Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou seemed an unlikely choice to become a pop music superstar. However, after meeting schoolmate Andrew Ridgeley and forming a group called Wham!, a pop star is exactly what the rechristened George Michael became. They were young guns and they were going for it. Beginning in 1982, Wham! spun off massive hits in a variety of genres, including shimmering pop, uptempo dance, slow, sensual ballads, and even rap. Serving as charismatic lead singer and cunning songwriter, George quickly eclipsed the group itself. After achieving massive success around the world, Wham! went Bam! and chose to disband so that George could be free of what he felt were the group’s musical limitations.
YA GOTTA HAVE . . .
Expectations were running high for George’s inevitable solo career. However, nobody could have predicted just how supersonic his career was about to become. As a precursor to his debut album, the controversial single “I Want Your Sex” was released in 1987 and immediately garnered huge acclaim, as well as widespread criticism for its overt themes. With one song, it became clear that this was the new George Michael. No more feathered hair or day-glo casual wear, kids.
The album Faith followed and quickly took George’s career into the stratosphere. A seemingly endless series of hit singles and smoke-filled videos followed while the album bulldozed its way to mega-platinum status. George Michael was now officially a pop music God. Arguably, his only real rivals in that arena were the guy with the one glove and that girl who rolled around on the floor in a wedding dress. Esteemed company, indeed.
MONKEY ON HIS BACK
Phenomenal success often comes at a price, though. George found that he was again trapped by a self-inflicted image. To his credit, he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist and not labeled and disregarded as an ass-shaking, leather jacket-clad male pop tart. Images, however, are hard to shake, especially when you’re the one who created the image and sold it to a worldwide audience. Getting out of that can be tricky, if not nearly fatal, to the momentum of a career that’s traveling at light speed.
In 1990, the much-anticipated follow-up Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 appeared, and it quickly became apparent that something was very different. One of the most high-profile artists in the music business did not even appear on the cover of his own album, nor did he seem interested in being in his own videos. The songs had become darker and less blatantly pop-oriented, although ultimately more meaningful. Despite critical acclaim, platinum status and two hit singles, the album was considered a huge disappointment and was even dismissed as a flop. George had indeed begun changing his image but it was a move that casual fans would never fully understand or forgive. However, the most devoted of fans knew exactly what he was trying to accomplish and were willing to go along for the ride … no matter how long it took.
A nasty and protracted legal battle had begun after the release of Listen Without Prejudice. Among George’s accusations were that his record company was no longer properly promoting his music, thus leading to lower sales and a lower profile for his career. Their counter-argument was that he had done himself in by changing the image that fans had seen strutting across their television screens. George demanded to be released from his contract and made it clear that he would not record anything further for Columbia Records. He lost the lawsuit, but after buying his way out of his contract he was again a free agent.
George regrouped in 1996, signed with DreamWorks Records and finally released Older. It had been six long years of difficult waiting for fans. The album was quickly met with mixed reviews, though: Many fans were thrilled that George was continuing in the direction of sophisticated, adult pop, but others decided that the material had simply not been worth the wait.
By the time of this album’s release, George was no longer seeking fame or hits. He was doing exactly the kind of music that he wanted to do, regardless of what it cost him in popularity or chart status. Sales of this album were underwhelming in the United States, where his extended sabbatical from recording and performing had taken its toll on his previously high profile. In other areas of the world, however, music fans do not possess the same disloyalty and fickle taste that is so prevalent in the U.S. In many other countries, George was welcomed back with open arms, and the album and its subsequent singles did very well.
In keeping with the tone of his most recent work, Older is a sometimes somber, decidedly adult endeavor. George is clearly taking himself seriously as an artist and to a large extent has done away with the lighthearted, fizzy pop of the past. The downside is that the songs don’t quite jump out at you like they should; they take time to linger and grab hold. George manages to combine his usual style of soul and pop with latin jazz and even shades of Mediterranean influences. George’s undeniable talent as a singer and songwriter is as strong as it has always been. With every spin of Older you’ll discover just how layered and ornate the music is. George’s evolution as a craftsman is evident throughout. Numerous tracks on Older can be considered among the best he’s ever done. Welcome back (again), George.
“Jesus to a Child” (download)
The bold choice for the album’s first single, this song is a brittle, aching ballad that mourns the loss of a lover taken too soon. George’s smooth, haunting vocals create a moody atmosphere that defines the song that envelopes the listener and refuses to let go. The song sailed into the top 10 and stands as one of George’s finest achievements, both as a soulful vocalist and as a songwriter with few peers.
The expressive lyrics are the kind that only George Michael could write:
When you’ve been loved
When you know it holds such bliss
Then the lover that you kissed
Will comfort you
When there’s no hope in sight
The second single from the album, this bouncy, funkified treat stands out as one of the few upbeat numbers. It’s pure infectious pop and proves that George can still deliver on the dance floor when he chooses to. Those funky, fresh (and uncredited) samples are from Patrice Rushen’s classic “Forget Me Nots.” All of this makes for a breezy, intoxicating combination.
“You Have Been Loved”
The album’s closer illustrates just how short life can be. A mother’s son is dying of AIDS as she contemplates life without him. The song is so personal it becomes almost painful to listen to. However, it still manages to resonate with a hope for the future and a longing to rewrite the past.
SONGS FROM THE LAST CENTURY
Released in 1999 on Virgin Records, Songs From The Last Century is a welcome, if not surprising, addition to the George Michael discography. George and producer Phil Ramone have set out to create their own vintage songbook using a varied, far-reaching lineup of songs. While many fans would have hoped for another album of new material, by this time George had long since established that he was going to do exactly what he wanted as an artist, regardless of whether it was accepted by the mainstream public or by critics.
Surrounded by an intimate combo of piano, guitar, bass and horns, Songs From The Last Century is both personal and inviting. The selections are relaxed and upbeat while also being eclectic and even unexpected. George has never sounded better as he relaxes and interprets the songs that he enjoys in his own individual style. Even though his popularity in the U.S. had dropped dramatically over the years, the album managed to go to #2 in England.
“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (download)
Written in 1931 by E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney, this depression-era classic has been covered by artists as varied as Barbra Streisand, Peter, Paul & Mary and Al Jolson. George brings his own emotion and power to the song to make it his own and introduce it to a new generation who might be unaware of its previous incarnations. George’s version is captivating with just the right touch of melodrama.
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”
This folk song from 1957 was written by Ewan MacColl for his wife singer Peggy Seeger. It was made most famous by Roberta Flack in 1972 when it won a Grammy for Song of the Year. George’s voice brings the song shimmering back to life with a quiet tenderness and depth of emotion. George’s sincere delivery reminds older fans of just what an elegant song it has always been and also presents it to younger fans who may have never heard it before.
After five years without a proper album and eight long years without an album of original material, the appropriately-titled Patience finally arrived in 2004 on Sony International. It’s still not quite clear why George’s albums seem to take so long to appear. Perhaps George is an obsessive perfectionist who cannot bring himself to release an album until it is exactly what he has envisioned. If this is true, he is to be applauded for actually caring about his art and not simply producing mass-marketed product for the sake of an insatiable music industry. Perhaps George is also wary of returning to the glare of a spotlight that once shined so brightly on him. Regardless, George’s albums are always worth waiting for, even if they are not quite what they could be considering the long stretches of time in between each release.
Still furthering his goal of being a legitimate career artist and not just a pop culture icon, George balances the tone of Patience somewhere between Listen Without Prejudice and Older. The somber, adult themes still encompass many of the tracks. However, there are also bright spots of upbeat, driving dance and glossy, bouncy pop. The George Michael of 1986 is still in there somewhere, even if it gets harder to hear him as decades and musical styles swirl past.
The standout track from Patience was also the album’s main single. This light, catchy pop/dance confection returns George and his fans to the clubs. A large part of George’s massive popularity in the ’80s came from his ability to write, produce and perform some of the decade’s most memorable, hook-heavy tracks.
“Amazing” grooves along on a airy, uptempo beat with George delivering one of his trademark effortless vocals. Dedicated to his long-time life partner, Mr. Michael proves he can still deliver the main thing that fans want from him – a call to the dance floor.
SPINNING THE WHEEL
It seems as though we’re often saying “hello again” to George Michael. Unlike most contemporary artists, George seems to purposely avoid doing what’s expected of him. He takes eternities between album releases and is heard from very little in between them. He often limits his promotional activities, goes years without touring and at some point became as well known for his personal problems as he is for his music.
Over the last few years he has said that he will offer his future music for free on the internet, discontinue doing large tours or leave pop music altogether. Does this mean we’ve seen the last of George Michael ? Other artists such as Sinead O’Connor, Elton John, Billy Joel and Tina Turner have made similar claims about retiring or simply limiting their recording careers or touring schedules. Thankfully, all of them are still around and we can only hope that George will also continue to be with us in some form or another.
When he does emerge from the shadows he brings with him music that is evolved, adult and thought-provoking. George Michael, you have been loved.
Older can be purchased at Amazon.
Songs From The Last Century can be purchased at Amazon.
Patience can be purchased at Amazon.