[31 March 2009]
It would seem that time has not been particularly kind to “the other guy in Wham!” The always enigmatic Ridgeley has gone from being one half of the world’s most successful pop duo in the 1980s to a punch line on Family Guy. Is this entirely fair? The official biography of the band tends to credit Ridgeley for nothing musical, only for taking the pudgy, unpopular Michael under his wing at Bushey Meads School in Hertfordshire when they were teenagers, and for perhaps guiding the duo’s fashion sense (though its evolution was more likely the brainchild of Wham!‘s shrewd manager, Simon Napier-Bell) while Michael was busy writing and singing all the songs. Though Ridgeley was occasionally seen wearing a guitar, he was rarely seen playing it, even during actual Wham! concerts. Instead, he tended to bounce around stage like a tween hopped up on too many jellybeans, while occasionally striking faux-sexy poses that make the Jonas Brothers seem risqué.
In this 1984 TV interview, Ridgeley claimed he hoped he could “retire with grace,” but this did not immediately seem destined to be. While Michael was soaring to ever greater fame on the strength of Faith, Ridgeley spent several years as a layabout Lothario. Then, perhaps because he was contractually obligated, Ridgeley recorded a solo album in 1990, the widely ignored Son of Albert, featuring his brother Paul on percussion.
It did little to shore up his musical reputation. In fact, watching the video for his would-be hit “Shake,” it is rather startling to see him actually sing and seemingly play. The song, which has nothing to do with the sort of music Wham! popularized, is wannabe hair metal in the vein of Skid Row or Warrant, replete with bombastic Mutt Lange-ish production and dive-bomb guitar soloing (most assuredly not played by Ridgeley himself). Reviewing Son of Albert, now a collector’s item only occasionally auctioned on eBay, Entertainment Weekly dismissed his “fake-raunchy rock and roll,” and Rolling Stone called his singing “shapeless and reedy” and, worse, his affectations “ludicrous.”
For what is Ridgeley if not the sum of his affectations? After Wham! disbanded, Ridgeley, who as much as anyone strove to embody the materialistic excess of the 1980s, cavorted in Monaco and tried his hand at formula racing and acting before settling on surfing as his primary preoccupation. Such is Ridgeley’s fortune—perhaps karma for having come so far on so little evident talent—that he contracted an illness after surfing too close to a pipe spewing raw sewage into the ocean off the coast of England.
By all appearances, Ridgeley now lives a life of quiet, semi-anonymous retirement in an old farmhouse in Cornwall with his longtime partner Karen Woodward, a former member of Banarama. He has refused several overtures from Michael to “perform” at proposed Wham! reunion concerts. He seems to spend much of his time instead pursuing the ultimate in suburban middlebrow leisure: playing golf.
Virtually no other successful band could be said to have less respect or credibility at the pinnacle of their fame than Wham!, and that seems almost entirely due to Ridgeley. But rather than deride him for that, perhaps it should be regarded as an achievement. His ebullient insouciance was capable of outshining Michael’s undeniable talent. And to complain that Ridgeley could not play guitar or write songs is to miss the point of him entirely. The reason he remains an important icon for our age—and why a Wham! reunion without him would be so unthinkable—is precisely because he did nothing. This made him the perfect object for vicarious identification. With Ridgeley, we can pretend that despite our own lack of any identifiable talent, we too very well could have been famous, could have been on top—that this in fact, in some obscure way, is what the contemporary world owes to us.
Utterly devoid of artistic ego, Ridgeley made the most of his notoriety while it lasted, fulfilling whatever fantasies his juvenile mind could imagine, and then escaped the charnel house of celebrity with his sanity basically intact, which is more, apparently, than Michael can say. And then Ridgeley managed to retire not with grace but ultimately with something even more unlikely, considering he once paraded around on stage in outlandish outfits while the guitar he pretended to play (allegedly) wasn’t even plugged in: dignity. That is an accomplishment no one can slight.