By Brian Ives
I once asked George Michael if he thought people realized that he played guitar, keyboards and bass on many of his recordings throughout his solo career.
This was in 2004 and I was interviewing him for VH1, a few months after he’d released what would be his final studio album, Patience. I was asking him about the song and video for “Amazing,” one of the album’s highlights. In it, George plays acoustic guitar (a la “Faith”) and fronts a small three piece band.
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Patience‘s liner notes point out that beside being the singer, and writing or co-writing all the songs, and handling the aforementioned instruments, he also programmed the drums, as well as writing arrangements and handling production on the album.
“No…” he said, a slight look of disappointment crossing his face. He didn’t think people knew the extent of his involvement with his own albums.
2004 was the year “rockism” became a “thing” that the media began to address. And per the conventional wisdom of rockism, a “pop” star like George Michael wouldn’t play all of those instruments, or deal with arrangements, production or writing. Pop stars don’t have to do that (even if they have those particular skills), they can afford to pay people to do it for them. So why bother?
No matter what genre you assign him to, George Michael was an artist through and through. He had the respect of the greats. Including Aretha Franklin (with whom he duetted on the number one hit “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me”) and Elton John, (with whom he had a number one hit with a live version of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”). Paul McCartney respected him also; on 1991’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, there was a little-noticed song called “Heal the Pain,” written in the style of McCartney. In 2006, Michael released a new version featuring McCartney, a criminally under-the-radar performance that is a worthy late entry to the stellar catalog of each of those artists.
George Michael hasn’t necessarily received a similar level of critical respect as some of the other giants of popular music from his era: in the late ’80s to the early ’90s, Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Janet Jackson were the other artists who had similar stature.
Back then, Prince was battling—loudly—with his record label for his artistic freedom. And Springsteen was struggling—a bit less loudly—with turning his back on the carefully-curated persona that had made him a superstar. George Michael did both at the same time. “Freedom ’90,” possibly his finest moment, featured a George Michael-less video. It did, however, feature his “Revenge” black leather jacket from his “Faith” video, lit on fire, in an not-too-subtle message to his fans and the music industry: he wasn’t going to be a caricature. Like David Bowie, he wasn’t going to stay in one persona. And like Prince, he was going to go to the mat to fight for what he wanted. Airplay, record sales, and stardom be damned. Following his heart surely cost him in all three of those areas. That’s what you get for changing your mind, indeed.
Pop stars generally care what their fans think; you can’t be a pop star without having legions of fans. But George’s decision to abstain from appearing in videos, and to not go on tour upset many of those fans. Including, of all people, Frank Sinatra. In an interview with the L.A. Times’ Calendar Magazine, Michael had expressed ambivalence about stardom. Sinatra didn’t get it and said so in a letter to the publication, saying, “I don’t understand a guy who lives ‘in hopes of reducing the strain of his celebrity status.’ Here’s a kid who ‘wanted to be a pop star since I was about 7 years old.’ And now that he’s a smash performer and songwriter at 27 he wants to quit doing what tons of gifted youngsters all over the world would shoot grandma for – just one crack at what he’s complaining about.” Of course, stardom doesn’t sit as well with some artists as it does with others. Sinatra was born to be a star. Maybe George Michael, for all his talent, wasn’t. Again: that’s what you get for changing your mind.
When I interviewed George Michael in 2004, he had just signed with Sony Music, which was a rather shocking development, as he had gone through a huge legal battle to leave the label years earlier. He’d gone through a few other scraps with different record labels since then, and finally landed back at Sony. He grumbled about the label both on and off camera during our interview, and I remember being surprised at this: I figured, twenty years into his career, how could he not know what to expect from record labels? Yet, it still seemed to enrage him that art wasn’t the first priority of a multi-national conglomeration. I thought it was a bit naive, but beautifully so.
I didn’t ask him about any of his other controversies—believe it or not, at that time, it would have been a bit off-brand for VH1 to do so. But I did go off-topic: I told him I loved his version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever),” (It was the bonus track on the “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” cassingle). That cover led me to seek out the original (off of Stevie’s 1972 album, Talking Book). He seemed pretty happy with the idea that he turned me onto a song by Stevie Wonder. I also told him I’d heard a cover of Stevie’s “As” by him and Mary J. Blige on the PA in a store but couldn’t find it. He smiled and explained that he didn’t think it was available in the U.S. (This was before you could find everything online).
My recollection is that he wasn’t in a great mood that day, but he seemed to enjoy doing an interview where he fielded unexpected questions about the less-discussed corners of his discography.
Of course, I asked him about one of his most memorable collaborations: the time he performed with the surviving members of Queen at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992. Their version of “Somebody to Love” would have surely made Freddie Mercury proud; it also was a top 40 hit. George Michael’s performance stole the show from rock legends including Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey. I told him that I loved that afterwards, as he left the stage, he shook hands with Axl Rose, the next singer. That cross-section of music, to me, summed up Freddie Mercury’s appeal.
“Somebody to Love” is pretty much the Queen song you’d expect to see George Michael cover; it’s a rousing, reach-for-the-sky gospel number. But one of the other songs that he performed got a lot less attention: “’39,” an upbeat acoustic folk number. As opposed to most of the concert, which saw Queen accompanied by lots of extra musicians, “’39” was Brian May playing acoustic guitar and singing, John Deacon on bass, Roger Taylor on kick drum, tambourine and singing and George Michael leading the three Queen guys, and about a hundred thousand fans, through an acoustic singalong.
It’s a moving and wonderful moment, and it’s not the way most people think of George Michael. But it’s a very rock star moment in the career of a man who surely was a rock star, no matter what genre he was categorized in. But more than anything, he was an artist.