while making breakfast with my father – comes back each time I hear the escalating horns of the intro. Like ‘Wake Me Up’, whose rhythm was borrowed from ‘Heat Wave’ by Martha and the Vandellas, ‘Freedom’ had the Motown sound. Gavin mentions the song only fleetingly, dismissing it as sounding ‘like a Supremes B-side’, which reads as unintended high praise (see the glorious ‘Ask Any Girl’ or ‘Remove This Doubt’). He lingers for a few pages on Wham!’s 1985 tour of China – they were the first Western band allowed in – but doesn’t mention the fact that filmed footage from the tour was edited into a music video for the US release of ‘Freedom’. The song itself is a plea to a (female) love interest to stay faithful, but its wider significance is in the title. In Freedom Uncut, Tracey Emin describes the 1980s as ‘one of the most depressing, most demoralising times we’d ever had for young people in British history’. While bands like UB40 (named after the unemployment benefit form) and the Specials wrote lyrics reflecting the political situation, Michael, as Ricky Gervais puts it in the documentary, was ‘an escapist’. ‘Freedom’ has a further irony given Michael’s closeted status and the growing censorship and censure of the Aids years. Many of the biggest British acts of the early 1980s were fronted by gay men, Steve Strange, Jimmy Somerville, Pete Burns, Boy George, Leee John, Morrissey, Billy Mackenzie, Holly Johnson and Marc Almond among them.
Not since the Supremes and Diana Ross had a pop group produced a lead singer so clearly destined for solo success. ‘Careless Whisper’, though co-written with Ridgeley, had shown that Michael could thrive alone. He was out to Ridgeley privately and had his support, but Ridgeley’s inability to contribute equally to the music and his increasing detachment made it easy for Michael to go it alone. ‘A Different Corner’ became his second solo No. 1 single, before he flew to the US to record another, ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’, a duet with Aretha Franklin.
Gavin’s telling of the recording session with Franklin is problematic (lingering on an unlikely tale of baby back ribs and a grease stain across the front of Michael’s trousers). Franklin is described as ‘notoriously difficult and moody’. ‘She wasn’t cold to me,’ Michael said. ‘She just seemed unimpressed by everything.’ Why shouldn’t she be? Franklin had recorded her debut album by the age of fourteen; she was a mother of two by sixteen. She was a survivor of domestic abuse, and at this point thirty years into her career. Her single with Michael went on to become her biggest seller, but it was throwaway compared with her previous No. 1, ‘Respect’. The duet presented her with an opportunity to connect with a younger (and whiter) fanbase; Michael, Gavin says, ‘wanted further soul cred’. He seemed in a hurry then, but released only six solo studio albums in all, between 1987 and 2004; Franklin’s eight-album run from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You to Spirit in the Dark, at least five of which are soul classics, came between 1967 and 1970, while she was also campaigning for civil rights, touring enough to trigger a fear of flying, and had the FBI watching her every move. Gavin quotes Rob Kahane, Michael’s then agent and future manager: ‘She’s belting out the song … Just killing it.’ Had he ever listened to an Aretha Franklin record? Months later, she ‘barrels in’ to shoot the video.
This is the sort of language that is all too often used to diminish powerful Black women. ‘I feel most coloured when I am thrown against a sharp, white background,’ Zora Neale Hurston said. Gavin, an experienced biographer who has written books on Chet Baker, Lena Horne and Peggy Lee, as well as on ‘the golden age of New York cabaret’, should exercise greater care. (Incidentally, no context is given when he mentions Gary Glitter and Jonathan King, both of whom were later found guilty of sexually abusing minors.)
Wham! signed off with a show at Wembley in 1986. By then, Prince was the paradigm. In ‘I Would Die 4 U’ he sang ‘I’m not a woman, I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand’; ‘Controversy’ included the line ‘Am I Black or white/am I straight, or gay?’ Prince portrayed himself as someone who transcended racism, homo/transphobia and misogyny. Michael couldn’t have channelled Prince’s androgyny if he’d wanted to – even with that Princess Di shag cut – but he was keen to show he was a grown man, a proper album artist, not an inoffensive, family-friendly pop idol.
To launch his solo career he adopted a late-1970s Meatpacking District persona: hairy chest, tight jeans, Western boots, leather jacket, aviators, white vest, stubble, hoop earring. The video for ‘Faith’ gives us a long, slow pan across his bum. Though sexually active, he wasn’t out to his parents, and while Faith, his 1987 solo album, is punctuated with Prince-like grunts and coos, Michael still read to the public as a classic ladies’ man. The video for the first single from the album, ‘I Want Your Sex’ (a virtual clone of Prince’s ‘Kiss’), was controversial enough to earn a BBC pre-watershed ban. ‘Sex was now synonymous with sickness and death, and many denounced Michael for crassly exploiting a global tragedy,’ Gavin claims. Michael’s response was that the song and video – featuring his long-term beard, Kathy Jeung – were promoting monogamy, but ‘the problem was that nothing in the lyrics made the message clear.’
Faith is a more muted and introverted album than its success, the controversies associated with it and the cockiness of its cover image might suggest. The vocals are whispered; for someone apparently getting high on his own body odour on the cover, the beats don’t always have the primal punch you’d expect. There are on-stool moments that recall Tony Bennett; the lyrics make inside references (‘don’t you know I love it till it hurts me, baby?’ is an unambiguous anal sex whimper) and are at times socially conscious, hinting at a guilty awareness of his huge personal wealth.
Faith sold 25 million copies. The album reached No. 1 in the US, as did the title track, which, despite its rockabilly codes, also hit No. 1 on the Top Black Albums and Hot Black Singles charts (soon renamed Top R&B Albums and Hot R&B Singles, partly as a result of Michael’s success). ‘All I remember is “Faith” being played fifty times a day on MTV,’ Mary J. Blige says in Freedom Uncut. ‘It was in heavy rotation on any pop radio station you were on. You heard George Michael on some of the urban stations, right after Luther Vandross. His music broke the rules.’ At the time, Black artists weren’t happy about his presence. Freddie Jackson, interviewed for the Los Angeles Times, said: ‘I live soul … George Michael hasn’t been through any of that.’ At the American Music Awards, he won Favourite Soul/R&B Album and Favourite Soul/R&B Male Artist, among the few categories Black artists were guaranteed to win (they were also having to adjust to Michael Jackson with a guitar-driven sound, radically lighter skin and a bone-like little nose). Even the legends voiced dissent. ‘It’s a puzzle how that was even considered,’ Dionne Warwick commented. ‘The Black male artist works very hard to get his due,’ Gladys Knight said. ‘If Bobby Brown had across the board play and could compete in the same [pop] categories George Michael competes in, that would be a whole other thing.’
Michael was the biggest selling musician in the world in 1988. He was 25 and seemed ready to outdo Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince and Madonna. In Freedom Uncut, Liam Gallagher describes him as a ‘modern-day Elvis’. Fans and the record business wanted more: more music, more appearances, more concerts, more everything. Almost disdainfully, he signed a multimillion-dollar, multi-album deal with CBS, and, with Michael installed as its flagship act, Sony bought out the company for $2 billion.
By the end of the 1980s, anti-gay sentiment, compounded by the Aids crisis and the passing into law of Section 28, was widespread; the ideology of ‘gayness’ was trashed in the mainstream media in the same way that ‘wokeness’ is today. The wild success of Faith and the accompanying world tour induced PTSD-levels of overexposure in someone who had something to hide. Michael decided that his next project, Listen without Prejudice Vol. 1, would erase his image altogether. He approved a drastically reduced PR campaign and refused to appear in any videos. Inspired by Peter Lindbergh’s January 1990 British Vogue cover, featuring Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Tatjana Patitz, he managed to get all five to appear in the video for ‘Freedom! ’90’, lip-syncing in his stead. ‘We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day,’ Evangelista said, so Sony agreed to $15,000. A male model dressed like Michael in the ‘Faith’ video burns his leather jacket and blows up his guitar. A cropped version of a photograph by Weegee of a crowd of male bathers – Coney Island at Noon Saturday, 5 July 1942 – was chosen as the album cover. It was as though ten records had passed since Faith, and Sony was shocked.
Times were changing; house and new jack swing were dominant, and DJs weren’t keen on Michael’s earnest, soul-searching songs. The album, his greatest, was inspired by Brazilian bossa nova and is full of quotes from the gods of rock and soul: the vocal inflection on the line ‘there ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner’ (from the hymnal ‘They Won’t Go When I Go’, a Stevie Wonder cover) recalls Marvin Gaye in ‘Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)’; ‘Waiting for That Day’ resembles Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and ends with the Rolling Stones’ line ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ It was a coming out statement to those on the right wavelength. The reverb-y last sound – the soaring ‘Here I am!’ – is a plea to be accepted and understood: if you know, you know, and that’s the way he wanted to leave it. Perhaps it was too subtle. After the six-year run from ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ to ‘Freedom! ’90’, eighteen US top ten singles and a million magazine covers, it seemed as if Michael was self-immolating, and the album was a relative flop.
He exasperated Sony further by refusing to perform most of the album’s songs live. But he did perform in Rio. Among the thousands at the gig was Anselmo Feleppa, a hair stylist based in Paris. They fell in love and – when not touring the world – sequestered themselves in Los Angeles. Michael quietly absorbed Feleppa into his entourage as a friend and supporter. ‘Anselmo was the first time I think I ever really loved someone selflessly,’ he said. ‘It was a wonderful six months.’ Then, in late 1991, Freddie Mercury died, days after ‘coming out’ under pressure from the British press. He had lived secretly with HIV for more than four years. Only weeks earlier, Feleppa had fallen ill and flown back to Brazil, where he was diagnosed as HIV positive. Michael, too scared to get a test, hid in LA, where reporters ‘knew I was gay’ but ‘left me alone’. Sony was impatient for the new album he had barely started. But after an alleged incident of homophobia, Michael began seeking a divorce from the label. According to Gavin, Michael’s agent/manager Rob Kahane
was in his living room when the phone rang. It was Donnie Ienner [of Sony]. With Michael nearby, Kahane put the call on speakerphone. Ienner’s side of the conversation was overheard by his colleague Dave Novik. ‘Donnie was extremely aggressive, as was his style,’ said Novik. ‘He was telling Rob that George should get off his ass and do another video, or be in the video.’ Ienner, claimed Kahane, referred to Michael as ‘that faggot client of yours’. Word of Ienner’s smear spread throughout Sony; by the mid-1990s, references to it had begun appearing in print. In his 1996 book Off the Charts, Bruce Haring writes that Michael ‘overheard a slur about his personal life from a senior Sony executive’. Ienner insisted that the incident had never happened, and the singer himself never mentioned it, at least in public. At the time he couldn’t; he was in the closet. From then on, however, both he and Kahane were on the warpath.
Despite refusing to promote Listen without Prejudice, Michael was convinced Sony had ‘buried’ it, since it had outsold Faith in the UK but only registered a fraction of the earlier album’s US sales. Of the few completed songs from the abandoned Vol. 2, ‘Too Funky’ was donated to the compilation Red Hot + Dance, an Aids benefit album Michael curated.
Feleppa died in March 1993. Michael was too fearful of being associated with the virus to attend his bedside or even the funeral, though he did meet Feleppa’s family afterwards. The British press knew that he was gay and had been in a relationship with Feleppa; all that was missing was Michael’s public confirmation. Attention turned to the Sony court case beginning that October. Michael’s complaint, as reported by the BBC, was that his contract was ‘restrictive and takes too much of the profits’. The real question, according to his lawyer Tony Russell, was ‘How can I stay with a company who won’t support me?’ A Sony executive interviewed for Freedom Uncut says that ‘we’d have probably got more albums out of him if we’d allowed him to back off.’ One option might have been to come out there and then, accuse Sony of homophobia (there were witnesses to the Ienner call), dare a public that had once worshipped him to bury him, and become the messianic activist the gay community desperately needed (Madonna came closest). To the judge, it seemed clear that Michael, a breathtakingly rich princeling who had known only success, was simply reeling from a commercial flop that was largely self-inflicted. Michael lost the case. He would never record for Sony again, but Virgin bought him out of his contract, giving him the freedom he needed to make his third solo album, Older.
‘There isn’t a song on Older that isn’t about Feleppa [‘Jesus to a Child’], about the risk of Aids [‘Spinning the Wheel’], about blunting that pain with fast love [‘Fastlove’],’ Michael says in Freedom Uncut. The album was released in 1996 at a turning point in the Aids crisis, as antiretrovirals were introduced and HIV diagnoses started to drop in the US. He still wasn’t out, but with Older he gave the queer community something to pin its grief on. He had finally come out to his mother after Feleppa’s death; she was distressed he’d suffered for so many years without telling her.
It’s possible that once Michael was forced out of the closet – after his arrest in 1997 for public indecency with an undercover policeman in a Hollywood ‘cottage’ – he lost some of the useful tension between his life and his art. The arrest proved far from fatal: he laughed it off in a primetime TV interview with Michael Parkinson and parodied it in the video for ‘Outside’ in 1998, for which he wore a police uniform. But apart from ‘Outside’, ‘Patience’ in 2004 and a few other songs, his best work predated his conviction. In the final decade of his life he became an incontinent tweeter; he was addicted to sex and the drug GHB; and a series of arrests for driving under the influence of drugs led to a spell in prison. Despite this, he’d belatedly become a national treasure. His relationship with the tabloids remained tense, but the implications of his near fatal bout of bronchial pneumonia (often associated with HIV) in 2011 were ignored in the outpouring of sympathy.
Michael’s death in 2016 prompted much speculation. He had struggled with depression since his mother’s death from cancer nearly ten years earlier, and had been involved in several incidents that could be seen as attempted suicides, including an inexplicable fall onto the motorway from the back seat of a moving car. Medical reports gave the cause of death as heart failure. He hadn’t stopped grieving Feleppa, despite two subsequent long-term relationships. Patience (2004) features ‘Please Send Me Someone (Anselmo’s Song)’, with the lyric: ‘And for a thousand days, I was lost/I said, “Heaven knows I’m ready to be found”/ Underground.’
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