We were all "Young Guns" then: George Michael and the early days of Wham!, the coolest band in London

I interviewed George Michael in 1983, soon after he became a teen idol. But before that, he was our new music hero

Published January 2, 2017 12:30AM (EST)

Cover detail of Wham! "Fantastic"
Cover detail of Wham! "Fantastic"

On December 19, I was in a record store in Bexhill on England's south coast, where the radio was blasting "Last Christmas" by Wham!, a song that is far more ubiquitous on British high streets during the season of supposed good will than on the main streets of my adoptive American home. Hearing it for the umpteenth time since coming back to the UK for the holidays, I couldn't help but offer my opinion.

"This song is utterly awful," I said out loud, or something to that effect. (I suspect I used the s-word.) My snap judgment had the desired effect of convincing the record shop owner to turn off the radio and play some in-store music instead; we quickly settled on the new Primal Scream CD after discovering we had each seen them play (in different cities) the previous week and been blown away by the Scream's unbridled energy and enthusiasm, made all the more impressive for the fact that, new female bass player aside, they are thoroughly entrenched in middle age.

The subsequent death of George Michael six days later, on Christmas Day itself, in what should also have been merely his middle age too, does not change my opinion of "Last Christmas." The song is still swill (which is still not the "s" word I would use in social company). It's an offensively annoying mix of saccharine, schmaltz and soap. Its structure is so obvious that it could have been written by a computer. The same is largely true of "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "I'm Your Man" and a large number of other Michael-composed confirmed best-sellers. I try not to use the word "hate" lightly in my life, but it would be fair to say I hate them all.

And that, in many ways, was George Michael's true genius. He understood the algorithms of pop composition better than almost anybody on the planet, at least during the 1980s when, first with Wham! and then as the inevitable solo artist, he dominated worldwide sales and radio charts and was equally omnipresent across MTV. I do genuinely despise "Last Christmas," but it's a mark of the man's canny understanding of the genre that I have been unable to get it out of my head this holiday season. Like a reluctant addict, about which George Michael may have known more than me, I find myself relentlessly drawn to it despite all my best intentions.

The truth is that for me and many of our generation (I'm but a year younger than George Michael), a now near-visceral aversion to Michael's biggest hits was not in the original game plan. When Wham! first came on the scene with "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)" and "Young Guns (Go For It!)," it felt like Michael and his musical partner and best mate Andrew Ridgeley had figured out the future. The Jam were in the process of breaking up as Britain's biggest act when those singles arrived on the scene, at the end of 1982 and into 1983, and it seemed to me that there was no need for the Jam's heirs to be all Rickenbacker guitars and anti-Conservative screeds (little realizing at that moment that The Smiths would prove me wrong, and that I would love them for doing so). No, at the point that my peer group of late teenagers found itself forced to choose new musical heroes, the notion of a pair of young suburban Londoners adopting the clothing and wordplay of the American hip-hop scene, ditching guitars and drums for a somewhat synthetic but thoroughly modern electro-funk, spoke far more to where popular music was heading than would another bunch of '60s revivalists. After all, had not Paul Weller split up The Jam for much the same reason — so he could embrace the 1980s afresh?

At the time, I was hanging with a crowd from West Wickham, a South London equivalent perhaps of Wham!'s North London hinterlands, and in the pubs down there, it seemed that many of us had reached the same conclusion. Wham! were cool. They were unquestionably good-looking — and we didn't just mean the backing singers, Dee C. Lee and Shirlie Holliman, but the boys themselves. Their music was modern, it was optimistic, and in its stated desire for the pair to avoid steady jobs but still make a success of it, spoke to our own lives and ambitions. In other words, unlike say, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who we loved but who were utterly alien to us, it was British.

Our excitement for Wham! lasted but a year at best. By the time the duo finally figured out a live show, they'd signed to the powerful management team of Simon Napier-Bell and Jazz Summers, ditched the Inner Vision record label that had initially mentored them for a more lucrative and prioritized deal with parent company CBS (now Sony), recorded and released the shark-jumping if supposedly sarcastic "Club Tropicana," and largely switched out the Bronx-influenced track suits for tight tennis shorts. Along the way, and hardly surprisingly, the audience switched with them, from male teens aspiring toward musical and political multiculturalism, toward one almost exclusively comprised of female teenyboppers.

If that much wasn't evident from the charts, it was there, quite literally in my face, when I interviewed Wham! on Channel 4's  live television show "The Tube," in October 1983. I was only 19 and had barely started on the show, where I was meant to be (and would soon return to being) an occasional presence, but the new co-host, actress Leslie Ash, had proven an instant disaster when forced to deliver her lines without a second take, and I was called upon to perform extra duties.

"The Tube" had the television exclusive for Wham!'s live show, but concert dates, and said exclusive, were postponed as George Michael developed a vocal problem. When the TV producers heard that Michael was nonetheless well enough to retake the stage 48 hours after Wham!'s intended "Tube" appearance, for five celebratory nights at the London Lyceum, they insisted that if the duo wanted to reschedule their "Tube" appearance for the following week (and they did), that they fly north that Friday to be interviewed on the originally intended performance date. We know there was a run on studio tickets from Wham! fans, they said, and they'll be crushed if you're not there. Answering a few questions will keep everyone satisfied — and duly enticed for the following week's "live" performance.

What transpired that Friday afternoon in Newcastle in front of the cameras was not quite like the Rolling Stones on "Ready Steady Go!," but it felt a little scary all the same. Determined to extract from Wham! at least a pound or more of idolatry flesh, "The Tube" decided to have them sitting on the edge of the stage on which they were due to perform, with myself on the studio floor in front of them. There was only one security man, a uniformed jobsworth nearing retirement. It fell to various members of "The Tube's" editorial team to step in and keep the girls back to something like holding distance. I conducted the interview as best I could, trying to throw in a couple of hardball questions, which George Michael batted away with the ease of a seasoned professional. Looking back on it through the wonders of YouTube, the girls surrounding them appear remarkably well-behaved, but at the time, George Michael admitted, "We don't feel terribly safe here."

Chances are he might have longed for such relatively modest hysteria over the years to come. Wham! went for it, got it, were briefly the most successful pop duo on the planet and then, as it became transparently obvious that Andrew Ridgeley's musical role was all but nonexistent, George Michael went solo and conquered the AOR and MOR audiences first with the single "Careless Whisper," initially credited to Wham! in the UK, then with the album "Faith" and its four consecutive American number ones. Faith sold over 25 million copies worldwide, almost half of them in the States. All told, he sold almost 100 million albums in his lifetime.

As if he knew which way he was pointed, George Michael was relatively aloof at "The Tube." Andrew Ridgeley was anything but. He chummed it up with me in the most genuine of fashions, and why not? We were 19 and 20 respectively, and thrust into a limelight we'd each always desired (though which only one of us would maintain). Prior to the interview, he invited me to the Lyceum shows, said he'd put me on his guest list. I told him I'd come along on Sunday night. When the evening rolled around, I stayed home in South London. Partly, it was because I knew I would hate the show, that Wham! had already broken their artistic promise, become so much of what I disliked in pop music. I couldn't stand the thought of seeing the Young Guns I had once admired resorting to pulling shuttlecocks out of their shorts and volleying them into an audience of screaming girls who might well have run a mile had they known that Michael was, in fact, gay. (For such were the instilled homophobic values of the era.) But my absence was also because, given his sudden superstar status, I didn't expect Ridgeley to remember his offer; I can tell you from experience that there is nothing more embarrassing than showing up to a major concert with claims to be on a band's personal guest list only to find you are nothing of the sort.

The next week on "The Tube," when Wham! honored their commitment to a vaguely live performance, Andrew sought me out. "What did you think?" he asked, ever hopeful of critical approval at the very moment it was vaporizing. I made on-the-spot excuses about my absence. He was disappointed. He had put me on the list as promised, expected me to pop my head in. I got the sense that Ridgeley was clinging to the last elements of blokey pub-style companionship he could find before the rocket he was riding carried him into a stratosphere where lasting friendships, let alone casual acquaintances, were conducted through management and bodyguards and the idea of a drink down at the local pub would be a sad memory.

By one of those coincidences you couldn't script, Andrew Ridgeley was in the boardroom when I attended the Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea Premier League football match on Dec. 17, just two days before I slagged off "Last Christmas" at the Bexhill record store and barely a week before George Michael's death. Someone pointed him out to me across the room at halftime, and only when I walked over to the bar to get a better look could I make out the resemblance. It wasn't that he'd put on weight; if anything, he looked fighting fit, but the advancement of age does something to all of us. Gone was that beautiful fresh face of his youth, replaced by the inevitable lines of a life well into its second half. Gone too, was that fine head of hair; like yours truly, Ridgeley had made the most of a receding hair line by opting for the bald look. However, the truly impressive, near-glittering three-piece suit, surely tailored to his specification, confirmed that he had not blown his wad of Wham! cash. I thought about saying hello and casting his mind back to "The Tube," to that moment on the cusp, but then figured it to be the last thing he needed or wanted. And besides, he was busy texting. Nobody seemed entirely sure what Ridgeley was doing at the Palace, but we were all mildly impressed. It hadn't gotten much bigger than Wham! for a while back there in South London in the 1980s, even if they were North London boys.

I saw Andrew Ridgeley's tweet about George Michael's death on Britain's Sky News on Boxing Day morning, where the pop idol's death was endlessly reviewed and his life eulogized in all its made-for-tabloids rise, fall and subsequent false restarts and busts. He was described as a "prolific talent" — Michael, that is, not Ridgeley — and though I would, again only begrudgingly, agree with the noun, I could hardly support the adjective. The frustration with George Michael's career was his failure to fully realize his talent; the success of "Faith" clearly brought Michael more money than any human ever needs (a point to which I recall him admitting), but neither the happiness nor the artistic ambition by which he could succeed it.

George Michael ultimately fell into the same camp as Oasis after him and Moby after them, albeit on an even larger scale: When you decide to milk your world-beating album for all its worth, there's almost nowhere to go but down — certainly commercially, and most likely artistically as well. That was not a mistake that the 1980s' other pop superstardom casualties of 2016 — by which I refer specifically to David Bowie and Prince — ever allowed themselves to make. Fame and fortune and the artistic validation that comes with commercial success were one thing for them (and others truly due the accolade of "prolific talent"), but it never superseded their desire to make the next thing, and to make it better, if not bigger.

So George Michael is gone, his heart having given up on him this Christmas, and for the rest of my stay in the UK, and I suspect on many '80s radio and TV channels in the States and elsewhere as well, I'll no doubt be relentlessly and helplessly exposed  to some of the most annoyingly addictive pop music ever to emerge from the British Isles. Chances are that "Young Guns" and "Wham Rap!" will barely get a look in, and that that brief period when me and my friends' — if you'll excuse the obvious pun — faith in George Michael's ambitions will remain but a footnote.

Thinking of Andrew Ridgeley at the Palace match, and George Michael's battles with all the demons that attach themselves to global superstardom, I know which one I'd sooner have been. Ridgeley probably does too, which is why his tweet, calling Michael his "beloved friend... 4ever loved," so many years after being ditched from his partner's career rocket for what was publicly perceived as disposable excess weight, felt so touching. It's heartless of me to say that I won't be missing George Michael's now-permanently postponed comeback, but nor will I be able to miss his music over coming days and weeks. And in the spirit of the season, I confess now, however much I may insist I don't like his hits, that there were few others who knew how to compose an utterly unforgettable pop song, or ten.

By Tony Fletcher

Tony Fletcher is the author of several books about music, including "A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths" (Three Rivers Press). His music recent biography is "In The Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett" (Oxford University Press). He can be found at ijamming.net and twitter.com/tonyfletcher. He can be found at ijamming.net or on Twitter at @tonyfletcher.

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