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A leap after Faith: George Michael and his war with Sony

It is 30 years since the release of ‘Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1’, an album where the former Wham! star tried to shake off his pretty boy image. His career would end up in limbo, though, as he took legal action against his record company


'Professional slavery': George Michael at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992, just months before launching his legal action against his label, Sony

'Professional slavery': George Michael at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992, just months before launching his legal action against his label, Sony


'Professional slavery': George Michael at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992, just months before launching his legal action against his label, Sony

In August 1990, it seemed as though George Michael's boy band days were in the distant past. Wham! may have been a chart sensation, but as a solo star he had flown further than even his most devoted fans could have imagined.

His solo debut, Faith, was the bestselling album in the US in 1988, and shifted more than 20 million copies globally. It had put him in the sort of exalted space occupied by Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna.

There was only one problem: George Michael was desperately unhappy. He was exhausted by the relentless touring for the album and fed up with being painted into a corner as a pretty boy pop star with soul and R&B leanings. And, after initially being embraced by African America, he found himself accusing of appropriating black music for his own ends.

So, when it came time to release new music, he opted for a completely different tack. Thirty years ago this month, the first fruits of his new direction arrived with the single, 'Praying for Time' - a sombre reflection on the world's injustices. Some of his early songs in Wham! had a social conscience, but few were expecting such biting lyrics as "charity is a coat you wear twice a year" or "hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of".

The song, elevated by an outstanding vocal, topped the Billboard singles chart - becoming his seventh US number one - but his record company, Sony, weren't celebrating: Michael was, to put it mildly, taking an obstinate standpoint on the business of promotion and there were few conventional pop songs on his new album.

Rather than deliver a Faith #2, his follow-up album defied easy characterisation. It didn't help that he refused to have his image adorn the cover of Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 - he insisted, instead, on a black and white 1940s photo of a Coney Island crowd - and, most unusually for the time, he would not star in any of the videos to promote his own songs.

'Freedom! 90', the album's most commercial track, was a case in point. Ostensibly written about his desire not to be moulded into anything other than himself, it had a lavishly expensive video featuring the five best-known models of the era - including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford - lip-syncing to the song. The video, directed by a pre-fame David Fincher, also depicted Michael's Faith-era leather jacket being set alight. It wouldn't have taken a genius psychologist to work out that he was attempting to distance himself from his recent past.

The contemporary reviews were patchy - the album would later be hailed as one of his best - and sales were comparatively muted. Eight million units shifted today would be a big deal, but on the back of the ubiquitous Faith, it was little short of a disaster.

It didn't help, of course, that artist and record label were at loggerheads. When the album didn't sell in the quantities he had become accustomed to, Michael directed his ire at Sony. He felt Listen Without Prejudice didn't get the requisite push in the US.

In his feature-length documentary, Freedom - which was completed after his untimely death in December 2016 - Michael spoke about his frustration that Sony in the US were simply not giving the album the promotion he felt a major release like it warranted. It was a different story in the UK, where Listen Without Prejudice outsold Faith.

Objectively, it's hard not to feel sympathy for the record company. After all, Michael hadn't wanted to promote this album like the previous one and he claimed to have felt enormous pressure as he became one of the biggest solo acts on the planet. So why was he complaining when the company wasn't pushing it as relentlessly as it had during the Faith campaign? Surely, it was a question of having his cake and eating the whole lot of it?

But then, Sony's UK execs seemed to get fully behind the album and it became a really big hit on this side of the world. In the US, it was a different story - record company bigwigs there apparently struggled to comprehend how they could sell a product that its maker seemingly didn't want to promote.

After considerable talk that he would take matters further, Michael shocked the company when he issued proceedings in London's High Court of Justice. The case, Panayiotou v Sony Music Entertainment, (taken under his birth name of Georgios Panayiotou) was filed in October 1992, and would rumble on for two years.

Michael argued that his recording contract constituted an unreasonable restraint of trade and alleged that the defendant had failed to promote his album with due vigour as punishment when he opted to downplay his pop star sex-symbol status. Famously, he described his situation as "professional slavery".

Justice Jonathan Parker didn't see it that way. In June 1994, at the conclusion of the case, he rejected Michael's claims and deemed his contract with Sony fair and reasonable.

Michael would come to have huge regrets over taking Sony to court and not just because he was unsuccessful in his action. As with any court case of this magnitude, it was a laborious, dragged-out and costly affair. Crucially, with all his focus on a London courtroom, it stymied his creativity. He wouldn't release another studio album for almost six years.

For Sony, meanwhile, the victory was hollow. Senior executives soon came to understand that their relationship with Michael was irreparable. The plan was for a dance-oriented Listen Without Prejudice Vol 2, but it never materialised. Three of the songs earmarked for that album found their way on to the Red, Hot + Dance Aids-benefit release in 1992, including 'Too Funky'. It would be the final single released by the singer before his court action.

For several years, Michael found himself in career limbo. It was little surprise that several other record companies wanted to wrest away Sony's disgruntled asset. It was David Geffen - the founder of Asylum Records who was about to shake up the film world with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg - that came to the rescue. He put his hands deep into his pockets and bought Michael out of his contract - much like the agreements that football clubs come to over a wantaway players - and he was the first signee on the new DreamWorks label.

The resulting album, Older, lived up to its title. It was George Michael at his most honest and vulnerable. Lead single 'Jesus to a Child' was written for his first love, Anselmo Feleppa, who died of an Aids-related illness in 1993. Michael later said that virtually every song on the album was inspired by the Brazilian man who had made such a positive impact on his life. They had met in January 1991 when Michael was performing at the Rock in Rio concert.

The album also offered Michael a chance to come out on his own terms. 'Fastlove' was the closest he had yet come to declaring he was gay. 'Outside', and its wonderfully playful video, would leave little doubt when it was released a couple of years later.

Ironically, he would sign with Sony in the later part of his career, and the Patience album would appear on its roster. Furthermore, the record company took over DreamWorks and his entire catalogue was reissued by Sony. Even his film Freedom, which detailed the court case and featured contributions from Sony's top management was, itself, distributed by the company.

Thirty years on from its release, Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 offers a reminder of George Michael's singular talent. It remains the sound of an artist striving to be himself, to throw off the shackles of creative restrictions.

Indo Review