Tuesday 27 June 2017

Pop superstar had a talent for making hits, but an appetite for self-destruction

George Michael performs at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics Picture: Getty
George Michael performs at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics Picture: Getty

George Michael, who has died aged 53, was one of the most successful recording artists in the history of popular music - and one of the most troubled.

Michael sold more than 80 million records and had 11 No 1 hits in the UK, though he became better-known in his later career for his serial brushes with the law.

He rose to fame after forming the duo Wham! with his schoolmate Andrew Ridgeley in 1981. With big hair, a fake tan, huge earrings and a shuttlecock down his shorts, he exuded a sexuality that brought him a huge following among teenage girls.

Wham! had a series of melodic but disposable pop hits, including 'Club Tropicana', 'Young Guns (Go For It)' and 'Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)'. Their first album, 'Fantastic', went to No 1 in the British charts and their second album, 'Make It Big', made the duo international superstars as it soared to the top of the US charts.

The duo's tour of China in April 1985, the first visit to China by a Western popular music act, generated enormous worldwide media coverage, much of it centred on Michael. But by 1986, they had split up.

While Ridgeley retired to obscurity, Michael went solo, and became even bigger. 'Careless Whisper', his first solo hit, had reached No 1 in 1984; and his first solo album, 'Faith', released in 1987, made him a global superstar.

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley
George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley

The album and the video for the title track established an enduring image of the singer, in leather jacket, ripped jeans, mirror shades and blow-dried hair that marked his transformation from teenybop idol to brooding soul icon.

Along with the more rugged image, there was a striving for greater seriousness and honesty. The difference between Michael and most of those who followed in his wake was that he alone was the architect of both his music and his image.

He wrote his songs - a mixture of lustrous ballads and slick dance tracks, often with confessional lyrics - and played the instruments. He oversaw artwork, and sometimes directed his videos. But his talent went hand in hand with a pronounced self-destructive streak.

Michael's very public downward trajectory began in 1998, when he was convicted for "engaging in a lewd act" with an undercover police officer in a Los Angeles public lavatory.

At first, Michael seemed determined to turn this public "outing" to his advantage. In an interview with Michael Parkinson, he announced: "I've always wanted to get on your show. To think that I had to show my **** to an LA cop to do it!" He then made a video mocking the policeman who had dared to arrest him ("Zip Me Up Before You Go Go", as one tabloid put it).

Though he continued to have success in his musical career, there followed a string of convictions for drugs and driving offences that brought lurid headlines. And in 2010, he was imprisoned after driving his Range Rover into a photographic store in Hampstead while under the influence of cannabis. Perhaps the most telling insight into Michael came in 2005 during a documentary about the singer, 'A Different Story', in which Michael asked his former Wham! colleague Andrew Ridgeley whose life, out of the two, Ridgeley would rather have had since they had parted company. In reply, Ridgeley merely smiled. Viewers were left in little doubt that Michael himself felt that only a lunatic would choose his life over his former sidekick's.

He was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou on June 25, 1963, in Finchley, north London, where his Greek Cypriot father ran a restaurant with his English mother. During his early teens, the family moved to Radlett in Hertfordshire, and Michael attended Bushey Meads School, where he met Ridgeley. They became friends and started messing around with guitars and practising dance steps in their bedrooms. Soon they were skipping school to busk in London.

In 1981, he and Ridgeley sent a demo tape to Innervision, a subsidiary of CBS, which signed them on. The following year, they had their first hit, 'Young Guns (Go For It)'. Other hits followed.

Within a couple of years, however, Michael was already tiring of Wham! - "all white teeth and silk shorts", as he put it. With the success of his solo singles, 'Careless Whisper' (1984) and 'A Different Corner' (1986), rumours of an impending split intensified. The duo officially separated during the summer of 1986 after releasing a farewell single, 'The Edge of Heaven' (which reached No 1 in the UK charts), and a singles compilation, 'The Final', plus putting on a sell-out concert at Wembley Stadium.

After the split in 1986, Michael signed with Sony and made use of the classic soul and funk elements which had been creeping into later Wham! singles to produce 'Faith' (1987), an album that sold more than 20 million copies and spawned a string of hits, including 'I Want Your Sex', a number whose popularity was in no way diminished by its being banned by the BBC.

George Michael collecting his Ivor Novello award in 1989. Photo: PA
George Michael collecting his Ivor Novello award in 1989. Photo: PA

Michael spent nearly all of 1988 touring, and by the end of the year, he was in the major league. He had large homes in Hampstead and California, Grammy awards, and, it seemed, the power and money to do as he pleased. But success seemed to have convinced Michael that he could dictate the terms of his contract with Sony. After releasing his next album, 'Listen Without Prejudice (Vol 1)' (1990), he symbolically burned his famous leather jacket and refused to participate in promotional tours and videos. Instead, he appeared on ITV's 'South Bank Show'. In fact, the album outsold 'Faith' in the UK. But in America, it bombed. Sony was furious.

After two years of escalating tensions, in 1992 Michael went to court to establish his right to pursue his own artistic vision, claiming that the terms of the eight-album deal he had signed with Sony amounted to "professional slavery". The judge was unimpressed, and after a 74-day hearing, Michael lost his case, together with an estimated £6m (€7m) in legal fees.

In 1995, DreamWorks and Virgin records stepped in to buy him out of his Sony contract, at an estimated cost of $40m (€38m). What they did not, however, acquire, was an artist who produced much art. In the decade after his lawsuit, George produced only one album of new material, 'Older', which was a commercial hit in Europe, producing six Top Three singles in the UK charts in a two-year span; it did poorly in America.

None of his fans knew about the tragedy playing out in the background. The lead single on 'Older' - 'Jesus to a Child' - was a melancholy tribute to Michael's Brazilian lover Anselmo Feleppa, whom he had met when performing in Rio de Janeiro in 1991. Shortly after they got together, Feleppa discovered that he had Aids and Michael spent the next four years nursing him. Feleppa's death in 1995 threw Michael into a depressive spiral.

Then, just as he felt that he was beginning to emerge from his grief, his mother, the great constant in his life, told him she had cancer. After she died in 1997, Michael resorted to a diet of Prozac and 'skunk' cannabis.

In 1998, it seemed he had hit rock bottom when he was arrested in Los Angeles. Yet he controlled the situation brilliantly, using it to come out of the closet with humour. He wrote 'Outside', a cheeky song about al fresco sex, launched with a video featuring urinals with silver disco balls and kissing policemen. It became a massive hit.

Michael had further success with the album 'Patience' (2004), which debuted at No 1 on the UK album charts and was chiefly notable for the controversial single 'Shoot the Dog', accompanied by a video which depicted Tony Blair as the "dog" that follows his "owner" George W Bush everywhere.

In 2006, Michael embarked on his first tour in 15 years to promote his second greatest hits album, 'Twenty Five', and in 2008 he played in major US cities. In August 2011, he fulfilled a long-standing dream of touring with an orchestra, and brought the house down when he made his 'Symphonica' tour debut with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra at Prague's State Opera House.

Nevertheless, as he rediscovered some equilibrium in his musical career, his personal life was a mess and his taste for sex with strangers led to ever more bizarre behaviour. On one occasion, he was escorted from the Park Lane Hilton after he was seen wandering corridors in a balaclava and then knocking on the door of an unsuspecting guest, who called security. It later emerged that Michael had been looking for a man he had met in a bar and arranged to meet later - but he had then gone to the wrong hotel.

On another occasion, he was snapped by a 'News of the World' photographer emerging from the bushes on Hampstead Heath in the company of a 58-year-old unemployed man.

Meanwhile, the drinking and drug-taking led to frequent brushes with the law - and with death.

In May 2004, he smashed into barriers on the A20 at North Acton, writing off his BMW. He did not face charges. In February 2006, he was found slumped at the wheel of his car and cautioned for possession of cannabis. In April of the same year, he hit three parked cars while trying to manoeuvre his Mercedes out of a parking space. In May, he crashed into a bollard near his home after falling asleep at the wheel. In October 2006, he was found slumped at the wheel as his car blocked a junction. In May 2007, he pleaded guilty to driving while unfit through drugs, and was banned from driving for two years.

In 2008, he was arrested in a public lavatory on Hampstead Heath and cautioned for possession of substances believed to be crack cocaine and cannabis. In August 2009, he was involved in a crash with a lorry on the A34 near Reading. In 2010, he was jailed for eight weeks and banned from driving for five years after smashing his car into a Snappy Snaps store in north London while under the influence of cannabis.

Then, in November 2011, a few weeks into the 'Symphonica' tour, he was rushed to hospital with chest pains hours before he was due to take the stage in Vienna. Diagnosed with acute pneumonia, he remained in hospital for five weeks.

He claimed his brush with death had made him a changed man, but in 2012 he cancelled a nine-date tour of Australia and booked into rehab for eight weeks. Then, in May 2013, he was airlifted to hospital after "falling" out of his chauffeur-driven Range Rover as it was travelling on the outside lane of the M1 at approximately 110kmh.

George Michael outside Highbury Corner Magistrates’Court in London in 2010, where
he was jailed for eight weeks for crashing his car into a shop while under the influence of cannabis Picture: AFP
George Michael outside Highbury Corner Magistrates’Court in London in 2010, where he was jailed for eight weeks for crashing his car into a shop while under the influence of cannabis Picture: AFP

The previous August, he staged what should have been a triumphant return to live performance when he took to the stage at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics, but after performing 'Freedom '90', a crowd-pleasing hit, he launched into a new song, baffling the 26 million viewers who tuned in, and prompting accusations that he was using the occasion to plug his latest single, 'White Light'.

A spokesman for the singer claimed that Michael had chosen the unknown track because it was the first he had written after surviving pneumonia and he wanted to celebrate the fact. The lyrics included the chorus: "So I just kept breathing my friends / Waiting for the man to choose / Saying this ain't the day that it ends / Cause there's no white light / And I'm not through / I'm alive / I'm alive".

After the death of Anselmo Feleppa, for several years Michael was in a relationship with a Texan art dealer called Kenny Goss. But in 2011, the tearful singer informed an audience in Prague that "myself and Kenny haven't been together for two-and-a-half years. This man brought me a lot of joy and a lot of pain". Subsequently, he was reported to be dating Fadi Fawaz, a Lebanese hair stylist. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

George Michael, born June 25, 1963, died December 25, 2016

Telegraph.co.uk

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