GEORGE MICHAEL (1963-2016): PART 1 — WHAM! DAYS

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Image courtesy of georgemichael.com

Just when you think 2016 has taken away enough legends, on Christmas Day another music icon joined David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey (of the Eagles), Maurice White (of Earth, Wind & Fire), Natalie Cole, Leonard Cohen, and so many others to the other side.  George Michael reportedly died peacefully in his sleep due to heart failure on the morning of that day (and reported to the police at 2 PM GMT).  I was already turning in for the night (it was 10 PM in our shores) after a usually sweet and quiet Christmas at my home so I only got to learn about this news several hours later when I woke up and checked my Facebook news feed and saw some of my friends posting their respects to him.

I first encountered George Michael back in 2nd year high school when he was still part of the two-person boyband Wham!  I was starting to become obsessed with the Billboard Hot 100 charts and listened religiously to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40.   Around this time the peppy “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was the Number One song in the USA.  The song was an unapologetically bright and peppy retro trifle, and the music video was a bright explosion of pastel, with the now iconic “Choose Life” T-shirt and those colored short-shorts.  Besides the utter boppy catchiness of the tune, another standout quality about this song (and performance) was George’s singing–his range is wide and amazing, and I thought he was one of the best singers I have ever heard.  But one thing that I noticed about the video even then was his feminine mannerisms, and it made me wonder–is he gay?  It mirrored my own experiences in high school as I have been taunted for my own mannerisms and couldn’t forge close male friendships because of it.

Things get even more confusing when his follow-up single, “Careless Whisper” came out.  Remember in this video he was playing a studly leading man who philandered and the love of his life walked out in the process.  So he made me wonder if he’s actually straight as he’s showing in that video, but still I had my lingering doubts…  Anyway, I was aware also that in the UK this was credited as a George Michael solo record while in the US it’s credited as “Wham! featuring George Michael”, and I bought their Make It Big album and making things a bit more confusing is that this is one of the very few songs where his Wham! partner, Andrew Ridgeley, had a songwriting credit–and I’ve been reading about how people are wondering what Andrew was bringing to the table besides adequate guitar playing skills in the first place since George does practically everything?  With the song’s mega-success and lasting impact, Andrew seems to be able to live comfortably from the royalties of this song alone (and to his credit, he’s also pretty wise about his finances).   In our shores, this song’s impact remained potent almost 25 years later,due to leaked sex tapes involving celebrity doctor Hayden Kho and some starlets like Kathrina Halili, one of the tamer ones showing him sensually dancing to this song.

In the UK, “Careless Whisper” already hit its peak and there was room for a follow-up Christmas-themed single from them, and actually George got involved in two eventual big Christmas mega-smashes.  He was part of Bob Geldof’s now-famous charity project for the famine in Ethiopia, Band Aid‘s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and he came out with his group’s own Christmas single, “Last Christmas“.  The latter of course couldn’t hit Number One in the UK as the former hogged all the spotlight, but of course in the end both emerged as winners as time goes on as both became almost permanent fixtures on Christmas playlists everywhere.  In the US, the Band Aid single went only as far as No. 13 and had a short chart life and “Last Christmas” was not released as a single in those shores then (and if it was, at that time it wouldn’t be eligible to chart in the Hot 100).  Though it figured in the Holiday charts in subsequent years, it’s only this year with George’s death that “Last Christmas” made its mark on the Hot 100 (debuted at No. 50 and will most likely surge on next week’s chart).

At the time, my favorite track from Make It Big was the retro-bopping ditty  “Freedom“, and I was slightly disappointed that in the US it only peaked at No. 3 (though it was also a UK number 1 the previous year, but I wasn’t following the UK charts that religiously then).  But then as years wore on, this song would be overshadowed by another composition of his with an identical title. (more on that later).  Prior to the release of the “Freedom” single, Wham! scored another Number One hit with “Everything She Wants“.  I didn’t think much of the album track then, but when I saw the music video I was intrigued by the extended bridge.  The song grew in regard as years wore on also, and I now understand why this is one of only two Wham! songs George usually would performed in his solo concerts…

After showing all those big Wham! hits on TV, the music video shows in my shores then aired some pre-Make It Big Wham! songs.  In particular, they showed  Bad Boys”, “Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do)“, and “Club Tropicana“–they ignored their first UK hit, “Young Guns (Go For It)“.  Indeed the material was way inferior to the Make It Big stuff, and a bit cringe-worthy in those days (but revisiting them on YouTube now, they can be fun listens).  The videos are silly and campy, especially “Club Tropicana”, which I’ll highlight below for the skin factor–I can imagine the sight of George and Andrew in skimpy swimwear making teenage girls swoon then, though again, something about George’s mannerisms made me wonder…

In late 1985, Wham! released another infectious hit, “I’m Your Man“.  Again I wished it did better than its No. 3 U.S. peak but at least I can console myself that it was another UK No. 1.  It’s a song that also wore its years well that this is the other Wham! song that George doesn’t mind performing (or even coming up with an updated, funkier, hip-hop-infused version in the mid-1990s).  But little did I know then this is the beginning of the end for Wham!  When they announced in June 1986 that they will be breaking up after releasing “Edge of Heaven“, I was slightly surprised but then again, the signs were there when in between “I’m Your Man” and “Edge of Heaven”, he branched out into collaborating with Elton John on the US Top 20 hit  “Wrap Her Up” , an underrated catchy ditty when I first listened to it, slightly leaden and dated when you hear it these days.  In early 1986 before the Wham! breakup was announced he released another solo single, the classical-styled ballad “A Different Corner“.  It wasn’t a devastating blow when I learned of the news, but I was intrigued with what George will be doing on his own–I was hoping there would be toe-tappers in his future repertoire on top of those solo ballads he released thus far.

COMING UP:  HIS SOLO YEARS

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