I was never a WHAM! fan, but…

George Michael was truly, a gifted artist

I can categorically state, I was never a WHAM! fan; it really is that simple. But, respect should be given where respect is due, especially after an unprecedented year of deaths from within the creative arts fraternity.

George Michael was a naturally gifted songwriter of my generation and although not within my normal listening range, an artist who stood out from many of his peers, managing to escape the pop star bubble to forge a career outside of the genre and more importantly, gain the respect of the living legends he respected. More than any other death this extraordinary year, his sudden passing has strangely moved me, especially as I write more as observer than fan. Maybe his death is a harsh reminder of the mortality of my generation who dreamed our youthful optimism of the 1980s would live forever.

Elsewhere in this BLOG, I speak of a sometimes difficult period in my life as a teenager, which marked the onset of a 16 year period of depression caused by the shutdown of my body’s ability to produce the correct amounts of naturally occurring Serotonin. It was during this time that George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley broke through to millions of my fellow teenagers, mostly girls and much to my irritation.

Wham! 'Bad-Boys' single cover

Oh dear…looks like these chaps favoured my type of leather biker jacket – and so what if I did coincidentally get my hair cut shorter just as this was in the charts? Me, a Wham! boy? Get out of here!

When failed debut single ‘Wham Rap!’ was re-released in January 1983, a long haired teen Rocker like myself would form an instant dislike to a pair of effeminate fashion victims stealing what was our standard dress code of T-Shirt, drainpipe Jeans and black leather Biker’s jacket. Seeing their video, the only difference I could see in appearance between George Michael, Andrew Ridgeley and myself was our hairstyles. However, by the time they released ‘Bad Boys’ my newly found adoration of the still underground U2 drove me to an overnight image change. Out went the Iron Maiden hairstyle and in came a cut closely resembling the hairdo Bono sported on the cover of the ‘October’ album sleeve. Although a radical image change up top, the clothes remained the same and should a plain white T-Shirt be worn (quite often), the addition of my Biker jacket and Jeans created the very annoying ‘instant WHAM!-boy’ effect. Despite this unintentional visual connection going down well with members of the opposite sex, I remained unimpressed, desperately wanting to be removed from any association with the early ‘boy band’ phenomena. As far as I was concerned, as much as WHAM! wrote some annoyingly catchy singles with great Bass lines, I was most definitely not a fan.

Another long, hot Summer in 1984 gave us ‘Careless Whisper’, non-stop on radio station playlists everywhere, under the guise of a George Michael solo record – despite it being a co-write with Andrew Ridgeley and making it onto the ‘Make It Big’ album. Played to the point of aural saturation, the song was impossible to escape, as was the album it would find its place on as the closing track. However, one fact I couldn’t deny was as a pop song, it was steeped in perfection for the genre. The crafting, arrangement, production and levels of musicianship packed into those few short minutes are truly a work of genius. The rhythm section tracks of Deon Estus and Trevor Morrell stand up with anything laid down by the Motown, Stax or Wrecking Crew boys and girls from the hit factories of the 1960s and 70s. In my opinion, Estus and Morrell have never been given the recognition they deserve for setting the standard for 1980s session musicianship at a time when many of their ilk were being replaced by artificial sounds. Their rhythm section contribution to any WHAM!/George Michael composition are a benchmark of the time, probably nailed with the minimum fuss and perfect for both composer and producer.

As a lover of great Bass lines and as much as I cringe at the bubblegum pop overload of ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, it is hard to dismiss the genius of Deon Estus’ work on that track, making it essential listening for any aspiring Bass player who thinks pop music is beneath them. George Michael must have known the level of players he had at his disposal, coupled with their abilities to bring extra zest to the table. So, to Deon Estus and Trevor Morrell, I offer my humble thanks and respect for the lessons in turning out the perfecting standard for perfect-pop rhythm sections. You are indeed, a ‘Funk Brothers’ offspring worthy of recognition.

In awe of the humble fadeout…

The craft of song production has long been in decline within the confines of the 3-minute pop song, but it’s clear that George Michael was always aware of the need for perfection from start to finish. I’ll take just two examples from the WHAM! period, ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘Freedom’. The former fades with a haunting, almost eerie atmosphere of melancholy, leaving the band to find their own personal space to improvise within the final minutes. Whether or not this was pre-rehearsed or just done on-the-fly, I cannot say, but as a section alone from the rest of the song, it tells its own story.

Similarly, the fadeout on ‘Freedom’ forms a life of its own as it bears a number of musical twists and turns underpinning a subtle, but brilliant Trumpet solo (who the hell thinks to put a Trumpet solo in a song?!?!?). Annoyingly, 99% of Disc Jockeys seem to ignore the musical gem unfolding before their ears, preferring to talk over it or simply cutting it short. Current evidence suggests the era of crafting songs this way is long dead. George Michael fully understood the artform of song and knew the worth of crafting every section of his work; he was without doubt, as much  Producer as he was Songsmith.

Post-popstar awareness

During the late 1980s I paid little attention to the fortunes of George Michael. I was aware of his solo career and learned about his sexuality ten years before he was forced to publicly reveal his private life in 1998. (Liverpool band The Icicle Works witnessed Michael engaging ‘intimately’ with a male friend/lover in 1984, when they briefly shared the same residential recording studio in France at the end of the ‘Make It Big’ recording sessions.) Within music industry circles it was well known he was bisexual or gay, which of course didn’t suit CBS during the WHAM! years, desperate to maintain their heterosexual money-spinner for the teenage girl market. The musician fraternity didn’t care a jot about his sexuality, but we were well aware that the gutter press would tear him apart when they found out.

After Freddie Mercury died in 1991 the remaining members of Queen staged a tribute gig the following year where Michael gave a stunning performance of ‘Somebody To Love’. To this day, I still consider this to be one of the best live vocal performances within its genre captured during the latter part of the 20th century. There was something ethereally special about the way Michael delivered his performance that day and I have no doubt if all three remaining members of Queen had collaborated with Michael on a future album, we may have seen the Queen legacy take on a new chapter. If anyone that day thought they could carry Freddie’s torch, George Michael made sure the imaginary auditions were closed after he left the stage.

Following the very public ‘outing’, it was terribly sad to watch him descend into a depression induced period of public self-destruction, lapped up by the self-righteous, crusading elements of the British press. They seemingly couldn’t get enough of Michael’s erratic downward spiral, offering smug ridicule and judgement instead of supporting an obviously troubled and talented individual.

During the last couple of years indications would suggest that Michael was getting his life back on track working on new creative projects. Whatever the truth surrounding his drug use, maybe it is safe to speculate he was finally finding the mental space to be at peace with his multifaceted identity. If he did consume Class A drugs like Cocaine and Crack over a prolonged period of time, he may have suffered the common heart damage caused by these drugs, the silent, unseen damage that shows itself later on during a respiratory infection, an allergic reaction or an asthma attack, sometimes with fatal consequences.

At the time of writing, we are told that George Michael died of heart failure. If it turns out to be the case that previous drug abuse has contributed to his demise, then it is not the so-called ‘curse’ of 2016 that has killed George Michael, but the continuing failure to widely recognise the association of mental illness with drug abuse. Famous or anonymous, mental illness and its individual effect on human behaviour is a great leveller. The only difference we see on a social scale is the way the gutter press react to the condition when somebody under scrutiny of the public eye behaves erratically. The price of fame demands they do not have the choice to self-destruct or take the steps to fix themselves anonymously; they are locked into a state which forces them to fight what ails them publicly, and for the morbid pleasure of spectators. It is the new Gladiator sport of our age and we don’t even have to leave our homes to watch it. This must end.

I opened this post stating that I was never a WHAM! fan and that remains the case. Many of my male friends were fans and even though we are considered to be the un-PC kids from the 70s, not one person thought any less of George Michael when he declared his sexuality. In fact, they were more concerned with his increasingly worrying actions during a long period of mental health problems. To me, he is a contemporary musician from my generation who was lucky enough to get a platform for his creative talent to flourish. We all played the same desperate games for stardom in the 1980s music business, we all wished for the big time and we all hoped it would last forever. Although George Michael achieved everything and more than most of us in the music world could hope for, he has paid far too high a price for cultural immortality.