A settlement was finally reached, allowing Wham! to join Epic and ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’, based on a note left by Andrew for his parents on the kitchen table one morning, catapulted Wham! to pop’s premier league when it hit the UK No.1 spot the week ending 2 June 1984. It was replaced at the top of the British charts by the year’s other pop sensation, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and ‘Two Tribes’. But, in what would prove to be a George triple-decker, he would go on to replace that song with his own solo debut, ‘Careless Whisper’, which topped the UK charts for three weeks. The soulful pop ballad was supported by a glossy video that cast George as a straight, regretful Romeo, but he would later admit that it was more than just a video performance. George was struggling with his sexuality and had already admitted to his bandmates that he was bisexual. In time, he would come to realise he was gay, but a public revelation was still more than a decade away.
Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ then replaced ‘Careless Whisper’ before Wham!’s ‘Freedom’ finally saw George back on top for another three weeks. The song’s hit run coincided with two other big milestones – the release of the Make It Big album and the group’s US breakthrough, which saw ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ top the Billboard Hot 100 in November. Wham!’s next single – a festive bonus for fans – looked certain to top the charts again, until George’s own participation in that year’s Band Aid single helped stall it at No.2. No matter. ‘Last Christmas’ would go on to be the biggest-selling single ever to miss No.1 in Britain and would remain in heavy rotation on December playlists ever after.
A world tour, supported by the song ‘Everything She Wants’, which made No.1 in the US in its own right (having been relegated in the UK to a supporting position to ‘Last Christmas’), led to the band being invited to be the first Western pop group to play in Communist China. The trip, in the April of 1985, marked the pinnacle of the pair’s international fame and was a PR triumph. While a new song, ‘I’m Your Man’, made No.1 in the UK and No.3 in the US that autumn, it was now clear that George was getting restless. His second solo single, ‘A Different Corner’, was released in 1986, showcased another dramatic shift forward in his songwriting and once again topped the UK charts.
The news the fans were dreading finally came when it was announced that Wham! would split that summer after a single concert at Wembley Stadium and a farewell release. ‘The Edge Of Heaven’, lifted from a final four-track EP, predictably topped the UK charts in time for the June live show.
George’s next move was a canny one. Pairing himself with the Queen Of Soul on the pop duet ‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’ rewarded him and Aretha Franklin with a transatlantic chart-topper and, crucially, helped lay the groundwork for his staggering domination of the US in the 18 months ahead. That campaign kicked off in the summer of 1987 with the release of ‘I Want Your Sex’, a Prince-inspired slice of pop-funk that got George banned from BBC Radio One’s daytime playlists.
In autumn, George’s solo album Faith hit the shops and, buoyed by the title track making No.1 in America and No.2 in the UK, would go on to sell 25 million copies worldwide and make him the most successful star of the year stateside. ‘Father Figure’, ‘One More Try’ and ‘Monkey’ would all top the Billboard Hot 100, with some even reaching the R&B listings where white artists rarely made an impact. When Faith won Album Of The Year at the Grammys, George looked unstoppable. But in fact an exhausting world tour to promote the record, and a growing sense of crisis around his private life, led him to reposition his career.
A two-year hiatus offered him pause for breath. The more sober Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 was subsequently launched with the brooding ballad ‘Praying For Time’ and – controversially – no video. George felt overexposed and needed to pull back from the promotional blitzkrieg that had characterised Faith. While Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 would sell respectably worldwide, its US performance in particular was muted, despite the inclusion of classic songs such as ‘Freedom 90’ and ‘Heal The Pain’.
The set’s more moderate sales helped exacerbate another row with his label, and a fresh legal battle and corresponding recording hiatus appeared to be looming. Still, George’s live schedule maintained a profile of sorts. Two memorable shows rewarded him with further UK No.1 singles – a duet with Elton John on ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down With Me’, which raised money for AIDS research, and another charity project that featured a set of covers largely drawn from his appearance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992. The same year, a new composition, ‘Too Funky’ – again raising money for AIDS research – had become a substantial radio and sales smash.
In 1994, judges ultimately ruled in favour of George’s record company and, in time, an out-of-court settlement led him to join Virgin, where he finally released Older in 1996. In Europe, the record did well and included two British chart-toppers in ‘Jesus To A Child’ and ‘Fastlove’. The former was a tender tribute to the second man who changed George’s life. Anselmo Feleppa was George’s first true love, but had died just a couple of years after meeting the star in 1991. This tragedy was compounded by the death of George’s mother, and the trauma appeared to tighten the artist’s reliance on drugs. With the US largely disinterested in his new material, the gaps between recordings grew longer while a scandal was about to blow the singer’s life apart.
George was arrested in a LA park after an April 1998 encounter with an undercover cop in a men’s toilet. The singer responded with typical grace and good humour, using the platform to confirm the rumours that he was gay, while an upcoming song from his hits collection later mocked the arrest in a memorable video for ‘Outside’. Calmer waters then appeared to characterise George’s life; there was the a deepening relationship with a new partner, Texan Kenny Goss, and a 1999 compilation of covers, Songs From The Last Century, which showcased George’s amazing voice – if not, on this occasion, his own ability to craft a great song.
Duets with Whitney Houston and Mary J Blige gave George sporadic appearances on the singles charts while he appeared to be taking a more provocative turn with his solo work, most notably in the President Bush and Prime Minister Blair-baiting video for ‘Shoot The Dog’. But it would take until 2004 for another LP to appear. Patience featured another UK Top 5 success with ‘Amazing’, but sales were lower than George had likely hoped.
Like many before him, George took to the stage to reinvigorate his career and the 106-date 25 Live tour was a huge critical and commercial success worldwide. In 2009, he finally released another festive follow-up to ‘Last Christmas’, but the well-received new track, ‘December Song (I Dreamed Of Christmas)’, failed to create the same cultural impact as its predecessor. More dates followed in 2011 with the Symphonica tour, which saw George reinterpret his classics and revisit some covers, but he fell seriously ill in Austria and was lucky to survive a brush with pneumonia. A live album from the tour became the last LP released by George in his lifetime.
By now split from Kenny, George was now regularly making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Two further singles – a charity-supporting cover of New Order’s ‘True Faith’ and new song ‘White Light’ – only partly repaired the damage. The latter was part of a brief set performed at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games, which became his final live appearance.
George spent his final years working on new material, but the chaos of his personal life was catching up with him and included a spell incarcerated for a drugs offence. However, the affection he was shown by the public remained undimmed and cameos in TV projects such as Extras played up to his colourful private life. George never took himself too seriously and, though deeply troubled by his huge fame, he used the immense wealth it generated to help many charitable causes. That much of this extraordinary generosity only came to light after his death speaks volumes about a man who lived in the glare of the world’s spotlight but, over time, appeared happier in its shadows.
A superbly crafted mainstream pop/rock masterpiece, Faith made George Michael an international solo star, selling over ten million copies in the U.S. alone as of 2000. Perhaps even more impressively, it also made him the first white solo artist to hit number one on the R&B album charts. Michael had already proven the soulful power of his pipes by singing a duet with Aretha Franklin on the 1987 smash "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," but he went even farther when it came to crafting his own material, using sophisticated '70s soul as an indispensable part of his foundation. Of course, it's only a part. Faith's ingenuity lies in the way it straddles pop, adult contemporary, R&B, and dance music as though there were no distinctions between them. In addition to his basic repertoire of funky dance-pop and airy, shimmering ballads, Michael appropriates the Bo Diddley beat for the rockabilly-tinged title track, and proves himself a better-than-decent torch singer on the cocktail jazz of "Kissing a Fool." Michael arranged and produced the album himself, and the familiarity of many of these songs can obscure his skills in those departments -- close listening reveals his knack for shifting elements in and out of the mix and adding subtle embellishments when a little emphasis or variety is needed. Though Faith couldn't completely shake Michael's bubblegum image in some quarters, the album's themes were decidedly adult. "I Want Your Sex" was the most notorious example, of course, but even the love songs were strikingly personal and mature, grappling with complex adult desires and scarred by past heartbreak. All of it adds up to one of the finest pop albums of the '80s, setting a high-water mark that Michael was only able to reach in isolated moments afterward. Words: Steve Huey
George Michael's follow-up to the massive success of Faith found him turning inward, trying to gain critical acclaim as well as sales. Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 is not an entirely successful effort; Michael has cut back on the effortless hooks and melodies that crammed not only Faith but also his singles with Wham!, and his socially conscious lyrics tend to be heavy-handed. But the highlights -- the light, Beatlesesque harmonies of "Heal the Pain," the plodding number one "Praying for Time," and also "Waiting for That Day" as well as the Top Ten "Freedom" -- make a case for his talents as a pop craftsman. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Older is the album that many observers initially believed Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 to be -- a relentlessly serious affair, George Michael's bid for artistic credibility. It's an album that makes Listen Without Prejudice sound like Faith. Michael has dispensed with the catchy, frothy dance-pop numbers that brought him fame, concentrating on stately, pretentious ballads -- even "Fastlove," the album's one dance track, lacks the carefree spark of his earlier work. Although Michael's skills as a pop craftsman still shine through -- several songs are well-constructed ballads that rank with his best material -- his earnestness sinks the album. It is one thing to be mature and another to be boring. Too often, Michael mistakes slight melodies for mature craftsmanship and Older never quite recovers. When melodies do pop up, he doesn't deliver them with enough force to make an impact, and the album slowly disappears as a result. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Unlike many covers albums, Songs from the Last Century is a cohesive, enjoyable diversion. With the help of co-producer Phil Ramone, George Michael has crafted a warm, intimate album built around a small combo of piano, guitar, bass, and drums. Orchestras, big bands, harps, and on one occasion, a rock band augment the basic combo, yet the flourishes never change the essential, close-knit nature of the group. For the first time ever, Michael sounds relaxed. He's lying back, singing songs he loves, not worrying about chart success, and the end result is quite fetching, even if it isn't perfect. The main flaw with Songs from the Last Century is that it's so smooth, it's occasionally a little sleepy, a trait that's emphasized by Michael's fairly predictable taste in covers -- "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," "My Baby Just Cares for Me," and "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," among others. Nevertheless, he does bring style and sophistication to these standards, even such often-covered yet still difficult tunes as "Wild as the Wind." When his selections are idiosyncratic -- whether it's a jazzy reading of "Roxanne," the brassy "Secret Love," the little-remembered "I Remember You," or a revelatory reading of "Miss Sarajevo," a song commonly dismissed as a U2 side project -- the album is delightful. Certainly, Songs from the Last Century isn't a major work; it's a way for Michael to decompress and have some fun, and the diehards who stuck with him through the turbulent '90s are likely to be charmed. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Almost immediately after he became an international superstar with 1987's Faith, George Michael developed a complex that he was not taken seriously as an artist. He was right -- he wasn't being taken seriously, but at the height of their success, mainstream pop stars rarely are; it's only after they've been around for a while that critics and audiences alike appreciate the craft behind their best work. Elton John and Madonna both are pop icons who earned good reviews after they proved their lasting power, but Michael, for want of a better phrase, didn't have enough patience to wait to be regarded as an artist, not just a pop star. So, he followed Faith with 1990's Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, whose very title was a plea to skeptics to shed their preconceived notions of him and hear the music anew. At the time, it seemed like this was temporary hiccup, a somber exorcism Michael needed to work through as an artist, but over the years, it's clear that this was the blueprint for his solo career. Not that there have been that many albums since then, of course. Michael took six years to deliver Older, a delay that was initially blamed on a vicious battle with his record company, Sony, but its own successor, Patience, didn't appear for another eight years, a time which not only had no spats with the label but also saw him re-signing to Sony. Those long, long separations between albums suggest that Michael is a painstaking perfectionist in the studio, and Patience sure sounds like the work of a musician who spent every day of those eight years working on these 14 tracks (12 on the U.S. version; the anti-Bush and -Blair "Shoot the Dog" was excised for the American CD, presumably because it would be too controversial, but who knows why the reprise of "Patience" was cut). While there are unifying lyrical and musical themes throughout the album, each track is its own entity, scrubbed, polished, and manicured without regard to how it fits alongside the next. There's an excessive attention to detail to each song, and that tunnel vision means each song runs about a minute or two longer than it should, which ultimately makes Patience seems twice as long as its actual running time. That's unfortunate because the core of the album is quite good: it's hard not to admire his studiocraft, there's a starkly confessional streak in his writing that's disarmingly direct, and, as an album, it balances the moody ballads and sleek neo-disco better than Older, feeling much brighter than that claustrophobic affair. If there's a lack of incessantly catchy hooks or undeniable rhythms -- in other words, singles as indelible as those on Faith, or even Listen Without Prejudice -- that feels like a conscious decision by Michael, as if any concession to chart-bound pop would cheapen his music and diminish his chances of being taken seriously. They would have lightened the mood of the decidedly somber and portentous Patience, which is clearly not what Michael wants, since by stretching out each song and burying his hooks beneath the album's shiny surfaces and preponderance of mid-tempos, he's forcing listeners to work to understand his intentions. For some fans, it's worth the effort, particularly since it's his best album since Listen Without Prejudice (not saying much since it's only his second album of original material since then), but it's hard not to hear it and think that Michael's ultimate ambitions would be better served if he tightened up and lightened up just a little bit. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine