George Michael: the pop icon who caught the spirit of the 1980s
George Michael, who has died aged 53, was Britain’s biggest pop star of the 1980s, first with the pop duo Wham! and then as a solo artist.
After Wham! made their initial chart breakthrough with the single Young Guns (Go for It) in 1982, Michael’s songwriting gift brought them giant hits including Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Careless Whisper, and they became leading lights of the 80s boom in British pop music, alongside Culture Club and Duran Duran. His first solo album, Faith (1987), sold 25 million copies, and Michael sold more than 100 million albums worldwide with Wham! and under his own name.
Michael remained a major figure in the music industry even when his record releases slowed to a trickle in the later part of his career, and a loyal fan base ensured that his concert tours always sold out. However, from the late 1990s onwards he was beset by a string of personal crises and clashes with the law caused by drug use.
He had always felt ambivalent about the demands of stardom, and found it difficult to balance his celebrity status with his private life. After years of concealing his homosexuality, he eventually came out in 1998, after being arrested for engaging in a “lewd act” in a public lavatory in Beverly Hills, California.
He was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in Finchley, north London. His father was a Greek Cypriot restaurateur, Kyriacos Panayiotou, who had married Lesley Angold, an English dancer. The family moved to Radlett in Hertfordshire, and George attended Bushey Meads school, where he became close friends with Andrew Ridgeley. The pair formed a ska-influenced quintet, the Executive, in 1979, then in 1981 re-emerged as a duo, Wham!. They recorded some demos of their songs (written by Michael), and were promptly signed by the independent label Innervision.
Their debut release was the single Wham Rap! in June 1982, one of the first singles by a British group to include rapping. It didn’t chart, but the follow-up, Young Guns (Go for It), in October 1982 reached No 3, thanks to a timely appearance on Top of the Pops featuring a nightclub-style dance routine by the Wham! duo and backing singers Shirlie Holliman and Dee C Lee. Wham Rap! was reissued as Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do) and shot into the top 10, where it was followed by Bad Boys and Club Tropicana in 1983.
With Wham! blossoming into a full-scale phenomenon, despite ridicule from some quarters for such sartorial solecisms as stuffing shuttlecocks down their shorts during performances on their first tour, their debut album Fantastic (1983) charged to the top of the charts. Wham! were now battling with Culture Club to be top act in Britain’s so-called “new pop” boom.
Michael and Ridgeley had become aware that their Innervision contract was bringing them a very poor return on their efforts, and having signed a deal with the Sony subsidiary Columbia Records for America, they chose to forfeit royalties from their debut album to sign with CBS (later bought by Sony) worldwide.
The decision proved wise, as their second album, Make It Big (1984), turned them into a global success story, spinning off singles such as Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Careless Whisper, Freedom and Everything She Wants. In 1985, Wham! achieved a massive publicity coup by becoming the first western pop group to visit China. The visit was filmed by the director Lindsay Anderson as Foreign Skies: Wham! In China (1986).
Watch: Foreign Skies: Wham! In China (1986)
However, Michael was already eyeing up a solo future. Despite being included on Make It Big, Careless Whisper was credited to “Wham! featuring George Michael” in the US and was issued as a Michael solo single in other territories. By the time Wham! called it a day with a spectacular final concert at Wembley Stadium in June 1986, Michael had already released his first solo single, the chart-topping A Different Corner. Music From the Edge of Heaven (1986) was the final Wham! album, and The Edge of Heaven their farewell single.
Michael topped the charts again in early 1987 with a duet with Aretha Franklin, I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), and that autumn released his first solo album, Faith, to critical and commercial acclaim. Produced, written and arranged by Michael, it spawned hits including I Want Your Sex (considered too explicit by some radio stations), Faith, Father Figure and Kissing a Fool. In 1988 Michael set out on a world tour, which was a major commercial success but left him feeling exhausted, isolated and dubious about the entire rigmarole of superstardom.
His follow-up disc, Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, did not appear until 1990, and signalled Michael’s preoccupation with becoming recognised as a serious adult artist. Though Praying for Time brought him a chart-topping single in the US and the album reached No 1 in the UK, the level of sales was substantially lower than for Faith. He hardly helped his case by refusing to appear in any of the videos for the album’s singles. For the video for Freedom ‘90, he recruited a batch of supermodels, including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, to lip sync the lyrics in his place.
In 1991 Michael and Elton John enjoyed a mutual triumph with their duet version of John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, a song they had performed together at the 1985 Live Aid concert and which they now recorded live at a Michael concert at Wembley Arena. It topped both the US and British charts. Michael was growing unhappy with his relationship with his record company, however, and in 1992 he began legal proceedings against Sony, claiming he was bound in artistic servitude to a company that “appears to see artists as little more than software” and claiming that Sony had failed to promote Listen Without Prejudice properly (it sold “only” 8 million copies).
Panayiotou and others v Sony Music Entertainment (UK) Ltd came to the high court in October 1993, and was seen as a test case that could have dramatic repercussions across the music industry should Michael win. Although the legal proceedings shed light on various restrictive practices in the business, he did not, since Justice Jonathan Parker found that Michael’s contract was “reasonable and fair”. One casualty of the lawsuit was Listen Without Prejudice Vol 2, which Michael scrapped, donating some of its songs to the Red Hot + Dance charity project to raise money for Aids awareness.
In 1993, the Five Live EP (released on Parlophone in the UK and Hollywood Records in the US) included tracks from the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium at which Michael sang with Queen, along with some live tracks from Michael’s 1991 Cover to Cover tour. Proceeds from the EP went to the Mercury Phoenix Trust to help combat Aids.
The following year, Michael premiered a new song, Jesus to a Child, at the inaugural MTV Europe Music Awards. The long, melancholy piece was written after the death of his lover, Anselmo Feleppa, from an Aids-related illness in 1993, and when it was released in January 1996 became his first solo single to enter the UK charts at No 1. Another single, Fastlove, emerged in April 1996, followed a month later by his third solo album, Older, which was dedicated to Feleppa. It was on Virgin in the UK and David Geffen’s DreamWorks label in the US, where it went platinum. The album set a record in the UK by becoming the first ever to produce six Top 3 singles. That year Michael was voted best British male artist at the Brit awards, and received his third Ivor Novello award as songwriter of the year.
Intervals between releases of new material were growing ever longer, though Michael retained a powerful popular appeal. In 1998 came Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael, a compilation containing his best-known songs as well as duets and tracks from compilations not previously featured on his own albums. The album would become one of his biggest, going on to sell 15m copies. Nor was it entirely retrospective. The first single from it, Outside, was a new song, about Michael’s arrest by an undercover policeman in a public lavatory in Beverly Hills a few months earlier. The policeman in question, Marcelo Rodriguez, tried unsuccessfully to sue Michael for emotional distress caused by the video for Outside, which depicted policemen kissing. Michael now let it be known that he had been in a relationship since 1996 with the businessman Kenny Goss; they remained together until 2009.
In 1999 came Songs from the Last Century, a collection of cover versions spanning such disparate pieces as Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?, My Baby Just Cares for Me and Wild is the Wind. It was his lowest-performing solo release, not even breaching the top 150 on the American Billboard chart, though it reached No 2 in Britain. He now embarked on a lengthy period of recording material for a planned album of new material, the first fruit of which was the 2002 single Freeek!. He followed this with Shoot the Dog, a political piece attacking Tony Blair and George W Bush for their warlike posturing in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Perhaps even more surprising was the news, in 2003, that Michael had re-signed with Sony. The studio released his fifth studio album, Patience (2004), and it jumped to the top of the UK chart, and, although it would not climb higher than 12 on the US charts, it was a hit throughout Europe. It also generated a batch of singles, including Amazing and Flawless (Go to the City). Although Michael announced that Patience would be his last disc to be given a physical release (as opposed to digital download), this apparently did not apply to compilations, since 2006 brought a chart-topping greatest hits album, 25, as well as the 25 Live tour, his first in 15 years.
After several arrests for drugs offences, in 2010 Michael was fined and given a five-year driving ban and a prison sentence after admitting driving under the influence of drugs, having crashed his Range Rover into a Snappy Snaps photo store in Hampstead. Nonetheless, he had evidently rediscovered his appetite for performing and recording. In 2011 he made a cover version of New Order’s hit True Faith for the Comic Relief charity, and recorded an MP3 version of Stevie Wonder’s You and I as a wedding gift for Prince William and Catherine Middleton. His Symphonica tour, which featured Michael singing to lavish orchestral accompaniments, began in Prague on 22 August 2011. He fell ill with severe pneumonia on November 21, the day he was scheduled to perform at Vienna’s Stadtalle, and was admitted to the AKH hospital in Vienna.
Michael released what was to be his final album, Symphonica, in March 2014. Consisting mainly of live recordings from the 2011-12 tour, it gave him his seventh No 1 UK solo album.