Can We Listen Without Prejudice ?

"It's been Five years since his last hit, but he reappears this month with a single, Jesus to a Child. Can George Michael return a star, or is he now just a fallen hero, asks ANDREW SMITH."

The Sunday Times 7 January 1996 (London)

However you look at it, the second week in January is a peculiar time for George Michael to be releasing the most important single of his career, Jesus to a Child, out tomorrow, provides the first clue as to what we might expect from the former Wham! star's new album, which is due to hit the shops in March and will be his first for nearly five years. It's a characteristically well crafted ballad, his best since Careless Whisper--indeed, better than that, being understated and aching, melancholy and deft where that earlier work carried with it a treacly whiff of artifice. Radio stations were issued with copies three weeks ago and have been playing it to death ever since, as if eager to reacquaint the public with their duty to go out and buy Michael records as a matter of course, just as they used to. But that was a long time ago.

When he last prepared to assail the album charts, in 1990, with the ill-fated if frequently inspired Listen Without Prejudice, the singer did so as the latest guest at pop's top table, slipping in easily next to Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. He stayed for the first course and a little collaborational footsy with celebes such as Elton John and Aretha Franklin, then raised his hand, asked to be excused, and duly was. His first solo album, Faith, sold nearly 15m copies. Listen without Prejudice managed 5m. Now, nobody seems sure where the man once regarded as the singer/songwriter of his generation stands with the public; and his new record companies, which spent more than $40m in extricating him from his unhappy deal with Sony, seem nervous. All the signs are that he is, too.

The uneasy impression is heightened by the knowledge that Jesus to a Child was originally slated to appear in time for Christmas. Seventy percent of all record sales occur in the few months leading up to the holidays, and the big fish nearly always choose to surf that buoyant Yuletide. January is for pop minnows and hip new arrivals, and Michael's relocation there suggests that someone, somewhere, lost their nerve. Were they right to? Was the former Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell speaking the truth recently when he declared: "I haven't met anyone in the industry who cares about George Michael any more," or was that merely the bitterness of the estranged business associate?

There are many people who have a great deal riding on the answer to that question. As Michael's current manager, the erstwhile Sony employee Andy Stevens, admits: "I think George is worried, especially having taken the stance that he took some time a go, that this record should be judged on its merits."

Michael's latter-day insistence that we should approach and buy his records purely for what they are, rather than as a response to clever image manipulation and marketing, is the cause of tall this uncertainty. In the long term, it may also be his smartest move, even if his paymasters haven't always seen it that way. Far from abandoning any attempt at an image he has exchanged his old one for a potentially far more enduring new one. He's playing to his strengths.

It has been said before that pop is an essentially suburban phenomenon, that the fantasy and aspirational elements are at their most potent when experienced vicariously from behind twitching net curtains, though an apparent veil of bland uniformity. George Michael (christened Georgios Kyriacos Panayioutou by his Greek Cypriot father) and Andrew Ridgeley, the schoolboy chums from Bushey, north London, who became Wham! were the ultimate suburban pop duo. Their first hits, 1982's Wham Rap and Young Guns (Go for It), conjured images of George and the boys alternately scheming in their bedrooms, intoxicated by their own dreams of stardom, or down the pub, trying to sell skeptical mates on the viability of their escape to a better place' one where you could tell a lover to "shut up, babe, you're out of line" (as George did in Wham Rap) and she would actually get back in line, not laugh at you and disappear with someone taller and better looking. These things matter when you are 19 years old.

Soon they were there, on the beaches of Club Tropicana (a place that, in retrospect, sounds a lot like Club 18-30). Between 1982 and 1986, Wham! shifted 20m albums and 12m singles, though none of them was as impressive as Michael's own Careless Whisper (issued 1984), an ominous sign for Ridgeley. What everyone always suspected about the pair's working relationship has since been acknowledged: that the singer was the sole musical force, while Ridgeley, the more sophisticated of the two , the stylish one who loved pop as opposed to just music, took responsibility for image matters, creating the "casual chic" look that was intrinsic to their early success. Ridgeley was the natural-born pop star, something George wasn't then and isn't now.

The singer was still only 24 in November 1987, when, having split Wham!, he released Faith. It was well received and contained some compelling tunes (Monkey and the Shep Pettibone mix of Hard Day, in particular, have lost nothing over the years), but is these days more interesting for what it revealed about Michael's limitations, abilities and ambitions -- and in particular, his desire to give his teen audience the slip. The issue is as alive now as it was then.

The sleeve afforded the first clues as to where things were headed. An extraordinary affair, it rendered the artiste in profile, either sniffing his armpit or trying to climb into the sleeve of his own leather jacket for reasons not immediately obvious. Bjor Borg may have invented designer stubble, but Michael, on Faith, turned into a lifestyle issue. The look was meant to suggest ruggedness and intensity. In the event, it became known as Michael's "fairy biker" look. Ridgeley, you have to feel, would not have allowed it.

Inside, the writer's fascination with the then all-conquering Prince was perhaps too much in evidence, most notably on the single I Want Your sex. The dear old BBC banned it, despite the fact that its mooted carnality was betrayed by the continuing, probably involuntary, ingenuous chirp in Michael's voice. The effect was curiously sexless, like that of an adolescent ordering his maiden pint or attempting to chat up a more mature woman in a pub for the first time. But the implication was there for all to see. George Michael didn't want to be a teen sensation any more. Like every pop star before or since (with the possible exceptions of Roy Wood and Jarvis Cocker -- who at 33 is a similar age), he wanted to be taken seriously.

Listen Without prejudice was where, three years later, these ambitions came good, then soured badly. By now aged 27, Michael's writing evinced a composure and a gravity that had only been hinted at before, form the Lennonesque opener, Praying for Time, to the funkily effusive hit single Freedom '90 ("Sometimes the clothes do not make the man," he sang pointedly) and the easy, engagingly reflective Heal the Pain. Throughout, Michael hardly put a foot wrong, and if his own glossy production was, as always, a bit static, the tune generally rose above it. A little-known fact is that Prejudice outsold Faith in the UK.

In the US, though, it bombed. Prior to release, its maker had expressed an unshakable belief that he should take a back seat in the work's promotion. He refused to tour, do interviews, make videos. The latter announcement, in particular, infuriated the American division of Sony, and the Michael camp accused it of refusing to promote the record adequately as a result. The consequent 74-day court case, during which the singer attempted to extricate himself from his contract, ended up costing him #3m in legal fees and at least two years of his working life. According to figures lodged with Companies House, his income in 1988 was #16m, in 1993 it was #400,000 --not enough even to pay his lawyers. In 1995 we know little more of George Michael's private life than we ever did (he lives in a posh part of north London and the south of France, he has a place in LA, does an awful lot of work for charity...), but, by God, do we know about his finances.

What nobody disputes is that Michael himself had always expected Listen Without Prejudice to sell less than Faith, feeling that it was in his long-term interests to step off the commercial treadmill for a while-- that such a move would ultimately lend his career increased longevity and , just as importantly, enable him to make records he was proud of in the future. For, it goes without saying that in the course of is 13-year music-biz career, George Michael has changed. There's still an endearing element of the suburban casual made good about him, which those of us who grew up in nondescript places recognize and appreciate. The T-shirts he wore under his tweedy jackets during the trial cost #120 and were made by Versace, right enough, but they were still T-shirts under jackets. And by the end, his hairdo had made the bizarre transition from blow-dried Lionel Blair-style demi-quiff to a sleek, slicked down number with goatee beard ("I think he would have got more joy if he had sued his hairdresser, " quipped Billy Bragg), but this merely made him look like Robbie from Take That.

On the other hand, he wants to be appreciated by his peers. His peers, like him, are older, richer and, if they're lucky, wiser than they were when they left home. Last month, Blur'sDamon Albarn complained that, notwithstanding the extraordinary year his group have just had, "the cover of Smash Hits is not place to be at the age of 28". He'd just realised what George Michael already knew at 24.

Seen in this context, Michael taking Sony to court was a masterstroke. He wanted to be allowed to grow up, to reflect his own changed circumstances and concerns in his music --while also retaining a sizable audience Not many artists are allowed to do this: to fickle pop eyes, a leopard who has changed his spots is indistinguishable from a donkey. And yet, what better way to appear grown up tan to engage in a bitter, pitched court battle with one of the entertainment conglomerates on earth? And to lose so unequivocally, in such spectacular style?

Even the ability to attempt such a thing, to call the shots in such a manner, lent the plaintiff an aura of glamour and mystique. Ten years ago, we wanted our stars to be fallow, drug-addled wasters. Now, thanks largely to Madonna and Prince, we like them to be in control, to wheel and deal as though life were a glorified craps shoot.

So who isn't going to be interested in what George Michael does next? Come to that, who doesn't believe that it's going to be pretty good, purely on the grounds that one of the worlds' most powerful organisations didn't want him to do it? He's now contracted to DreamWorks SKG -- the company jointly created by Steven Spielberg, former Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg and record-biz mogul David Geffen -- in the US, and to Virgin for the rest of the world. He insists that he never stopped writing songs during the depressing standoff with Sony, although colleagues say that his mood was black and productivity low during this period. Most of the material that has made the new, as yet untitled album, was written over the past year. With roughly nine tenths of the recording completed, insiders are insisting that what they've heard amounts to the best work of Michael's career...and although you wouldn't expect them to say otherwise, you wouldn't bet against them either.

"I'm really thrilled with what's been going on in the studio," the singer told the Daily Mirror last week. "The new record feels like by far the most complete thing I have ever done." The mood, apparently, is predominately downbeat and meditative.

Jesus to a Child was penned in a couple of hours as a lament for his close Brazilian friend Anselmo Feleppa, whom he met on tour in Rio de Janeiro in 1991, but who died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage two years ago. It turned out to be the tune that lifted the Englishman out of his creative doldrums. "It's a special song," he said, "one of those songs that just felt like it was handed to me." Perhaps it was. Michael's career has always had a charmed quality about it. And yet, at this moment, all is still to play for. everything has been leading up to this point. No wonder he is nervous.
Provided by Shelly

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