For the past 35 years, George Michael – who died peacefully on Christmas Day aged 53 – was the backbone and blueprint of British pop music. Mirroring Michael Jackson’s trajectory, he transformed a hugely successful teenage pop explosion with 80s legends Wham! into a mature, stadium-filling solo career in a manner emulated by the likes of Robbie Williams and aspired to by every reputable singer in pop.
British singer-songwriter George Michael, of Wham!, in a Sydney hotel room during the pop duo’s 1985 world tour,
Though Michael’s final studio album ‘Patience’ was released twelve years ago and his later years were dominated by lurid headlines about his arrests for drug possession and driving offences, they couldn’t eclipse his achievements; selling over 100 million records worldwide as one of the greatest singles artists of all time, penning songs that are embedded in the national consciousness and remaining a beloved pop icon to the last – his final live album ‘Symphonica’ reached Number One in 2014.
Unlike countless acts they inspired, Wham! were no manufactured pop confection. Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in East Finchley, London in 1963, George set his heart on pop stardom from an early age, perhaps to make up for a childhood in which his parents worked so hard that, he claimed, “I was never praised, never held”. When his family moved to Radlett in Hertfordshire in his teens, he began busking, writing his own pop songs and plotting a route to fame with his Bushey Meads School friend Andrew Ridgeley. Stints as a DJ and in a ska band called The Executive gave way to the duo forming Wham! in 1981. By 1983, via a series of independent singles on Innervision Records such as ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)’ and ‘Young Guns (Go For It!)’ and a big break on Top Of The Pops in October 1982 when another act pulled out, their debut album ‘Fantastic’ hit Number One, producing four Top Ten singles.
Styling themselves as young, hedonistic pop rebels touting social and political messages concerning unemployment, marital strains and wild self-expression, they challenged Duran Duran and Culture Club for 80s pop dominance. But it was with a new, sunnier image that the pair topped the charts in the US with their 1984 second album ‘Make It Big’ and its lead single ‘Wake Me Up before You Go-Go’, the video for which featured the pair in their now iconic Katharine Hamnett t-shirts reading CHOOSE LIFE. “I just wanted to make a really energetic pop record that had all the best elements of Fifties and Sixties records, combined with our attitude and our approach, which is obviously more uptempo and a lot younger than some of those records,” Michael said of the song, and this attitude carried Wham! to the very peak of pop stardom, selling 25 million albums and becoming the first western pop group to tour China.
Michael became increasingly uncomfortable with his teen idol image in Wham! however, later admitting that, as he struggled with depression, constant pressure and his sexuality in the face of screaming female adulation, he felt he was sending an alter-ego onstage in his place. Heartened by the 1.3million-selling success of his debut solo single ‘Careless Whisper’ – written when he was just seventeen – in 1984 and acclaim for his duet with Elton John on ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ at the Live Aid concert in 1985, Michael split Wham! at the pinnacle of their career with a final show at Wembley Stadium in June 1986, keen to move on to a more credible and sophisticated adult style and be taken seriously as a writer and producer.
Despite producing only four albums of original material in almost thirty years, Michael’s solo career outshone even Wham!’s meteoric success. His 1987 solo debut ‘Faith’, showcasing a distinctly saucier George on tracks such as ‘I Want Your Sex’, sold as many copies as Wham! had shifted in their entire lifespan, and though 1990’s more sombre and folk-rock ‘Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1’ failed to match the sales of ‘Faith’ in the US, it surpassed the debut in the UK.
His third solo album ‘Older’ would document a turbulent period in George’s life, dominated by legal wranglings with his new label Sony over his “professional slavery” and the death of his lover Anselmo Feleppa, a Brazilian dress designer George had met at the Rock In Rio concert in 1991, from an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage. The single ‘Jesus To A Child’ was dedicated to Feleppa, and George would describe the entire album as “a tribute to Anselmo really; there was a dedication to him on the album and fairly obvious male references. To my fans and the people that were really listening, I felt like I was trying to come out with them.”
It wasn’t until he was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public lavatory in Beverley Hills in April 1998 that George publicly admitted he was gay and in a relationship with Dallas businessman Kenny Goss, a liberating turning point for the singer. Having felt “fraudulent” for years and seeing the arrest as “a subconsciously deliberate act” to help him come out, Michael satirised the incident in the snogging-cops video for ‘Outside’ and revelled in his new-found openness for the rest of his life. When arrested in similar circumstances in another toilet on Hampstead Heath in 2006 he’d brush off the incident as part of his regular cruising activities and his use of marijuana became a regular topic of interviews, particularly after a string of arrests for possessing the class C drug and driving under its influence.
None of this tainted the public’s love for George and his work, however; 2004’s politically-minded ‘Patience’, including the anti-Iraq War song ‘Shoot The Dog’, sold four million copies and reached Number One in the UK, as did 2014’s orchestral live album ‘Symphonica’, his final release. In 2006 his comprehensive greatest hits record ‘Twenty Five’ saw him headline the first show at the new Wembley Stadium during the 25 Live tour, the most commercially successful tour of 2006-2007.
George Michael during the BRIT Awards 2012
Over recent years, however, Michael has been dogged by ill health. In 2011 he spent a month in hospital in Vienna suffering from pneumonia which left him in a coma and needing a tracheotomy to save his life. In 2013 he was hospitalised with a head injury after falling from a moving car on the M1. His death at his home in Goring-On-Thames in Oxfordshire on Christmas Day was, according to his manager, suspected to be from heart failure; a passing as ironic as it is tragic, considering his global fame for the seasonal hit ‘Last Christmas’. A song set to play out a consistently heartbreaking 2016 in tribute to this pop beacon that refused to fade.