Sometime in the late 1980s, ‘doing a George Michael’ became music-biz parlance for leaving a ‘boy band’ and going on to become a credible, popular solo artist. It was many a record exec’s Holy Grail. George pulled it off with great aplomb and deceptive ease but it proved elusive – many others tried but very few, if any, cracked it.
George was surely the most successful and revered British solo artist to emerge during the 1980s, selling over 100 million albums and winning the Ivor Novello Songwriter Of The Year award in 1985 and 1989. He also possessed one of the all-time-great pure-pop voices.
Some mocked Wham! in their early days, but looking beyond the Lady Di hair and tight tennis shorts, it was always clear that the young George had some serious songwriting chops – ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)’ and ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’ married amusing lyrics (‘Death by matrimony!’) with a slick Chic-meets-Britfunk groove. Everyone at my primary school loved ‘Bad Boys’. It was, to coin a phrase, the Sound of a Bright Young Britain.
Wham!’s second album Make It Big continued to wrong-foot the critics, featuring a parade of timeless, brilliant pop singles – ‘Freedom’, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, ‘Everything She Wants’ and ‘Careless Whisper’ (labelled as a George Michael UK solo single when released in July 1984). Love or loathe the latter, it’s impossible to dismiss the loveliness of that famous sax motif.
Solo albums Faith and Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 were monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic. If Madonna was the self-proclaimed Queen of Heartbreak, George was surely the King – to these ears, no other contemporary artist, not even Prince, could top the sublime late-’80s ballads ‘One More Try’, ‘Praying For Time’, ‘A Different Corner’, ‘Father Figure‘, ‘Cowboys And Angels’, ‘Mother’s Pride’ and ‘Kissing A Fool‘.
1996’s Older was another career highlight, the first album in UK chart history to feature six Top 3 singles. (Arguably, George’s music and songwriting were in terminal decline after Older, but that probably says more about the state of modern British pop than anything else.)
He became a solo artist of great integrity. Usually the first name on the team sheet for any high-profile charity gigs, he usually said yes but resolutely refused to play his own material, performing only cover versions at Live Aid and also his Prince’s Trust, Nelson Mandela Birthday and Freddie Mercury Tribute appearances.
He was a quiet philanthropist, giving a lot of money, time and energy to issues close to his heart, and he also became a vociferous anti-war campaigner. Ripped off in his early Wham! days, he went to war with Sony Records, inspiring other artists (including Prince) to study their contracts carefully.
Far from derailing him, his very public ‘outing’ in 1998 unleashed a new, outrageous side of his personality with candid interviews (a Q magazine piece in late 1998 being particularly memorable) and self-mocking videos aplenty.
March 2017 will see the release a new documentary about George’s life called ‘Freedom’, and also the re-release of Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. What a shame he won’t live to see the release of Volume 2.
He is survived by his father and his two sisters, Melanie and Yioda.
George Michael (Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou), singer and songwriter, born 25 June 1963; died 25 December 2016