George Michael – A Musical Superhero

George Michael’s music had a huge and positive impact on my life. Therefore, knowing that he has passed away is terribly sad, especially in a year where so many talented, influential and iconic musicians have passed away.

I don’t remember how old I was the 1st time I heard a Wham! song but I do know that I was in primary school and I really loved the song ‘Wham Rap’. It had a great beat, awesome horn arrangement and fun lyrics that I really didn’t understand until I was a teenager. It had a killer chorus but what really grabbed my attention was the guitar chord progression and the style it was played. I didn’t realise it then but that song began my love for funk music and in particular playing guitar in a funk style.

Wham! comprised of George Michael and Andrew Ridgely. The duo burst in the early 1980s with a sound that was fresh, sophisticated and clever that combined the best aspects of soul and pop music. To many people who were children or teenagers in the 1980s songs such as ‘Bad Boys’, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’, ‘Everything She Wants’, ‘Freedom’, ‘I’m Your Man’ and ‘Edge of Heaven’ all played a part in the early part of our lives. Commercial radio, DJs, friends and relatives played Wham! Songs. The songs had great arrangements (listen to ‘Club Tropicana’), intelligent lyrics, catchy choruses, fantastic vocals by George Michael and the video clips were fun and interesting to watch.

As a teenager in the 1980s there wasn’t a party that you went to where you didn’t sing ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’. If you were at a school dance or party you loved it when ‘Careless Whisper’ was played because it was time to ask a girl to slow dance. You never wanted to the song to end, especially if you were dancing with a girl that you really liked.

As a young music student, George Michael’s 1st solo album ‘Faith’ changed my life. I remember I listened to that album on cassette repeatedly. The music on that album was so different from the Wham! songs. I loved how the album started with an organ playing the melody of the chorus of the Wham! song ‘Freedom’ and then how the percussive rhythm guitar started the song ‘Faith’.

Knowing that George Michael wrote all of the songs and played most of the instruments on the ‘Faith’ album inspired me to start playing other instruments. Hearing songs on the ‘Faith’ album that were pop, rock, jazz, funk, gospel and soul influenced me to explore and start writing songs in a variety of genres. Reading George Michael’s lyrics to those songs only highlighted how articulate he was. Furthermore the fact that George Michael produced ‘Faith’ was also a new idea for me because up until that time my perception was that the musicians performed on the recording and the producer simply guided them. Now, George Michael was showing that you can be the performer and the producer successfully.

I remember when I was in high school that my friends and I would discuss the album. We’d talk about the songs, the video clips and we even talked about his beard (remember the “3 day growth”?) that was an important part of his image at the time. However, as an aspiring musician, I loved performing George Michael songs for my friends.

George Michael was a brilliant songwriter. He wrote songs in a variety of styles and was quite genuine in expressing his views through his lyrics. Songs from his Wham! days such as ‘Wham Rap’, ‘I’m Your Man’ and ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ were songs that made us dance. In his solo career songs such as ‘I Want Your Sex’, ‘Freedom90’, ‘Too Funky’, ‘Fastlove’ and ‘Outside’ also made us dance.

Songs such as ‘Praying for Time’, ‘Mother’s Pride’, ‘Jesus To A Child’, ‘My Mother Had a Brother’ and ‘John and Elvis Are Dead’ made us stop, listen and think. George Michael’s ballads were beautiful. Songs such as ‘Careless Whisper’, ‘A Different Corner’ and ‘One More Try’ had beautiful arrangements that never made the songs sound dated. However, these songs were inspired by heartbreak and perhaps that’s why these songs have a huge impact on so many people…especially his fans.

All of George Michael’s songs (including the B sides) released in his solo career sounded fantastic. The production in his recordings are sophisticated, dynamic and clever. Regardless if a song was released as a single, every song on his albums sounded superb. For instance, listen to the arrangement of ‘I Want Your Sex’. Listen to the interplay between the synthesizers, the drum programming, percussion and the use of his multi-layered vocals. It sounded new and exciting to hear that sound in 1987 and it still sounds great today. Listen to ‘Spinning the Wheel’ from the ‘Older’ album. The song is a hybrid of jazz and pop fused with a reggae rhythm that features a muted trumpet. Listen to the catchy song ‘Freek’ from the ‘Patience’ album. Listen carefully to the introduction that included the sound of a 56k modem dialing into the internet, the heavy bass, the synth sounds and the syncopated drums.

Go listen to ‘Father Figure’, ‘Jesus To A Child’, ‘Outside’, ‘Careless Whisper’ ‘Everything She Wants’ etc. Even better just close your eyes and just listen to every song he released and you will always find something special in his voice and music.

While George Michael was recognised by the music industry and his fans as a phenomenal songwriter, he was also recognised as a brilliant vocalist. Unlike many pop “singers” of today, George Michael’s voice was unique. His voice was soulful and strong. He had a big range and he used his voice effortlessly not only on his own songs but on so many other songs of artists that he admired and influenced his music.

His versions of songs such as Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’, Gladys Knight & The Pips’ ‘If I Were Your Woman’, Stevie Wonder’s ‘They Won’t Go When I Go’, ‘As’, ‘Love’s In Need of Love’, ‘Village Ghetto Land’ and ‘I Believe (When I Fall In Love)’ highlighted the soul sound of his voice. He also did great versions of songs in a variety of genres such as ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’, The Beatles’ ‘The Long and Winding Road’, Roberta Flack’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ and Terence Trent D’Arby’s ‘Let Her Down Easy’. In the early 1990s he brought a new generation of fans to the music of Elton John and Queen with his versions of ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me’ and with his amazing version of Queen’s ‘Somebody To Love’.

Like all good musicians George Michael loved great songs and thank goodness he recorded 2 fantastic albums, ‘Songs from the Last Century’ and ‘Symphonica’ that contained many covers. These albums highlighted his vocal prowess and interpretation skills of songs.

George Michael was not as prolific in writing and releasing albums as Prince and other artists. However, each one of his studio albums was excellent. While his 1st solo album ‘Faith’ was his most commercially successful, that did not mean that the following albums were not as good. As a fan of George Michael’s music, I, along with millions of his fans were always looking forward to hearing new music from him. Even he knew that and he thanked his fans on album credits and social media for waiting for him and for their patience.

Even though I personally did not know George Michael, I always felt that I knew where he was at in his life just by listening to the albums and reading his lyrics. Simply, I felt that ‘Faith’ was about showing the world who George Michael was as a solo artist, ‘Listen Without Prejudice’ was about him tearing down the image he created for ‘Faith’ and trying to be taken seriously as a songwriter. Need proof? Listen carefully to the song ‘Freedom90’. ‘Older’ was about George Michael embracing his sexuality and dealing with the loss of a partner and ‘Patience’ (see review), I felt, was a happy album which not only celebrated his love life but also reflected on his life and family’s history (for example ‘Round Here’ and ‘My Mother Had A Brother’).

I always loved the lyrics of George Michael’s songs. In some songs such as ‘Young Guns’, ‘I’m Your Man’, ‘I Want Your Sex’, ‘Too Funky’ and ‘Star People’ he was direct. In other songs such as ‘A Different Corner’, ‘Praying For Time’ and ‘You Have Been Loved’, George Michael used language to express his emotions but did not necessarily tell the listener everything. Sometime his lyrics would read just like a story. For instance, we know why he is hurt in ‘Last Christmas’ and why he is not happy in ‘Everything She Wants’. Regardless of where he was in his career George Michael was a clever lyricist. It’s amazing to think he was only 17 years old when he wrote ‘Careless Whisper’.

Musically, George Michael was always evolving but he never pushed the extremes in the way that Prince did or Sting does with every release. Instead each George Michael was interesting to listen to. The ‘Faith’ album had a lot of synthesizers and drum programming. ‘Listen Without Prejudice’ was more organic and had a lot of acoustic guitars, orchestral instruments and songs that fused pop, funk and folk (for example ‘Waiting For The Day’). ‘Older’ had a variety of instrumentation that was used effectively in songs that stylistically incorporated jazz, pop, funk and classical music. ‘Patience’ still had a lot of acoustic guitars and synthesizers but also included a lot of elements of EDM (electronic dance music).

I once read that George Michael didn’t really enjoy performing live in concerts. However, in all the live footage I’ve seen of him, I never saw one bad performance. I was lucky enough to see George Michael perform in Melbourne in 1988 as part of the ‘Faith’ tour and he put on a great show that was energetic and that contained all the hits from the ‘Faith’ album and some Wham! songs. I was also fortunate to see him in concert in Melbourne in 2010 and that was one of the best concerts I’ve been to (see review). For proof of how good he was live check out his DVDs ‘George Michael Live in London’, ‘Symphonica’ and if available ‘George Michael Unplugged’. He really was a fantastic live performer and his voice always sounded great.

Whatever mood you are in, George Michael had the right song for your ears.

For nearly 30 years I have always included George Michael songs if I’m responsible for creating a set list for a party where people want to dance. At school dances I was the guy who asked the DJ to play ‘I Want Your Sex’. As we got older we danced to ‘Freedom90’, ‘Too Funky’, ‘Fastlove’ and ‘Outside’. Songs from Wham! Such as ‘Wham Rap’, ‘Young Guns’ and ‘Bad Boys’ still get a dance floor pumping. George Michael simply knew how to create great dance songs.

As a music teacher, I have lost count the number of times I have taught people how to play the song ‘Faith’ on guitar. I use ‘Careless Whisper’ as an example of how an instrument’s riff (the saxophone part), other than a guitar, can be used to great effect to hook an audience. I’ve used George Michael as an example of a powerful and versatile vocalist. I’ve used his songs as examples when I teach people song writing. There are so many positive aspects to his music that it is easy for me to refer my students and clients to his high quality work.

George Michael was my 1st musical superhero. Michael Jackson was great but he didn’t play an instrument. The Beatles were a band that I loved but they disbanded before I was born. George Michael, like me, was the son of an immigrant. He had Greek heritage…like me. I felt a connection. He looked like he was having so much fun in the Wham! video clips. I wanted to have fun too. He wrote great songs and it was George Michael’s success that made me really believe that I could have a career in music. His music encouraged me to take music seriously…more importantly to take my music more seriously.

2016 has taken from us another brilliant singer and songwriter who brought happiness to millions of people around the world. For many of us, George Michael’s music has always been there. We grew up with his music. In our good times and bad times, his music always made us feel better.

I’ve always said that music unites people. Unfortunately, the death of George Michael and the outpouring of sadness around the world about the loss of this amazing talent only reaffirms my view.

Rest In Peace George Michael.
Thank you for the wonderful music.

Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (George Michael)
June 25th, 1963 – December 25th, 2016

By Steve Yanko

Listen to Steve Yanko’s interview about George Michal on Melbourne Radio on December 27th 2016

Some of Steve Yanko'George Michael collection.
Some of Steve Yanko’s George Michael collection.

Steve Yanko

Steve Yanko is a Music Teacher, Musician, Song Writer & Consultant who loves working in the world of music.