Sunday, December 25, 2016

George Michael, Protest Singer-- RIP


SONY Records— they were still called CBS at the time— had just bought my independent label, 415 Records and I was over in England hanging out with the Clash, Generation X, the Boomtown Rats and Wire and scouting for bands I could sign to 415 now that we would have CBS’ marketing muscle behind us. I met a young unknown singer from a small indie label, Innervision, George Michael and he played me a tape of a kind of protest song called Wham Rap. It was a little slick for 415 but… 415 could change. One thing I knew instantaneously— it was a hit. Another thing I knew: this kid was going to be a superstar. I was wrong about the first supposition and right about the second. I went back to CBS’ New York headquarters determined to sign the band. I had to get permission. They liked the band. “Thanks for bringing it in. It’s not really right for 415; we’ll sign them directly to Columbia. You have a good ear.” That’s called getting fucked.

Michael’s partner, Andrew Ridgeley, appeared gay to me. And Michael was an obvious heartthrob for teenage girls. I didn’t think CBS could sell them properly in the U.S. while keeping their protest music aspect front and center. Well, that aspect lasted shorter than it took for the ink to dry on the contract, although exactly 20 years later George Michael released an epic anti-Bush/Blair song Shoot the Dog. Who would have imagined that just 5 years later Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan would adopt the duo’s second single for a Republican program for electing conservatives to Congress! It was this performance on Dec. 9, 1982 on the Top of the pops that broke the band and took out all the guess-work about how big they would be:

[See Eric Cantor rocking out in the audience? Even he sensed Wham was going to be as big as Culture Club.] CBS, which never really had any respect for indie labels, eventually muscled Innervision out of the picture and released “Wake Me Up Before you Go-Go,” the video at the top of the page, and even people who aren’t as smart as Eric Cantor knew this group was going all the way. Cantor, though, started wearing his “Choose Life” t-shirt under his suits and ties and gave Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy the iconic t-shits as well. Tom Rooney (R-LA) bought his own just before the 2008 election and is rumored to still wear it today. “Wake Me Up” was the band’s first #1 and their next release, “Careless Whisper” came out next and was their second #1. Oh, man did I get rooked!

In 1985 they became the first Western band to do a major tour of China and the resulting film (above), Foreign Skies: Wham! came out the following year, just as Wham broke up. Both guys went out of their way to appear to be straight, a typical pop music “business decision” for gay artists. Funny enough, it turned out Ridgeley really was straight and it was George Michael who preferred men. He had told my old friend, Judy Wieder, he was gay in 1999, so it didn’t come as a surprise to me at all when he finally stopped the “bisexual” pose. By then he had already been very publicly living with a gay man in Dallas and had later been arrested for having sex in a park in Beverly Hills. He was 53 when he died of as yet undisclosed causes at his home in the U.K. today. I bet he wouldn't have played Trump's inauguration either.

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