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
4. “Like a Baby”
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