George Michael was just 17 when he co-wrote Careless Whisper and just 53 when he died. He was just 23 when he broke up one of the biggest bands of the 80s, Wham!, and just 24 when he released Faith, amongst that decade’s most defining albums.
George Michael was just 24 when he duetted with the Queen Of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and just 27 when he declined to put his famously pretty face on the cover of his second solo album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. He was just 28 when he stole the show at the Wembley Stadium Freddie Mercury tribute concert and just 32 when he reached premature middle-age with the album Older – his biggest seller ever in the UK.
But George Michael – one of the most supremely gifted British singer-songwriters ever – was also just 40 when he released his final ever full studio album, Patience, in 2004. Five studio albums as a solo artist and two with Wham! paint a picture of George Michael as one of the least prolific music megastars of all time. Though telling, this is far from the full picture.
There was also a greatest hits album for Wham! in 1986 with several new tracks (including the criminally overlooked UK#1 Edge Of Heaven), a 2CD solo best of in 1998 called Ladies And Gentlemen that featured additional songs, and the chart-topping live 1992 EP from that quite staggering appearance with the remaining members of Queen*. And when you consider the release of numerous album-less singles that were also smash hits like A Different Corner (1986), I Knew You Were Waiting (1987) and Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me (1991), the total output starts to beef up.
More than that, you start to realise what a near constant presence George was in the US and UK top 10 for most of his approximately 15-year peak. With total record sales of 80 million, a staggering 15 different songs to reach US or UK#1, a record-breaking six UK top 3 singles from the same album (Older) and reportedly the most played British artist on British radio in the 20-year period from 1984 to 2004, the commercial stats on George Michael are some of the best in the business.
Looking at all of this again in light of the news of his death at this far too young age, it’s still a reminder for me of the sense that with George Michael, there could have been even more. He had the looks, the voice, the songwriting chops and the personal heartache and introspection that so often leads to the greatest art.
As detailed in the 2004 song My Mother Had A Brother, George’s uncle committed suicide the very day George was born. Growing up, George learned of his uncle’s homosexuality at the same time as he would’ve been coming to grips with his own. Unable to share his true self with his beloved mother, he then lost both her and his secret boyfriend within a short space of each other in the 90s. All the while this still young man was in a complete fallout with his record label and in danger of self-sabotaging his career in the pursuit of being taken seriously.
And then against the odds, what was only his third solo studio album and first for six years – Older – produced a history-making run of hits, sold millions and seemingly set him up for the the next phase of his career. This continued with further new hits from the mega-selling Ladies And Gentlemen compilation, but the public embarrassment from the police arrest for a “lewd act” in an LA public toilet in 1998 altered the the American love affair with George Michael irrevocably.
Now outed as a gay man, there would be a covers album entitled Songs From The Last Century (1999) before that final LP, Patience (2004). Though for whatever reason, the motivation for either commercial or critical success began to evaporate. Long open about his reliance on marijuana, rumours existed (now resurfacing) that George was battling more serious addictions. His penchant for crashing his car provided many a radio and TV host with a punchline and yet it should’ve been clear this was a man in trouble.
Occasionally George’s millions of fans would get glimpses of what they were missing. His 25th anniversary tour in 2006 received rave reviews and showcased a voice as good as any in the annals of British pop. Creamy and soulful, a study of his back catalogue gives ample clues as to why beyond Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Elton John, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Sting and the Gibb brothers, George Michael is virtually peerless as a Brit on the US charts (10 US #1 hits including Wham! + solo).
Careless Whisper is really an R&B ballad, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go is a camped-up 80s appropriation of 60s Motown hits like The Way You Do The Things You Do; Everything She Wants is smooth funk and I Knew You Were Waiting, Father Figure, One More Try, Freedom 90 and Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me are secular gospel. These songs speak of the broad influences of black American music on this English/Greek lad and were a substantial part of his appeal.
I came to understand a long time ago that while popular music obsessives like myself fret over things like how many studio albums somebody released, how many records they sold and how many top 40 hits they had (and in which part of the world), the majority of fans don’t really care. All most George Michael devotees know is that they loved how a chunk of his songs made them feel and that they felt a connection to the man that sung them. Elton John may have released more studio albums in the first half of the 70s than George Michael did his entire career, but in many ways both men loom equally as large over the British pop music landscape.
With that in mind, here’s what Elton wrote about his friend in a post on Instagram:
“I am in deep shock. I have lost a beloved friend – the kindest, most generous soul and a brilliant artist. My heart goes out to his family and all his friends”.
Here are my two favourite George Michael songs to finish with, one from his Wham! days and one from that second solo album whose sequel – Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2 – never arrived. First is the sublime synth funk of Everything She Wants, a 1985 US#1 about a man who feels trapped in a new marriage where a child is on the way. “My God! I don’t even think that I love you!” he exclaims at the top end of his range, showcasing an R&B tenor to make his hero Stevie Wonder proud.
Second is Waiting For That Day – a modest US/UK top 40 hit from 1991 that is about as devastating and gorgeous as anything he recorded. Referencing a love lost who he hopes will return, as well as foreshadowing the sadness that would soon envelop him – “And if these wounds / they are self inflicted / I don’t really know / How my poor heart could have protected me” – Waiting For That Day ends with the title refrain from The Rolling Stones You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
It’s acoustic soul of the highest order and it’s the song I played to end my radio show the day George Michael, aged just 53, died. RIP.
*George Michael also released a live album in 2014 called Symphonica.