I 'CHOOSE LIFE'. And in this life, I've chosen WHAM!
For too many who've loved this band, it's been easy to forget (or dismiss) the small but fruitful catalogue of musical contributions by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. Cynics always wondered what Ridgeley ever really did to contribute to the band, since George Michael wrote, produced and sang every track.
Without Andrew Ridgeley, guiding and prompting his best friend early on, there would never have been a band called WHAM! Or subsequently, a George Michael musical breakthrough. As it were, there was. Andrew Ridgeley is perhaps the most successful best-buddy-to-a-natural-born-star in the history of music.
Of course the majority of people DO love WHAM! at least once each year. 'Last Christmas' is a beloved staple at Christmastime. (As it should be.) And many do appreciate musical gifts (i.e. 'Careless Whisper') left to us by singer-songwriter George Michael.
For me, WHAM! is a way of life year round. WHAM! could even be a doctrine. Because for so many life stages, there is a WHAM! song. I'm leaving out a couple of songs (Come On & Love Machine) and going in order of appearance on their three albums.
Note the high level of productivity from this band, releasing three solid albums in just three years.
ALBUM #1. FANTASTIC (1983)
'Bad Boys' is the first song on Wham!'s debut album Fantastic. It begins right at the first stage of life: 'Dear Mommy, dear Daddy, you have plans for me. Oh yeah, I was your only son." In the beginning, there's family. And the next stage: 'Dear Mommy, dear Daddy, now I'm 19 as you see, I'm handsome, tall, and strong. So what the hell gives you the right to look at me as if to say, 'Hell, what went wrong?'' At the age of 19, he's self-confident as all get out. But his parents protest and dispute his decisions, and they worry about him. As parents often do.
A RAY OF SUNSHINE
'Move it, move it, baby. Can't you see I'm ready to dance? Without this beat my life would fall apart.' A little bit disco, a little bit funk, a lot of 80's pop -- all in a perfectly balanced mix for one incredible song.
'Sometimes, you wake up in the morning with a bass line. A ray of sunshine. Sometimes, you know today you're gonna have a good time. And you're ready to go!' This one could be one of my top 5 songs of all time, by any artist –– because of how it makes me feel. 'A Ray Of Sunshine' is all about a natural burst of energy and enthusiasm for being alive. I feel enthusiastic when I hear the song. Nothing can top that. I've included two videos for this one because the video clip from the Lindsay Anderson-helmed WHAM! film 'Foreign Skies' is priceless.
'Do... you… enjoy what you do?' This one is at the post-adolescence stage of life when you're expected to: 'Get yourself a job!' Anyone who's ever been unemployed against his or her will knows it is not actually fun. But 'Wham Rap' is a song for those who choose unemployment. And who hasn't (at one point or another) denounced the idea of working a 9-to-5 office job? The Wham! boys were young and ready to take on the world. They didn't need no stinkin' job to bring them down. They do seem a little defensive with: 'Wham, bam, I am a man. Job or no job, you can't tell me that I'm not.' Well, who knows what kind of shade they'd been getting for wanting to have fun and perform––and get paid for it? Their refusal to pursue a more normal line of employment worked out very well for them!
'Club Tropicana, drinks are freeeee. Fun and sunshine. There's enough for everyone!' The boys who wouldn't settle for taking ordinary jobs managed to find a way to enjoy both travel and leisure through their new jobs (as airline pilots) in the video for 'Club Tropicana'. Every now and then, we all hope to relax poolside in a tropical setting. When I've been lucky enough to do so, I immediately remember this song and video––both imprinted in my brain as an ultimate in tropical getaway fantasies. The song is great and the video is always worth watching.
'Blue' appeared first as a B-Side to 'Club Tropicana'; the studio version was otherwise not released. Wham! included a live version of the song 'Blue (Live In China)' on their final album. It's another one of their lovely, relaxing songs –– the mood is full of summer breezes; the lyrics and George Michael's delivery are full of melancholy. But there is a greater significance to this early Wham! song. 'Blue' sounds very similar to 'Nothing Looks The Same In The Light' (below)––and in it, you can already notice hints of an enormous hit to come: 'Last Christmas'.
NOTHING LOOKS THE SAME IN THE LIGHT
With freedom from parents––and now a little spending money––you (or he, or they) can now go out and about to explore what this life holds. It's surely possible to meet other young, single people learning the ways of the world. It's even possible to spend time with someone you've just met until the wee hours of the morning. Will the light of morning be a harsh reminder that this situation only attributes to being young and foolish? Or will the rendezvous make sense the next day? That is what 'Nothing Looks The Same In The Light' is all about. And we've all been there.
YOUNG GUNS (GO FOR IT!)
'One, two, take a look at you. Death by matrimony!' This one is pretty clear: Our protagonist, George, tries to convince his friend not to settle down with his current lady love. In 'Young Guns (Go For It!)' he's very worried––and not only because he'd lose his friend. He also doesn't like the unexpected pressure of being that much closer to the responsibility of settling down himself.
ALBUM #2. MAKE IT BIG (1984)
WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GOGO
The jitterbug. (Snap, snap.) 'You put the boom-boom into my heart!' Here, our friend has finally found love and joy in his relationship. So much so that he can't wait until they go out dancing together. Of course, he suggests it's also nice to stay home in bed. 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go' might seem to be on the too-fluffy side, but our fellow has made real progress in his love life and he is ecstatic about it––as he should be. We've all been there. Or at the very least, we should all feel this good sometimes! And this one always gets extra points for the Doris Day mention: 'You put the gray skies out of my way. You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day.'
EVERYTHING SHE WANTS
'And now we're six months older.' Well, things have taken a sorry turn. Our guy has considered settling down for good with his beloved. Lo and behold, he's now working so hard that his 'back will break' just to give his money away to the most materialistic and sad excuse for a partner in the history of song. 'My situation never changes, walking in and out of that door. Like a stranger, but with wages. I give you all, you say you want more!' And he has no idea why: 'Somebody tell me, why I work so hard for you!' No wonder he resisted the notion of working in his Wham Rap days... In 'Everything She Wants', his worst fears have all come to fruition. 'My God! I don't even think... that I love you!!' (Get out of there quick, George!)
LIKE A BABY
After that rough previous relationship has ended, we find our hero resting his soul on vacation. He may or may not have set out on this journey alone. By the end of 'Like A Baby', we discover he is so deeply in love with someone he is left 'crying like a baby' at the prospect of their impending separation. He might also be hesitant to go back to his many responsibilities at home. I can't think of a song that evokes the mood of being out on an ocean, far removed from daily stress––possibly on or around an island––than this one. Just listening to the song (which is a relaxing instrumental until 1:40) is like taking a vacation. Reaching the end of the song leaves me crying like a baby, too. Kudos to George Michael for once again knowing how to evoke a very precise mood.
Before the stunning Freedom '90, there was 'Freedom' '84. After crying like a baby, things must worked out on that romantic getaway. At least now our fella George is smitten by his new partner––so much that he insists he wants to be monogamous relationship. 'I don't want your freedom. I don't want to play around.' It takes a mature young man to open up this way. And the love of his life is now giving him a tough time. His friends tell him: 'Saw your lover with another and she's making a fool of you!' The tables have turned. Now his friends are trying to talk him out of getting too serious. But he is adamant. This one is worth it and he does not want his freedom anymore. (This Wham! video is also a classic, made with scenes from their historic trip to China.)
IF YOU WERE THERE
'If you were there, you'd know. If you were there you'd know... That I care.' The tables repeatedly turn. Despite his finding some level of maturity, his partner has gone from trying to make him jealous about her shenanigans to feeling worried about their relationship. Not very consistent. He insists that if she was there, she'd know (and figures he'll make her a tad more jealous, in the process): 'You ought to see how the other girls behave when you're not around. And only then you would know it's on your finger I'm wound.' So far, he seems to either go for divas or drama queens... Oh well. We'll see how long this one lasts!
CREDIT CARD BABY
Oh my! People and their patterns. 'People think you're just so sweet. But they don't know you quite like I do. I guess they think that I'm a lucky guy––but you're not fooling everybody." Looks like George is back to equating a money-hungry soul-crusher with 'life partner'. 'You can have my credit card, baby. But keep your red hot fingers off of my heart, lady! All I know is what I see. You're getting what you want–––and girl, it ain't just me!' Well, this one's on you, George. 'No matter how you cry, I'm not giving any love away. Do you think I'm crazy!?' Well, I do know. You should've known better after being with that 'Everything She Wants' gal who was breaking your back and taking all your money. When will you learn? Not all women are this way, I promise. (But I guess he gave up on ladies long ago! And perhaps he was in relationships with all the wrong ones for a reason? Hmmm...)
The video tells the story of a guy who cheats on his fiancé with another woman. But I'll be honest. Here is where I believe George Michael officially came out. Not really, but this is how I see 'Careless Whisper'––in retrospect. In the narrative of the band, he and Andrew wrote the song together. Which may very well be true. But I always wondered what this 'careless whisper' might have actually been about. He feels so guilty about it: 'Guilty feet have got no rhythm. Though it's easy to pretend, I know you're not a fool. Should have known better than to cheat a friend, and waste this chance that I've been given.' Sure, this could be the run-of-the-mill relationship deception. But I think this may have been about George wanting to admit the truth about himself. He feels bad, he does love his lady friend––she's his 'good friend'. The pain will subside, and at least he can really be free. With 'Careless Whisper'––as with all of these wonderful Wham! songs–-–whatever actually inspired George Michael to write, sing, and produce such finely crafted pop tunes, everyone can relate to the moods and emotions he creates. I used 'Careless Whisper' for a ballet routine I choreographed and performed for ballet class school recital (in 4th or 5th grade) and it felt rather deep dancing to lyrics that insist: 'I'm never gonna dance again!'
ALBUM #3. MUSIC FROM THE EDGE OF HEAVEN a.k.a. THE FINAL (1986)
Wham's final album begins with 'The Edge Of Heaven' and it's clear that the duo is feeling carefree. They released the album while being forthright about their intention to close up shop; this would be their last hurrah. The lyrics for 'The Edge Of Heaven' are a little racier than previous tracks: 'I would chain you up… But don't worry, baby. You know I wouldn't hurt you––-unless you wanted me to!' With his newfound creative (and maybe personal) freedom, George Michael suggests that since he's having so much fun, he might need forgiveness. 'Take me to the edge of heaven, tell me that my soul's forgiven, hide your baby's eyes so we can…'
This song is a very honest one for our hero, George: 'I never had the guts to let you look inside. I don't think you'd appreciate the things that I hide.' This one is about that type of relationship where the couple fights incessantly, but then use that energy to have fun 'making up'. (I can't relate to this, but I'm sure there are plenty who can.) In 'Battlestations', the battling is becoming problematic: 'Now we spend more time in battle than we ever do in bed!' The song has a detached, eerie, sexy quality to it. Whether someone relates to the scenario here or not, there's no denying the greatness of the song.
'I'm Your Man' is just bold, confident, fun–-–it's a feel-good song that cannot be denied. A relentless, steady beat runs through it. If you hear this song, you'll have to get caught up in it. 'Ba-by! I'm... Your... Man! Don't you know that? Ba-by! I'M… YOUR... MAN! You bet!' Here, George Michael sounds great, and his lyrics tell us he's feeling pretty swell, too. He's even far less needy with his partner. He just wants to have a good time, but even while calling the shots, and being cocky, he's still rather polite: 'I don't need you to care. I don't need you to understand, yeah. All I want is for you to be there, and when I'm turned on––if you want me––I'm your man!' And of course, there's the anthem: 'If you're gonna do it, do it right. (Right!) Do it with me!' Such a happy, brash tune. Forever infectious. And I love how much fun they're all having in this video.
Here, we have a song that's much more mature and mournful than previous efforts. Again, George Michael shows his fearlessness and vulnerability in 'A Different Corner'. 'I'm so scared. 'Cause I've never come close in all of these years. You are the only one who stopped my tears. And I'm so scared.' He's definitely grown over time, as we all should. He's come to love someone deeply and that can be scary in some ways. 'Turned a different corner and we never would have met. Would you care?' This song is complex––it feels light and dark at the same time. George Michael proves yet again that he is singular in his skill at crafting pop songs that are pleasant to the ear, yet surprisingly deep. 'And if all that there is, is this fear of being used, I should go back to being lonely and confused. If I could, I would. I swear.'
Here is 'Blue' again––this is the version more people have heard. It's a lovely song and worth a listen. It's also worth seeing the video. This live footage comes from the film 'Foreign Skies', and it's as close to seeing Wham! perform live as we can get.
'Where Did Your Heart Go' provides more impression than truth. The song feels far less emotional than most of George Michael's efforts. When you get to this point, you can really appreciate his true talents and gifts as a songwriter over the course of his working in Wham! He's at his best when he is being honest–––or as honest as he can allow himself to be. Instead, 'Where Did Your Heart Go' could belong to anyone (or no one) and there is something detached about it. In this video, we finally get to see Andrew Ridgeley featured more prominently––singing. Which actually makes sense with my take on the song. It doesn't feel very personal for George Michael, nor would it to anyone who listens to it.
And finally, here's 'Last Christmas'. We know everyone loves this song. Because it's so universal, everyone can relate to feeling heartbroken around the holidays––at some stage in life. And the next year, you're sure to have some perspective over last Christmas. We can now watch the video and think about how much we miss George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley as a duo. In this video, we discover that George lost his lady love last Christmas––to none other than Andrew! Which would have made more sense in reality. I guess it's a handoff of sorts. George Michael is saying goodbye to the many illusions the public had about him. Let's revel in the the wonderful mid-80's ski trip visuals and the pop magic sound of Wham! And thanks for reading.
I'll sign off and leave you all with something very funny. Here is a Rolling Stone review for the first Wham! album, Fantastic––from Sept. 15, 1983, by music critic Don Shewey: "Probably the biggest problem with Wham! is that the group lacks a really distinctive vocalist. George Michael's earnest whine is as synthetic and overly familiar as the cheap keyboards so prevalent nowadays." Ha! Would you mind repeating that? (Music critics...)