Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: George Michael

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to another edition of Fabulously Flamboyant Friday, our occasional  probe into the Campari and soda drenched, rainbow and glitter world of artistes who are quite simply fabulous darling.

This week we’ll be taking a Armitage-Shanks themed look at the fabulously flamboyant world of Britain’s best-loved lavatory-dwelling Christmas novelty, Finchley’s finest all-round diamond geezer, Wham-meister and plod-botherer par excellence, and incidentally one of the most successful singer-songwriters of all time: laydees and gentlebodies, FFF proudly presents the one and only, Mr. George Michael! – not ‘arf!

Lumbered with the very un-rock ‘n’ roll nomenclature of Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, our George was born in East Finchley on the 25th June 1963. The child of English and Greek-Cypriot parents, he grew up in Kingsbury, apparently had a tough time with his dad and claimed his interest in music followed an unfortunate wallop to the noggin around the age of eight. In his early teens he met his future Wham! partner, Mr. Andrew Ridgeley. They pair bonded over their love of music, first performed in a short-lived ska band called The Executive, and when that venture imploded our dynamic duo formed Wham! – a name chosen because it was boisterous, snappy, fun and in yer face.

Formed in ’81, Wham! really didn’t hang around and managed to become a pretty big deal in a very short time. They would sell over 30 million records from ’82 to ’86 – and that’s pretty impressive for two young chaps in their late teens who had only just started scribbling their own material (with George doing most of the heavy lifting). The duo’s debut was (the pretty dreadful, if I’m honest) “Wham! Rap”. Unfortunately, it was not play-listed by the BBC (cos of naughty words), so it didn’t do particularly well. Undaunted, our dynamic duo followed up with “Young Guns (Go For It)”, cracked the top ten, re-released “Wham Rap!”, which then charted as well, and in no time at all the lads were up to their armpits in screaming girls, prime time TV and sold-out gigs.

 Bizarrely, at the time, there was some attempt by the UK music press to portray Wham! as some sort dance-based protest act. Unsurprisingly, that narrative didn’t stick, but it does serve to illustrate the old Frank Zappa quote about music journalists being people who can’t write, interviewing  people who cant talk, for people who can’t read. That feels like a justifiable criticism of most UK-based music journalists in the ’80s, but it’s a bit harsh on our George, who was quickly proving himself to be an articulate and engaging performer – and a pretty decent writer of top twenty chart fodder.

 Anyway, Wham! wisely sidestepped the protest nonsense and stuck firmly to a friendly blend of rap, funk and soul, spiced up with just a soupçon of teen angst and disaffected yoof. As a result, their 1983 debut album “Fantastic” was a significant domestic success, and their second studio album “Make It Big” (1984) was a whopping great worldwide success, charting at number one on both sides of the Atlantic, with singles from the album – “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, “Everything She Wants” and “Careless Whisper” – all topping the charts in sundry parts of the world. Wham! even made a highly publicised ten-day visit to China (allegedly the first by a Western pop group) that was portrayed as a watershed moment in the increasingly open and friendly bilateral relations between China and the West (well that certainly worked out well…).

 But let us not forget (nor should we ever forgive) that Wham! also inflicted their monster hit single “Last Christmas” on the world, thereby enlarging the already hideous, soul-sucking and endlessly looped December in-store Christmas mix-tape from hell (i.e. All I want For Christmas Is You / Simply Having A wonderful Christmas Time / Last Christmas), adding to the annual existential horror faced by retail assistants everywhere, melting their brains and seriously testing the limits of their beleaguered sanity. Happily, some good came of this crime against humanity: “Last Christmas” became the 10th best-selling UK single of all time and the duo generously donated all their royalties to famine relief. Our dynamic duo also performed onstage at Live Aid in 1985, but not as Wham! George sang “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with the fabulously flamboyant Elton John and Mr. Ridgeley joined Kiki Dee in the row of Elton’s backing singers.

Wham! – Last Christmas

Anyway, despite all the fun, Wham! didn’t last long and disbanded in ’86. George was keen to move on and wanted to create music targeted at a more sophisticated adult market, and in particular wanted to move away from the duo’s primarily scream-teen audience. They said goodbye to their adoring fans with a farewell performance at London’s Wembley Stadium on 28 June 1986. An impressive 72,000 punters attended that event, and that really is not too shabby at all.

Within a few months, George had his solo career up and running with “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”, a duet with Aretha Franklin, and in late 1987 he released his debut solo album”Faith”, promoted with the single “I Want Your Sex”. This blatant filth landed George with a good many radio station bans and a toned-down version was very quickly issued to the pearl-clutching broadcasters. However, a little bit of controversy never did a pop star any harm and Faith sold by the truckload. It effortlessly reached number one in the UK and the US, sailed serenely past multi-platinum status with barely a nonchalant wave and was eventually awarded a diamond disc. It was also a bit of a surprise for some as it clearly demonstrated this George Michael chap was fast becoming a bloody good songwriter. Critical reaction was very favourable: “a superbly crafted mainstream masterpiece”; “one of the finest pop albums of the ’80s”; “a magnificent start to his solo career”, and so on and so forth. So it was official: a chart-rogering debut, transatlantic domination, hit singles everywhere – George Michael was a bona fide superstar an’ no mistake, guv’nor.

George Michael – Faith

Inevitably, a massively successful, globe-straddling and highly lucrative world tour followed, with George snaffling Brit, Grammy and numerous other awards along the way. However, by the end of the Faith cycle (writing, recording, release, promotion, videos, touring, awards) George seemed to be developing a touch of the Garbo’s and began hinting at unhappiness, exhaustion, frustration; and in 1990 told his record company (apparently, in no uncertain terms) that he would not be getting back on the promotional treadmill for his second album.

That second album turned out to be “Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1” – a stupidly pretentious title, if you ask me, but of course nobody did. Released in September 1990, the album signalled George’s clear desire to be taken seriously as an artiste. The album was a big success, certified four-times Platinum, and spawned a string of hit singles. However, to his record company’s surprise (and doubtless no small irritation) George was as good as his word and steadfastly refused to do any significant promotion for the album – he didn’t appear in any promotional videos, he didn’t even appear on the album cover. Nevertheless, Listen Without Prejudice received great critical acclaim and picked up the award for Best British Album at the Brit awards later that year.

Things then started to get a little turbulent for our George. He did go back out on the road, but still refused to tour in support of his current album. Instead he  embarked on the “Cover to Cover” tour, singing cover versions of his favourite songs by other writers and performers. He fell out with his record label (and ended up in court over his contract) and the expected follow-up album “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2” was scrapped. George donated some of his material from this abandoned project to AIDS awareness and also agreed to take part in the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium, the proceeds of which would go to AIDS research. George later claimed it was probably the proudest moment of his career, “because it was me, living out a childhood fantasy, singing one of Freddie’s songs in front of 80,000 people”.

George Michael – I Want Your Sex

By this time, rumours about George’s sexuality were widespread. He had already discussed the matter with Andrew Ridgeley and with a previous girlfriend, but publicly he was still firmly in the closet. In 1992 George established a relationship with Anselmo Feleppa, a Brazilian dress designer. Unfortunately, a few months into their relationship, Feleppa discovered he was HIV-positive and died not long after from AIDS-related complications. According to his biographer, James Gavin, this loss hit George very hard and he was truly heartbroken. After a significant period of seclusion, George re-surfaced for an appearance at the MTV Awards, where he gave a performance of a new song called “Jesus to a Child” as a tribute to Feleppa. His 1996 album (ruefully titled “Older”, suggesting not necessarily wiser) was also dedicated to his late partner.

“Older” is an album by an individual who’s picked up a few knocks and dents along the way. It’s sombre and downbeat in parts, but it also contains some of his most mature, considered and thoughtful songwriting. It was a very long way from Wham Rap, but his audience had been on the journey with him and the album was a great success. “Older” produced 6 top 10 singles and thrust George firmly back into the awards spotlight. In ’96 he picked up MTV, Brit and Ivor Novello Awards. He also performed his first concert in years – an MTV Unplugged performance, with his mother in the audience. Sadly, in a second terrible blow to George, she too would pass away not long after.

Unfortunately, following this double blow, more misfortune was looming on the horizon. This time in the form of an undercover police operation. On April 7 1998, George was arrested for engaging in a lewd act in a public restroom of the Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills, California. He was arrested in a sting operation, but his biographer has suggested George actually wanted to get caught. Not necessarily by getting his collar felt in a khazi, but that he wanted his sexuality out in the open. True or not, George seemed, publicly at least, largely untroubled by his outing. He owned his arrest with commendable aplomb (via the “Outside” video) and later admitted his outing-by-arrest was quite possibly “a subconsciously deliberate act.” In an interesting postscript to this tale, the officer responsible for getting George cuffed in the khazi was less than impressed with the “Outside” video. Before long, claims of mockery, slander and substantial compensation were occupying m’learned friends. The case did come to court, but, from a plod perspective at least, was ultimately unsuccessful.

Famously, George’s troubles did not stop there. In fact, he was soon on a roll. In 2006 he was arrested for possession of Class C drugs (an incident he described as “my own stupid fault, as usual”) and the UK tabloids gleefully published allegations of cruising for cuddlesome companionship on Hampstead Heath. He followed this up in 2007 by getting nicked for drug-impaired driving, which landed him with two year driving ban; and in 2008 he was arrested again, this time in a Hampstead Heath public convenience for possession of Class A and C drugs. Unsurprisingly, the tabloid press were having a field day with all these high-profile shenanigans. However, George’s public response to all this press interest was a splendidly robust “they can kiss my hairy Greek arse”.

Unfortunately, George had saved his most spectacular run in with the rozzers for last. In the early hours of July 4th 2010, he managed to crash his car into the front of a Snappy Snaps store in Hampstead. This little jolly landed him an eight week prison sentence, a five-year driving ban and a whopping great fine. He eventually served four weeks in chokey and the dent in the Snappy Snaps wall was subsequently adorned with a one-word graffito that simply said “Wham!” As an encore, George temporarily closed the M1 Motorway in 2013 when he managed to fall out of the passenger door of a car doing about 70mph. Unsurprisingly, he was wasn’t feeling too chipper after his tumble and decided to have a little rest on the tarmac until the emergency services arrived. An air ambulance later airlifted him to hospital with quite nasty head injuries.

Astonishingly, with all this extra-curricular activity going on, George still found time to have an interesting career. In 2003, with the Gulf War looming, he managed to thoroughly irritate the producers of Top Of The Pops. He was due to perform an anti-war song written by Don McLean, but the show’s producers were less than happy with the anti-Blair T-shirts worn by some members of his band. The producers were quick to voice their displeasure, but George stood his ground. McLean later said he was very proud of George Michael.

When George’s fifth studio album, “Patience”, was released in 2004 it would sadly prove to be his last. Compilations, live albums, DVDs, tours, collaborations and the occasional single would follow, but in terms of studio albums of new and original material, Patience would be his swan song. It was critically acclaimed, went to No. 1 on the UK Album chart and produced a number of hit singles. However, once again, George did not seem particularly interested in promoting it, and although it did well, sales did not match his previous albums.

By the time George decided to have a little lie down on the M1, there were already concerns about his health and well being. His enthusiastic and well-publicised use of recreational pharmaceuticals was on record, there had been arrests for drug-related offences in 2006, 2008, and 2010; and in an interview with the BBC he confirmed that at one time he was smoking up to 25 “spliffs” per day.

In 2011, his management team cancelled some of his tour dates when he contracted pneumonia and subsequently fell into a coma. He recovered to finish the tour and performed what would be his last concert at London’s Earls Court on 17 October 2012. In 2014, George announced that he had successfully refrained from cannabis for almost one-and-one-half years. However, in June 2015, a bloated and puffy looking George checked himself into a drug rehabilitation facility in Switzerland for  treatment.

His biographer, James Gavin, has claimed that towards the end of his life George had stopped writing songs and his voice had become badly damaged from his years of drug abuse. Sadly, in the early hours of Christmas Day 2016, George Michael passed away. He died at home, in bed, at his mansion in Goring-on-Thames. His body was discovered by his partner, Fadi Fawaz. George was just 53.

Almost immediately, rumours, theories, speculation and gossip about his death began spreading:  accidental overdose, suicide, murder – even a faked death with the assistance of British military intelligence was suggested. Even today, a quick internet search will uncover all sorts of wild speculation. However, a coroner officially attributed George Michael’s death to natural causes: dilated cardiomyopathy, myocarditis and a fatty liver. George was buried at Highgate Cemetery next to his mother.

There is no doubt that George Michael was a tremendously talented individual. Unfortunately, like so many cast from this mould, he also possessed a full range of human frailties and weaknesses. Sadly, it seems these aspects of his personality came to dominate his life and eventually he succumbed. He has undoubtedly left us with a tremendous body of work, but I’m afraid I don’t believe he came anywhere near to fulfilling his considerable potential as both a writer and a performer.

George Michael – Father Figure

However, let us not end our fabulously flamboyant tale in such a downbeat manner. Accordingly, we shall take a brief look at a much happier aspect of George’s personality – his generosity. Soon after his passing, stories of his philanthropy began to surface and a picture of a man who had been quietly donating hundreds of thousands of pounds to charities began to emerge. Childline, The Terrence Higgins Trust, Macmillan Cancer Support and others all revealed that George Michael had been supporting them with large and regular chunks of wedge on a no-publicity basis for quite some time. He also donated to individuals: he once tipped a barmaid £5,000 when he discovered she had debt problems, and he is known to have anonymously funded the medical treatment of at least two individuals with whom he had absolutely no relationship and in fact had never met. He also volunteered at a homeless shelter, had been anonymously paying for an annual Christmas tree to be erected in Highgate (where he lived), funded the Christmas lights and was the largest funder of Highgate’s annual Fair in the Square, donating anonymously as “a local resident”.

And to wrap things up and raise the mood a little more, here’s a very happy and healthy George, at what he once described as probably the proudest moment of his career, captivating an audience of 80,000 punters at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium in London.

TTFN Puffins – not ‘arf!

Featured Image: David Jones from Isle of Wight, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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