George Michael

TrackSingle / Album
Freedom 90Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1
Jesus To A ChildOlder
John And Elvis Are DeadSymphonica
Don't Let The Sun Go Down On MeEpic 657646 7
Somebody To LoveFive Live EP
Too FunkyEpic 658058 2
The First Time Ever I Saw Your FaceSongs From The Last Century
Killer / Papa Was A Rolling StoneFive Live EP
AsEpic 667012 2
True FaithAegean CDAEG 1

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George Michael photo

 

Contributor: David Lewis

Christmas Day gave us possibly the most unexpected of the unexpected deaths of that annus horribilis, 2016. George Michael was still relatively young and seemingly had more to say, though he did not seem in any hurry to say it. From being one of the biggest stars of the 1980s and 1990s, he had become relatively reclusive. His fame had changed from ‘one of the best white male singers of his time’ to ‘the bloke who seemed to be on community service’. His private life was tabloid fodder. Details of his love life, his cannabis habits and his brushes with the law (some true, some not), were always around to fill a paper before its deadline.

And yet, he had one of the best voices of his generation; that full, masculine tenor with baritone richness was comfortable with pop, hard funk, ballads. He had a lightness of touch, but a gravitas which meant he could sing a tremendous variety of songs.

Five albums, none of which dipped below #2. Hundreds of millions of singles sales, album sales and a major live act. He had pretty much retired, and his new music was going to be released sporadically. I’m not interested in his personal life. I am interested in the voice, and the stories he told. These 10 are selected from his solo work – the collaboration with his dear friend Andrew Ridgely in Wham! will have to be left for someone else.

Although we try to avoid a hits bias while doing a toppermost, Freedom 90 is superb. George gives us the story of what he went through with his well-documented split with Sony (to whom he would return). Despite the high and prominent production, the honesty of George’s lyrics and the emotional impact of them transcends the production.

Jesus To A Child is a gorgeous ballad – George didn’t need the production but he couldn’t help but treat a melody properly. Dedicated to his lover who died of AIDS-related complications, it’s pitched just right. Heartbreak, grief, but also a little hope.

The next choice, with the line, ‘But if Jesus is alive, tell me why John and Elvis are dead’ could come across as cynical. But it is pleading, it’s asked in innocence, and a touch of anger and regret. John And Elvis Are Dead is a magnificent performance. I think I prefer the live version, so that’s the one I’ve selected here.

I love Elton John’s music; he is probably second only to Lennon and McCartney in terms of his talent. But his version of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me is ponderous and plodding. George finds the greatness in the song and the ‘surprise’ appearance of Elton perfects it. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics are powerfully introspective but George gives them a lift that the original doesn’t have. When Elton comes on stage, his performance is perfect – it’s as if George’s interpretation has lifted him, and he can finally get the song’s profundity. When Elton sang “although I’ve searched myself, it’s always someone else I see” the line is too much for him; he wasn’t ready. When George sang it, he knew exactly what it meant. And when Elton sings it with George, it’s brilliant.

I don’t need to express further my love for Queen, and for the remarkable voice of Freddie Mercury. Great singers have tried to fill the shoes of Freddie and have fallen short. Not George. His version of Somebody To Love was the highlight of the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium in April 1992. Although much of Freddie’s phrasing remain, George puts his own stamp on it and it is great.

George had always been a fan of funk, of soul, of R&B. Too Funky is a great example of it. It’s not too funky – it’s pretty much right on. Starting with Anne Bancroft’s “I’m not trying to seduce you” from The Graduate (also used in that abomination, Macarena), Too Funky wastes no time in getting down to the business of getting down. It’s urban, it’s greasy, it’s funky. It’s terrific.

George again finds the greatness in Ewan MacColl’s ethereal and elusive The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. The melody of the verse is brought out in a way the Roberta Flack version doesn’t. Roberta’s remains definitive, but George’s is a mighty effort. And like all of his covers, he shows that, while he is a subtle interpreter, he is a solid one. No vocal histrionics or technical onanism. At the heart is the melody, which is as it should be.

Back to the hard funk of Killer / Papa Was A Rolling Stone. But when he sings ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’, there is a depth there. Maybe this was informed by his experience as a homosexual man in a heterosexual society. Maybe not. However it worked, it worked.

Stevie Wonder’s As gets the ‘Yog’ treatment, with able assistance from Mary J. Blige. One of Stevie’s greatest songs, George is well suited to the material, and he doesn’t disappoint. It’s a deceptively difficult song – while the melody seems to glide, it’s actually very tricky – but George is not phased and puts in yet another magnificent performance.

The final choice is rather controversial as George is singing New Order’s True Faith through a vocoder, which is a filter for the voice. Critics of the recording wondered why such a pure and beautiful voice would be so filtered. Yet I like it. It suits the song and I suspect George enjoyed playing round with his voice. And of course, it’s a terrific interpretation.

George Michael was probably the best white male singer of his generation. He had a wonderful sense of humour about himself (check out his guest appearance in Ricky Gervais’s Extras in which he pokes fun at his public persona). He was a great songwriter and a superb interpreter of the works of others. He is sadly missed, but won’t be quickly forgotten.

 

George Michael (1963-2016)

 

George Michael official website

George Michael Concert Archive

Yours Only George: fan-created site

George Michael at Discogs

George Michael lyrics

George Michael biography (iTunes)

David Lewis has written several posts for Toppermost. He lives in Sydney and lectures in Popular Culture and Contemporary and Roots Music at the Australian Institute of Music. A guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country. He writes on music here.

TopperPost #676

8 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Nov 16, 2017

    David, thanks for his superb piece on a fine singer and extremely talented songwriter. For me, “Jesus To A Child’ is the high point – a classic song and a beautifully judged vocal performance.
    A digression, I know, but for some of us, Peggy Seeger’s version of “First Time” will always be the definitive one.

    • David Lewis
      Nov 18, 2017

      Thanks Andrew: One thing that I might’ve mentioned is just how underrated a songwriter he is – the three I’ve picked are just marvellous. A lot of the others of his songs that might have gone into such a list are so ubiquitous, I didn’t think it was necessary to mention it: Last Christmas (yes, we’ve heard it five million times, but there’s a reason for that) and Careless Whisper – again, it’s continual ubiquity is because it is a very well constructed and performed song. it’s easy to forget just how good they are.
      The one part of his private life that does bear mentioning is his immense generosity – after his death stories came out about him giving thousands and thousands of pounds to waitresses, children, plus him working on soup lines, etc. A class act and a great talent.

  2. Peter Viney
    Nov 18, 2017

    Thought provoking, David. But if you’re representing George Michael in all dimensions, surely you can’t avoid a hits bias? “Faith” had six Top 5 singles. “Listen Without Prejudice” had five UK singles. I know it means that every track on those two key albums is a hit or a B-side, but surely that’s where his reputation lies? ‘Faith’ was the bigger US seller, Listen Without Prejudice did much better in the UK. I wouldn’t really rate those cover versions, good as they are, compared to the original songs. For me, Faith, Waiting For That Day and Heal The Pain would have been the first three on a list. Yes, massive hits, but what’s wrong with hits? The Listen Without Prejudice anniversary box came out last month, I haven’t heard it, but I am listening without prejudice to the album of that title as I type. I’ll pick up on the aside … I think The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was a dismal song until Roberta Flack tweaked the melody! And I know Ewan MacColl hated her version.

    • David Lewis
      Nov 18, 2017

      It’s a tough one. The hits are so ubiquitous and rightly so that perhaps you can’t not mention them. But then that familiarity does dull the impact of his musicianship. The statistics speak for themselves too. He was a hit machine.

      • David Lewis
        Nov 19, 2017

        Faith hovered in and out. In the end I was harsh but in another variant I’d have it. It shows the variety and quality of his work.

        • Peter Viney
          Nov 19, 2017

          My main feeling is that George was a great songwriter and as you say a hit machine, and I’d do all ten as originals. Avoiding the hits with George is like avoiding the hits with ABBA.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Nov 18, 2017

    Peter – have always felt that although Roberta had a great voice, she over-sings it in her version. MacColl did like this one though, which to me at least is a much better cover. As Peggy says, the song was meant to be an entrée, not a main course…

    • Peter Viney
      Nov 19, 2017

      Maybe this should be elsewhere. MacColl hated virtually all covers. Gord’s version is better for me than the Ian Campbell Folk Group 1966 version & the original 1957 Peggy Seeger. Shirley Collins was banned from singing at a Ewan MacColl event for wearing nail varnish and described him as “unpleasant, sexist, pretentious and pompous.” I think she is too kind. He ordered Topic Records not to sign Paul Simon too. Roberta Flack created something sublime from the song.

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