One year ago, George Michael passed away, aged just 53. His death was a shattering blow to his fans and many friends and collaborators in the music industry. Ten months after the tragedy, Music Week talked to Team George Michael about the ambitious reissue campaign for Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1, which would go on to make chart history when it reached No.1. The album was combined with the Channel 4 broadcast of the documentary the singer had been working on at the time of his death. With Wham!’s Last Christmas riding high in the Top 10 as the year ends, the songs of George Michael are as enduring as ever. You can revisit our cover feature in full below:
December 23, 2016. George Michael is working on a documentary that will take a remarkably candid look at his life and career, particularly the Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 era that defined him as a musician of substance and a man of principle.
The final talking head, Chic’s Nile Rodgers, completed his interview just hours ago. And George and his childhood friend, songwriting partner and manager, David Austin are applying the final tweaks to an edit of the film – produced to help promote the long-awaited, lavish Listen Without Prejudice reissue – that the pair had been working on, long into the night, for months on end.
“George was delighted that, having stepped back out of the limelight for a period of time, he was coming back and had something really fantastic and constructive and positive and beautiful to look at,” smiles Austin, sitting in the Hampstead, North London office where many of the discussions and editing sessions took place. “He was delighted with everything.”
Tragically, two days later, on Christmas Day, Michael was found dead at his house in Goring-On-Thames. His death prompted an enormous outpouring of public grief and affection, as people around the world mourned the loss of one of the most successful singer-songwriters of the modern era, and celebrated his remarkable musical career.
He was coming back and had something really fantastic and constructive and positive and beautiful
Understandably, a devastated Austin and Sony put all their plans for Michael’s music on hold. Only now, 10 months on from his untimely death, are they ready to, as Austin puts it, “open the curtains and let a bit of light in”.
And Austin – speaking to Music Week in a rare interview – is undoubtedly the man for that task. His and Michael’s mothers were friends in Bushey back in the day, meaning they first crossed paths “in the pram”.
They became great friends, spending hours together singing and playing along to the hits of Queen and Elton John before forming their first band together, alongside Michael’s future Wham! cohort Andrew Ridgeley, ska act The Executive.
Superstardom seemed a long way away but, even then, Austin says Michael stood out.
“I tell you what I did recognise as a kid; how commercial his voice was,” says Austin. “That was quite special. My mother had this reel-to-reel [tape recorder] so I used to record everything.
"While making the film, I came across a box of cassettes, and one of them was us messing around in his bedroom.
"George is singing with [1975 Elton John album] Captain Fantastic [And The Brown Dirt Cowboy] in the background and he’s copying all the inflections that Elton is singing. You’ve got Elton on one side and him on the other.
"It was incredible; his timing, the inflections, everything was amazing. He was about 13, 14. And yet he always doubted himself as a singer in the early days…”
Despite Michael’s talents, The Executive didn’t get anywhere. But, when Wham! got their break, singing Young Guns (Go For It!) on Top Of The Pops after a last-minute call-up, Austin was there miming guitar and, after a brief bid for his own pop solo career, he stayed with Michael on his journey.
He became a regular studio presence alongside programmer James Jackman and engineer Niall Flynn, and the co-writer of such songs as I Want Your Sex, Look At Your Hands, You Have Been Loved, John And Elvis Are Dead and December Song (I Dreamed Of Christmas). He was also Michael’s manager for the last few years of the singer’s life, becoming more involved with the business side after producing the film for the 2014 Symphonica project.
It took everything to the next level. It changed all our lives
“Was it very different to when we were kids?” muses Austin of management. “Well, the stakes were obviously a lot higher, but not really.
"With George and I, it’s always been about a really honest exchange. I’ve seen stars all over the world and I’ve watched how teams around them work and there are very few artists that have that.
"A lot of people will step up and say, ‘Oh, I was honest with him’, but that’s all bullshit. We both knew what we wanted to do and for me it was an amazing opportunity.
"With Symphonica, he said to me, ‘If you want to do this, do it – but don’t come back if it’s not a No.1’. His very words! Well, luckily…”
Having got that No.1 with Symphonica, Michael was persuaded to back the reissue of Listen Without Prejudice, the album that made his reputation as a serious artist but shattered his relationship with Sony, to the point that he took them to court over his recording contract, famously alleging he was kept in “professional slavery”.
But, while Michael gave his blessing to the reissue, he declined to get personally involved, so – after a lunch with Sony UK chairman/CEO Jason Iley – Austin and Sony conceived the film project to boost the campaign.
When the project began to snowball, Michael decided to muck in and remained hands-on right up until the end.
That end, of course, turned out to be more final than anyone would have wanted. Now, when pondering whether he’s any closer to coming to terms with his friend’s untimely death, Austin can only say: “I just don’t know. Do you ever? I often wonder if I’ve used the film and the enormity of this project to immerse myself in, as something of a coping device.
“Sometimes, when you’re so immersed, you don’t see the wood for the trees,” he continues. “I was in New York, walking down Madison Avenue, headphones on. Praying For Time came on from Symphonica, and it stopped me in my tracks. I know every increment of that album, it was a labour of love. But I stepped back from it and listened and… This sounds really weird, but I thought to myself, ‘God, he really can sing, can’t he?’ And it’s been a bit like that lately. There are all these wonderful surprises…”
And, indeed, while the grief of Michael’s passing still hits hard, both for fans and those who worked with him, there is much to celebrate in the story of his life and career.
Few – including Michael himself – expected his solo career to rival Wham!’s success. And yet 1987 solo debut Faith, sold over 20m copies and turned him into a worldwide superstar.
“Wham! was nothing like this,” says Austin. “It took everything to the next level. It changed all our lives.”
Austin knew from being in the studio that Faith was a special record. So did Sony – or CBS, as it was then still known.
The single has played a massive part in how we reach a younger audience and focus on streaming
CBS CEO Walter Yetnikoff, CBS UK CEO Paul Russell and Epic UK MD Andy Stephens monitored the sessions at Puk in Denmark and SARM and Metropolis in London, and liked what they heard.
“They knew what they had, or they realised pretty fast watching George craft in the studio,” says Austin. “George was an old head on young shoulders.
"They knew that, so they were opening the doors and avenues to let him develop. To some extent, it was a risk, but he’d served his apprenticeship with Wham! and, by the time tracks like Faith and Father Figure were coming out, the execs were going, ‘Fuck me, this is serious’.”
Austin says Michael was “fully intent on becoming the biggest star in the world” but when he finally joined Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince at the top of the ‘80s tree, he didn’t like the view.
“It was an extraordinary experience where there were bucketloads of records being sold, fortunes being made by the label and artist, it was full-on 24/7, in-your-face – and the windburn was extraordinary,” says Austin.
“Towards the end of the Faith period, he was exhausted. He realised how unhappy he was but, at the same time, he realised he’d achieved what he was going for at the time.”
Unusually for a white artist at the time, Michael had enjoyed huge support from American urban stations. But when he won two R&B awards at the American Music Awards, there was a backlash that would prove the catalyst for widespread changes in Michael’s life and career.
“He’d achieved beyond his wildest dreams and, all of a sudden, he had the carpet pulled from under his feet,” says Austin.
“It shocked him. And for a period it put him on the back foot. There was that, the exhaustion from the over-exposure, the touring, the relentlessness of it all. George was always able to step back, look at a situation for what it is and he felt that, if he could come up for air and let the music speak for itself, he’d get himself to a better place.”
So Michael got real on Listen Without Prejudice, crafting serious, introspective songs such as Praying For Time and Heal The Pain, paying homage to Lennon and McCartney in a way that drew a line under his frothy pop days.
Meanwhile, the single Freedom ’90, literally set fire to his past, as the video – which Michael declined to appear in, sending a bevy of supermodels instead – torched his Faith-era leather jacket and sent a clear message to “the boys on MTV” that he was no longer going to play ball.
The same new rules applied to his label, with Michael refusing to do any promotion or even have his name or photo on the (now iconic) album sleeve.
“We didn’t anticipate [the furore] because he’s always been one of those people where less is more,” says Austin. “He truly believed that the label would support him. We all knew how amazing the album was. We never questioned that they would let him do what he wanted to.”
Although Listen Without Prejudice outsold Faith in the UK (where it’s now four times platinum), in America it was a comparative flop, something Michael blamed on the US label’s lack of support.
With Michael also devastated by his lover Anselmo Feleppa’s HIV positive diagnosis (Feleppa died, tragically, in 1993), things came to a head quickly.
“The situation with the label was deteriorating on a daily basis,” says Austin. “He was incredibly angry that the label were not prepared to support him. You don’t back George into a corner. When the writ was issued, they were shocked because by the time it gets to that, it’s game over with the label really.”
Michael filed his suit on October 30, 1992 and, many hearings later, Justice Jonathan Parker ruled against him on June 1, 1994, rejecting all of Michael’s claims.
Not that it did Sony much good; with the relationship in tatters, they allowed him to transfer to David Geffen’s DreamWorks Records (Virgin in the UK) for 1996’s Older, although Michael did return in 2004.
“He didn’t win the case but he won the war,” says Austin. “What a lot of artists don’t realise is, he was fighting on restraint of trade, but really he was taking on the standard recording contract. I know that was something he felt strongly about.”
Indeed, while Michael’s case may have ultimately been unsuccessful, you can bet every subsequent major label contract erred on the side of caution when it came to keeping their stars happy.
And, 27 years on, Sony have come to terms with it to the extent that they gladly financed Freedom, the 90-minute film made by Austin and Michael that looks at the whole period and beyond.
The movie will debut on Channel 4 on October 16, just ahead of the Listen Without Prejudice reissue on October 20, and then roll out internationally. The interview with Kirsty Young from which Michael’s voiceover was taken will also be broadcast on Radio 2.
Austin has worked closely on the project with the Sony Music Commercial Group triumvirate of Phil Savill (MD), Jon Cauwood (marketing director) and Joanna Kalli (head of marketing).
“I’ve got to say hats off to the label,” says Austin. “It’s all water under the bridge. Most of the people in the label were huge George Michael fans and it was an administration of the company in the US back in the day where the problem was.
"When I talked to [Sony Music Entertainment CEO] Rob Stringer in New York and Jason [Iley] and Nicola [Tuer, Sony Music UK & Ireland COO] and these guys, everybody was massively supportive. This is all part of our history.”
“That’s the way we viewed it,” insists Savill. “It’s part of our history and it would be disingenuous and laughable if we tried to rewrite it and insist that bit was edited out. If anything, I’d say Sony come out of it looking good because, to go through that traumatic experience, but then have the artist bless a reissue and participate in it shows how strong the relationship is now.”
Even so, it’s been a project more than four years in the making. Originally slated for release to tie in with LWP’s 25th anniversary in 2015, it was about to launch this time last year when Kalli took a call from Austin saying Michael wanted to wait until there was “a big radio record to launch the campaign”.
“I called Jo and said, ‘Are you sitting down?’” remembers Austin. “I’ve just had George on the phone and we’re going to hold off. The world was ready to go but there was a conversation going on with Nile [Rodgers] and we wanted this record.”
That record was, of course, Fantasy, originally slated for LWP and then used as a US B-side. Michael worked with Rodgers on his funked-up remix of the track and it was used to launch the reissue project back in September on Chris Evans’ Radio 2 Breakfast Show.
While sales to date (10,569, according to the Official Charts Company) have been modest, the song has been an airplay hit, so far peaking at No.18 on UK Radio Airplay.
“I don’t give a fuck what you’ve got to say: TV and airplay make a campaign,” declares Austin. “We knew we’d covered ourselves as far as television was concerned but we were still lacking something. And Nile made an absolutely blinding record.”
“George was right, as he always was,” says Kalli. “The single has played a massive part in how we reach a younger audience and focus on streaming. Spotify have been behind it 100% and to be in that position at this point in the campaign is crucial to us. It sends out a really clear message to people that consume their music on those platforms: this is where George should be, this is his prominence and relevance.”
Sony and Austin are working with specialist marketing companies, including Trailer Park, to target new fans as well as Michael’s incredibly loyal fanbase. And they anticipate the film – which features everyone from Sir Elton John to James Corden to Stevie Wonder to Liam Gallagher paying tribute to Michael’s genius (“Modern day Elvis,” declares Gallagher) – will cause a surge of interest across Michael’s considerable catalogue.
“We have a focus product, there’s a new album in MTV Unplugged [released for the first time with the LWP reissue], there’s a great box set for fans, but we’ll see that upsurge in streaming that we did on Christmas Day,” says Cauwood. “It was naturally a massive surge and that’s been maintained, it hasn’t dipped, it’s carried on.”
I hope people think of me as someone who had some integrity
George Michael, Freedom documentary
With Michael’s demand for a No.1 album – not easily achieved for a reissue project, particularly in Q4 – ringing in their ears, Sony is rolling out what Savill calls “the biggest international campaign to come out of the Commercial Group in years”.
“George communicated to David that he wanted this album to be No.1,” says Savill. “That objective was said to us very early on and that’s what we intend to deliver.”
But more than that, Sony and Austin want the project to kickstart a 10-15 year plan that will secure Michael’s legacy in the same way Warner has with David Bowie.
“It’s the first of a variety of projects that we’ll work,” says Cauwood. “There are things we could talk about with Wham!, there’s a lot we could do with vinyl, but we want to do it at the right time.”
“There is a strategy there,” says Austin. “It’s a long-term game. It’s not like we’re going to go out and make new records, I hate that kind of stuff.”
“His legacy is so vast and so far-reaching that we can do some really amazing stuff that really does maintain that integrity,” says Kalli. “It’s so important.
Sadly he’s not here and that’s an absolute tragedy, but we’ll all find it very easy to continue working with this catalogue, because there’s so much to work with.”
Austin says his friend deserves to be remembered as “an artist who had true integrity”, words echoed by Michael himself, who in the Freedom film declares: “I hope people think of me as someone who had some integrity. I hope I’m remembered for that,” before adding, with that self-deprecating humour for which he was famed: “It’s very unlikely. It’s all been a waste of time.”
For once, George Michael was wrong. He may be gone, but his legacy lives on.