It was with a cruel irony that we discovered George Michael passed away at the tragically early age of 53 on Christmas Day, just as so many people around the world would have been listening to his music.
Wham!’s Last Christmas has been a staple of the season since its release in 1984, when it reached No.2 in the UK, only kept from the top spot by Band Aid’s original Do They Know Its Christmas, also featuring Michael (Wham! also donated their Last Christmas royalties to the Ethiopian cause, a gesture typical of Michael’s famed personal generosity).
But Last Christmas was much more than just another festive novelty hit, with a ski-lifts-and-log-cabins video that, for many ‘80s teens, established a fantasy Christmas-with-friends template miles away from Mum and Dad’s comfy jumpers and traditions. Where most seasonal songwriters opt for cliché, Michael’s tale of suppressed heartbreak and “friends with tired eyes” expertly skewered the wistfulness of Christmas as well as the joy. No wonder it’s been interpreted over the years by artists as diverse as Taylor Swift, Jimmy Eat World and, er, Crazy Frog.
But then that, you see, was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou’s – Yog to his pre-fame friends, George Michael to the world – great songwriting gift. He had the knack of making extremely personal feelings speak to a planet-sized audience and, on the flipside, focusing huge themes and issues into single, direct hits of emotion. That’s why he was one of the giants of the pop ‘80s and, while that era has now lost so many of its major figures, Michael was one of its few icons whose career continued to surprise and push envelopes until the very end.
In terms of the music industry, too, Michael was a relentless innovator, as restless a businessman as he was a creative talent. His record sales stats alone look mind-boggling in the streaming era but Wham!, lest we forget, were also one of the first white groups to be influenced by rap and the first Western pop act to tour China – long, long before globalisation made a Shanghai stop-off de rigueur for pop superstars. He led the move to greater respect for artists’ worth with his legal battles against Innervision in the ‘80s and Sony in the 1990s. He’s basically responsible for Carpool Karaoke being a thing, for God’s sake.
Few, perhaps, would have predicted such a career based on Michael’s initial emergence onto the UK pop scene. Alongside his Bushey Meads schoolfriend Andrew Ridgeley (with expert backing first from Dee C.Lee and then Pepsi DeMacque with Shirlie Holliman), and blessed with dazzlingly white teeth and shorts and extravagantly coiffed hair, Wham!’s appearance served notice that the stylistically dour days of the post-punk era, already challenged by the New Romantics, were definitively over.
Yet even there, there was grit amongst the glitz and serious statements amongst the shuttlecocks famously shoved down shorts. Wham!’s 1983 debut album, Fantastic, was the soundtrack of that summer not just because Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do), Young Guns (Go For It!), Bad Boys and Club Tropicana (doing for summer holiday wishlists what Last Christmas did for festive ones) were the most effervescent tunes on the pop block, but because they spoke directly to a teenage audience who were refusing to conform to the grim austerity of the times. “Make the most of every day/Don’t let hard times get in your way,” Michael asserted, surely a mantra to cling to as this wretched year limps to its benighted conclusion.
If there was a relative lack of such substance in its 1984 follow-up, the unironically-titled Make It Big, then that was surely the point. Instead, Michael concentrated on writing (and producing) the songs – Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Everything She Wants, Freedom – that would take Wham! from the UK dole queue to the global stage. The album topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, but Michael already had his eyes on a greater prize: a transition to a serious, adult-orientated artist of true significance.
Careless Whisper was still released as a Wham! single in some territories, but in others – including the UK – it became his solo calling card. Written by Michael (and, unusually, Ridgeley) at an age when most teenagers struggle to write their English homework, it was the regret-tinged tune that made critics begrudgingly admit this Michael kid might be more than just a teenybopper with a great dentist. More importantly to Michael, one suspects, it also became the soundtrack to slow dances and teenage fumbles at youth club discos everywhere.
Wham! split in 1986 at the very top, bowing out with a Greatest Hits and farewell sold-out Wembley Stadium concert both titled The Final. Michael’s solo career may have technically begun with Careless Whisper; the subsequent No.1, A Different Corner (a great enough song for Radio 1’s mid-morning maestro Simon Bates to have played it twice in a row, and to have lyrically inspired Pulp’s dazzling Something Changed); and his 1987 Aretha Franklin duet I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).
But really, the true transition came with his blockbusting 1987 Faith album. Its first single, I Want Your Sex (at the time, a song so controversial, DJs and TV presenters would decline to say its title), was one of the most unambiguous shedding of squeaky-clean teen clothes (both literal and metaphorical) ever seen, setting a template that everyone from Miley Cyrus to Justin Bieber would subsequently follow.
Faith saw Michael stride into the big league, the album selling over 10 million copies in the US alone, where he became a radio format-busting superstar to rival fellow ‘80s behemoths Prince or Michael Jackson. Yet Michael himself was not happy with the demands of such fame and his follow-up release, Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1, saw him go all-in on the serious artist approach, declining to do promotion or even star in his own videos (although the presence of era-defining supermodels lip-syncing their way through Freedom ’90 meant they were not exactly consigned to obscurity).
Freedom ’90 was classic Michael: a very public statement of a very private wish (for the freedom to be himself, both artistically and personally) that nonetheless empowered others – and so set the blueprint for boyband stars wanting to be taken seriously that Robbie Williams covered it for his first post-Take That single. He followed through by suing Sony, claiming the label had not properly supported the release (although it still sold by the millions). Michael lost, scrapping LWP Vol.2 during the fallout, re-emerging on a new label and with a landmark live performance with Queen at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert (he later made up with Sony and re-signed to them, although he was on Universal at the time of his death).
His return proper came with 1996’s Older, a record so multi-faceted that it contained both Jesus To A Child, Michael’s eulogy for his lost lover, Anselmo Feleppa, and Fastlove, his ode to the joys of commitment-free sex. Michael’s sexuality had been the subject of speculation since his days in Wham!, but he was finally outed in the most high-profile way possible in 1998, when he was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public toilet in Beverly Hills.
Far from being embarrassed, Michael embraced his new freedoms, his 1998 single Outside being a typically witty response to the situation, and he became an engagingly self-deprecating chatshow and comedy show (Extras, Comic Relief) presence. But Music Week won’t be the first to note that the point where what Michael had long kept private (his lovelife) became public also subsequently became the moment where what had always been in the limelight (his music) became a much more intimate, personal affair.
Michael never stopped working, but concentrated more on touring – he played a joyous first gig at the new Wembley Stadium in 2007 – than recording, the gaps between albums becoming ever longer, although his 2002 Shoot The Dog single grabbed headlines as one of the few statements against the Iraq War by a major star. And, by the time of his final album release, 2014’s Symphonica, it seemed like Michael had become the artist he always wanted to be, making music primarily for himself, yet never losing the knack of speaking to his huge, devoted fanbase.
Some may have been distracted by the tabloid noise that swirled around Michael’s later years, the sex and drugs rumours, the Snappy Snaps crashes and the health problems. But most will choose to remember him as the sad-eyed, white-toothed Adonis of the Last Christmas video or the stubbly man with the unrivalled ability to channel private grief into global emotional rescue. 2016 may have been his last Christmas but, unlike in the song, George Michael gave us his heart every year. And that’s why his music will live on whenever tired-eyed friends get together to remember good times and sad times alike.