By Tom Cridland
It is thoroughly shameful that, in the wake of George Michael’s hugely tragic passing on Christmas Day, the British tabloid media have chosen to publish malicious stories theorising the cause of his death on an almost daily basis. I urge their editors and writers to imagine if this was their son, sibling, nephew, friend or boyfriend, and how they would feel if, in spite of a post mortem that the police confirmed as inconclusive, rumours of drug addiction, alcoholism, depression and suicide were spread for no good reason. Tabloids often argue that stories of this nature are published due to them being “in the public interest”. I hope I can speak for the British public when I state wholeheartedly that we are not interested in this nonsense. We are only interested in celebrating the the monumentally brilliant art that George shared with the world.
Despite selling over 100m records, and his fame and fortune, it becomes clear, on revisiting his back catalogue in depth, that George Michael was actually underrated as an artist. First of all, the assertion made by some that Wham! music is so thoroughly unsophisticated that it isn’t worthy of critical acclaim is patently untrue. It is unashamedly light-hearted and joyous, but the songwriting and the vocals are quite superb. Records like “I’m Your Man” and “Freedom” (the latter’s melody was “borrowed” by Noel Gallagher when writing Oasis’ “Fade Away”) are as good as any upbeat material that he wrote when supposedly morphing from “naff boy band star to credible songwriter”. This was a change that never, in fact, happened. Yes, his truly wonderful ballads came later on in his career as a solo artist but, for example, it is difficult to argue with the statement that “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was the best club song he ever wrote, in a career full of them, and is his bona fide pop masterpiece. Despite the fact it is probably the soundtrack to awkward dance floor moments at everything from bar mitzvahs to corporate functions to school discos, its melody is mood transforming and the vocals are mesmerising. George Michael was always an artist deserving of the critics’ credibility.
His first solo record was Faith and its quality underlines precisely why it is mystifying he still has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When looking back at the massive stars of the 1980s, music critics and fans always refer to Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson. George Michael should be cited in that same bracket. Faith was the first album by a white solo singer to reach number 1 on the R&B album charts. It followed his Billboard Hot 100 number 1 duet with Aretha Franklin “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” where, unbelievably, his vocal tone outshines hers. The basis of the songwriting on Faith is updated 1970s soul but the record demonstrates Michael’s knack of blending dance, pop, R&B, jazz and rock n’ roll with no traditional distinction between each genre. The fact that he actually arranged and produced the album himself is often obscured by snobbish music critics’ labelling of him as a lightweight former Wham! member responsible only for bubblegum pop. The mixing on the Faith record is masterful from the cabaret “Kissing a Fool”, to the notorious disco “I Want Your Sex”, the big drums on “One More Try”, the almost Prince-esque “Father Figure” and of course the blend of Bo Diddley with 80s pop on the title track.
Faith is his most famous album and one of the finest records made in the 80s, again overlooked in comparison to the classics made by his peers. With Listen Without Prejuidice, Vol. 1, Older and Patience, however, Michael continued to grow as an artist, rather than look back, and his dance records evolved without conforming to current trends and retaining originality whilst he went on to write many even more moving ballads.
Of the dance and upbeat tracks, “Fastlove” is one of the finest of its kind written in the 90s, whilst “Freedom! ‘90” is an anthem to rival anything in the britpop canon. “Outside” was a hilarious response to his arrest in Beverly Hills by an undercover policeman in the public rest room and is another excellent club tune. There is probably not a big name artist today who would respond to a potential public relations scandal with such humour as he displayed with that song. His final single “White Light” featured production appropriate for the modern dance floor and was meant to be the preview to full album of new dance material he was planning. His ability throughout his artistic life to compose songs of this nature as well as stunning ballads is a testament to the consistency of his work and, for many artists as they age, hitting the pop charts becomes an impossibility. In contrast, “White Light” hit number 15 in the UK charts upon its 2012 release. Given that his final full studio record, 2004’s Patience, featured electro and dance classics such as “Freek! and “Amazing”, with its soaring harmonies, and the sample heavy yet rollickingly original “Flawless (Go To The City”, it is highly likely that Michael’s upcoming album in the wake of “White Light” would have, in his 50s, seen him top the album charts with club music.
Michael’s fans recently voted “Praying For Time” his best composition, which is the cornerstone of Listen Without Prejuidice, Vol. 1, which completely destroys the impression many have of him as merely as pop craftsman. Lyrically outstanding, it is staggering he wrote this at just 26. “Heal the Pain” from the same album, later recorded as a duet with Paul McCartney, shows his versatility with Beatles inspired harmonies and, as he grieved the death of his boyfriend Anselmo Feleppa and his mother, came his follow up to the 1990 record with, “Older”. There is no other word than “lovely” for the sound created on “Jesus To A Child” and “You Have Been Loved” and the lyrics are more than touching enough to reflect the production and Michael’s typically heavenly vocal. Is the best reflection on Michael as a singer and songwriter simply that he might have written the two best Christmas songs of all time and that both of them are ballads? You still hear “Last Christmas” when in shopping malls around the world during the festive season and the record ages like a fine wine but, in 2009, he released “December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas), which is even more hauntingly beautiful.
It is so hard to articulate just how talented George Michael was and that is why it is so wasteful that, instead of analysing his life’s work in detail, the British media are focusing on needless mud-slinging. Without even exploring his exorbitantly kind and generous personality, one could write entire books on George Michael’s music. The best affirmation of this fact is that the paragraphs above have not even touched on his many spine-tingling performances as a world class live act – his version of “Somebody To Love” at Freddie Mercury’s tribute concert or his duet with Sir Elton John on “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, which is far more popular than the original, the amazing concert he put on as the first artist to play the new Wembley Stadium or even the goosebumps inducing rendition of “Freedom! ‘90” at the Olympics Closing Ceremony in 2012.
It is also at this point, if you haven’t already noticed, that I remind you I haven’t even mentioned “Careless Whisper”, maybe his most celebrated track, a smash international hit in nearly 25 countries that sold over 6m copies, with a saxophone introduction that is one of the most recognisable riffs of all time. Michael himself said the song did not mean much to him and he did not rate the lyrics and, yet, it is a quite astonishing record. That is perhaps the greatest proof of George Michael’s genius: as an artist he never rested on his laurels, never entered a career rut and always strived to better himself, from Wham! to the release of Symphonica in 2014.
Let’s remember George Michael as one of the best vocalists and songwriters Britain has ever produced by letting his art live on and whilst letting his family, friends and loved ones mourn his death in peace.