Global superstar George Michael continues his extraordinary career when he releases ‘Symphonica’, his sixth solo album, on March 17. ‘Symphonica’ was recorded during the tour of the same name of 2011 and ‘12 and was co-produced by George himself, alongside the late, legendary Phil Ramone. ’Let Her Down Easy’, the lead single from ‘Symphonica’ is now at radio on and will be released on iTunes/digital platforms on March 17. ‘Let Her Down Easy’ was written and originally performed by Terence Trent D’Arby.
Since he entered our lives in 1982 with the ground-breaking slice of exuberance that was ‘Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do)’, George Michael has become an international artist of the highest order. He has sold well over 100 million albums in a world where Germany’s population is 80 million and the United Kingdom’s is 63 million. He’s topped charts from Austria to Australia. He’s sold-out stadiums from Tokyo to Tampa. He re-defined popular music with his debut solo album, 1987′s ‘Faith’ and has subsequently crafted a substantial, enormously popular body of work.
Perhaps, though, the real starting point is Radlett, a commuter town of 60,000 souls, north-west of London, where some scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange were filmed. It’s where young Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (born 25 June 1963) and his loving, tightly bound, part-Greek-Cypriot, part-English family moved from their original North London home. Like teenagers the world over, George and his best friend, fellow Bushey Meads Comprehensive student Andrew Ridgeley, would dream of pop stardom, of making it big: “I wanted to be loved,” admitted George. “It was an ego satisfaction thing”. Deep down, the pair of dreamers understood that it wasn’t going to happen. These things just didn’t happen.
Yet, these things do occasionally happen and as Wham!, the duo would encapsulate the early-’80s. From that first single to their last, 1986′s ‘The Edge Of Heaven/Where Did Your Heart Go’, they sold 25 million records and they departed in a blaze of glory before 72,000 people at Wembley Stadium on June 26 1986, their friendship as strong as it was in the beginning. Wham! never got old and never lost their exclamation mark, but along the way, George won the first of his three Ivor Novello Songwriter Of The Year awards in 1985. They had two US Number 1 singles and a Number 1 album – titled ‘Make It Big’ to commemorate those Bushey Meads dreams – they became first western band to play China and George began his long but mercifully mostly undocumented commitment to charity work with a performance on Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and by donating all Wham! royalties from their ‘Last Christmas/Everything She Wants’ single to Ethiopian famine relief.
Even when Wham! were in their pomp and George was contributing to his friend and sparring partner Elton John’s ‘Nikita’ and ‘Wrap Her Up’, it was plain that George’s destiny was solo and that his new, more mature songs were too worldly, too adult to fit into the format of a good-time duo. He’d already dipped a toe in solo waters in 1984 with a song he’d written as a 17-year-old (“a very precocious lyric!” he quipped) while riding the number 32 bus home as a teenager. ‘Careless Whisper’ (credited to Wham! Featuring George Michael in the US) not only introduced one of the great lines in popular music, “guilty feet have got no rhythm”, but showed that there was more to George than the instant joy of ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ and ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’. ‘Careless Whisper’ charged to Number 1 in America and topped the charts in Australia, Canada, France, Holland, Italy, Ireland, South Africa, Switzerland and the UK, amongst others.
Just to prove ‘Careless Whisper’ was no fluke, before Wham!’s final hurrah, George’s second solo single, ‘A Different Corner’ topped the British charts and went Top 10 in the US, Australia, Austria, Germany, Holland, Ireland and Switzerland. As someone once almost said, you didn’t have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind was blowing.
His first post-Wham! offering wasn’t even a solo effort. Instead, hot on the heels of singing alongside Stevie Wonder on a glorious ‘Love’s In Need Of Love Today’ at the world’s leading soul venue, Harlem’s Apollo Theater, George became the first white male vocalist to duet with Aretha Franklin, whom he described as “the best female soul singer in the world”. The magical, life-affirming, Grammy-winning ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’ swept its way to Number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, Australia, Ireland and Holland.
Then, shortly after George contributed vocals to ex-Shalamar chanteuse Jody Watley’s self-titled album came the iconic, groundbreaking ‘Faith’, which would eventually top charts in the UK, US, Australia, Ireland and Holland before going 10X Platinum in the US and 5X Platinum in the UK. Released in October 1987 and recorded earlier that year at Puk, in Judland, somewhere in the Danish countryside (it was a tax year thing; but George just yearned for home) and Sarm West Studio 2 in West London, it surprised everyone who suspected that for all Wham!’s obvious style and swagger, they might have lacked real depth.
‘Faith’ is the one written (except for his childhood and current friend David Austin’s sterling contribution to ‘Look At Your Hands’), produced and arranged by George himself. It’s the one which stayed atop the American charts for 12 weeks and the one which spawned four of his six number one US singles: ‘Faith’ itself, ‘Father Figure’, ‘One More Try’ and ‘Monkey’.
Widely acclaimed as the British ‘Thriller’, ‘Faith’ sold over 10 million copies in the US alone (it’s found its way into almost 25 million homes worldwide), it transformed George Michael from global teen idol to global adult superstar – in the process coining one of his least favourite phrases “doing a George Michael” – and it paved the way for the extraordinary delights to come.
And ‘Faith’ was the album which made the Michael mantelpiece sag with awards: a Grammy for Album Of The Year; three American Music Awards (Favourite Album (Soul/R&B); Favourite Male Vocalist (Soul/R&B) and Favourite Male Vocalist (Pop/Rock)) plus an MTV Award for ‘Father Figure’ (Best Direction) and Ivor Novello Awards for Songwriter Of The Year and International Hit Of The Year.
There was storm-in-a-teacup controversy vis-a-vis his ode to monogamy, ‘I Want Your Sex’ (“I expected the BBC to ban it,” George admitted, “I became the antichrist for a couple of weeks”); there was funk in the clattering drug abuse saga ‘Monkey’; there was the horror of spousal battery in ‘Look At Your Hands’ and there was extraordinary beauty in both ‘Father Figure’, the Canadian Number 1 ‘Kissing A Fool’ and the Irish Number 1, ‘One More Try’, which remains George’s pick of an extraordinary bunch. There was even an anti-Margaret Thatcher political aspect to ‘Hand To Mouth’. Amazing as it seemed then, amazing as it seems now, he was still only 24. Not that he was especially happy in himself: “one of the reasons the record was so successful,” he mused in 2010, “was that people can recognise the loneliness.”
The success of the ‘Faith’ album enabled the legendary Faith tour, where George played Wham! and solo material, plus the occasional cover. It encompassed 137 dates in 19 countries from February 1988 to June 1989, was choreographed by Paula Abdul and took in a three-song covers set at the Nelson Mandela Freedom Concert at Wembley Stadium. The magnificent spectacle helped ensure that nobody would sell more records than George in the United States in 1988. “I never met anyone who was a reluctant star,” he admitted, just as enthusiastically as he admitted to his insatiable ambition. The prestigious Best British Male Brit was his and he contributed to both his bassist Deon Estus’s album ‘Spell’ and the mysterious Boogie Box High.
Aside from winning a career-encompassing Video Vanguard award at the MTV Europe Video Music Awards, George took 1989 off, “to sort my head out”. Head sorted, George unveiled his second solo album, the Beatles-influenced ‘Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1’ in September 1990. Oh and the title wasn’t a plea to listen to George without prejudice: he really wasn’t that self-absorbed. The mood was darker and more adult still, but that didn’t stop his British audience from sending it to Number 1 and the Americans to Number 2, behind MC Hammer. No shame there: the voluminously trousered rapper was a fine sprinter, but George was always a marathon runner.
The hit singles flowed, a Best Album Brit kept that Michael mantel groaning and the videos featured everything but (in keeping with his desire for peace and privacy), George himself. So, after George was entranced by a Herb Ritts cover for Vogue, the video to the album’s third single, ‘Freedom ‘90’ (helmed by future Social Network director David Fincher) enlisted models Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Tatiana Patitz. After appearing in the video, the quintet became supermodels, referred to only by their first names. The man may have made the music, but he always insisted that music sold on its own merits and, as if to cement his artistic evolution, he was the subject of an edition of Britain’s most prestigious arts programme, the South Bank Show.
In keeping with his desire to do things differently, when George returned to live work in 1991, the Cover To Cover tour was exactly what it promised: a dizzying, cover-heavy romp, which featured Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living For The City’, Adamski’s ‘Killer’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ and perhaps most notably, Elton John’s ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’. Recorded on the Faith tour, Elton and George’s ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ duet was another British, American, French, Dutch and Swiss Number 1. Proceeds went to the Aids hospice London Lighthouse and the Rainbow Trust children’s charity.
Soon, another charity, the Red Hot Organisation, enlisted George’s ever-willing assistance. Their ‘Red Hot + Dance’ album was a benefit for the Aids research charity, the Red Hot Foundation, and chiefly featured remixes of songs by artists including Madonna and Lisa Stansfield. George, however, gave the project three brand new songs, including the aptly titled ‘Too Funky’. Ever game, he even appeared in the video, albeit briefly and it was another global top tenner.
A debilitating court case with his record label Sony loomed, but he wasn’t finished with live chart toppers or charities. 1993′s ‘Five Live’ EP featured heroic versions of Queen’s ‘Somebody To Love’ (with Queen themselves) from the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, a performance which Queen’s Brian May anointed as the evening’s finest and ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’, the video of which won an MTV Europe’s International Viewers’ Choice Award. Proceeds went to the Freddie Mercury Phoenix Trust. Later that year, on World Aids Day before an audience including the Princess Of Wales, George headlined the Concert Of Hope at Wembley Arena.
George re-emerged in November 1994, at the MTV European Music Awards in Berlin, with the stunning ‘Jesus To A Child’, his first self-penned song in three years. Despite its seven-minute, radio-unfriendly length, it was yet another British Number 1 (as it was in Australia, Ireland and Norway) and yet another US Top tenner.
His absence had only made the public’s hearts grow fonder. In January 1995, ‘Careless Whisper’ was voted London’s favourite record of all time and George himself as Best Male Singer by listeners of Capitol Radio, alongside an Outstanding Contribution To Music Award as he became the most performed artist on British radio.
Once George had formally left Sony and signed to Virgin (excluding the US) and DreamWorks (US only), in May 1996 he released ‘Older’, the third George Michael album. “It’s my first completely honest album,” he explained of what at the time (i.e. pre Spice Girls) was the Virgin label’s fastest seller. Musically adventurous and lyrically brave, it spawned a record six British Top 3 singles. That year, he would win Best British Male at both the MTV Europe Awards and the BRITs; his third Ivor Novello Songwriter Of The Year Award and he would retain his Capital Radio’s Best Male Singer title. ‘Fastlove’ would win the International Viewers’ Choice Award at the MTV Video Music Awards and ‘Older’ would spend 147 weeks in the British album charts, which, of course, it topped, as it did those in Austria, Australia, Norway, Netherlands and Sweden.
Somehow he found time to record ‘Desafinado (Off Key)’, a duet with the legendary Astrud Gilberto, for the ‘Red Hot + Rio’ charity album. To remind everyone (not least himself) that he could sparkle in a smaller setting as well as a stadium, he played intimate shows for Radio 1 before an audience of just 200 and for MTV in the company of 500 lucky fans.
1997 saw a second Best British Male Brit Award, a reissue of ‘Older’ which included a second disc, ‘Upper’, comprising four remixes, two newish songs and an interactive element. Oh, and there was a Wham! best of, ‘If You Were There’: good, weren’t they?
Speaking of best ofs, the following year saw ‘Ladies And Gentlemen, The Best Of George Michael’. Divided into two discs, ‘For The Heart’ and ‘For The Feet’, it was partly a comprehensive career resume and partly a helpful corralling of some non-album gems. Its three new tracks included ‘Outside’ with its laugh-out-loud video, and a turbo-charged romp through Stevie Wonder’s glorious ‘As’, alongside the ever-splendid Mary J. Blige. The collection went 8X Platinum in Britain, a nation swooned at George’s droll performance on the chat show Parkinson and he topped Capitol FM’s Hall Of Fame for the eighth time, as well as the Norwegian charts.
Another year, another curveball. George’s appearance at the NetAid charity show in October 1999 included a version of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’. Come December, the depression era classic featured again on ‘Songs From The Last Century’, the George Michael covers album. A labour of love, it comprised George’s takes on some of his favourite songs, including Sting’s ‘Roxanne’, Passengers’ (aka most of U2) ‘Miss Sarajevo’, both of which were singles (George appeared in neither video) plus standards such as ‘Secret Love’ and ‘You’ve Changed’ and a radical re-imagining of Johnny Mathis, Nina Simone and David Bowie’s ‘Wild Is The Wind’. A low-key treat, it nevertheless went double platinum in the UK and Top 10 in Germany.
The new century saw George step back from his relentless schedule. Even so 2000, saw appearances at the Equality Rocks charity show at Washington’s RFK Stadium (then the largest-ever concert in aid of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender awareness) and at Luciano Pavarotti’s Pavarotti And Friends gathering in Modena, where George delivered an extraordinary performance of ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime’, which some Italian newspapers declared had saved the day. Indeed, the performance ranks alongside ‘Somebody To Love’ at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert as being amongst George’s finest. It later appeared on the ‘Pavarotti And Friends For Cambodia And Tibet’ album and the pair also duetted on ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’. All wasn’t quite quiet on the studio recording front: George joined Whitney Houston to re-record her album track, ‘If I Told You That’.
2001 was professionally quiet, but in 2002 George signed to Polydor records. Soon, he was at Number 1 in Croatia, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Spain and back in the UK Top 10 with the super-funky ‘Freeek!’, his first self-penned single since 1998′s ���Outside’. Joseph Kahn’s sci-fi tinged, sexually charged video was a boundary-pushing, sense-tingling feast, which featured George as businessman, scientist, cowboy and leather-clad dog-handler. There was more mischief in the shape of the satirical ‘Shoot The Dog’, which sampled The Human League and, via its animated video, poked fun at George Bush, Tony Blair and David Seaman. Its message, though, could hardly have been more serious: at the time, to the derision of some, George was a lone, brave voice in the wilderness, speaking out against the Iraq war. It turned out he was right all along.
2003 was spent crafting the eagerly-awaited ‘Patience’, but there was still an appearance on the ‘War Child’ charity album (and subsequently on Top Of The Pops), with a sombre version of Don McLean’s anti-war ‘The Grave’. After eight years – several musical lifetimes – without an album of original material, even diehards wondered if George still had the magic of yore, even though he had re-signed to his label of yore, Sony. They needn’t have worried.
The joyful single ‘Amazing’ served notice that another feast was on its way. So it proved and ‘Patience’ hurtled to Number 1 in Britain, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Sweden amongst many others. Having retreated from the American market since ‘Older’, George appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show, invited her and her crew into his lovely home and performed ‘Amazing’, ‘Father Figure’ and ‘Faith’ for them. The album reached Number 12 there. George was back. He could hardly have been more back.
July 2005 saw George performing alongside erstwhile Beatle Paul McCartney at Live 8 on a rip-roaring version of ‘Drive My Car’. Later that summer ‘Blame It On The Sun’ a duet with Ray Charles, appeared on Charles’s posthumous album, ‘Genius And Friends’.
2006 began with George Michael: A Different Story, a documentary directed by Southan Morris. There were contributions from Boy George, Mariah Carey, Noel Gallagher, Elton John, Andrew Ridgeley and Sting. It took us back to his childhood, back to Wham!, back to ‘Faith’ and looked to the future. Like George, it was honest. Too honest some might say. The man himself? He loved it.
‘Patience’ had everything but an accompanying tour. Once Tony Bennett’s ‘Duets: An American Classic’ album had concluded with ‘How Do You Keep The Music From Playing?,’ a collaboration with George, it was time to put things right with his first tour since 1991’s Cover To Cover jaunt. Starting in Barcelona in September 2006, finishing in Copenhagen in August 2008 and including George’s first American shows in 17 years, two and a half million people in 27 countries saw the universally lauded 25 Live tour at arenas, and stadia. The tour titled as a celebration of George’s 25 years at the musical coalface included the first two gigs at the renovated Wembley Stadium and a much more intimate charity show for British nurses at the Roundhouse in London’s Camden Town.
As George toured, ‘Twenty Five’, a comprehensive compilation was released and its three new songs included a duet with Paul McCartney on ‘Heal The Pain’ from ‘Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1.’. Naturally it was a British Number 1, a global Top 10 hit and there was a 40-song DVD too. If that wasn’t enough, George was also given the rare honour of a second South Bank Show to himself.
Once the tour was over, it was time for wings-spreading with guest slots on the British television hits The Catherine Tate Show and Ricky Gervais’s Extras, plus regular appearances in the US sitcom Eli Stone, where each episode was titled after a George song. There was a stirring rendition of ‘Praying For Time’ on that year’s American Idol finale too. The last few weeks of 2008, saw ‘December Song (I Dreamed Of Christmas)’, co-written with old friend David Austin, a Christmas gift via George’s web site and a commercial release a year later.
In 2009, the Live In London DVD, filmed at two Earls Court concerts on the 25 Live tour, reached the top of the UK DVD charts. George also appeared with Beyonce to sing ‘If I Were A Boy’ at London’s 02 Arena and with Joe McElderry on British talent show The X Factor, where the pair duetted on ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’.
2010 undoubtedly had its moments, not least three sell-out dates in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, George’s first shows in Australia since the Faith tour in 1988.
2011 was a vintage year for George. ‘Faith’ was reissued in January. In March, he took part in Comic Relief and Red Nose Day. An enthusiastic supporter of Comic Relief since he gifted them his royalties from his and Mary J. Blige’s ‘As’ and appeared on a classic Little Britain sketch with Matt Lucas and David Walliams as Lou’n’Andy, in 2011 not only did he take part in a sketch with Gavin & Stacey’s James Corden, but his version of New Order’s ‘True Faith’ was the official Comic Relief single. George didn’t simply cover the song, he re-invented it as a gorgeous, stately ballad and raised thousands for the charity.
Flush with creativity, George kicked off Symphonica: The Orchestral Tour at Prague’s state Opera House on August 22, 2011. The set featured a selection of his own songs and covers alongside an orchestra and included shows all over Europe including the Royal Albert Hall to the delight of fans and critics alike. On November 6, George performed a special Symphonica charity show at London’s Royal Opera House for the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s newly created Elizabeth Taylor Memorial Fund before a star-studded audience including Elton John himself, Kylie Minogue, Rupert Everett, David Walliams, Lara Stone and many more. The evening raised over £987,000 for the charity.
Later that month, George was due to play Vienna’s Stadthalle Mere hours before the show, he was hospitalised with a particularly virulent strain of pneumonia. The rest of the tour was postponed on medical advice, but George promised to reschedule the remaining European dates. Nine months later, he would be as good as his word.
Before returning to the Symphonica tour, George released a new single ‘White Light’, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of the first Wham! single, ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)’. In August, George performed ‘White Light’ and ‘Freedom! 90’ at the London Summer Olympics Closing Ceremony.
Those rescheduled Symphonica dates were rapturously received, not least the September 9 show in Paris, where George became the first contemporary pop artist to perform at the Palais Garnier Opera House. This special evening was a charity performance in aid of Sidaction, France’s biggest AIDS charity. The momentous occasion was filmed by the production/direction team of David Austin and Caroline True and will air in the rest of the world this Spring.
Since the Symphonica tour finished in London in October 2012, George had been doing what he does best: writing, recording and producing. Released ‘Symphonica’, an album recorded during the Symphonica tour. The album was produced by George and the late Phil Ramone, who died in March 2013 aged 79. Ramone had also co-produced ‘Songs From The Last Century’ and, in a career which spanned over half a century, worked with hundreds of artists from Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Billy Joel and Paul McCartney to Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand Karen Carpenter. ‘Symphonica’ is Phil Ramone’s last work.