He was not just a pop singer, he was one of the most memorable and successful singer-songwriters of his generation: with hits like Careless Whisper (Ridgeley/Michael) or A Different Corner, he immortalised himself and his art of songwriting.
At first, the young Georgios Kyriakos Panayiotou showed no signs of a musical disposition: Young Georgios’ interests lay in the animal kingdom – he was interested in insects and was a good student of mathematics. But when he was eight years old, he suffered a head injury when he tripped on a staircase: After this accident, the young Georgios’ view of the world is said to have changed decisively. Suddenly he was obsessed with music – he even started playing the violin.
The Panayiotous were not a particularly musical family: nevertheless, his family did not stand in his way of pursuing his musical interest.
The young Georgios was the son of a Greek immigrant father and a British mother. Georgios’ father came to London in the 1950s with no possessions worth mentioning and worked his way up from a restaurant employee to a restaurant owner. By the time George Michael was a teenager, the Panayiotou family had already achieved a certain prosperity. But this prosperity was preceded by several decades of poverty. Michael later described his background as typical of the British “working class” of the time.
Absolutely no public school
George Michael wanted everything but a public school education: His parents opened up the possibility for him to attend a public school, but Michael knew that his musical disposition would not play a role in such a place.
So it happened that young Georgios attended a completely ordinary school: on his first day at the new school, the teacher stood in front of the class and asked who would like to take care of the new classmate. A boy named Andrew Ridgeley had never before been given responsibility for a new classmate and agreed to take young George Michael under his wing.
Who knew then that this would be the beginning of one of the most successful musical duos of the late phase of the 20th century?
The two boys Andrew Ridgeley and Georgios Panayiotou grew up in musically turbulent times: In the early seventies, glam rock was just being celebrated in the UK; in 1976, when Andrew and Georgios were 13 years old, Elton John had his first number one hit with Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.
Careless Whisper – Wham!
Over the next few years, Andrew and Georgios lived out their musical passion together: It wasn’t long before the idea of forming a band came up.
George Michael showed an immense talent for songwriting early on, but rumor has it that at the beginning he lacked the self-confidence to live out his talent and put the lyrics down on paper. Andrew Ridgeley, who was considered to be confident even in his teenage years, helped his friend George to gain the confidence he needed to write. Various George Michael biographers agree that Andrew Ridgeley was the one who gave his friend Georgios the impetus to write and awakened the creative potential lying dormant in him. This is how, among other things, one of the first George Michael/Andrew Ridgeley songs, Careless Whisper, came about: in the beginning there was a demo tape recorded with simple means, but on which the melody and the lyrics of the song were already clearly defined.
At the time the first Wham! songs were written, George Michael was working in a cinema: much of the music and lyrics were written on the bus ride between Michael’s home and his workplace. Alongside Careless Whisper, the song Wham Rap! was also written during this time, one of the band’s first successes. Because of the great success of Wham Rap! the band also named themselves after this song – Wham! was born.
A glimpse into another world
Among teenagers in the eighties, Wham! was the band par excellence: Britain, meanwhile, had reached a difficult point in its history. At the beginning of the Eighties, there were high unemployment rates, the British economy was changing from one that lived mainly on manufactured goods to one that lived mainly on the supply of services. Wham! fitted perfectly into the time: with hits like Club Tropicana, they gave many young people, some of whom lacked any perspective in life, a glimpse of another world. A world where it wasn’t about daily survival, but a world where there were free drinks and where one could enjoy taking life easy on a tropical island. By far the most famous Wham! song is Last Christmas (George Michael): the timeless Christmas song belongs to the Christmas season like no other song and still captivates us today with its timeless melody.
Already in the Wham! music videos, it is noticeable that George Michael has a prominent position and his singing is in the foreground: By the mid-eighties at the latest, it became clear that Wham! would have no future in its existing form – the group could no longer slip into the role of carefree teenagers interpreting cheerful love songs. It is said that George Michael had already made up his mind in the mid-eighties: He would pursue a solo career.
At first, it was not quite clear which songs belonged to Wham! and which songs were the product of George Michael’s solo career: Careless Whisper and A Different Corner were released under Wham! but today both are associated almost solely with George Michael. Andrew Ridgeley was by no means as dominant as George Michael, but he was undoubtedly the one who gave his friend the confidence to exploit his talent. If George and Andrew had never met, the artist George Michael would never have existed in this form.
In February 1986, about five years after its formation, Wham! disbanded: The final concert at Wembley Stadium at the end of June 1986, titled The Final became a sensational final success for the band. With the end of Wham! the first phase of George Michael’s career as a musician was over – but it was clear to him that this would by no means be the end for him. George Michael resolved to go new musical ways in the course of his subsequent solo career. In doing so, he was faced with the great challenge of harmonising his musical visions with contemporary musical tastes…
Main sources: Maßgebliche Quellen: Steele, Robert: Careless Whispers – The Life & Career of George Michael, 2017 Omnibus Press & the documentary “Freedom Uncut”.
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig