537. ‘Careless Whisper’, by George Michael

We’ve had a famous chart-topper earlier this year that was obsessed with sex. Here, we have a number one that is all about sax.

Careless Whisper, by George Michael (his 1st of seven solo #1s)

3 weeks, from 12th August – 2nd September 1984

Can I just admit right now that ‘Careless Whisper’ has always left me feeling a little… icky? It’s the epitome of mid-eighties slickness: glossy, shimmering, and very heavy on the saxophone. But it’s an important record. Not only is it the first solo #1 for one of Britain’s biggest ever stars, but it set the template for boyband members looking to break away from their group, from Robbie Williams to Harry Styles.

I didn’t appreciate how early George Michael’s solo career began – just a few weeks ago Wham! were scoring their own first #1 – or how confidently he launched into it. This does not sound like the early fumblings of a boyband star going solo; this is a supremely well-made pop ballad. And, amazingly, he wasn’t even twenty when he and Andrew Ridgeley wrote it… His maturity and attention to detail can be found in the fact that he went through nine saxophonists before finding one who could play the famous riff to his liking.

I will not deny how well made this record is. And there are bits I can appreciate. The sax, for a start. This has to be the most famous use of the instrument on a pop single, alongside ‘Baker Street’, and the solo from ‘True’. And the chorus is timeless: I’m never gonna dance again, Guilty feet have got no rhythm… Both this and Wham’s earlier #1 have centred around dancing: on missing out on it, and now on being unable to do it through guilt…

Towards the end, as George is belting out that we could have been so good together… there is a real confidence on show. It’s a song that takes its time, that fills its five-minute runtime at a stately pace. It’s also an interesting lyric: Time can never mend, The careless whispers of a good friend… It’s a classic of late-night ‘love song’ hours on commercial radio, but it’s clearly a break up song… Now who’s gonna dance with me…? Is it also possible, knowing now what we do, that it’s about George hurting a girl thanks to him being gay…?

The video is everything you want from a mid-eighties ballad: soft-focus, gorgeous hair, pointless but moody ropes hanging from the ceiling, sexy yachts, a Princess Diana lookalike love-interest… But the fact that this record is so precisely of its time is what ultimately hurts it in my eyes. Give me the fun, retro stylings of ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ over this.

I mentioned that this was the launch of George Michael’s solo career, when in actual fact it’s something of a false start. His next solo record will not be for another couple of years, when Wham! were indeed coming to an end. In fact, in the US ‘Careless Whisper’ reached #1 as a Wham! single. George Michael clearly wasn’t yet enough of a name to carry a record over there. That would change though, and quickly.

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26 thoughts on “537. ‘Careless Whisper’, by George Michael

  1. I never particularly warmed to this one – even the sax – but I did like George’s more mature music. Funnily enough I celebrated Adolfo Sax’s birthday over on my music blog, looked for a good sax track, and picked “Your Latest Trick”.

  2. The sax is so overproduced sounding…it’s bland. It’s not vibrant at all…just lays there like a dead fish. No life thanks to the production.
    Those scenes where the blinds are half-open I think were used in every movie in the 1980s.

  3. My late sister in law loved George and this was played at her funeral so its hard to go back to 1984 when it was fresh and sophisticated. George was clearly staking out his future career for the post-shuttlecocks-down-the-pants wham days which had exactly 4 more singles to go. Its emotional to me, forget the video, the words are mature and george means every word when he sings with his flawless voice. There is no such thing as “too much sax” for me, but at its best it brings a goosebumps moment to a great record, and this one does the job. And George immediately dropped lush production from his repertoir after the next but one future number one single. You just had to wait another 36 years for it thanks to another christmas classic. His next solo chart topper is his greatest record and sparse subtlety is the order of the day….

    • I have to admit, I don’t think I’ve ever heard his next #1, though I know it’s well thought of. Looking forward to discovering it. I think that, Careless Whisper aside, his pre-‘Faith’ solo work has been slightly overshadowed by what came later…

  4. In the US, “Careless Whisper” was technically billed as Wham! featuring George Michael which is just weird as hell with Tom Breihan noting, “Wham! already featured George Michael. It’s like saying “Eurythmics Featuring Annie Lennox” or “Simon And Garfunkel Featuring Paul Simon.” It just doesn’t make any sense.” Plus, for Americans by the time “Careless Whisper” became a #1 hit in 1985, Wham! was pretty much George Michael in the public eye so it’s not like it would have made a difference in perception. But it managed to be Billboard’s biggest song of ‘85 so this was definitely a good move in Michael positioning himself for his solo career. “Careless Whisper” with that sax riff to me screams cheesy love scene and soft rock compilation infomercial to the point where it is hard to take it seriously but when you get past it it’s actually a really nice song. I feel like George Michael isn’t rated enough as a singer but he does a good job at the sensual style of the song trying his best to be a soul/R&B singer in a very studied manner that he would do well for the rest of his career.

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  7. IDK…Urgent by Foreigner or Maneater by Hall & Oates are pretty cool sax solos, too. Then, there is Baby Jane and the wonderful Rindy Ross with Quarterflash. But, I digress.

    I love this song. He finally dropped the cutesy boy voice and went an octave down. Shades of things to come…

    I guess this makes you the British version of Breihan?

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