Thursday 19 September 2019

At 53, George has left us with an unfinished story

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley backstage at Wham!’s farewell concert ‘The Final’ at Wembley Stadium, London, in 1986. Photo: Getty
George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley backstage at Wham!’s farewell concert ‘The Final’ at Wembley Stadium, London, in 1986. Photo: Getty

Neil McCormick

George Michael was a genuine superstar. It is a term that is bandied about too much in pop music, but he was the real deal. He had talent that shaped the pop narrative of his times and, for a while, bestrode the world.

You can't think about the 1980s without thinking about George Michael. He was one of the defining figures of that most colourful of eras. In the 1990s, he remained a pop powerhouse, one of our most distinctive and always fascinating icons.

If his star faded just a little over time, it was more to do with his erratic lifestyle and personal choices than a failure of ability or creativity. It would be sad if he was remembered for his ridiculous run of car accidents and drug busts, his notorious arrest in an American toilet, or his sometimes embattled and eccentric proclamations to the media. Musically he operated at the very highest levels of pop craft.

Personally, on the few occasions I met him, I found him to be an intelligent, engaging character with a strong sense of the absurdities of his own life.

When he first appeared on the UK music scene in 1981, it was obvious he meant business. Even the act of shoving a shuttlecock down his tight shorts on 'Top of the Pops' was a cheerfully bold proclamation of intent. As the architect of his pin-up duo Wham! he helped shape a fresh, shiny, upbeat sound that shook off the darkness of punk and new wave, reacting to the privations of the era not by protest but by escapism.

With his blow dried hair and dashing grin, he seemed determined to signal a break from seriousness. Yet this character was an act. A soulful and somewhat tortured individual in private, he mimicked the ease and ebullience of his friend and onstage partner Andrew Ridgeley to project a confidence, machismo and joyousness that didn't perhaps come naturally. It was explosively successful.

Wham! are an all-time great pop act, almost absurdly joyous, with a blend of giddy British songcraft and American dance-floor rhythmic drive that became unstoppable. They spearheaded the second great British pop invasion of America, when bands including Culture Club, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet brought a colourful palette of synthetic flavours to sweep away rock's prevailing tone of po-faced seriousness. I think it's fair to say that all manufactured boy band pop still carries a bit of Wham! in its DNA.

Michael went on to be even more successful as a solo artist, when he was able to unleash the full range of his talents. He could sing with the flow, phrasing and command of the great American soul and gospel vocalists. You've got to be pretty damn good to duet with Aretha Franklin, as he did on 'I Knew You Were Waiting' in 1987.

He was a fantastic songwriter too, the absolute architect of his own fantasy, combining words, melodies and rhythms that worked on both the immediate, superficial level of instant pop gratification and on deeper levels of emotional expression.

Everybody knows George Michael's songs, and can probably sing them whether they want to or not. 'Last Christmas' has been chiming out across the land throughout this holiday season, a perfect little nugget of happy-sad pop. Yet it was actually one of his more throwaway ditties. The best of his work beguiles the ear with hooks while carrying the listener further and deeper than they perhaps even realise. It was a very adult kind of pop music.

'Careless Whisper' is a killer slow dance for lovers, a smooth and smoochy ballad with the rare power to move bodies as well as hearts. 'Faith' is about as lusty a proclamation of manhood ever heard, delivered over a stripped back acoustic rock and roll rhythm as taut as a drum skin. 'Jesus to a Child' and 'Father Figure' are heavy, resonant ballads. 'I Want Your Sex' and 'Fastlove' are super-slick grooves driven with bold, erotic energy. His music always sounded the business.

He was a multi-instrumentalist and a great producer, with an ear for arrangements that would frame his voice to best advantage. At the forefront was a powerful performer who expressed himself with a vigour and intensity at odds with the inner uncertainties and fragilities still tangible in his music. It was this inner conflict that, ultimately, made him so compelling. And, perhaps, ultimately, made his career so erratic.

For a long time, George Michael maintained a private life very separate from his public image, struggling to address the homosexuality he could admit to friends but not his parents. Although it was well known in the music business that he was gay, it was only after his arrest by an undercover policeman in a Beverly Hills public toilet in 1998 that his sexual orientation became public knowledge. Once out of the closet though, there was no going back and Michael became an outspoken advocate of gay rights and an often very funny commentator on his own private foibles.

He was frank about a major marijuana habit that may have had something to do with several arrests over the years for erratic driving. In private, I know Michael felt that being exposed as gay had damaged his career (and certainly his record sales in America flagged) but he was also relieved to be able to emerge from self-imposed silence and reveal his truer self to the world. It was only then that he was able to publicly reveal the personal devastation he had experienced after his boyfriend, Brazilian Anselmo Feleppa, died of Aids in 1993 and inspired some of his most beautiful songs.

Even after all the losses pop has suffered this terrible year, I have to admit I am in shock at the loss of George Michael. It is not just that 53 is too young, it is the feeling of a story still unfinished. Michael was not particularly prolific. There have only been five solo albums, the last in 2004. Yet he was a man who had a lot of music in him, who seemed at his very best when able to let it pour out of him, and who always spoke as if privately convinced the best was yet to come.

There had been rumours about the state of his health over the years. Someone mentioned to me just a few weeks ago that he was not well, although they were unable or unwilling to elaborate. Publicly, he was known to have been recording again, and optimistic about releasing new music next year. Whether that will emerge now is a whole other question, for another time. Right now, every pop music lover should be mourning the loss of an amazing star, a huge talent, and a fascinating, complex, warm, funny human being.

As ever, we have to take what succour we can in music that cannot be erased by time. It may have been Michael's last Christmas, but the songs play on. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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