Tuesday, 19 September 2017

George Michael: Make It Big with Faith

George Micheal, at left, with Andrew Ridgley, on the cover
of their breakthrough and iconic album, "Make it Big"
At first, his music was just another ear worm, but then it became much more as the 1980s and beyond went along. By the time he passed away at the end of 2016, George Michael had become legendary with an amazing body of work.

That’s entertainment
“Entertainment Tonight” was a show week days that featured all the latest music, TV, and movies. They always ended an episode with a music video of some song making waves on the Billboard charts.

The show was hosted by Mary Hart and Robb Weller when I tuned in. The show ended with Mary Hart introducing, very deliberately, a song that was making its way up the charts. She said it deliberately, and with wide eyes, because the song was called, “Wake me up before you go go”. Hart said “Go go” slowly, with a combination of questioning whether that was the name of the song or just a typo, and outright disbelief.

That was my introduction to Wham!, the band that made George Michael a star and a household name.

Wham! Makes it Big
“Wake me up before you go go” rocketed all the way to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. It was a song you just couldn’t get out of your head. They followed that up with a ballad, the heart wrenching “Careless Whisper.” Now, however, I noticed they were introducing the act as “Wham! Featuring George Michael”. That too went all the way to number one as did the band’s third single, “Everything She Wants.” It was the first time three singles from the same album went to number one on Billboard. The singles were all from the band’s album entitled, “Make it Big”.

And indeed they had done exactly that.

Cultural impact
Wham! Made its mark at Kate Andrews High School in Coaldale too. I was in Grade 10, so 1984-1985. We had a student teacher in Accounting 10-20 who dressed just like George Michael with that “Choose Life” white t-shirt, in the “Wake me up before you go go” video. That was first semester. I was taking Biology 10 in second semester, and one day spotted a classmate wearing a Wham! concert shirt. My best friend Chris Vining asked her about it, and I said I had seen Wham! on TV and was trying to remember their names.

“You mean George?” she said.

“No,” I responded.

“Andrew?” she continued.

I laughed because she spoke like she knew them personally. I was also puzzled how both my student teacher and classmate could find these shirts on TV. I never saw anything like that at Eaton’s, or Simpson Sears, or Woolworth’s.

Only Wham! can go to China
It was that same second semester of Grade 10 that I heard on LA-107 FM that Wham! was going to China. That was a big deal back then, even bigger than now, because China was a closed country that largely shunned western culture. Yet, there were George and Andrew dancing atop the Great Wall.

They even captured images for the whole world to see by knitting concert footage from the tour into the video the band made to promote their song “Freedom”.

Whether intentional or not, performing “Freedom” in a Communist country was a profound political statement.

Helping others
George Michael also impressed me when he was one of the British performers who sang on the African famine relief project, “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” spearheaded by my hero Bob Geldof.

The depth of feeling he sang with, like so many of the other popular performers on that record, showed he was more than an artist for the teeny bopper set. Moreover, participating in that project proved he had a social conscience and it would not be the last time he sang for a cause bigger than himself.

He would also take up Geldof on his invitation to perform in Live Aid, the subsequent concert for famine relief held at Wembley Stadium in London (and concurrently at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia). Michael performed a duet with Elton John, the heartfelt single, “Don’t Let the Son Go Down on me”.

That would not be the last time Michael tugged at the heartstrings with that song at an emotional time.

Duet, part one
George Michael also appeared with Elton John on his single, “Wrap Her Up”, which was part of a successful comeback by Elton John. That was also part of a trend where renowned artists sang backing vocals for each other. Other examples were Sting backing Dire Straits on “Money for Nothing” and Phil Collins on “Long Way to Go”, and Bryan Adams backing Roger Daltrey on “Let Me Down Easy”.

End of an era
The next time I heard new Wham! was in the fall of 1985, with another catchy tune entitled, “I’m Your Man.” It did not seem to be part of an album though. It was not on “Make it Big”, which had run its course, nor connected to any other album. Research reveals it was just an isolated single.

It was at this time as well, George Michael was itching to move on. He had also experienced a lot of success with another ballad, entitled, “A Different Corner”. It went all the way to number seven on the Billboard Hot 100.

So, George Michael and Andrew Ridgley decided to bring Wham! to an end. They recorded a farewell single, entitled, “The Edge of Heaven”, and a farewell album called, “The Final”, which was released in North America, although altered as “Music from the Edge of Heaven”.

They held a farewell concert at Wembley Stadium on June 28, 1986, bringing the curtain down on one of the most successful bands of the 1980s. They had sold 28 million records and 15 million singles in five years.

But George Michael was just getting started.

Duet, part two
His solo career began with the duet, “I Knew You Were Waiting” with Aretha Franklin. According to Wikipedia, Michael realized his ambition of singing with one of his favourite artists, and the song rocketed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, hitting number one on April 18, 1987. It was a catchy tune, that capitalized on the strength of both of their voices, co-written by Simon Climie who a year later would have success of his own teaming up with Peter Fisher in the band Climie Fisher. “I Knew You Were Waiting” was also part of Franklin’s resurgence in the 1980s, but would be her last top 10 single on Billboard.

All grown up
One of the reasons George Michael wanted to go out on his own was to perform music aimed at an older audience, not just the teenage fans Wham! appealed to.

The first solo single shattered the teeny-bopper mold. “I Want Your Sex” was released in the middle of 1987, to much controversy as you can imagine. It made an appearance in the movie “Beverly Hills Cop II”, and was featured on that soundtrack.

When George Michael released his first solo album entitled “Faith” at the end of 1987, “I Want Your Sex” was the first single. It would peak at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 singles in August. I thought the song was a bit much, not that I was offended, but it just seemed obvious he was trying to be sexual and controversial.

Girls going wild
The title track, “Faith” was released in October of 1987 a few weeks before the album came out. It just drove the girls crazy.

I say this because I witnessed it first hand. I was in my first year of university on the 10th floor of Kelsey Hall, a student residence. My best friend and roommate Chris Vining and I had made friends with some of the floor members of Fifth Kelsey, the last-remaining all-girls’ floor in Kelsey and the entire three-tower, 31-floor Lister Complex. I was down on 5K one Friday night when all of a sudden one of the girls yelled out, “It’s time!” Suddenly, I’ll bet 20 girls gathered from the three wings into the lounge, crowding around the TV set.

I wondered what was going on. I knew the MuchMusic Coca Cola Countdown was on, because we usually watched it too.

One of the girls then shushed everyone as the commercials were ending. You could hear a pin drop in the 5K lounge.

The TV slowly dissolved to the number one song of the week – “Faith” by George Michael.

It was an iconic video, one of the most memorable of the decade.

Once it finished playing, the girls went wild.

You gotta have “Faith”
The album “Faith” would be one of the most popular of the decades, producing singles that played on the radio, and videos on TV, for almost two years.

“Faith” would stay on the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks, and was the number one single of 1988.

“Father Figure” was a slow, haunting song that made use of kind of an echo feel. It was released at the outset of 1988, and went all the way to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, staying there for two weeks.

It was followed by “One More Try”, another ballad that was perhaps my favourite song off that album, released in April of 1988 just as I was getting ready to finish my first year of university and head home for the summer. It became George Michael’s third straight number one single off “Faith”, and stayed in the top spot for three straight weeks.

The hits kept on coming as “Monkey”, released in July of 1988, was the fourth single to reach number one off the “Faith” album, and stay there for two weeks. It was George Michael’s sixth number one solo single, when you include “I Knew You were Waiting” and if you count “Careless Whisper”.

The final single to be released off “Faith” was “Kissing a Fool”, which had a smokey, smouldering jazz feel, coming out in November of 1988. It would break Michael’s string of consecutive number one hits, but still peak at number five on the Billboard Hot 100.

The album would go on to win the 1989 Grammy for album of the year. He would also have a successfully, albeit long and exhausting tour to promote “Faith”

It was safe to say, by the end of the decade, everybody had “Faith”.

The years after
George Michael would keep on singing and recording. His next album was released in 1990, and a year after that he had another big duet reach number. This one was “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on me”, which he recorded with Elton John. The proceeds went to 10 different charities for children, education, and AIDS research.

Another outstanding memory was Michael performing at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert on April 20, 1992. The song that I always remember, of the ones Michael performed with Queen, was “Somebody to Love”. His voice suited the Queen sound very well. Proceeds from this endeavour again went to AIDS research.

The other memory I have of George Michael after the 1980s, was his arrest for a lewd act in a public washroom in 1998. A lot of comedians and comedy writers made a lot of hay on that.

Parting thoughts
The last half of the 1980s was dominated by George Michael and various projects he was involved with. To be honest, to start with, I did not like George Michael. I was envious of the way he appealed to teenage girls and I really did not.

However, once I got beyond the teen angst, and looked at his body of work through the eyes of an adult, I actually liked quite a bit of his music. George Michael tried to capitalize on his sexuality, which is really not something that appeals to me. Even the title, “I Want Your Sex” was overt and over the top for me. It just seemed so obvious.

But he did have an incredible voice, especially when he sang in that jazz, blues style of songs such as, “One More Try”. He really did not need to rely on sex appeal, because his talent spoke for itself.

In the end, his antics in the 1980s paled in comparison to what some artists do today. We don’t see now that stuff he did then anyway. All we are left with is the music.

Beyond his voice, what I will remember about George Michael is his social conscience. Whether it was “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on me”, or “Somebody to Love”, George Michael raised millions for worthwhile causes. That will be his lasting legacy for me.

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