The Second Coming of George Michael

The main man of Wham! alters his image


The singer's face is barely visible in the inky darkness of the vocal booth, but the voice that fills the adjacent control room at SARM West Studios in London is very familiar. The song is one of irony and loss — "Ma ma ma babe/Look at your hands/You've got two fat children and a drunken man/Betcha don't like your life/Betcha don't like it." There is, however, an unmistakable virile quality to the singer's emphatic delivery, a sensual self-confidence that meshes perfectly with the taut erotic bounce of the guitars underneath. His occasional bursts of lusty falsetto — "Whooo!" — are also a dead giveaway.

"Ma ma ma babe," he continues, leaning harder into the song's heartbreak scenario. "Look at your hands/You should have been my woman when you had the chance/Betcha don't like your life/Betcha don't like it/Betcha don't like your life now." Then the voice in the booth calmly announces, "Cut." The singer takes off his headphones and purposefully walks back into the control room.

Stroking the heavy five o'clock shadow that covers the bottom half of his handsome Mediterranean features, George Michael sits in his mission-control chair at the center of the recording console and swivels around to face the three musicians seated across from him. "I need more push in that riff," he says. "Give it more push in that second go-round." Known to millions of teenage girls around the globe as the hunky singing half of the English bedroom-pinup duo Wham!, Michael is engrossed in the very serious business of making a hit record. Aside from looking like God's gift to MTV's under-eighteen female viewers, it is, in fact, what George Michael does best.

Yesterday, "Betcha Don't Like It" (the song's working title) was just an idea, with a sketchy chorus by Michael and a riff by David Austin, an old friend of Michael's who is one of the guitarists in the studio. But on this overcast September afternoon, the song appears to be just a few hours away from completion, lacking only a couple of verses, overdubs and a tighter lead vocal. Ironically, "Betcha Don't Like It" is not even a George Michael record. He's producing and co-writing the song for David Austin, who will lay down the final vocal.

"You can see he keeps it all fairly under control himself," notes Chris Porter, Michael's regular engineer since he worked on Wham!'s 1984 breakthrough hit, "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." "Quite often he'll start a song with a verse or a chorus and nothing else. And he'll build that up day by day." For example, Porter explains, "Everything She Wants" started off as a minute and a half of music on a demo Michael recorded at home. "He elaborated on it over about four days until it became a complete song" — and Wham!'s third straight Number One hit in America.

"If he had been producing this song for himself," Porter says of "Betcha Don't Like It." "George would have moved a lot faster. He would have been more confident."

Michael seems so self-assured in the studio that it's hard to imagine that he is a mere 23 years old. Already a music-business veteran, Michael has five years' worth of best-selling records, sold-out tours and screaming teenage fillies behind him. But in the merry-go-round world of Top 40 pop, image is nearly everything, and today, nine months after the announcement that he and boyhood pal Andrew Ridgely were dissolving Wham!, George Michael is perceived by many Americans as, in his own words, a "sex symbol to thousands of virgins." That Michael is also an unquestionably gifted songwriter in a field of otherwise dismal hacks is an opinion that seems to come in a distant second.

"I totally threw away my personal credibility for a year and a half in order to make sure my music got into so many people's homes," Michael says of Wham!'s peak teenybopper years of 1984 and '85, when songs like "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "Freedom" and "Careless Whisper" dominated U.S. and U.K. airwaves in almost supersonic rotation. "It was a calculated risk, and I knew I would have to fight my way back from it. I did it out of choice."

Even Michael could not have anticipated how well his risk would pay off. The first two Wham! albums, Fantastic and Make It Big, have sold over 6 million copies internationally. Make It Big racked up 4 million sales in the U.S. alone and was the first album of this decade to spawn three Number One hits in America — "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "Careless Whisper" and "Everything She Wants." Subsequent singles, including the recent ballad "A Different Corner" (actually issued as a George Michael solo single), have all gone Top 10. If the current Wham! single — a cover of the Was (Not Was) song "Where Did Your Heart Go?" — also goes Top 10, that will make eight in a row. With numbers like that, and with his indisputable command of mainstream-pop technique, it's no wonder that Michael has been widely touted as the Elton John of the Eighties.

In the aftermath of Wham!'s well-publicized breakup, George Michael is starting to make grittier dance records to go alongside his cozy champagne-and-moonlight ballads. "Betcha Don't Like It" and "I Want Your Sex" — a new bump-and-grind original that sounds more like Prince's stark, sexy "Kiss" than anything in the Wham! catalog — are the prelude to a solo album that Michael says he will release next year. He will produce it himself, probably write all the songs and, in some cases, even play all the instruments.

Whether most of his fans realize it or not, that's what George Michael did for most of Wham!'s brief lifetime. He also acted as de facto manager, and, as a solo artist, he still handles his own business affairs. To see Michael studiously at work in SARM West's Studio One, barely out of his teens yet totally in control of his music and his professional life, one wonders why he ever had a partner in the first place. What the hell did he need Andrew Ridgely for, anyway?

Ridgely, also 23 and currently living in sumptuous tax exile in Monaco, was not available to answer that question himself for this story. He was busy burning rubber on European race tracks. George Michael, though, is the first to leap to his old school chum's defense.

"He knew he was coasting," Michael says frankly between bites of roast duckling at the White Elephant, a posh London restaurant. "We both knew it."

"But," he hastens to add, "we never lied to anybody about it. What people wouldn't accept was that Wham! was a vehicle, a successful image — two kids who strike it lucky. We never said we were a songwriting duo. Okay, Andrew doesn't sing. But we're accepting that. It's just that nobody else would."

"We kept trying to say, 'We're good friends, we started playing together, people like us together.' Wham! was working brilliantly. It was working for both of us. It was no con."

For the worldwide army of Wham!-loving femmes, George Michael and Andrew Ridgely were a double dream come true — good looks, good legs (in those skimpy, bun-hugging tennis shorts), all smiles and pouts. Together with Michael's catchy, expertly crafted songwriting — a deliberate emulation of Motown's marriage of white pop melodies and black dance rhythms — Michael and Ridgely's gleefully contrived Wham!mania was a nonstop ticket to the top.

"The time was right to strike home with Sixties escapism," Michael says matter-of-factly. "Sixties presentation, Sixties attitude towards the songs. That's what made us big. Basically, we made everything look wonderful. Wham! was a Sixties pop group in the Eighties."

The group didn't start out that way. Michael and Ridgely were actually a product of British pop's Seventies malaise. They were 11 years old when they met at Bushey Meads School north of London, where they sat next to each other in class and quickly discovered they had something in common: they both had copies of Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. "It was a double album," Michael quips, "so we had twice as much to talk about." That eventually led to long afternoons at Andrew's house; the boys listened to records and cooked up dance routines, which the pair would then demonstrate at local discos. Completely bypassing punk, they went through every desperate British pop revival of the late Seventies — mod, soul boys, even ska. In 1979, Michael, Ridgely and David Austin formed a short-lived copycat 2-Tone band called the Executive (as in the Selecter), with Andrew's brother Paul on drums.

The shallow New Romantic club scene inadvertently became the duo's main songwriting lab. Michael and David Austin would go busking in London tube stations, earn about five pounds apiece and then squander it in trendy nighteries, where Michael would rub shoulders with Spandau Ballet and absorb hip new dance records by Was (Not Was), the Gap Band and Kid Creole. Then he and Ridgely, who played guitar, would retire to Ridgely's living room, where they'd make demo tapes with a four-track tape recorder and a microphone attached to a broom handle. Among the songs they completed were the bouncy, Sugar Hill Gang-influenced "Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do)" (which inspired the name of their group), a sambafied parody of Blitz kids called "Club Tropicana" and "Careless Whisper," a lush, precociously crafted ballad. The boys were only 17 at the time.

British song publisher Dick Leahy, who has administered the George Michael and Wham! catalog since 1982, said what struck him most about the original Wham! demos was "hearing at the same time two unique songs that were so totally different. It was one thing to hear 'Wham! Rap' in someone so young. Usually with an artist like that, something like 'Careless Whisper' comes later. But to hear them together, you really are being told a lot about the future."

Both songs were true collaborations. According to Michael, "Careless Whisper" was based on a Ridgely chord pattern; Andrew also contributed some lyrics. Michael wrote the vocal melody, the balance of the words and the song's trademark sax line.

But the future, as Dick Leahy saw it, George Michael was all Michael's. He quickly took the musical lead, writing most of Wham!'s 1983 debut album, Fantastic, and coproducing it (with Steve Brown). He knocked out the hits "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "Freedom" and "Last Christmas" in one five-month period and then produced them as well. But it was the release of "Careless Whisper" as a George Michael solo single in 1984 that effectively ended any public delusions of creative equality between Michael and Ridgely.

The reason for issuing "Careless Whisper" in Britain as a solo record (Columbia put it out as a Wham! single in the U.S.) was a practical one, and Michael insists he had Ridgely's hearty approval. "We both had a definite attitude toward what a Wham! record should be about. Right up to 'Go-Go,' they'd all been young and optimistic. It didn't seem right to abandon it for this one ballad."

But that rationale masked a worrisome rift in their friendship. "The first year, when Andrew and I realized things had to change, there was friction. We'd start getting rude with each other. There was a time I was really pissed off at him, because he'd been late for a photo or recording session. I was saying, 'For fuck's sake, I'm doing all the work on this album. The least you can do is take care of your side of things.' We argued about it, and when I argue, I force the truth from people. And what he was feeling was he couldn't bear the unspoken un-evenness of it. Once it was out in the open, neither of us had any problem with it."

Jaz Summers, who comanaged Wham! with Simon Napier-Bell, remembers having lunch with Ridgely during the sessions for the group's second album, Make It Big. "George felt under a bit of pressure coming up with material, and I said to Andrew, 'Can't you help him write these things?' And he said, 'If I write a song, I might write a brilliant song. But George Michael will write an even more brilliant one. The bloke's a fucking genius. It's pointless for me to write a song.' Now everybody says Andrew was just being lazy. No, he wasn't. He was being very pragmatic about it."

Chris Porter says Ridgely played very little guitar on Make It Big, although he attended many of the sessions to give Michael advice and support. And Ridgely appears on only two tracks on Wham!'s current LP, Music from the Edge of Heaven — a live recording of "Blue," from the group's 1985 tour of China, and "Wham! Rap '86," essentially a remix of the original 1983 track. Having plenty of free time, Ridgely pursued an alternative career, in racing (crashing a few cars in the process), and made front-page headlines in the London tabloids with his drinking sprees and sexual escapades, like this little gem from last year: "ANDREW, WHO WAS THAT GIRL WITH THE GREEN KNICKERS?" For a time, Andrew paired up with teenage model Donya Fiorentino, who recently decided to go back to her first boyfriend, Don Johnson.

But, according to Michael, Ridgely's minimal musical input and extracurricular boozing were not the principal reasons for the breakup of Wham! He maintains that the hemmed-in feeling of writing songs within the increasingly restrictive bubblegum Wham! format combined with "the business of being a pop star" accounted for the split.

"I'm not very good at being a pop star in broad daylight," Michael says. "When people started expecting it 24 hours a day, it became very stressful to me. That's when I'd say to Andrew, 'I can't see this going on forever.' And he never gave me the impression that I had any obligation to him to continue."

The final straw came after Wham!'s U.S. stadium tour last summer. The group had negotiated a multimillion-dollar deal with Pepsi-Cola for use of the Wham! hit "I'm Your Man" ("If you're gonna do it, do it right") in a major '86 television campaign. "It would have made us a household name in America," Michael declares. It would have also forced Michael to commit himself to Wham! for at least two more years. In the late fall of last year, a week before shooting was to start, Michael backed out of the deal. At a dinner meeting, he also informed Ridgely, Summers and Napier-Bell that Wham! was officially over.

"I knew Andrew wouldn't feel bad because he really wanted out," Michael contends. "He wanted to do his racing. Together, we realized enough was enough. We'd taken Wham! as far as it would go. We always said we'd go out when we were on top."

Wham!'s enviable schoolboy luck held out even on the last day, when the band played its goodbye gig at Wembley Stadium on June 28th. "It pissed down on Rod Stewart when he played there, it rained on Queen. But when it was our turn, the sun was shining, it was the hottest day of the year, and it was fantastic," Michael says, still rather awed. "I'm not particularly religious, but someone had been smiling down on us for the last four years, and they weren't going to turn their back on us the last day. Lucky boys, we were," he sighs. "Another reason not to like us, I guess."

At first, he didn't even notice it. Most Wham! fans probably didn't either. But in publicity photos taken over the past year and a half, George Michael never looks directly at the camera.

"It's as if I couldn't do what the camera expected of me anymore," he says, slightly embarrassed. "It was as if I subconsciously knew that those two years of Wham! playing to the camera wasn't really me. I was acting, and deep down I knew it.

"The other thing about those pictures," he adds, "is that in a lot of them I'm not smiling. It's all that responsibility — the business of being Wham! I have this fold in my brow, right down between my eyes, as if I'm always worried about something. Even when I smile it's there." Michael smiles briefly, as if to prove it. Sure enough, it's there.

Those photos — and that telltale crease in his broad, sun-tanned forehead — are a unique portrait in schizophrenia. There is George Michael, the cocksure, self-made pop millionaire, wise in business well beyond his years, adamant about having nothing less than total control over his talent and its ample rewards. Then there is Georgios Panayiotou (Michael's real name), the son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurant owner, who can't quite understand what all the sex-god fuss is about.

"When I was a kid, Andrew was the guy in the class that all the girls liked," Michael says, laughing. "I was with him because I had a sense of humor. I had no reason to be confident in my looks. I had glasses, I was overweight, and my eyebrows naturally meet in the middle." He's since had the middle plucked out.

"I still have that stigma," he insists. "The opinion of the way you look at that age is important to the way you see yourself in the future. Even though I know a lot of women are attracted to me and I'm fairly good-looking, I still have some feeling inside me that doesn't accept the status I'm supposed to have."

"Still, in that first year with Wham! when all the screaming started, it was like a dream come true. For that year, I wallowed in the loss of those self-criticisms."

Michael also took to being photographed in a smug, almost feminine manner, perfected the pelvic tease in his stage act and, for a time, reaped the sudden harvest of his new sexual attraction. "I was," he says of his early Wham! sex life, "very unselective." The fun stopped when Fleet Street reporters started yapping at his heels for intimate details. A brief but highly publicized romance with Princeton undergrad Brooke Shields fizzled out shortly after the two appeared together at a David Lee Roth party at New York's Palladium.

"It was something that could have been more serious under different circumstances," Michael hints. "She was probably the most beautiful woman I've ever met. But the one night we were out in a really public place together, it was absolutely hellish. The press behaved like pigs. People behaved like pigs." Michael learned his lesson. The only time he's let himself get caught by paparazzi with his current girlfriend, Hollywood makeup artist and part-time club DJ Kathy Jeng, was at the bash that followed Wham!'s final concert.

Michael's appearance also underwent some changes during the Wham! heyday, as he acquired a suntan and dyed his hair blond. He kept the suntan but later reverted to his natural dark-brown hair color and grew a beard when he realized he'd taken his new image a bit too far. That turning point came when he appeared at a 1985 British music-awards ceremony with bleached, almost snow-white hair and a white dinner suit. "One friend of mine saw it on TV and said, 'Jesus, you looked like the guy from Kentucky Fried Chicken.'"

"It proved that I couldn't see what I looked like anymore. I was turning absolutely plastic."

A more lasting side effect of Michael's pop-stud phase was his newly discovered poise in financial matters. When he and Ridgely first started going into business meetings with record companies and lawyers, Michael claims, "everybody thought Andrew was the leader — one, because Andrew was a lot louder, and two, because Andrew looked so much better than I did at the time. I hadn't developed my forcefulness yet."

It wasn't for lack of trying. When he was growing up, Michael and his father argued constantly about his future. "He's first-generation Greek-Cypriot," says Michael, the youngest of three children (he has two older sisters). "He came to this country with absolutely nothing and worked 24 hours a day for 10 years. He went from nothing to a decent working-class living, and by the time I was 12 or 13, we had moved to a middle-class area. So my father wanted me to go into something very stable, like the legal profession.

"But by the time I was 8 or 9, I knew what I wanted to do. And I basically argued with him about it for the next 8 years."

Nevertheless, Michael inherited his father's business sense. At 18, he played a major role in negotiating his own publishing deal with Dick Leahy. "I found out very early that he knew what he was talking about," says Leahy, who sometimes, jokingly, refers to Michael as "the chairman of the board." "He's a very clear thinker. He has an ability to take information and make a decision, not to shilly-shally around.

"He's not a greedy person. It's the control. It's quite unusual for an 18-year-old to ask, in his first publishing agreement, to have the right of approval of any secondary usage of his songs, like jingles." Michael also demanded absolute veto over who could record those George Michael songs that he didn't choose to record himself.

Michael wasn't so careful about his first record contract. In 1982, he and Ridgely signed a rather lopsided deal with Innervision, a CBS-distributed indie label. According to author Simon Garfield in Money for Nothing: Greed and Exploitation in the Music Industry, the two boys received a recoupable advance of only 500 pounds (approximately $700) apiece for a contract that could tie them up for up to five years and ten albums. It was basically, in Michael's words, "sign it or forget it." It was also a foot in the door. "I had a fair idea what I was signing. And I had a fair idea that sometime later I would try to get out of it."

Wham!'s overnight success in Britain gave Michael the leverage he needed. Starting with "Wham! Rap" in the summer of '82, Michael and Ridgely scored no less than four back-to-back hits from the Fantastic album. They became instant cover boys in the British music press and were regulars on the weekly television show Top of the Pops. Michael estimates that he and Ridgely only earned a total of about 100,000 pounds ($140,000) from Fantastic and the four singles. But they invested the money wisely: they used it to pay the legal fees required to extricate themselves from their Innervision contract.

Jaz Summers says that when he and Simon Napier-Bell first courted Wham! in 1983, "their brief to us was, 'One of the main things we want you to do is get us out of our record contract.'" Wham! eventually settled out of court with Innervision. CBS U.K., no doubt concerned that they might lose a very lucrative act, signed Wham! directly at a royalty rate alleged to be as high as 20 percent.

Wham!'s management deal with Summers and Napier-Bell's company, Nomis Management, was just as favorable. Napier-Bell had extensive experience as a pop svengali going back to the heady days of Carnaby Street (Marc Bolan, the Yardbirds and the technoglam group Japan were among his past clients), and he brought his love of pop flamboyance and shameless publicity seeking to the Wham! project, negotiating, among other things, the group's precedent-setting tour of mainland China. Despite stiff promoter resistance, Summers organized Wham!'s sell-out tour of U.S. outdoor stadiums last year. Michael, however, retained veto power on all management decisions. And either party could cancel the agreement with only 90 days' notice.

Michael swiftly exercised that right when Variety disclosed last January that Summers and Napier-Bell were preparing to sell Nomis Management to a larger English firm whose major investors, unbeknown to them (according to Summers), included the owner of Sun City in South Africa. Summers and Napier-Bell backed out of the deal; they have since dissolved their partnership. But in order to quickly distance himself from the transaction, Michael immediately issued a press release stating that he was leaving Nomis.

"People attach us, Wham!, to Thatcherite Britain, to that kind of conservatism," Michael says of his political leanings. "But I am very definitely not right-wing in any sense at all. There is a difference between being right-wing and being wealthy, just as there is a difference between being poor and on the dole and being left-wing. I have no guilt whatsoever about the money I've made. But I know where my morals lie. Being young and wealthy is not a right-wing act in itself."

He subsequently assumed full control of his business affairs and went on to organize Wham!'s farewell show himself, overseeing everything from T-shirt design to ticket allocation. The strain of management doesn't seem to bother him. He even gets some good laughs out of some of it, like the constant offers he gets — and turns down — to license his songs for commercial use. "There was one where 'Go-Go' was supposed to become 'cocoa.' Imagine, 'Waking up to some cocoa.'"

Does it hurt to have one's work reduced to such trivia? "Well, that just shows how sensitive I am. I write things that are trivial, and I don't want them changed."

Despite his uncommon fame and wealth, George Michael is, in some ways, a fairly typical 23-year-old bachelor. The only things he owns in his pre-furnished town house in the Kensington section of London are the toaster, the television and a three-piece sofa suite. Up until about 18 months ago, he took his laundry home to his mother, although he insists that was partly so he could see his family more often. And he spends what little free time he has listening and dancing to music in nightclubs, zipping back and forth between hot spots in his new black Mercedes.

Aside from his girlfriend, his car and his continuing friendship with Andrew Ridgely, Michael has little interest in anything other than music. He is a rabid student of pop, avidly following the charts and rarely traveling without some kind of soundtrack. "It bothers me sometimes that I can't get away from music," Michael says a bit sheepishly after finally calling it a day at the recording studio. "I'm trying. I started water-skiing last week. But I was listening to my Walkman in the boat on the way out."

At his age, Michael has a whole lifetime ahead of him in which he can get all that music out of his head — which is where he stores it, literally. Although Michael can read and write music, he never bothers to put it down on paper. He relies on his memory to hold on to those special hooks or choruses until he gets into a studio. Michael once told Porter that he keeps the ideas in his head because if he forgets them, then they aren't worth remembering.

So far, it has been a foolproof system, and it's a pretty safe bet that Michael's projected solo album will help him maintain his winning streak. "My bank is in my head," Michael declares before heading home for a good night's sleep in preparation for the next day's hitmaking. "I honestly believe that if I lost all my money tomorrow, I could make it all back again with four or five more songs."