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Audio exclusive: Somebody Under Pressure – George Michael on Queen & David Bowie

Commemorating 30 years since the Freddie Mercury tribute Concert For AIDS Awareness in April 1992, here’s an extract from one of my many conversations with one of the star performers of the day – the one we called Yog.

This exchange was taped at his Highgate house in 2007, ostensibly for Gay Times magazine – though the rag used very little in the end product.

George Michael was many things: effortlessly erudite, warm, chatty, and often funny with a constantly self-deprecating wit. He could also be incredibly stubborn, particularly in regards to his career, as most artists with control freak tendencies usually are.

Yog was also, as has been well documented since his untimely demise, generous to a fault, and an extremely loyal friend. It’s that friend of 13 years that I shall miss the most. We were alike in many ways, sometimes scarily so: the Cancerian home birds (his birthday was the day before mine), the Greek-English blood, the often self-absorbed pathological quest to refuse to put on any kind of act so we can be ourselves as much as is humanly possible. We also had a shared love of many of the same musical artists, particularly David Bowie. In fact the Dame’s name came up in conversation within minutes of our first chat back in 2004.

David Robert Jones and Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou had a respectful working relationship. They weren’t friends, but according to George at the time, he and the Thin White Duke got on “very well, the times I’ve met him,” usually at huge televised charity gigs at Wembley with the world watching.

One such event was the Concert For Aids Awareness on 20 April 1992, organised by the remaining members of Queen as a tribute to their fallen frontman, the irreplaceable Freddie Mercury. I was lucky enough to be in the audience, as was Anselmo Feleppa, who’d been in a relationship with George since the previous year, and was sadly battling the disease himself at the time. This chat took place in Yog’s Highgate home in 2007, as he was preparing to take the 25 Live tour to Wembley Stadium again, this time being the first artist to play the rebuilt structure.

SP: Was Anselmo still alive when you did the Freddie Mercury tribute?
GM: Yeah, he was there.

What were your feelings on that day?
Very bizarre. I found out that Anselmo was ill the day after… No, the evening Anselmo came home and said he needed to be tested, the morning after that Freddie Mercury died. Just to make it an extra special day for me. And so then when it came to performing it was just an overwhelming day, because it was so sad I was having one of the proudest moments of my life… without Freddie Mercury there. And this poor man who loved me, who wouldn’t dreamt of not going, had to sit through that day, and sat through that day so kind of proudly and bravely. It was just horrible really. Absolutely horrible. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

Let’s sway: George rehearsing Somebody To Love with Bowie sashaying along

I read that initially you wanted to do Under Pressure on that day. Is that right?
I don’t think so, no. Really? Is that what you heard?

Yeah, I think that came from the Bowie circles.
No, that would’ve been good, actually.

Is that one of your favourites?
You now, it’s funny at the time because I was a Bowie fan and I was a Queen fan, but I kind of thought Bowie was a on a level of coolness that was way above. So I was surprised Bowie worked with Queen, and I’ve always thought that record… the first half of it sounds like Bowie wrote his half of the song and Freddie was just mucking about. You know, it’s all the de-de-de-de-de and all that rubbish. But then the second half of that record is genius, where it all opens up and you get all those big melodies. And so I kind of didn’t really like it at the time, but recently I realised it’s actually two thirds of a brilliant record. And actually the lyrics to it apply really strongly now, if you listen to it. They really do.

Let’s dance: Bowie and Annie Lennox rehearsing Under Pressure, with George singing along

But at the time they came from two completely different places.
Yeah, they did, didn’t they? They don’t seem like it now but they did then. You kind of thought ‘Why would Bowie deign to do that?’ (laughs)

Yeah, he was just uber-cool really. And when we’ve spoken before you said that you thought Bowie was probably the greatest rock star after Elvis. Why do you think that is? Because you being the soul boy, you don’t detect a Bowie influence in your records particularly.
Well only in that the ones that are my favourites are the crossover ones. Young Americans, Station To Station, and, er… which is the other one?

Lodger you said you liked.
No, Low I really loved as well. But that period when he was was working with Dennis Davis on drums, and he was using black backing vocalists and whatever, those tracks are the ones that really stick with me in the way that other people listen to Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. I love all those but the bit that really kind of sits with the way I am are those little kind of soul experiment things, which are brilliant, I think. And really soulful. But I think the influence is just… I always knew, absolutely, I was never gonna be Bowie. You know what I mean? Because I didn’t think I was ever gonna be… I thought I would be the equivalent of Elton without a piano, in that people would never attach sexuality to what I was gonna be doing. So it didn’t occur to me… I just thought Bowie was this otherworldly god and I just knew it was absolutely genius music. But I never thought of him as influencing me, I always knew he was over there. But of course, he wasn’t really because the bits that really applied to me did influence me: Golden Years and what was the other big one? Fame, things like that.

(We then went on to talk about Bowie in the 80s and 90s, which we’ll get to a little down the line. And thanks to the wonders of technology you can now hear the above below…)

© Steve Pafford 2007, 2017, 2022

tags: George Michael, David Bowie, Queen, Freddie Mercury, Aids, London, charity concerts, Elton John, gay pop stars

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