The Second Coming of George Michael
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.
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