George Michael - The History
Everybody knows George Michael. Or at least they think they do. He's a global icon, an international artist of the highest order who has sold over 100 million albums in a world where Germany's population is 82 million; the United Kingdom's is 62 million and Australia's is 23 million. He's topped charts from Austria to Australia. He's sold-out stadiums from Tokyo to Tampa. He re-defined popular music with his debut solo album, 1987's Faith and went on to build a groundbreaking, substantial and enormously popular body of work.
The iconic Faith will be reissued on January 31, 2011, in multiple formats. It sold over 10 million copies in the US alone and found its way into almost 25 million homes worldwide. Recently and rightly acclaimed as Britain's answer to Michael Jackson's Thriller, Faith made the Michael mantelpiece sag with awards: a Grammy for Album of the Year; three American Music Awards - Favourite Album (Soul/R&B), Favourite Male Vocalist (Soul/R&B) and Favourite Male Vocalist (Pop/Rock) - plus an MTV Award for “Father Figure” (Best Direction) and two Ivor Novello Awards for Songwriter Of The Year and International Hit Of The Year.
It's the one written (except for his childhood and current friend David Austin's sterling contribution to "Look At Your Hands"), produced and arranged by George himself. It's the one which stayed atop the American charts for 12 weeks and spawned four of his six number one US singles: "Faith" itself, "Father Figure", "One More Try" and "Monkey". Just for good measure, "I Want Your Sex" reached #2 and "Kissing A Fool" #5.
It began in Radlett, a commuter town of 60,000 souls, north-west of Britain's capital, London, where some scenes of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange were filmed. It's where young Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (born June 25 1963) and his loving, tightly bound part Greek-Cypriot, part English family moved from their original North London home. George and his best friend, fellow Bushey Meads Comprehensive student Andrew Ridgeley, would do as teenagers do, think about being pop stars and dream of making it big: "I wanted to be loved," admitted George. "It was an ego satisfaction thing." Even so, the pair of dreamers understood that it wasn't going to happen. These things just don't happen.
Yet, as the world knows, these things did happen. As Wham!, the duo who would define the early-'80s. From their first single, 1982's "Wham Rap", to their last, 1986's "The Edge Of Heaven/Where Did Your Heart Go", they sold 25 million records across the globe, they kept each other's friendship and they departed in a blaze of glory before 72,000 people at London's Wembley Stadium on June 26, 1986. Wham! never got old and never lost their exclamation mark, but along the way, George won the first of his three prestigious Ivor Novello Songwriter Of The Year awards in 1985. They had two US #1 singles and a #1 album - titled Make It Big in honour of their Bushey Meads dreams - they became first western band to play China and George began his long but mercifully mostly hush-hush commitment to charity work with a performance on Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" and by donating all Wham! royalties from their "Last Christmas/Everything She Wants" single to Ethiopian famine relief.
Even when Wham! were in their pomp and George was contributing to his friend and sparring partner Elton John's "Nikita" and "Wrap Her Up", it was plain that George's destiny was solo and that his new, more mature songs were too worldly, too adult to fit into the format of good-time duo. He'd already dipped a toe in solo waters in 1984 with a song he'd written as a 17-year-old ("a very precocious lyric!" he quipped) while riding the number 32 bus home as a teenager. "Careless Whisper" (credited to Wham! Featuring George Michael in the US) not only featured one of the great lines in popular music, "guilty feet have got no rhythm", but showed there was more to George Michael than the instant joy of "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and "Young Guns (Go For It)". "Careless Whisper" charged to #1 in America and topped the charts in Australia, Canada, France, Holland, Italy, Ireland, South Africa, Switzerland and the UK, amongst others.
Just to prove “Careless Whisper” was no fluke, before Wham!'s final hurrah, George's second solo single, “A Different Corner”, emerged. Confirming that George's status as a global artist was no fluke, it topped the British charts and went Top 10 in the US, Australia, Austria, Germany, Holland, Ireland and Switzerland. As someone once almost said, you didn't have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind was blowing.
His first offering after formally leaving Wham! wasn't even a solo effort. Instead, hot on the heels of duetting with Smokey Robinson at the world's leading soul venue, Harlem's Apollo Theater in New York, George became the first white male vocalist to duet with Aretha Franklin, whom he anointed as "the best female soul singer in the world". The magical, life-affirming, Grammy-winning “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” swept its way to #1 on both sides of the Atlantic, Australia, Ireland and Holland.
Then, shortly after George contributed vocals to ex-Shalamar chanteuse Jody Watley's self-titled album came Faith, which would eventually top the British, American, Canadian and Dutch charts, before going 10 times Platinum in the US and 5 times Platinum in the UK. Today, it has found its way into almost 20 million homes. Released in October 1987 and recorded earlier that year at Puk, in Judland, somewhere in the Danish countryside (it was a British tax year thing; George just yearned for home) and Sarm West in West London, it surprised everyone who suspected that for all Wham!'s obvious style, craft and swagger, they might have been a little shallow. At one sitting, it transformed George Michael from global teen idol to global adult superstar - as a result, coining one of his least favourite phrases "doing a George Michael" - and it paved the way for the extraordinary, internationally successful body of work to come.
There was storm-in-a-teacup controversy vis-a-vis his ode to monogamy, the Irish and Dutch #1, “I Want Your Sex” ("I expected the BBC to ban it," George admitted, "I became the antichrist for a couple of weeks"); there was funk in the clattering drug abuse saga “Monkey”; there was the horror of spousal abuse in “Look At Your Hands” and there was extraordinary beauty in the Canadian #1 “Kissing A Fool”, “Father Figure” and the Irish #1 “One More Try”, which remains George's personal pick of an astonishing bunch. There was even an anti-Margaret Thatcher political aspect to “Hand To Mouth”. Amazing as it seemed then, amazing as it seems now, he was still only 24. Not that he was especially happy in himself: "one of the reasons the record was so successful," he mused in 2010, "is that people can recognise the loneliness."
More instantly, the success of the Faith album enabled the legendary Faith tour, which covered 137 dates in 19 countries from February 1988 to June 1989, was choreographed by Paula Abdul and took in a three-song covers set at the Nelson Mandela Freedom Concert at Wembley. George played Wham! and solo material, plus the occasional cover. The magnificent spectacle helped ensure that nobody would sell more records than George in the United States in 1988. He was delighted: "I never met anyone who was a reluctant star," he admitted, just as enthusiastically as he admitted to his then-insatiable ambition. A coveted Best British Male Brit was his and he contributed to both his bassist Deon Estus's album Spell and the mysterious Boogie Box High, led by his cousin Andros Georgiou.
Aside from winning a career-encompassing Video Vanguard award at the MTV Europe Video Music Awards, George took 1989 off, "to sort my head out". Head sorted, George unveiled his second solo album, the Beatles-influenced Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 in September 1990. Oh and the title wasn't a plea to listen to George without prejudice: he really wasn't that self-absorbed. This time though the mood was darker and more adult still, but that didn't stop his British audience from sending it to #1 and the Americans to #2.
The worldwide hit singles flowed, a Best Album Brit kept that Michael mantel groaning and the videos featured everything but - concomitant with his desire for peace and privacy, George Michael himself. The man may have made the music, but he always insisted that his music sold on its own merits and, as if to cement his artistic evolution, he was the subject of an edition of Britain's most revered arts programme, the South Bank Show.
In keeping with his desire to do things differently, when George returned to the stage in 1991, the Cover To Cover tour was exactly what it implied on the tin: a dizzying, cover-heavy romp across the United Kingdom, United States, Brazil, Japan and Canada, which featured Stevie Wonder's “Living For The City”, Adamski's “Killer”, Leonard Cohen's “Suzanne” and perhaps most notably, Elton John's “Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me”. The pair's live duet of Elton's song (recorded on the Faith tour) was another British, American, French, Dutch and Swiss #1. Proceeds went to the Aids hospice London Lighthouse and the Rainbow Trust children's charity.
Soon, another charity, the Red Hot Organisation, enlisted George's ever-willing assistance. Their Red Hot + Dance album - in aid of Aids research - chiefly featured remixes of songs by such fellow global artists as Madonna and Lisa Stansfield, but George gave the project three brand new songs, including the aptly titled “Too Funky”. Ever game, he even appeared in the song's video, albeit briefly. The single was another US/UK/Austria/Australia/France/Holland/Sweden/Switzerland top tenner and naturally the royalties went to the Red Hot Organisation.
A debilitating court case with his record label Sony was on the horizon, but he wasn't finished yet with live chart toppers or charities. The British and Irish #1, 1993's Five Live EP featured heroic versions of Queen's “Somebody To Love” (with Queen themselves) from the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert and “Papa Was A Rollin' Stone”, the video of which won an MTV Europe's International Viewers' Choice Award. Proceeds went to the Freddie Mercury Phoenix Trust. Later that year, on December 1, World Aids Day, George headlined the Concert Of Hope at Wembley Arena in front of the Princess Of Wales.
George re-emerged in November 1994, at the MTV European Music Awards in Berlin, with the stunning “Jesus To A Child”, his first self-penned song in three years. Despite its seven-minute, radio-unfriendly length, it was yet another British chart topper (just for good measure it was an Australian, Irish and Norwegian #1 too) and yet another US Top tenner.
His absence had only made the public's hearts grow fonder. In January 1995, “Careless Whisper” was voted London's favourite record of all time and George Michael himself as Best Male Singer by listeners of Capital Radio, alongside an Outstanding Contribution To Music Award.
Once he'd formally left Sony and signed to Virgin (excluding the US) and DreamWorks (US only), May 1996 saw Older, the third George Michael album: "It's my first completely honest album," he explained of what at the time (i.e. pre Spice Girls) was the Virgin label's fastest seller. Musically adventurous and lyrically brave, it spawned a record six British Top 3 singles and that year he would win Best British Male at both the MTV Europe Awards and the BRITs; his third Ivor Novello Songwriter Of The Year Award and he would retain his Capital Radio's Best Male Singer title. “Fastlove” would win the International Viewers' Choice Award at the MTV Video Music Awards and the Older album would spend 147 weeks in the British charts, which, of course, it topped as it did those in Austria, Australia, Norway, Netherland and Sweden.
Somehow he found time to contribute to “Desafinado (Off Key)”, a duet with the legendary Astrud Gilberto to the Red Hot + Rio charity album and to remind everyone (not least himself) that he could sparkle in a smaller setting as well as a stadium, he played intimate gigs for Radio 1 before an audience of just 200 lucky fans and for MTV for 500.
1997 saw a second Best British Male Brit Award, a reissue of Older which included a second disc, Upper, comprising four remixes, two newish songs and an interactive element, plus a guest spot of Toby Bourke's British Top 10 single “Waltz Away Dreaming”. Oh, and there was a Wham! best of, If You Were There. Good, weren't they?
And speaking of best ofs, the following year saw Ladies And Gentlemen, The Best Of George Michael. Divided into two discs, For The Heart and For The Feet, it was partly a comprehensive resume of George's career and partly a helpful rounding up some of the non-album gems. Its three new tracks included “Outside” with its laugh-out-loud video, and a turbo-charged run-through Stevie Wonder's glorious “As”, alongside the splendid Mary J. Blige. The collection went eight times Platinum in Britain, which, as a nation, swooned at George's droll performance on the chat show Parkinson and he topped Capitol FM's Hall Of Fame for the eighth time, as well as the Norwegian charts.
Another year, another curveball. George's appearance at the NetAid charity show at Wembley in October 1999 included a version of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney's “Brother Can You Spare A Dime”. Come December, the depression era classic featured again on Songs From The Last Century, the George Michael covers album, co-produced with Phil Ramone. A labour of love, it comprised George's takes on some of his favourite songs, including Sting's “Roxanne”, Passengers' (aka U2) “Miss Sarajevo”, plus standards such as “Secret Love” and “You've Changed” and a radical re-imagining of David Bowie's “Wild Is The Wind”. A low-key treat for fans from which no singles were culled, it nevertheless went double platinum in the UK and Top 10 in Germany.
The new century saw George step back from his relentless schedule. Even so 2000, saw appearances at the Equality Rocks charity concert at Washington's RFK Stadium, at the time the largest-ever concert in aid of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender awareness and at Luciano Pavarotti's Pavarotti And Friends gathering in Modena, where George and his host's duet on “Brother Can You Spare A Dime” later appeared on the Pavarotti And Friends For Cambodia And Tibet album. They also covered “Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me”. And all wasn't quite quiet on the recording front: George joined Whitney Houston to re-record her album track “If I Told You That”.
2001 was professionally quiet, but 2002 found George signed to Polydor records, at #1 in Croatia, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Spain and back in the UK Top 10 with the super-funky “Freeek!”, his first self-penned single since 1998's “Outside”. Joseph Kahn's sci-fi tinged, sexually charged video was a boundary-pushing, sense-tingling feast which featured George as businessman, scientist, cowboy and leather-clad dog-handler. There was more fun in the shape of the satirical “Shoot The Dog”, which sampled The Human League and, via its animated video, poked fun at George Bush, Tony Blair and David Seaman. Its message though could hardly have been more serious. At the time, to the derision of some, George was a lone, brave voice in the wilderness, speaking out against the Iraq war. Almost a decade later, it's clear he was right all along.
2003 was spent crafting the eagerly-awaited Patience, but there was still an appearance on the War Child charity album (and subsequently on Top Of The Pops), with a sombre version of Don McLean's anti-war “The Grave”.
After eight years - several musical lifetimes - without an album of original material, even diehards across the globe wondered if George still had the magic of yore, even though he had re-signed to his label of yore, Sony. They needn't have worried.
The joyful single "Amazing" served notice that another treat was on its way. So it proved and Patience hurtled to #1 in Britain (and Denmark, Germany, Poland and Sweden amongst many others). Having retreated from the American market since Older, George appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show, invited her crew into his lovely home and performed “Amazing”, “Father Figure” and “Faith” for her. The album reached #12 there. George was back. He couldn't have been more back.
“Blame It On The Sun” a duet with Ray Charles, appeared on the American icon's posthumous album, 2005's Genius And Friends. It was followed by George Michael: A Different Story, a documentary directed by Southan Morris which was screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February, at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in May and released worldwide in December. There were contributions from Boy George, Mariah Carey, Noel Gallagher, Sir Elton John, Andrew Ridgeley and Sting. It took us back to his childhood, back to Wham!, back to Faith and looked to the future. Like George himself, it was honest. Too honest some might say. The man himself? He loved it.
Patience had everything but an accompanying tour. 2006 was the moment to put that right once Tony Bennett's Duets: An American Classic album was concluded by a duet with George on “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” Starting in Barcelona in September 2006 and finishing in Copenhagen in August 2008, two and a half million people in 27 countries (including his first American shows in 17 years) saw the universally acclaimed 25 Live tour (titled as a celebration of his 25 years at the musical coalface) at arenas, and stadia. It included the first gig at the renovated Wembley Stadium and a more intimate charity show for British nurses at the Roundhouse, Camden Town, North London.
As George toured, Twenty Five, a comprehensive compilation was released and its three new songs included a duet with Paul McCartney. Naturally it was a British #1 a global Top 10 hit and there was a 40-song DVD too. If that wasn't enough, George was also given the rare honour of a second South Bank Show to himself.
Once the tour was over, it was time for wings-spreading with guest appearances on the British television hits The Catherine Tate Show and Ricky Gervais's Extras, plus regular appearances in the US sitcom Eli Stone, where each episode was titled after a George song. There was a stirring rendition of “Praying For Time” on that year's American Idol finale. The last few weeks of 2008, saw “December Song (I Dreamed Of Christmas)”, co-written by George's old friend David Austin, a Christmas gift via George's web site and a commercial release a year later.
In 2009, the Live In London DVD, filmed taken from two Earl's Court concerts on the 25 Live tour reached the top of the UK DVD charts. George also appeared with Beyonce to sing “If I Were A Boy” at London's 02 Arena and with Joe McElderry on the British talent show X Factor, where the pair duetted on “Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me”.
2010 undoubtedly had its moments, chief amongst them, three rip-roaring, sell-out dates in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, featuring songs from “I'm Your Man” to “Amazing”, George's first shows in Australia since the Faith tour in 1988.
And now, in 2011, it's time for Faith, again. After that, expect only the unexpected...
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