Tag Archives: George Michael

George Michael RIP

wham
When I was a kid my mum had Wham’s The Final on double cassette (I think it was double anyway), so George Michael’s voice was an integral part of my childhood. But in truth it would have been even if The Final hadn’t been a regular car-journey companion. Michael was a huge, huge star in the late eighties, never off the radio and almost certainly Britain’s biggest pop star on the global stage. Faith is certified Diamond in the US – 10 million records sold – and was already 7x Platinum in 1990, two years after its release. Even Phil Collins didn’t sell that many records that quickly. But then, George was rather easier on the eye than Phil.

OK, so that gets us to the nub of it quickly. George Michael’s early success owed a lot to his (and Andrew Ridgeley’s) appearance. That’s always been true in pop, from the time when pop singers were also film stars and all-round entertainers. But Michael’s world-domination era was marked by his battle to be accepted just on the strength of his music and leave his Club Tropicana days behind him.

That he succeeded, despite the efforts of many who just wanted to score cheap laughs at his expense (and not realising that Club Tropicana and its video were supposed to be ridiculous), was testament to his talents as a writer and a singer.

And Michael was vastly talented. Few singers are granted George Michael’s creamy timbre or unerring pitch; few writers are capable of penning totally convincing dance tracks and genuinely moving ballads. Michael has half a dozen of both to his name, as well as Jesus to a Child, his greatest achievement – a tribute to his lover Anselmo Feleppa, who had died of an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage in 1993, and a song of almost miraculous grace and warmth.

Others will write from much more informed positions than mine about his wider legacy – what he has meant to the LGBQT community, for example. I only know what I’ve taken from his music down the years. But it’s been heart-warming to read in the papers today so many stories by those who’d come across him, all saying how generous George Michael was, how many small and large acts of charity he was responsible for. Not merely the big stuff that made the papers (the free concert he gave at the Roundhouse for NHS nurses; the money he donated to the Terence Higgins Trust, Childline and Ethiopian famine relief), but the little (at least for a man of his wealth) things too. It seems we’ve lost a good man, as well as a very special singer and writer.

wham2
Wham! – Andrew Ridgeley & George Michael in 1986

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Prayer for the Dying – Seal

It goes without saying that the sound of pop music in the first half of the 1990s was heterogeneous, more so than we might remember or appreciate in retrospect. Eurodance, U-rated rap, revived oldies, suvivors from the 1970s, novelty records, coffee-table soul, NME favourites, metal veterans, US indie icons, 1980s holdovers and what was not yet called adult alternative – if you look at the list of number-one singles and albums in the UK for 1990 and 1991, you’ll see all these things and more.

But few sounds are as redolent for me of the early 1990s as that of Trevor Horn producing Seal. It’s not just that Seal was a big commercial presence back then (first two albums both hitting number one and spinning off seven hit singles between them), but that Horn’s sounds were always imitated by other producers. The rhythm tracks he crafted for Seal’s second album (1994) were still being knocked off a few years later by records that purported to be “trip-hop”, and I can’t help feeling 1991’s Crazy was a huge record for Wiliam Orbit*. All of which is to say that this music sounds, and feels, very much of its era when I hear it now.

Horn was a sensible guy to go to if you wanted the George Michael money, the singer-songwriter-for-adult-professionals money. Michael was in the process of abdicating his throne at the time, and he made his respect for the young pretender explicit by covering Killer at Wembley Arena as part of the Freddie Mercury tribute concert (released on the Five Live EP – the five in question being the remaining members of Queen, plus Michael and Lisa Stansfield). Horn’s work with Seal – which speaks loudly of “quality” and of the expenses that haven’t been spared – was precision tooled for Michael’s audience. But when you listen to the music Seal put out between 1990 and 1995, it’s striking that the two best songs – the unimpeachable Adamski version of Killer and the deathless Kiss from the Rose – are either not produced by Horn or don’t sound anything like Horn. Sure, Crazy is a fine record (if overplayed in its time), but perhaps Horn did Seal more artistic harm than good (limiting him to the same relatively narrow sonic palette, or at least facilitating Seal in his more conservative instincts), however successful the pair were together.

Seal II does contain a couple of stylistic curveballs – the medieval-modal balladry of Kiss from a Rose, the Joni Mitchell duet If I Could and Fast Changes, which makes it clear exactly how big a Joni fan Seal is (with its woodwinds and strummed chords it’s a dead ringer for her For the Roses-era material) – but taken as a whole, the album is deadening. It’s expensive-sounding and glossy, but involving melodies are in short supply, and Horn can’t consistently pull out of Seal the level of which he was evidently capable.

Prayer for the Dying, the lead single, is a notable exception to all this and an unqualified success. If any of his tracks deserve a revival, it’s this one. It’s not just that it’s an excellent song, sung with passion, but it’s the track on which Horn’s production and arrangemental approaches work best with the material. On top of one of those beats that place the record immediately in the mid-1990s, Horn fills up the track with delayed guitar noodles, little snatches of percussion and unobtrusive synths. It’s far from minimlist, but nothing’s allowed to step on the vocalist’s turf.

On rediscovering the track five or so years ago (I remembered it once I’d heard it, but it had been 15 years), I was at first put off by the chorus, which seemed woolly and vague, a list of warmed-over cliches. Crossing bridges. Lessons learned. Playing with fire… We’ve heard all these before.** I was probably just having a grumpy day. Mixing an inscrutable, personal verse lyric with a more universal chorus is one of the perennial techniques of modern pop songwriting, as is adopting a cliche to subvert it or twist it. Nowadays, I think the reason the song works so well is the contrast between verse and chorus, in which I hear a shift of narrative perspective (with the first verse sung from the point of view of the dying person and the chorus from that of the younger person trying to get their head around it). Seal, as is common among, songwriters, has refused to be pinned down on what precisely it all means***, and listeners will hear it their own way, which is as it should be.

In the UK at least, Seal’s music, other than Killer, Crazy and Kiss from a Rose, seems to have faded out of cultural consciousness, while the man himself makes covers albums and a set of original songs produced by (the horror) David Foster. Seal? The singer? Was married to Heidi Klum? Oh yeah, him. Prayer for the Dying stands as a reminder of what the man could do back in his garlanded youth.

Seal

*In a neat historical curlicue, in 1991 Orbit remixed Seal’s re-recorded version of Killer. It’s pretty feeble (some of the house piano Orbit inserted clashes horribly with the vocal melody), and sounds nothing like the readily identifiable Orbit style of half a decade later.

**I’m in no position to point the finger when I have written a song called Lessons Learned.

***”It is a song about life after death and a song that was intended to help those who were dying or knew people that had died to deal with the event of death.”

Recent music by the author. Downloadable on the pay-what-you-want model. Click on the logo on the  right-hand side of the player to go to Bandcamp.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 3

6) Beware of Darkness – George Harrison

There are still people in this world – people without functioning ears, I assume – who labour under the misapprehension that Ringo Starr wasn’t a good drummer. Lennon’s joke in an interview that Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles hasn’t helped his reputation amongst non-musicians (and people who don’t understand irony), but even though Lennon’s humour could be cruel, this wasn’t what he intended when he made the crack, I’m sure – after all, who is the drummer on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band?

The former Beatles were prize catches for any session player in the early 1970s and as much as Lennon obviously respected and trusted Ringo’s musicianship, it was only natural that after 10 years with the same guys, the ex-Beatles would look to cast their nets a little wider when making their own albums, play with other people, see what others could contribute to their songs. Such was their colossal reputations, to get a nod from a Beatle and get to play on a song would establish the musician’s own rep among his peers. Alan White was not a ‘name’ when he played on Instant Karma but, impressed by him, soon Lennon introduced him to George Harrison and so White was added to the pool of drummers who appear on All Things Must Pass, along with Jim Gordon, former Delaney & Bonnie sideman, and a member of the nascent Derek & the Dominoes at the time of the All Things Must Pass sessions.

Added to this short and august list is Ringo Starr. Playing Guess the Drummer is one of the greatest pleasures of Harrison’s solo debut. You often need acute ears to tell the three apart, which speaks to the adaptability of the trio, their ability to inhabit the music, to put themselves at the music’s service.

At a brisker tempo (say, on Wah-Wah), Ringo’s playing starts to feel more identifiably Ringo-esque, but on Beware of Darkness, you could be listening to Jim Keltner, to Russ Kunkel, or to anyone else who built their career in the seventies on being able to play slow four-four grooves that swing rather than plod. There is so much more to Ringo Starr than splashy open hi-hats and backwards fills. Listen to Beware of Darkness. Listen to Ringo’s groove, the spaces he leaves for the music to breathe, listen to fills he plays, the emotional responses he’s having to the song when he plays them. You’re listening to the most important drummer in popular music.

Ringo

7) Careless Whisper – George Michael

Those who know me best know I’m not averse to a little bit of cheese in a good ballad. For many people, Careless Whisper goes too far. Maybe it’s the lyrics, maybe the saxophone riff, maybe George’s Princess Diana hair in the video, but it’s too much for them.

For me, though, it’s fine. More than fine. It’s one of the best records of its type. A key reason why is the drum track, played by Trevor Morrell, who was one of George Michael’s go-to guys in the Wham! days. Morrell is a very steady timekeeper with a good feel and who (according to the Posies Ken Stringfellow, who a few years ago chanced upon him while producing a record in Spain and ended up bringing him into the session) gives the drums a surprisingly hard battering.

There’s a lot to learn about the success of Careless Whisper as a recording by listening to the Jerry Wexler-produced version, which was shelved by an unhappy Michael but eventually released as a B-side. Jerry Wexler producing a soulful ballad by a great singer in Muscle Shoals – this had been a recipe for success for 30 years before Careless Whisper, yet when you listen to the two versions, it’s clear why Michael nixed the first one and chose to start again, producing it himself.

The rhythm track is a key difference. It just doesn’t feel very good. In the key early bars, the bassist is ahead of the kick drum, and while they feel their way into it by the first chorus, I’m surprised the take was judged to pass muster without editing in a new first verse. But even if they had been super-tight, the drum track would still have been inferior to the Michael-produced version. Wexler’s version has the kick drum and bassist playing this:

beats    1     &     2     &     3     &     4     &

kick       x                     x      x

bass     x                      x     x

Whereas the Careless Whisper we know and love is this:

beats    1     &     2     &     3     &     4     &

kick       x                         x  x

bass     x                      x     x

Small difference in terms of what is played, huge difference in terms of how it feels.

Another simple decision, to have 16th notes on the hi-hat rather than 8th, thus giving the song a greater sense of internal propulsion, was the other factor that made the drum track, and hence made the record. I’m not sure whether they were doubled on a drum machine for the second version, as a hi-hat pulse is present under the opening fill (which would require more hands I imagine Morrell has), but the difference the double-time hats make is plain. Morrell pushes Careless Whisper along while never forcing things, never stepping on Michael’s turf (or the saxophonist’s). Some of his fills, too, are inspired – I really like the big floor tom-and-snare build-up Morrell plays at around 4.35 as he goes out of the tricksy groove with displaced snare strokes back to the main groove. My guess is that he was having a bit of fun, assuming the track (or at least the radio mix) would have faded out already but his off-the-cuff fills felt so good that Michael decided to keep the whole thing for the unedited version. Good decision, George.