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Why George Michael’s Wham! period is in need of a reappraisal

Del Cowie

The death of George Michael on Christmas Day has prompted yet another browse to the seemingly unending practice of posthumously combing through the back catalogue of an iconic pop star in 2016. In the reactions that have followed Michael's sudden passing at the age of 53, his songwriting talent, generosity and trailblazing as an artist who was forced into publicly coming out as gay are among the many things that have been rightfully noted. Most assessments of Michael’s musical career have focused on his solo work, but arguably all the ingredients in Michael’s later, more popular work were also the foundation of his early '80s band Wham!, the funk and soul-influenced pop duo he formed with friend Andrew Ridgeley.

Often treated as a cursory note in his overall output and dismissed and misunderstood as a boy band due to their fun-loving stage performances, a line in the sand can be hastily drawn between Wham! and Michael's incarnation as a solo artist. While Wham!’s music was definitely not as sophisticated as the songwriting we’d witness on solo releases like the epic length and arrangement of “Father Figure” or the stark songcraft of “A Different Corner,” its debut album, Fantastic, is where we first heard the deep influence soul and funk had on Michael, an inherent ingredient in all of his music to come that ultimately drew the mutual respect of his soul heroes and their audiences.

Wham’s first single from Fantastic, “Young Guns (Go For It),” emerged in late 1982 in the U.K. and was an immediate Top 10 hit. At 19, Michael was already a confident and assured performer and the song is heavily influenced by what was being called Britfunk — the music largely pioneered by the children of post World War II West Indian immigrants to the U.K.

Groups like Hi-Tension, Linx and Central Line were instrumental in the scene. The sound, developed in U.K. clubs in the late '70s and early '80s, melded U.S. jazz funk fusion with disco, recontextualizing the sound for youthful "soul boys" in the U.K., to whom Michael explicitly refers to in the song's lyrics.

I said, soul boy, let's hit the town!
I said, soul boy, what's with the frown?

Michael's earnest faux-American accented raps are decidedly awkward and less assured than his inimitable singing voice, palpably frustrated with his friend’s rejection of hedonistic partying to dedicate himself to a life of conservative matrimony. That was followed by Wham!’s second single, “Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do),” which directly addressed the U.K’s spiralling youth unemployment of the time, urging freedom from responsibility of getting a job as being a definitive attribute of heteronormative masculinity.

Like “Young Guns,” “Wham! Rap” utilized upfront funk guitar and brassy interjections with Michael’s innate pop songwriting sensibilities. The Britfunk sound was mined again for their third successive hit “Bad Boys” and the melodic jazz breeze of “Club Tropicana,” the themes of escapism and independence atop funk-influenced tracks a consistent thread. All four singles would feature on Fantastic, which also featured a cover of “Love Machine,” the 1975 disco hit by The Miracles.

The album failed to bring the unbridled success their more pop-oriented sophomore album Make It Big would deliver, which featured tracks like the Motown-referencing “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and “Freedom” and reached number one on album charts around the world. While Michael would fine-tune his love for R&B and soul later on, it was Fantastic’s stepping stone success in the U.K. that laid the blueprint.

Upon Michael's passing, Wham! singles like “Everything She Wants” were being fondly remembered by artists like premier hip-hop producer Just Blaze, the song having garnered play on U.S. black radio stations at the time of its release. By the time Michael definitively went solo in the wake of the success of worldwide hit “Careless Whisper” (credited to Wham! in the U.S. but deemed a solo single in the U.K.), he’d already garnered the respect and admiration of some of soul music's most foremost practitioners. In the wake of his death, soul legend Chaka Khan reminisced on the shows she played with Michael while he was still in Wham! and posted a version of him singing “Ain’t Nobody,” her hit single with Rufus.

Few singers would have wanted to duet with the supreme vocal presence of Aretha Franklin, the undisputed Queen of Soul, but for Michael, the 1987 song “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” was an opportunity to sing with one of his musical heroes. The track would earn him his first Grammy award. Michael would also go on to duet with Whitney Houston and release Faith, the hit album that in 1988 made him the first white solo artist to top Billboard’s Black album chart.

Despite his reduced musical output in the years immediately prior to his death, Michael would retain his musical relevance and ties to the music that inspired him. He showed up onstage with Beyoncé in a surprise appearance at a 2009 U.K. concert to duet on her hit “If I Were A Boy” and he was on the brink of readying a project that would look back at the 25th anniversary of his Listen Without Prejudice album, which featured the groundbreaking "Freedom! '90" video.

Legendary musician and producer Nile Rodgers was also recently at Michael’s house filming a documentary on Michael which had been scheduled to be completed sometime in 2017. Rodgers was stunned at Michael's death, posting a video clip of himself and Michael performing with Stevie Wonder. Rodgers' friendship with Michael was notable as the funk rhythm guitar style of Chic, Rodgers' '70s disco band, was a clear influence on Wham!'s Fantastic's singles. Legendary songwriter Paul McCartney also worked with Michael on many occasions and praised his "great talent" on his website. "George Michael's sweet soul music will live on even after his sudden death,” said McCartney, finding words that accurately summed up the past and future of Michael's musical contributions.

Follow Del Cowie on Twitter: @vibesandstuff

More to explore:

George Michael's greatest hits

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Ottawa's gay community mourns loss of George Michael