584. ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’, by Aretha Franklin & George Michael

I spent much of my last new post hailing a brave new world of modern dance. As is often the way, the song that follows a ground-breaking #1 proves the more things change the more they stay the same… Or something… For we are still firmly in the mid-1980s here – ‘peak mid-eighties’, if you will – and when the mid-1980s are giving us songs as fun as this, why would we want to leave?

I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), by Aretha Franklin (her 1st and only #1) & George Michael (his 3rd of seven solo #1s)

2 weeks, from 1st – 15th February 1987

I love the revving guitar in the intro, and the glossy period-piece drums. It’s a lot beefier, a lot more upbeat than either of George Michael’s two previous chart-toppers. There’s a swagger to it, a confidence. It’s very ‘American’, for want of a more sensible expression. On ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘A Different Corner’, Michael was sad and introspective. Here he’s bubbling with confidence. And that’s probably because he’s duetting with an icon. The motherfunking Queen. Of. Soul.

It’s Aretha who kicks off the first verse. In fact, Aretha takes control of the second verse, too. Make no mistake: this is her song. George Michael may have been one of the hottest pop stars on the planet, but he’s very much the understudy here. He was apparently terrified when he got the call – who wouldn’t be? – but he keeps up nicely. Like all the best duets, the couple riff off one another well: I kept my faith… sings George… I know ya did… replies Aretha.

There’s a clear nod to a Motown classic in the chorus: When the river was deep, I didn’t falter… When the mountain was high, I still believed… Which is great. In the video, the pair perform in front of a screen showing other legendary duets – Ike and Tina, Sonny and Cher, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. And I also love the way Aretha starts letting loose in the second half of the song: belting, trilling and whooping, as if she knows this will (unjustly) be her one and only moment atop the British singles chart.

You could say that Franklin’s hit-scoring days were over by 1987, though it wouldn’t strictly be true – she had visited the Top 10 the year before in a duet with Eurythmics on ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves’. But if we’re being honest, she never really scored many hits in the UK. She’d had just two Top 10 hits in the sixties – ‘Respect’ and ‘I Say a Little Prayer for You’ – and none in the seventies. In the US she was much more successful, but this record still brought about her first chart-topper since she’d spelled out those seven famous letters.

Meanwhile, this was quite the statement for George Michael in his first release following his split from Andrew Ridgeley. Ahead of him lay ‘Faith’ and solo superstardom (though none of those late-eighties hits will feature in this countdown), and here he was, duetting with one of his heroes. I admit I was surprised to see that ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’ is GM’s 6th most listened to song on Spotify, as I don’t think it’s one you hear too often these days. It feels as if it’s been overshadowed by his other big duet from a few years later, with another famous diva: Elton John. For my money, though, this one’s better, and ripe for re-discovery…

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572. ‘The Edge of Heaven’, by Wham!

When it comes to their (initial) number one hits, Wham certainly had a formula. Songs like ‘Club Tropicana’, ‘Wham Rap’, ‘Everything She Wants’ all tried out different contemporary sounds. To make number one, though, it seems they had to go retro…

The Edge of Heaven, by Wham! (their 4th of five #1s)

2 weeks, from 22nd June – 6th July 1986

Their final UK release is another mish-mash of doo-wop, Motown, and general sixties vibes. It’s a slightly more frenetic take on their previous chart-topper, ‘I’m Your Man’, and matches the energy of their first, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’. All four of Wham’s #1s have been fun interludes in what was a time when pop music could, on occasion, be a little full of itself.

Yeah-yeah-yeah, Badabadabada… It’s a great hook, one that stays with you for the rest of the day. I also like the hard-edged guitars in the solo, and the brassy horns. There’s also some interesting panting (more on that in a moment). But, at the same time, once you’ve heard their previous three number ones, do you need to hear this? You can see why George Michael was keen to split: he was clearly feeling limited, and his solo efforts – ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘A Different Corner’ – have been the polar opposite of this breezy sort of pop tune.

Ok, back to the panting. It’s become almost customary for me to read for subtext in Wham/George Michael number ones. With ‘The Edge of Heaven’ I don’t need to read too deeply. The echoey vocals are buried quite deep in the mix, but once you pay attention they’re pretty steamy: And there’s a place for us in a dirty movie… George sings at the end of verse II, Cause no one does it better than me and you…

Michael later admitted that he made the lyrics overtly sexual because nobody bothered to pay the lyrics of Wham! songs any attention. (The opposite of John Lennon, who was famously annoyed by people paying too much attention to Beatles’ lyrics…) ‘The Edge of Heaven’ was marketed ahead of release as Wham’s farewell single, and it was released to coincide with their final concert, at Wembley. It could have been about skinning puppies or kicking kittens: this record was going to number one.

At least it’s an up-tempo pop banger. In the ‘90s and ‘00s, it was fashionable for pop groups to bow out with a dull ballad about how all good things come to an end blahblahblah. Sod that. Quite rightly, the biggest British pop act of the decade drew the curtain with a proper pop song. And that was that, for almost thirty-five years… I put that ‘(initial)’ in my intro, because one Wham! hit has had something of an extended afterlife. You know which one. Until then, then.

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568. ‘A Different Corner’, by George Michael

George Michael, one of the biggest pop idols of the decade, returns for his second solo chart-topper. A low-key, and I’d say pretty forgotten chart-topper…

A Different Corner, by George Michael (his 2nd of seven solo #1s)

3 weeks, from 13th April – 4th May 1986

It has a haunting intro: two bass notes, and a distant, echoing piano. ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ it is not. In fact, cast your mind back just a few months, and Wham! were at number one with the perky, Motown-flavoured ‘I’m Your Man’. This is a big departure, a big statement, for an (almost) former boyband star, and the fact that Michael took such a sparse record to the top shows just how popular he was.

It’s not a verse-bridge-chorus kind of song. George’s voice smoothly caresses its way over hills and around corners, through a tale of unrequited love… I would promise you all of my life, But to lose you would cut like a knife, So I don’t dare… He’s never been in love, as he’s in ‘A Different Corner’… As with all of George’s #1 thus far, I can’t help but read a little subtext in this. I’m so scared of this love… he groans, and I’m left wondering how it took everyone so long to realise. According to George himself, it was written about the end of a very quick relationship, as well as his sadness at the end of Wham!

The obvious comparison to make is with George Michael’s first chart-topper, the much glossier and more bouffant-ed ‘Careless Whisper’. That’s not my favourite song, but I get why it’s much loved. ‘A Different Corner’ is a very different beast on first listen, but actually it’s something of a ‘Whisper’ redux: Michael is still emoting, and smouldering, but over a less-cluttered background. (Plus, there’s a Spanish guitar again). In the video, he is locked in a white room, reclining on large cushions and taking phones off their hooks, rather than swanky hotel rooms and luxury yachts.

I’ve probably made this clear in the five George Michael/Wham! songs that I’ve covered up to know, but I’ll out myself once and for all… I’m not his biggest fan. I like certain of his songs, I respect his talent and voice as a performer, and I was sad when he died, much too young. But he doesn’t rank among the Ultimates for me: the Elvises, The Beatles the Dustys, and so on… And I think since he died he’s been unjustly pushed to the very top of the pile.

I also respect a song like this getting to number one – it sounds unlike anything we’ve had at the top for a while – but I don’t love it. In a sign of Michael’s immense talent, ‘A Different Corner’ was the first ever #1 to be written, performed and produced by the same person. (Which, yes, is more than Elvis or Dusty ever did, but that’s irrelevant… Music doesn’t work on a points system). This pretty much marks the end of Wham! – although they still have one more #1 to come – and sets George Michael up for the all-conquering ‘Faith’ era – during which he would at least have some fun, not just mope around on big white bean-bags…

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560. ‘I’m Your Man’, by Wham!

It’s been over a year since Wham’s last number one, but their next chart-topper still feels like a direct follow-up to the Motown stylings of ‘Freedom’

I’m Your Man, by Wham! (their 3rd of five #1s)

2 weeks, from 24th November – 8th December 1985

The beat is breezy, the bassline is pretty cool, and George and Andrew are as perky as they’ve ever been. I did call for some cheesy pop, after what has been a pretty earnest autumn from the likes of Midge Ure, Jennifer Rush and Feargal Sharkey, and cheesy pop is what we’ve got. If you’re gonna do it do right, Right do it with me… they chant in the bridge, in a perfectly inane pop hook.

George Michael does his best to lift things, giving a good vocal performance reminiscent of ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’. But there’s something ever so strained in his ad-libs and in the soaring sax, a feeling that they might be trying that bit too hard to paper over the cracks…? Maybe I’m projecting, because we now know that Wham! split up just six months after this made #1. (‘I’m Your Man’ was the last song the pair ever performed together, at their final Wembley concert.) In the video too, a black and white performance of the song at the Marquee Club, Michael is bearded and manly, ready for his imminent solo career. (To be honest, this might as well be a GM solo number – he’s the ‘man’ in the title, Andrew ain’t getting a look in…)

‘I’m Your Man’ is also perhaps a slightly more adult song than it seems at first glance. It’s apparently about a booty call, or a secret affair. Or, and maybe I’m again projecting with hindsight, it’s about anonymous gay sex. Baby our friends do not need to know! George growls… Got a real nice place to go… Or how about: Wanna take you, Wanna make you, But they tell me it’s a crime… Plus the ‘baby’ in the song is never given a pronoun…

I dunno. I’ll happily read a gay subtext into just about anything. But it’s an interesting distraction from what is a decent, if not mind-blowing, pop song. Wham, and GM, were capable of better. But ‘I’m Your Man’ has lived on, and can possibly lay claim to being the duo’s best loved song, after ‘Last Christmas’. George Michael himself re-recorded it in the mid-nineties, and in 2003 none other than Shane Richie took a cover to #2, all in the name of charity.

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539. ‘Freedom’, by Wham!

Time for more effervescent pop from George and Andrew, as Wham! cement their place as the teen idols of the day…

Freedom, by Wham! (their 2nd of five #1s)

3 weeks, from 14th October – 4th November 1984

Like the duo’s first #1, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, it’s another backwards facing hit. And if that sounded like a subtle dig, then I didn’t mean it to. It’s wonderfully retro, a tribute to Motown and sixties vocal groups and the perfect follow-up to ‘Wake Me Up…’, which was pitched half a decade earlier, towards the days of doo-wop.

Every day I hear a different story, People say you’re no good for me… The chord progression in the verses sounds so familiar. I don’t know if it’s because ‘Freedom’ sounds like something, or if something released since has sounded like ‘Freedom’, or if it’s just such good pop that it sounds timeless. The verses, and the bridges – ending in that and you do-o-o… – are so strong that the chorus, when it comes, feels a little pedestrian. I don’t want your freedom… It follows the beat too much, and gets a little slowed down by it.

It’s not as instant as WMUBYG-G (what an ugly acronym) but then I did rather excitedly claim that as the catchiest song ever! It’s still a great slice of pop, though. Yes, Wham were teeny-boppers, but they proved that being a teeny-bop act needn’t mean being second rate. And the lyrics here are (slightly) darker than before. George’s girl is treating him properly bad, like a prisoner who has his own key, not just sneaking off to the dancing without him.

It is also a bit too long: five minutes even with an edit. The ‘solo’, where the boys adlib over that deliberate beat feels like they were killing time for some unknown reason. It’s not fair to compare – each song should be taken on its individual merits yadda yadda yadda – but WMUBYG-G was shorter, and even sweeter for it. (There are even seven-minute long mixes of ‘Freedom’, which is definite overkill.)

The video for this one is interesting, taking the form of a travelogue from the duo’s tour of China in 1985 (it must have been made several months after the song was a hit). They were the first Western act to play there since Mao’s rise to power, and they sold out stadiums despite nobody knowing who they were. One wonders if using the song for this video was intentional: I don’t want your freedom… sung over images of communist China?

So. Three of the past five chart-toppers have been written and performed by George Michael. (And Andrew. Let’s not forget Andrew!) Over half of the year so far has seen either Frankie Goes to Hollywood or George Michael at #1. Wham! won’t be back at the top in 1984, but under normal circumstances they would have been. They were about to release probably the world’s favourite Christmas hit (sorry Mariah…) only to see it kept off the top by… Well, we’ll save that for another time.

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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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535. ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, by Wham!

In my last post, on ‘The Reflex’, I wondered if Duran Duran had produced the most obnoxious-sounding intro ever. In this post, I will pose a similar question: is the intro to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ the happiest intro ever?

Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, by Wham! (their 1st of five #1s)

2 weeks, from 27th May – 10th June 1984

In fact, is this entire record not just the happiest piece of music ever recorded? It’s pure, pure pop. If you were to look up ‘pop song’ in the dictionary, I hope the entry would simply read: Noun. 1. As in ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ by Wham. There are finger-clicks, there are organs, there are Jitterbugs!… The moment where George Michael goes for the I wanna hit that high… line, and the horns come smashing in, is perfection.

You can picture the smile on Michael’s face as he sings – though his voice isn’t quite as strong as it would grow to be – probably because he knows he’s just sealed his first UK (and US) chart-topper. In the back of your head you’re thinking: this should be way more annoying than it is, nothing this perky can be ‘good’… But the irritation never comes, not for me anyway. Lines like You put the boom boom into in my heart… float past unchecked. ‘Go-Go’ is rhymed with ‘yo-yo’, and nobody bats an eyelid…

The record’s innocence runs deep. George is upset, he feels betrayed… All because his friend went dancing without him. (I just noticed the potential pun in the title: ‘go-go’, as in ‘go-go bar’…?) The video is also a slice of wholesomeness: an all-white set, George and Andrew in their ‘Choose Life’ tees, as if they are hosting a primary school anti-drugs talk, before things go all neon. (At the very end, as the music fades, a message on screen reads: ‘Go-Go Buy It’, which feels very eighties…)

There’s a cleanness and a simplicity to this record, especially compared to the Blitzkrieg-pop that was ‘The Reflex’ and ‘Relax’. It’s timeless, appropriate for everything from a kids’ party to a stag do, and everything in between. On a completely unrelated note, I’ve always subconsciously connected ‘Wake Me Up…’ with Queen’s ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’. Both are slight outliers in their band’s discography, both are ridiculously catchy, both are throwbacks to the fifties and sixties – rock ‘n’ roll in Queen’s case, doo-wop and Motown in Wham’s. Doris Day even gets a name check here!

This was the first single to be released from Wham’s second album, and it was clearly a step up into the pop stratosphere. They’d had their earlier hits – ‘Wham Rap’ and ‘Club Tropicana’ among them – but this made them global superstars. Back when I wrote my post on ‘Relax’, I confidently claimed 1984 as Frankie’s year. But maybe they’ll need to share it with Wham!, and George Michael, who will also have scored three chart-toppers before the year is out, plus one of the biggest-selling number twos in history. ‘Choose Life’ versus ‘Frankie Say…’ Much more to come from both camps…

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