When I posted the Status Quo Top Ten and promised George would be next, an old friend with a much better memory than mine reminded me of something I'd long since forgotten.
Back in the early 90s, I wrote and self-published a small press comic called The Jock. Based on my experiences in the radio industry, the story told of a dystopian society ruled by a corporation called Yourent which controlled the population through mind-numbing muzak played out through its radio and TV channels. The Jock and his band of helpers were rebel DJs who fought against Yourent with their own pirate radio station that played only "real music" from the past. If you got to hear that old, banned music again, it could break you free from state control and allow you to feel and think for yourself again. This was my early 20s: I was big on metaphor.
Every issue of The Jock would contain a playlist of the sort of songs the Jock might play to break you free - lots of old rock and soul, indie (which I was finally getting into in a big way in my 20s after having managed to avoid it for most of my teens), punk, grunge... you can imagine the sort of stuff. (Maybe I'll dig out some of those old Jock playlists sometime and post them here.)
Anyway, the thing my old friend (and Jock reader) reminded me of was the furore that ensued among the book's largely alternative-minded readership when I included some George Michael in one of those playlists. But I grew up on 80s pop and although it did become rather flashy and soulless in places (from Duran Duran to the late 80s horrorshow of SAW), I always considered George Michael smarter and truer than that. He produced pop music with heart and warmth and humour. He knew when to make fun of himself and had a voice that would put most of today's chart-toppers to shame. So while many of my former bloggers are playing the "I respected him but never really dug his music" card right now, I am happy to admit that I loved George, from the perfect sunshine pop of Wham! to his underrated masterpiece, Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1. After that, I dove headlong into my indie years and didn't really pay as much attention to him as I had before, but choosing just ten favourites was still a hard task...
10. One More Try
A proper soul song, this owes more than a little to Try A Little Tenderness, though it doesn't change tempo halfway through like Otis did.I used to play this a lot on a Late Night Love show I drove back in the early 90s. Weird scenario: the DJ would record generic links, I'd feed them in between my own choice of love songs... as long as they were appropriate choices for the show, everybody left me alone to get on with it.
9. Wake Me Up Before You Go Go
Choose life. Choose pop. Choose happiness. Choose fun.
You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day...8. Outside
To be fair, I'd pretty much left George behind by the time the late 90s rolled round. I was a full-on indie kid and had put away childish things like the pop music of my teenage years. Ah, the folly of your 20s! That said, it was hard to resist this classic comeback single, the hypocrisy-puncturing response to his arrest for "engaging in a lewd act". One of the best videos of the 90s: with a serious point to make beyond the funny stuff.
7. I Want Your Sex
They won't play this on the radio!
And they didn't.
Which was enough to make hundreds of sexually naïve (and desperate) teenagers like me run out to buy the single (or the album) to hear what all the fuss was about.
I Want Your Sex is not the sort of pop song I generally like. Unlike most of the songs in this list, it has no guitars, no brass section, hardly even a keyboard! It's got a drum machine and handclaps (which, I just bet, aren't real hands). It's a dance record: and I HATE dance music. Well, not all dance music, it turns out...
Sex is natural, sex is goodThis song became my surrogate sex life for the next three or four years. It probably built up my expectations a little too much, to be honest. And yes, I much prefer it to Relax...
Not everybody does it
But everybody should!
6. Praying For Time
When pop stars try to become serious musicians, they often fall flat on their faces. George wasn't 100% successful in terms of his career goals (he ended up suing CBS for not promoting Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1 the right way... Volume 2 never happened), but in terms of his artistic goals, many felt they'd been realised. Much has been written over the last few days about George's politics - from the punk spirit of Wham Rap! to the anti-establishment stance he took later in his career. Let's face it, Simon Le Bon he was not. And as is often the case with the best socially aware pop commentators, the lyrics to Praying For Time are just as timely today as they were in 1990...
These are the days of the empty hand5. The Edge of Heaven
Oh, you hold on to what you can
And charity, charity is a coat you wear twice a year
This is the year of the guilty man
Your television takes a stand
And you find that what was over there is over here
So you scream from behind your door
Say what's mine is mine and not yours
I may have too much but I'll take my chances
'Cos God's stopped keeping score
The last Wham! single has some pretty raunchy words, but George was confident he'd get away with them since he knew "nobody listens to a Wham! lyric". I love the big Wham! singles because they all remind me of school discos. The good ones, when everyone got on the dancefloor and went for it. Not the bad ones where I sat in a different corner and pined after a girl who wouldn't ever hear my careless whispering...
I would lock you up4. Freedom '90
But I could not bear to hear you
Screaming to be set free
I would chain you up
If I'd thought you'd swear
The only one that mattered was me, me, me
I would strap you up
But don't worry baby
You know I wouldn't hurt you 'less you wanted me to
It's too late to stop
Won't the heavens save me?
My daddy said the devil looks a lot like you
Not the biggest hit from Listen Without Prejudice, but the one that had the biggest impact on me. I loved the way George took the title of Wham!'s mightiest pop song and turned it into a commentary on the way he'd been treated by the music industry...
Heaven knows we sure had some fun, boy.3. Faith
What a kick, just a buddy and me.
We had every big shot, good-time, band on the run, boy.
We were living in a fantasy.
We won the race.
Got out of the place.
I went back home, got a brand new face
For the boys on MTV,
But today the way I play the game has got to change.
Now I'm gonna get myself happy.
As previously revealed, I bought my first 7" in March 1987, sometime around my 15th birthday. Seven months later, I added this single to my rapidly-growing collection. It was the first George Michael record I bought: the album came a little later (see below). Written with a Bo Diddley beat as "a rock 'n' roll pastiche", apparently... but damn, this shows George knew his stuff.
It depends entirely on the age you come to pop music. I have a friend in his late 20s with very alternative, punky tastes who won't hear a word said against Gary Barlow. I was 12 in 1984. I'd just started high school. It'd be three years till I bought my first single. But if this came on the radio, I'd have sung it at the top of my voice. I was a long way away from worrying about what was cool. I just appreciated a good pop tune. Listen to that brass section!
1. Kissing A Fool
The first time I actually plucked up the courage to ask a girl out on a date... and incredibly have her say yes, I must have been 18. I'd recently passed my driving test, but I didn't yet have my own car, so I borrowed my dad's old Ford Sierra. This momentous occasion in my life must have coincided with the acquisition of my first CD player, and I remember that one of the first CDs I bought was George Michael's Faith. Time gets a little fuzzy here since Faith was released in '87 but I couldn't afford a CD player till '90 when I started my first (paid) job at the radio station in the gap years I took between my A Levels and university. I guess I came late to the album, if not the single. Or maybe it was on offer when I bought the CD player? If only I'd known to keep a diary of my musical purchases when I was a teenager, this blog would be much more accurate.
The point is, I had a disposable income for the first time in my life. I had my dad's car, I had George Michael in the cassette deck, and I had a girl who said 'yes' when I finally plucked up the courage to mumble a blushing "would you like to...?" And so I took her out. To the cinema. (Crazy People starring Dudley Moore & Daryl Hannah. Hardy a classic.) I still remember how grown-up I felt when we walked into the pre-cinema pub and I ordered her a drink. I still remember my excitement when I dropped her off at her house and she asked me in for coffee... only to be followed by the confusion of discovering that she actually meant coffee (and, frankly, her coffee was horrible). I still remember my heartbreak when she got her friend to tell me a day or so later that she'd had a very nice time but she'd since got back together with her old boyfriend and she hoped we could still be friends.
The album Faith always reminds me of all this, particularly the most apt song on there... the smoky, jazz bar classic, Kissing A Fool. The fool never did get that kiss...
I could easily have done another ten. Rest in peace, George. Thanks for the memories...