Neil Tennant was something of an early Wham! admirer, right from the get go.
In the issue of Smash Hits magazine dated 24 June 1982 (the very week I became a teenager, natch), a humble hack and future Pet Shop Boy made Wham!’s debut 45 Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do) his Single Of The Week
Was it a protest record? Was this serious political commentary? What was a white boy from Watford like George Michael doing making a rap record? And what exactly was Ridgeley’s contribution? The answers to these questions weren’t terribly important: it was just a fun song with a bit of a social conscience. Proving his instinct on social commentary in British pop was unrivalled even pre-PSB, Tennant raved over it.
“A hard, hot and witty rap on the subject of unemployment. Brilliant words, real excitement, hundreds of ideas, built-in participation and maximum humour. I’d be lost in admiration if I could find time to stand still.”
Despite this endorsement, it wasn’t a hit. It did scrape inside the Top 100 for a few weeks that July but that was it, for the time being at least.
Skate merrily forward to Smash Hits issue 143 (24 May – 6 June 1984, trivia fans) and Wham! had managed to place the follow up 45, Young Guns (Go For It!) and their subsequent four singles, including a reissue of Wham Rap! all into the Top 10.
In the spring of ’84, Tennant, now deputy editor of the glossy pop rag, had been sent on assignment to Florida to get up close and personal with the sunbaked duo, and report back on all the fancy comings and goings on the set of the Careless Whisper video, which would eventually be released as George’s debut solo record.
The Miami sequences in Careless Whisper were filmed way before Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go (the hair is a bit of a frizzy giveaway), but when the film was re-jigged Andrew’s cameo role as a cabbie was left on the cutting room floor. Anyway, this is what happened.
A sun-soaked story of sea, sand, shorts, shuttlecocks and snogging. Yes, Wham! are back. Your travel guide in Miami: Neil Tennant.
A HOT AND HUMID Spring afternoon in Miami. Here, in one of America’s favourite holiday cities, George Michael lounges, clad only in a white bathrobe, on a bed shimmering with red satin sheets. Sunlight streams through the blinds, streaking the walls of the room. Standing at the dressing-table is a fair-haired young girl, also in a white bathrobe. George stares at her and smiles warmly. She walks over to the bed. They fall into each other’s arms and kiss.
“Cut! That’s great!”
For here in Miami, George is, of course, making a video for his solo single, ‘Careless Whisper’, due for release in July. I’ve been here for a couple of days, watching the filming of several scenes, most of which seem to involve George being in close physical contact with two models, Lisa and Madeleine, who are playing his girlfriends.
A ridiculously tanned Andrew Ridgeley is also here having a holiday with their friend David Austin (whose first solo single, ‘Turn To Gold’, was produced by George); so are George’s sisters, Yioda and Mel, and Wham!’s manager Simon Napier-Bell. All present and correct? Let’s get back to the filming.
“I HOPE YOU realise, George, that that haircut cost you £10,000,” announces Simon Napier-Bell. The whole of the first day’s shooting has been scrapped because George wasn’t happy with his hair.
“I looked like Shirley Bassey,” he mutters to me and the budget for the video goes up to £47,000. Luckily his sister Mel is a hairdresser and able to trim his hair to his liking. George admits to being a perfectionist and both of Wham! seem to have grown up over the last year. Without being prima donnas, they now get what they want, even if it costs them money.
The plot for this video is simple: “Basically a glamorous version of something that happened to me,” explains George. He’s supposed to be in Miami with his girlfriend, played by Lisa, when he gets tempted away by an older woman, played by Madeleine. His girlfriend finds out about the fling and leaves him (rather dramatically in a seaplane) as does the older woman. George is left alone. There are scenes of he and Lisa canoodling by the sea and in the bedroom, and he and Madeleine intertwined on a yacht. All rather sexy and glamorous, isn’t it, George?
“This video is, definitely,” he admits but draws a distinction between the sexiness of this, his solo project, and Wham!’s sun, sand and shorts image. “One of the differences between Wham!-sexy and ‘Careless Whispers’-sexy is that ‘Careless Whispers’-sexy is – ”
“Adult!” interjects Andrew. “Straight-faced,” continues George. “I think it’s brilliant being overtly sexy, ’cause it irritates the hell out of everyone who doesn’t like you and all the girls love it – right? – and all the blokes who like you think it’s a laugh.”
Hence those shuttlecocks on the Wham! tour last year. I didn’t get to any of their shows but I heard numerous reports of how George and Andrew were stuffing shuttlecocks down their shorts and then bashing them out into the audience.
“People really got offended by that,” laughs George. “It was one of the highlights of the show. Because we’d been playing badminton when we were trying to get fit for the tour, we decided we’d play it on stage and after a while just whack one out to the crowd. But, because of the stage lights, we couldn’t see where the shuttlecock was so we decided to do something else. Andrew did his three and I did my three and it ended up with the last one being me putting it down my shorts – which usually got a really brilliant reaction!”
Andrew: “It was shockingly cheeky!”
George: “But the number of people who got offended was amazing! You should have seen the reactions of the crowd when we did those parts: all the girls screamed and all the blokes laughed which was exactly what we wanted. They’ve probably got the same mentality as us anyway and think, well if I was up there being screamed at, I’d make the most of it as well. I find that much less offensive than the idea of someone just standing there and absorbing the screams.”
“You’re in a position where everything you do gets screamed at, so you just parody that,” adds Andrew. “The wiggle of the hips, the wink, everything. That’s the only time when we act the part of pop stars – when we’re on stage. If you start acting like a pop star in this sort of context,” he says, looking round the smart hotel restaurant we’re sitting in, “that’s the beginning of the end.”
But aren’t you overdoing the glamour element with this video, when the ‘Club Tropicana’ video was shot in another faraway, sunny location?
George: “It’s just a form of escapism which people love. I think we did our little bit of social stuff with ‘Wham! Rap’, simply because that was our situation at the time. Now there’s no point in pretending that I don’t have everything I want, so I’m going to provide people with some escapism. The ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ video will be escapist in a more down-to-earth way.”
And it’s now being filmed in Britain.
“I TAKE my pleasure-seeking very seriously,” says Andrew with a lazy grin over a breakfast of tropical fruit. The previous night he and David Austin had driven up to Fort Lauderdale in a hired car to sample some of the local nightlife. There’s a four-mile, neon-lit strip there which the local youth cruise. Andrew was very impressed.
“What a place! The road is absolutely packed, with four or five people to a car, the pavements are packed and so are the clubs and bars. There’s got to be 20 or 30 thousand kids there! A lot of girls and all the guys are on the make. It’s absolutely amazing! We’re going up there again tonight.”
He laughs at the prospect until I bring the conversation back to business. Why has there been such a long gap between their last official single, ‘Club Tropicana’, and the new single? What have he and George been doing?
“We’ve been in court, Neil. You know exactly what we’ve been doing!”
George and Andrew have finally concluded a long legal battle to be released from their contract with Innervision Records and have now signed to Epic Records. What was wrong about the Innervision deal?
“It was a very bad contract which held us for a long time in a situation where we made very little money,” explains George, precisely. “There was no point in carrying on having more hit singles which were making us bigger, success-wise, and more ridiculous financially.”
The two were closely involved in the day-to-day legalities, having meetings with solicitors and QCs who’d afterwards ask them for autographs for their children.
“The sessions were really complicated,” says Andrew, “having to go through every different perspective on a certain situation and analyse it.”
Didn’t you worry about being out of the public eye for so long?
“Well, we had the tour,” George reminds me, “But I think May is about as long as we could have left the single for. I think if we’d left it for another three or four months we’d be up the creek. We’re lucky that nothing really new has happened. We hated the fact that we had to take the break but we spent the time concentrating on the tour and then the early part of this year I concentrated on writing and we planned everything out for the next year.”
Down to the last detail it seems. The next two Wham! singles are already written, Andrew saying that the song which will be their Christmas single “sends a tingle up my spine”. In July George’s solo single will be released, after which they’ll go to the South of France to record the second Wham! LP in six weeks, then come home to organise a tour. There’ll be a new single in September, the LP in October and then they’ll play 15 “large dates”, including Wembley Arena on December 23, 24 and 26 – by which time that tingling Christmas single will be out. If all goes according to plan they’ll have cracked America by then. And that seems to be important to them.
After George has finished shooting a scene in a penthouse flat overlooking the night lights of Miami, he tells me how aware he is that Wham! are the only group among their contemporaries not to have had a hit in America yet. “There’s no reason not to this year,” he says.
Last year ‘Bad Boys’ began to climb up the American charts until CBS, their American record company, got cold feet on hearing of the Wham!/Innervision legal battle. Now, he feels, they’ve got “material” more suited to America, in that it won’t be labelled “disco”. Simon Napier-Bell seems as confident as George. “It just takes careful planning and 100-per-cent confidence from everyone involved. We’ve got that confidence,” he claims with the manner of a man who has lunched long and hard with American record company executives. Time will tell.
LISA, THE young American model in the video, has developed a crush on George. She watches him filming little shots, wide-eyed and lip-synching along with ‘Careless Whisper’. She’s very excited about being in the video and thinks that everything is “neat”. Are you Greek?” she asks Yioda. “That’s neat.” If she is anything to go by, then American teenagers will fall for Wham! in droves.
While she and George are filming their bedroom scene, Andrew is to be found in the sea at Miami Beach, singing ‘On Broadway’ with David Austin at the top of his voice. “This is my first real holiday for ages,” he says and is obviously enjoying it.
Wham! know they are lucky to be able to mix business and pleasure in this way.
“It’s like a dream,” says George the next day, as Andrew nods in agreement. “I regularly sit back and think, God! I can’t believe what I’m doing. I can’t believe that I can do what I want at my age. This has got to be one of the only businesses in the world where that can happen so quickly. Suddenly you’re in a position where you have as much money as you need, you feel secure, and you have no one to answer to. It’s absolutely brilliant! What better job could you have than that?”
And that is a difficult question to answer.
Guilty feet have got no rhythm: George Michael’s Careless Whisper at 35 is here