I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard Careless Whisper: sitting with friend (and mum) in the living room of Chez Alison McDermott in the new ‘city’ of Milton Keynes. Neath Hill I think the estate was called.
That summer I’d just turned 15, with Alison slightly older. Unsurprisingly, music figured heavily in our lives. Alison was there that April when we took the National Express, not because our lives were in a mess but it was simply the easiest way to get to Dunstable to attend my first concert (Dead or Alive at Queensway Hall). Just before that, she’d been the first person in the world to lend me a David Bowie record (the ChangesTwoBowie compilation, because I wanted “the one with Ashes To Ashes on.”) to see if I could get into his work. Obviously nothing came of that.
In early July 1984, we happened to be watching Sky Trax, the video-based music programme of Sky Channel, the fledgling cable-based forerunner of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV empire, when “the brand new solo single from George Michael” announced itself on the tellybox. You’ll know the video; that one where he appears to be holding on to an awful lot of rope.
There was a pause when the track finished.
“Hmmm, it’s… quite good.”
I could hear myself sounding more than a little surprised as the words came out of my mouth.
You have to understand, at that time, us self-styled “weird” kids hated the majority of mainstream music.
Indeed, Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, the previous single George put his name to (and the first trailer for their second album Make It Big), I reserved a particular loathing for. It was a frothy, fetid cornball of the cheesiest variety.
I liked ‘serious’ and edgy music now, see. And this neon-loving pop duo were, to me, just a bit of super sparkly eye candy that looked way better than they sounded. Well, they did until they started growing their hair, getting nose jobs and looking just a little bit too perfect.
“He plucks his eyebrows,” Alison’s mother said, matter-of-factly, probably wishing they’d play The Beatles.
So, yes, I freely admit was more shocked than anyone that I actually liked this grown-up, cautionary tale of adultery and gossiping at the disco. Let’s be honest, it was a far cry from the featherweight knowing untruth of “Cos I’m not planning on going solo.”
Dropping the bombastic Wham! Bam to make an early stab at separating the goo from the go-go, Careless Whisper also spelled the dawn of a whole new career for the fellow half-Greek born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (‘Yog’ for short) in London six years and a day before me – it was time to drop the boy after all.
This one record not only changed my view of George, suddenly the audience for his songwriting grew overnight, even if it had been co-written with fellow Whamster Andrew Ridgeley when they were just 17 years old.
Talking of which, Andy’s even in the first (officially unreleased) version of the impossibly glamorous video, which uses the track’s rejected Jerry Wexler production from 1983, replete with a slight lyrical change and absolutely zero Princess Diana hairdo. Yog is the very picture of heartbreak as he laments those guilty feet of his.
George Michael had originally recorded the song at Alabama’s celebrated Muscle Shoals Sound Studios at the urging of Atlantic Records and former Aretha Franklin producer Wexler, but the singer was unhappy wth the demo-like quality of the recording. Despite the roll-call of acclaimed musicians, there is something almost metronomic about it; the trademark warmth is what appears to be missing.
It‘s a fascinating story because it stars these different generations of white soul sessioneers with divergent tastes in black music. Maybe Wexler and the boys didn’t hear Careless Whisper the way Yog did. But he had the confidence (and the nerve) to take it home and redo it until it became the screen of silk and smoke we know today.
Ensconced in Sheffield (Alabama, not Yorkshire one), a certain sax line had yet to be successfully replicated, adding to George’s frustration. Wexler booked the top saxophone player from Los Angeles to do the famous solo, alas: “He arrived at eleven and should have been gone by twelve,” said Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell. “Instead, after two hours, he was still there while everyone in the studio shuddered with embarrassment. He just couldn’t play the opening riff the way George wanted it, the way it had been on the demo. But that had been made two years earlier by a friend of George’s who lived round the corner and played sax for fun in the pub.”
George apparently told the saxophonist: “No, it’s still not right, you see… It has to twitch upwards a little just there! See…? And not too much.”
When Napier-Bell asked Wexler if George’s dispute with the sax sound was correct, Wexler replied: “Definitely! I’ve seen things like this before. There’s some tiny nuance that the sax player is somehow not getting right. Although you and I can’t hear what it is, it may be the very thing that will make the record a hit. The success of pop records is so ephemeral, so unbelievably unpredictable, we just can’t take the risk of being impatient. But this sax player’s not going to get it, is he!”
Yog returned to London to re-record the version at Trevor Horn’s Sarm West studios that was ultimately released, but the earlier take did get a limited release as a bonus ‘Special Version’ on the B-side of the maxi 12″ single in the UK and Japan. Listen to it above and tell me the artist didn’t make the right decision.
But let’s talk about that famously sultry sax riff for a minute.
Whether its the Wexler or the Sarm, or any of the live renditions I was fortunate to hear George perform, it always sounded a bit “talk about pop muzak” to me – like its been half-inched from a soft porn movie or contemporaneous coffee ad.
Nevertheless, Steve Gregory’s note-perfect blowing is easily the most iconic horn work since Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, and one that practically defined the sax sound of the 1980s.
Kenco‘s a go-go…
Having said that, like the sad Spanish guitar cocktail-lounge flummery, the sax doesn’t do much more than set a scene and telegraph its writer’s desire to make a smooth, mid-Atlantic soul classic.
“Time can never mend,” sang a guilty George. But time has indeed been kind to Careless Whisper. It’s the sixth biggest selling debut single ever, the 37th top-selling 45 of all time and by far the most played record of his career, selling over six million copies around the world and topping the charts in a whopping 25 countries.
After George’s death, the Sun newspaper launched a campaign to re-release Careless Whisper to raise money for some of the singer’s favourite charities. Andrew Ridgeley pushed back, saying a song Michael wrote by himself as a solo artist should be re-released, rather than something from his Wham! days.
To his erstwhile colleague, Yog been more comfortable being remembered for his later solo work. Indeed, in an interview with Gay Times in 2007 (the interviewer? Oh, that’ll be me then) he declared that the album he was most proud of was Older, his masterpiece of melancholia about life after the death of his first serious partner Anselmo Feleppa.
Ridgeley’s probably right. George always seemed shocked — maybe even dismayed — that Careless Whisper became such a huge hit, sighing: “It disappoints me that you can write a lyric very flippantly—and not a particularly good lyric—and it can mean so much to so many people.”
In his 1991 autobiography Bare, he again spoke about the song in fairly negative terms, and said that it “was not an integral part of my emotional development.”
In a 2009 interview he made similarly dismissive comments, sounding baffled when he told The Big Issue: “I’m still a bit puzzled why it’s made such an impression on people. Is it because so many people have cheated on their partners? Is that why they connect with it? I have no idea, but it’s ironic that this song – which has come to define me in some way – should have been written right at the beginning of my career when I was still so young. I was only 17 and didn’t really know much about anything – and certainly nothing much about relationships.”
But his naive perspective is probably what made the song resonate so well in the first place. It came from an earnest place that is hard to inhabit if you’re older and more experienced. George’s later songs had more edge and sophistication, but Careless Whisper captures something we all remember: the angst of being a teenager and the soap-level drama that came with the fumbling dating. That’s part of its nostalgic appeal. That, and Yog’s bodacious, feathered hair.
In other words, Careless Whisper is George Michael’s Space Oddity: the ubiquitous one he loved to hate, authored by a person he barely recognised, one who turned a different corner. One who assumed he was going to grow up to be heterosexual.
I will say that I don’t think the serious soul man image came completely out of nowhere though. Nothing Looks The Same In The Light (from the first Wham! album, Fantastic) already pointed to that direction, with obfuscated references to his secretive sexuality that you might find in hindsight.
George Michael wouldn’t have written Careless Whisper as an adult, and he surely wouldn’t have included the line “guilty feet have got no rhythm.” Which would be a shame, because it’s one of the best lyrics in pop music history.
And isn’t it ironic that a song about cheating should become one of the world’s most loved love songs.
Gee, this life’s a funny thing.
Disco queen Gloria Gaynor’s 1986 LP, The Power, featured mostly covers of contemporary songs. Though not on the original album, a cover of Careless Whisper appeared on reissues. Gaynor’s take, which emphasises the Spanish guitar lines of the original, sounded a little too subdued given that her default style is dance. Yes, I know she can’t do versions of I Will Survive for the rest of her life, but Gloria’s glorious voice sounds best when she’s evoking a the spirit of gospel over a bass line with a beat. Having her do a quiet ballad is like having Eddie Van Halen play an acoustic guitar: it’s possible, but a complete waste of their best assets
BONUS BEATS 2: Bananarama’s 2001 album Exotica featured new songs and reinterpretations of past Nana hits. Additionally, the group — at that point just Sara and Keren, who happened to be married to one Andrew Ridgeley at the time — recorded a comparatively dialled-back cover of Careless Whisper. I say “comparatively” because no Bananarama track can be truly subdued, but on this bass-heavy version, the iconic saxophone was ditched in favour of a strings-like keyboard track that sounded like it was a reject from a James Bond theme. As one slightly less charitable viewer wrote on YouTube, it makes B*Witched look like The Supremes. Ouch.
Neil Tennant visits Wham! on the set of Careless Whisper in Miami is here