[31 March 2009]
For evidence of change, you needn’t look much further than the album covers. On the front of Fantastic, their 1983 debut as Wham!, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley go the leather-jackets-over-bare-chests route, their hair short and slickly styled, their backs to one another in a pose that is both standoffish and begrudgingly tough. These are not men who would necessarily comply with the request to wake you up before they went out for the evening; rather, they would leave you in the hands of an alarm clock, which would summon you from sleep, groggy, confused, and mildly aroused by the lingering scent of cracked leather and chest hair.
Make It Big is the complete opposite: here, on the U.S. cover, Michael and Ridgeley are awash in pastels and angelic radiance, their hair long and weightlessly coiffed; Ridgeley’s right arm, draped across Michael’s shoulder, suggests comfort and solidarity, as if to say, “We will wake you up”. Within a year’s time, Wham! went from dark to light, from teddy boys to pin-ups, from Runyonesque thugs to Dionysian cherubs. It was a makeover that worked in their interest—both the quality of their music and their popularity would skyrocket—and one that spoke volumes about their willingness to alter their appearance and their tune, especially in a decade as unforgiving as the 1980s. When you compare that kind of sudden, intuitive transition to a more belabored evolution such as that made by the Beatles (remember, it was years between the Hamburg clubs and their hermetic studio period), it’s clear: Wham!, though in the minds of some a mere flash in the proverbial pan of ‘80s pop, did more in that flash than most bands do over more prolonged careers.
“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, the explosive bubblegum-soul number that opens Make It Big, is the duo’s biggest hit and also the best manifestation of their aesthetic reawakening. Handclaps, finger snaps, tambourine, that booming “jitterbug” mantra—there’s a reason why this infectious track knocked Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)” from the number-one spot on the U.S. charts. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” is the ultimate popist’s rallying anthem, an ebullient antidote to ‘80s gloom-pop downers like Depeche Mode and New Order. It’s subversive, too, in that it’s thinking man’s music disguised as the opposite, a shout-out to the party people to raise the roof and, just as important, to tell your friends that you’re raising the roof.
Surely a thinking man, if he properly thought it through, would recognize the futility of sitting at home in secluded darkness listening to “Master and Servant” on repeat, especially when said man could be out, clad in an oversize T-shirt, submitting himself to this church of positivity, arms aloft, hips swaying from side to side, two more hands sending forth a thunder of clapped rhythm—a church led by a man in short shorts and yellow gloves, sure, but isn’t that something worth exalting all the same? Zeth Lundy
Though not often thought of as a socially conscious artist—his songs do run more toward the personal than the political—George Michael has taken his share of stances for social justice. He’s performed at Live Aid, Live 8, and Equality Rocks, and he has released a number of singles to raise money for charity, most recently last winter’s “December Song” download. In the 1980s, Wham! donated the profits from their “Last Christmas/Everything She Wants” single to Ethiopian famine relief.
While the example of Band Aid makes “Last Christmas” a natural for charity, it’s the flip side that marks a truly important moment in Michael’s songwriting, as he found a seamless way to blend his interrogation of relationships with the Marxist ideology he was beginning to explore in earnest. In the process, he created not only a No. 1 single in the U.S. but also an anticapitalist piece that’s moving and insightful without being heavy-handed, using romance as a means examine the perils of unchecked consumerism in the “free” market.
The song begins as a lover’s lament sung from the perspective of a man growing frustrated with his female partner’s constant need to spend. Even at that surface level of reading, “Everything She Wants” holds up as one of Michael’s stronger songwriting efforts. But the reason it still resonates with him—it’s one of the few Wham! songs he still happily associates himself with—is that it so smoothly explores his political concerns.
During this period of his life—his late teens and early 20s—Michael was finding himself increasingly resistant to capitalism’s reliance on greed and consumerism. At first willing only to throw a few jabs at the Thatcher administration (c.f., the single “Wham Rap!” which was banned in the U.K. and which features Michael boasting of being “a dole boy”), Michael become more sensitized to the decentralized workings of capitalist exploitation through the malignant dealmaking of Wham!‘s record label, CBS. In this 1984 interview, filmed during the sessions for Make It Big, Michael notes, “When you are talking about CBS as a company, you’re not talking about individuals at all, you’re talking about huge corporate structure which has no one to blame really.” This concern with the faceless hegemony led him, like his New Wave confreres Scritti Politti, to a fascination with Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.
Disguising the state apparatus as a grasping lover in “Everything She Wants,” Michael played with the ways that those in power —like a demanding beloved—turn our values and our work into ideas and acts that invariably benefit the state itself, in its function as water carrier for the corporate hegemony. When Michael sings, “Won’t you tell me / Why I work so hard for you? / All to give you my money”, the speaker has begun to recognize his work’s true purpose: to facilitate capital accumulation for oligarchs operating under the ruse of the state. There’s no return on investment here for him, and he later sings, “They told me marriage”—read: the social contract—“was give and take ... you’ve got some giving to do”. The end of work, in the capitalist state, isn’t personal gain, emotional or spiritual satisfaction, or even essential human comfort. It’s the perpetuation of the corporate hegemony that binds us.
Our efforts bring us not toward a sense of accomplishment but instead strand on us the hedonic treadmill of consumer theory. The first verse’s “Everything you want and everything you see / Is out of reach, not good enough” points out the consumer-citizen’s never-ending aspirations. There’s always something better to buy, to elevate our lives, but it remains unattainable. Fooled like the beloved until “everything she wants is everything she sees”, we remain caught in a desire to own more in an effort to rise above, but with our labor only serving the hegemony. We’re trapped.
Metaphorically, Michael uses pregnancy to stand in for that trap. The worker/lover cannot leave his relationship to the corporate hegemony/beloved because the economic demands continually increase. The pregnancy, though, reminds us of our own complicity in creating our situation. Much like the beloved is both an individual tricked into empty bourgeoisie desires (verse one) and the social strictures that create those desires (verse two), we continually reinforce the values that trap us, reinscribing our servitude with each check signed (“all the things we sign / all the things we buy”) in our continual acts of conspicuous consumption.
While the prospects that the song surveys seem bleak, Michael is able to sneak in some hope. Taken as a love drama, the lines explaining that all of this consumption “ain’t gonna keep us together” sound regretful. However, understood as recognition of the end of capitalist bondage, the lines reveal themselves as an epiphany. Unlike in some pessimistic conceptions of late capitalism, Michael imagines no apocalypse in which the system has commodified everything (even love and childbirth). Instead, he conceives of the spaces that exist in what we don’t buy. As we recognize those spaces as opportunities, our relationship to our corporate culture becomes de-naturalized, and we can escape into the interstices.
It’s a lot to pack into a pop song, and its subtlety remains rewarding even 25 years later. Michael’s awareness of both the personal demands of a relationship and the political demands of consumption combine for a powerful piece of art, offering not only insight, but a reasoned and emotional hope for those caught in an oppressive system. Justin Cober-Lake
Passion. The allure of the opposite sex. The drive to divine heights of physical and emotional ardor. No one could capture the boiling boy-girl lust of young love better than Wham!, that most manly of ‘80s pop pairings. With their finely honed cheekbones and angelic yet aggressive voices, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley inherently understood the pursuit of affection and the finer facets of the female gender. Their hook-laden hits were sonic symbols of their victory in the ongoing battle between guys and gals. But their album tracks, especially the ‘60s pseudo-soul rave-up “Heartbeat” from Make It Big, really hammers the message home.
Beginning with a bass and snare syncopation that predicates the implied bedroom antics of the narrative’s longing lovers, Michael’s he-man vocals describe the wistful end to an obviously romantic seasonal tryst. “Another summer, another vacation is over / A September morning with the sun and smell of the clover” ignites our senses, setting us up for the tale of woo, woe—and wanton desires—to follow. In the song’s storyline, Michael has met up with a girl who’s given him everything… everything, that is, except a true reason to care. “I was happy with the kisses she gave me / It is just that happy was all she made me”. Clearly, he’s having a hard time limning the pangs of longing from within the more authentic feelings of affection.
In the chorus, things grow even more dicey—and Michael has only one organ to blame (and, NO, it’s not the one you think): “Heartbeat, why do you keep me here / How could I help but admire her beauty? / Standing on the line between desire and duty.” You see, it’s all painfully obvious. This is a crisis of critical proportions, and our singer can’t decide if he wants to follow his heart or his head. As bouncy keyboards pluck out an aural backdrop reminiscent of every late ‘50s/early ‘60s teen-dance party, Michael and Ridgeley continue to push the boundaries of carnality. “I need a lover when love is such a dangerous place to be”. If we didn’t know these boys so well, we’d be convinced they were talking about some one night stand, or God forbid, a late night hook-up in some dirty public lavatory.
As with all true men of courage and character, Michael and Ridgeley want us to understand just how hard this is on them. After all, they keep reminding us that anything that happens here is destined to “end in tears.” As they would illustrate throughout their time at the top of the world, they are guys who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable, who constantly get in touch with the feminine side—if only to help them pull the birds. Don’t let the come-hither looks and highly-groomed gaiety fool you—Wham! was and remains a group given over to the needs and naughty afflictions felt by dudes and their druthers “down under”.
“Heartbeat” may sound like just another sunny slice of ‘80s auditory nostalgia wrapped in some indecipherable lyrical platitudes. But when viewed in light of the men making that reverent racket, everything becomes clear. “Heartbeat” is a song about excessive infatuation, and no one understands such a flame better than George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. After all, you can’t have “Wham bam, thank you ma’am” without these golly gigolos. Bill Gibron
With its long, near somnambulant instrumental prelude and its eschewing of standard verse-chorus structure, “Like a Baby”, is possibly Make It Big‘s most challenging song. But on an album so laden with listener-friendly ear candy, the evocative, languid ballad fulfills a crucial function in catching something of the band’s ambitions at this critical turning point in their career, establishing the emotional credibility—the vulnerability—of the Latin-gigolo side of the new image they were attempting.
A song about lovers caught between continents, “Like a Baby” also captures the prospects of a band caught between genres and target audiences as Wham! shed their roots in boy-band R&B and sought to emulate more classic pop styles. Clearly, Michael and Ridgeley had in mind a transformation along the lines of the shift that New Romantic pioneers Spandau Ballet had successfully effected the year before with their breakthrough album True, which remade Spandau front man Tony Hadley into a chic, nattily groomed adult-contemporary crooner. There is also an implicit debt to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Just Like a Baby”, from the seminal There’s a Riot Goin’ On album, that imparts Wham!‘s tune a soupçon of soulfulness. And as the smooth-jazz inflections evident from the very measures of “Like a Baby” make plain, the song was also Wham!‘s tentative, preparatory attempt to claim some of the territory opened up by Sade. Her pioneering Diamond Life set a new standard for urbane sophistication in pop, a horizon that Wham! would arguably transcend with “Carless Whisper,” Michael and Ridgeley’s more accomplished synthesis in this vein. Indeed, coming at the end of side one, “Like a Baby” in many ways figures as a trial run for “Careless Whisper”, preparing the ground for the unalloyed triumph of “Whisper” at the end of side two.
Over a pillowy bank of electric-piano chords and an echo-laden drum track that could easily find its way onto a Pieces of a Dream album nowadays, Ridgeley—or rather more likely, session man Hugh Burns—lays down a restrained, almost yearning guitar solo to open “Like a Baby”. While the solo’s careful reticence belies the smooth-jazz stereotype of aggressive virtuosity, the production mimics many other hallmarks of the genre. Ridgeley, reputedly the architect of the band’s abrupt sartorial shift, apparently must have felt that smooth jazz could be the touch of elegance necessary to complete the band’s image makeover, but at the same time, that gesture is balanced against a sonic minimalism that mirrors the simplicity of Wham!‘s new look—drapes of sound to evoke their Armani-inspired tailoring.
The lyrics of “Like a Baby” strike a similar balance. Its tale of cross-continental lovers at once conjures chic cosmopolitanism and a hollow desperation, hinting at the strain that often lies beneath facades of sophistication. Rather symbolically, just as the band tested their stylistic limits, Michael tests the limits of his vocal range on the track, pushing for notes just out of his reach as the lyrics reach their climactic apotheosis: “You lied”. Could these strenuous efforts to force a kind of jet-setting maturity ultimately prove callow, a lie? Might Wham! 2.0 fail, just like a relationship does when stretched beyond its natural (as well as national) boundaries?
Hidden in these lyrics about failed romance is a hint of the band’s fears, as well. As Wham! attempted to broaden their appeal and reach American audiences, were they betraying their roots? After all, this is a band whose early hits name-dropped the D.H.S.S. and pointedly captured the anomie of Thatcher’s Britian. On “Like a Baby”, Michael sings, “Foreign skies / That blinded me to empty charms / I crossed the ocean and fell into your arms.” At this pivotal turning point, as they prepared an album of whose eventual international success (“Loving you was as good as gold,” Michael slyly sings in the song) they must have had some intimations, Michael and Ridgeley still paused to take a look back, to question whether they were on the right track in partly surrendering their carefree, youthful teenybopperism. On the cusp of adulthood, they still hesitate to pay a quiet, subdued homage to childish comforts, to the safety of a mother’s arms and of feeling “like a baby”. Rob Horning
The 1980s were not exemplary years for lyrical complexity in pop music: Duran Duran had thrown such concerns overboard as their sailboat carried them to exotic video ports of call, opening the door for Tears for Fears to dispense impenetrable pop psychology (“Shout”), A-ha to pen awkwardly phrased pleas for physical intimacy (“Take on Me”) and Madonna to embody the mercenary spirit of the impending Me Generation (“Material Girl”). This was the dawn of the MTV era, and our eyes were becoming an essential element of musical discernment. Who cared if Power Station’s songs seemed to have been written under a tight time deadline—did you see how cool Robert Palmer was in the video?
The sudden importance of videogenecy led to a clutch of musical acts whose primary talents were, euphemistically speaking, visibly evident. Superficially, the dashing playboy image that Andrew Ridgeley had formulated for the Make It Big release, along with the duo’s improbable good looks, fueled the easy dismissals by “viewers” who weren’t even listening. What they failed to hear is the surprising complexity of George Michael’s lyrics, his willingness to confront the enduring characteristics of the human condition such as abandonment issues (“Wake me up before you go go, don’t leave me hanging on like a yo-yo”), adequacy issues (“if my best isn’t good enough, then how can it be good enough for two?”), and frustration with our that oldest of our genetic imprimaturs, our own inability to resist temptation (“Should’ve known better than to cheat a friend and waste the chance that I’ve been given”). Wham!’s irresistible major-key melodies seemed like pop confections but were actually covert delivery devices for prickly minor-key sentiments.
“Freedom” tackles the compulsion to accentuate the positives in our broken relationships. George Michael conjures a dark scenario where his expressed desire for monogamy is brushed aside—“If you loved me, baby, you’d deny it, but you laugh and tell me I should try it.” The callous disregard exhibited by the object of his affections ought to have listeners yelling at their cassette player like viewers of horror movies try to warn the on-screen characters, yet how can we not ache for the hero, so earnest in his intentions and so foolish in his optimism? When Michael sings, “You could take me to hell and back just as long as we’re together—and you do,” he is grudgingly acknowledging the complexities of the things we define as love. Haven’t we all, in one way or another, felt “like a prisoner who has his own key”?
Wham! never got credit for such intricate pathos. Too many judged their proverbial book by its cover, but 25 years on, it’s clear the story was more complicated than the cover ever let on. Time has locked the song’s characters into an eternity of repeating their mistakes, but as listeners, we are able to correct our errant ways. Let’s start by giving credit where credit is due. Bill Reagan
When it comes to covering a song, there are two ways artists can go about it: They can either handle a track with kid gloves and simply go through the motions of recording it, or they can completely own it—body and soul—and give it a completely new context to thrive in. No one will deny that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a brilliant song, but to say that Jeff Buckley’s rendition is better than the canned production that marks Cohen’s original would be the understatement of the year.
So it shouldn’t come as much a surprise, then, that when Wham! decided to tackle the Isley Brothers’ classic tune “If You Were There”, they positively destroyed any memory of the original. Alternately funky and exciting, playful and downright sensual, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Wham!‘s version as transcendent as it is, though it’s a fair bet to assume that much of its greatness stems directly from George Michael’s powerful singing. Michael—pop’s Pavarotti in terms of sheer passion—manages to convey the sense of loving and longing without once ever having to go outside of his vocal comfort zone, proving that when it comes to catharsis, sometimes less truly can be more. In those well-selected moments when he chooses to send his voice straining toward falsetto, listeners must struggle themselves to prevent their own hearts from melting.
The most disappointing aspect of “If You Were There”, however, is that this absolute gem of a song—coming from a parent album full of them—never was released as a single, forcing fans to discover it on their own. Yet, this sort of ecstasy keep-away is just the sort of thing that Michael does best. Amidst the track’s fluid bass lines, courtesy of Deon Estes, and peppy drum programming, it’s hard not to wish yourself there in the studio during the recording of this song, just to be a part of the small-scale renaissance that took place in its refashioning. After all, updating a pop standard is tricky business, something Wham! learned the hard way on their first album, with their remake of the Miracles’ soul classic “Love Machine.” The fact that Wham! manage to find the emotional core of “If You Were There” without sacrificing any of the bright Day-Glo production with which they highlight all their tracks here is nothing short of astonishing. When asked for his reaction to the song in 1985 by NME, Ernie Isley had only this to say:
“I can’t believe it: they changed everything for the better. Hell, there were parts of the song that I don’t think I even knew existed until I heard it come of that boy’s mouth. It’s hard for me to talk about, really. Just ... damn.”
Even listening to this song in 2009, it’s hard to think of a more perfect union of both performer and material. Though the Isley Brothers were born to write “If You Were There”, it was George Michael who was born to sing it. History would never be the same in its wake. Evan Sawdey
Buried near the end of Make It Big and a mere forethought to the closing catharsis that is “Careless Whisper”, the spare “Credit Card Baby” is certainly among the most overlooked tracks on the album. Not a chart hit or a club staple of any strength, it’s quickly dismissed as filler.
But in the murky tension of the emotionally abusive relationship that is fundamentally at the core of Make It Big, “Credit Card Baby” is actually the capstone moment—the breaking point where the conflicted heart of “Everything She Wants” is finally resolved in the kiss-off that ends it for good. Without “Credit Card Baby”, the anguished reminiscence of “Careless Whisper” can’t serve as denouement; the emotional arc would remain incomplete. It’s this dramatic pivot that makes “Credit Card Baby” so significant in efforts to appreciate fully the achievement of Make It Big.
Though rightly regarded as a piece of emblematic “1980s pop”, Make It Big‘s strength is the subtle revelation of darkness inside its characters. George Michael’s compositions speak to love, and the music is beat-driven and aimed at the dance floor, but the album narrative is that of an unbalanced love affair—chaotic, passionate, intense, and destructive. Michael’s appeal might have been driven by his looks and charming grin on MTV, but on the radio and on Wham!‘s albums, there was heartache beyond all that sheen. From the album’s outset, the ambiguity of the relationship depicted in “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” suggests some kind of chase and pursuit of an indifferent lover—the fear of being left “hanging on like a yo-yo”.
By the time we get to “Everything She Wants”, our narrator has the object of his desire but is still having to chase him or her and buy his or her affections. This unrequited yearning for equality and true love continues throughout the album—the past reflections on “Heartbeat”, the push-me-pull-you of “Like a Baby”, the desperation cry of “Freedom”, even the Isley Brothers I-ain’t-cheating cover in “If You Were There”—spells out a warlike love affair. It’s melodramatic, but it’s also eminently relatable, speaking to the desperation for love in all of our lives.
“Credit Card Baby”, then, is a moment of empowerment—a final refusal to keep putting up with all the shit bemoaned throughout Make It Big. But unlike with the rallying cry of “Freedom” (where this desperation is twisted to stake the final claim to victory in the chase), Michael sets the caustic lyrics of “Credit Card Baby” to a simple candyfloss pop song. Featuring another Motown croon from Michael, the song has all the blue-eyed soul of Huey Lewis and the News as well as that era-defining marriage of horns and handclaps. But for all its pep and swing and studio craft, it’s still a final challenge to a love built on money and unhealthy covetousness: Take the money and run, but I don’t love you anymore.
If the message of “Credit Card Baby” is that of final breakup muddled by the singer’s apparent willingness to permit his lover to continue leeching off him, then “Careless Whisper” works as the final resolution—the gray and rainy night where our heart-weary narrator walks away at last, heavy with thoughts of what was. And this arc completes the luminous cycle of Make It Big, its lofty romance grounded in sentimental whispers of old ghosts—and, we must assume, ruined credit ratings. Patrick Schabe
You know you’ve made something special when friggin’ Seether pull an Orgy-level blasphemous hack job on your song. When your record label insists on releasing the single as credited not to the band but to the singer whose solo career they want to push (poor Andrew Ridgely –- unlike almost all of Wham!’s singles, he actually co-wrote this one). When, according to Wikipedia, “in Ecuador, the song’s saxophone riff is often used as a reference to homosexual people”. Yes, when all that happens and your song still stands proud as the sixth-best breakup song of all time (as voted by viewers of Britain’s Favourite Breakup Songs!), you know that you pretty much can’t fuck with “Careless Whisper”.
Let’s start with that Steven Gregory saxophone riff. Apparently, Michael came up with it in his head while waiting for a bus, and while you might think it’s going to follow prevalent mid-‘80s trends and be cheesy enough to ruin the song, Gregory makes it both soulful enough and, more important, propulsive enough that it serves to push the song forward whenever it kicks in. It’s the rare saxophone part on a ballad that you actually look forward to, and the influence from it shows up in the weirdest spots, everywhere from shitty jazz bars to, say, Arab Strap. (Seriously, try telling me the horns on “Tanned” don’t serve the same function.)
But the real highlight, the part that cuts through and justifies the proto-Sade atmospherics of the bulk of “Careless Whisper”, is George Michael’s delirious, aching chorus. We can all sing along with “I’m never going to dance again / Guilty feet have got no rhythm”, but Michael sings it with a perverse sense of joy undercutting the real agony that he/the song feels, the late night cry of someone punishing themselves for their indiscretions by consuming too many substances, too many public displays of guilt. He makes token feints toward responsibility, toward actually talking to the person (who, crucially, we never hear from—Michael claims that what he’s done is so wrong that the person “had to leave me alone”, but the song suggests a narrator prone to overreaction at best) before deciding that it’s best if they don’t talk, “we’d hurt each other with the things we’d want to say”.
It’s a weirdly masochistic song, but in a way most of us can identify with. Whether you’re the wronged party or the one doing the wronging, the hard thing to do is to settle down, stop pretending everything is dead and over, and talk to the person. “Careless Whisper” evokes perfectly the strangely decadent feeling of giving up, of being melodramatic and obsequiously sorry rather than being an adult. Sometimes you do it because in the back of your mind you know the relationship needs to end; sometimes just because it feels good to fall on your own sword in such a swooningly romantic fashion. And as long as it does, “Careless Whisper” will be there. Ian Mathers