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.