Three months after the singer’s death, Mike Atkinson takes a look back at the career of George Michael
Long before his 1998 arrest for “engaging in a lewd act”, which thrust his sexuality firmly into the public domain, George Michael had been dropping clues that had become increasingly hard for his gay audience to miss. And for some of us, the trail of evidence led all the way back to the earliest days of Wham!
Listening to the duo’s debut single (Wham! Rap) in the summer of 1982, my curiosity was piqued in the very first verse. “I may not have a job, but I have a good time, with the boys that I meet down on the line,” George declared, later suggesting that “maybe leather and studs is where you’re at”, and proclaiming, somewhat prophetically, that “I choose to cruise.”
On its follow-up, Young Guns (Go for It) – which became the band’s first hit, picking up radio support that even included a play on the John Peel show – we find George lamenting his best buddy’s drift into heterosexual monogamy.
But although you could argue a case for a queer subtext, George’s relationship with Andrew Ridgeley never coded as gay, but rather as a classic bromance, between two cheeky, playful partners in crime. Looking at them posing in matching leather jackets on the Bad Boys video, or frolicking bare-chested by the pool for Club Tropicana, you sensed that they were having fun playing around with archetypes, in that knowingly ironic way that was so prevalent in early 80s “New Pop”.
During the first flush of Wham!’s success, George was a regular visitor to a North London gay club called Bolts. The duo performed there a couple of times, their 1984 single Freedom received its first ever play there, and a photo even surfaced in the gay press showing George at Bolts, flanked by its resident DJ and the drag star Divine.
Later in 1984, in an interview with the NME, the openly gay band Bronski Beat even attempted to “out” George – but for the vast majority of female Wham! fans, the singer continued to be viewed as a heterosexual heartthrob.
And yet, tucked away on Fantastic, the band’s chart-topping first album, the ballad Nothing Looks the Same in the Light detailed, with aching poignancy, the immediate emotional aftermath of a one-night stand that could only have been written from a gay perspective.
As Wake Me up before you Go-Go catapulted Wham! Into the ranks of international stardom, the hints became fainter, the image more neutered… and the visits to Bolts stopped altogether.
In the video for Last Christmas, George has a female love interest, and its flip-side, Everything She Wants, is unequivocally sung to a girlfriend. Wham! Were now in the big league, but while sales continued to soar, their music started to become rather less interesting.
By the summer of 1986, it was all over for the band. As Andrew escaped to early retirement and a happy life out of the public gaze, George begun to prepare the ground for what was to be the biggest commercial success of his career.
Shifting nearly 25 million copies worldwide, the Faith album established the template for every pop star looking to swap teen-scream appeal for artistic credibility. The album was not only self-written, but also self-arranged and self-produced, with an exacting attention to detail that rivalled fellow 80s megastar Prince. A session musician friend, who played on one of its tracks, told me that George directed every last detail of his performance, with a level of control that my friend had never experienced in any other studio.
But for all the acclaim which Faith brought him, something still rankled with George. Backing away from the spotlight’s glare, he declined to do any promotion for its follow-up, the grandly titled Listen without Prejudice Vol. 1, or indeed to appear in any of its videos.
When the album – a more sombre and downbeat affair, which made rather too much of its desire to be taken still more seriously – duly sold less well than Faith, he pinned the blame on his record company, for failing to give it the support which he felt it deserved. There was, needless to say, no Vol. 2.
By the early 90s, having finally resolved all earlier personal confusion regarding his sexuality, George was in a settled relationship with a Brazilian man, Anselmo Feleppa. Following the loss of his partner in 1993, he released Older, arguably the finest album of his career, in 1996. It opens with Jesus to a Child, a directly worded lament to Anselmo’s passing that leaves the listener in no doubt as to its meaning. The records then instantly shifts gears with Fastlove, a song which seems to celebrate the delights of no-strings sex, before twisting the knife in the final verse: “In the absence of security, I made my way into the night. Stupid Cupid keeps on calling me, but I see nothing in his eyes. I miss my baby.”
Elsewhere, on spinning the Wheel, George plays the part of the lover left at home, while his other cruises till dawn. The subtexts were back, and less covert than ever. Indeed, you could almost say that George was hiding in plain view.
When in 1998 news of his arrest in a Beverly Hills public toilet broke globally – “Zip Me up before You Go Go,” scoffed the Sun – George’s refusal to be humiliated was magnificent. Instead, he crafted Outside, the ultimate in screw-yous, whose video turned a cottage into a discotheque, complete with gyrating, snogging cops.
As further busts followed – including a tabloid sting on Hampstead Heath, and numerous arrests for drug-driving that eventually saw him spend four weeks in prison – he remained defiant and unbowed, although one had to wonder whether his lifestyle excesses had contributed to the decline in his recorded output.
After Older, only one more album of original material followed – Patience, in 2004 – and George’s profile was maintained by one-off singles, cover versions, celebrity duets, the occasional bonus track on a greatest hits set, and live shows – the latter still hugely successful, and showing no dimming of the singer’s star power and interpretive range.
Perhaps, having once striven so hard for stardom and artistic recognition, he felt no need to keep meeting those same needs, once they had been attained.
But if his later efforts never again reached the heights of his 80s and 90s successes, George Michael still leaves behind a remarkable body of work, the best of which has a timeless ability to stir our hearts and soothe our souls.