Dec 29, 2016

George Michael: Six songs that defined his life

George Michael, who has died at the age of 53, was one of the UK's greatest and most soulful singers and songwriters of the last 35 years. Here are six key songs that shed light on his life and career.

Careless Whisper (1984)

This was George Michael's first solo hit, released in 1984 between his two number one hits that year with Wham! Its mature sound - a stark contrast to the frothy sounds associated with his band - announced him as a serious artist and remained his most enduring song throughout his career.

But Careless Whisper was written when George was just 17 and travelling to work on the bus.

He worked as a DJ in the Bel Air restaurant near Bushey, Hertfordshire, and said the tune came to him one day when he was handing over his bus fare. "I remember getting the melody and going up and sitting at the back of the bus, putting words to it and everything."

The story of romance and regret was about two-timing his girlfriend after getting together with another girl who had seen him performing at a school disco. "The whole idea of Careless Whisper was the first girl finding out about the second - which she never did," he said.

George was sacked from the restaurant for being late and playing songs the owner did not like. But before he left, he played the demo version of Careless Whisper on his final night. "Right at the end of the night I played it and... the floor filled. They had never heard it before and... the floor filled. I remember thinking - that's a good sign."

A Different Corner (1986)

Careless Whisper may have been a huge hit and provided the soundtrack for a million slow dances, but George was dismissive of its emotional merits.

"It disappoints me that you can write a lyric very flippantly - and not a particularly good lyric - and it can mean so much to so many people," he said.

A Different Corner, his next solo number one, almost two years later, was "much more real".

The sombre, vulnerable love song, accompanied by a simple video featuring George in while clothes trapped in a plain white room, was written about a person who did not return his deeply-felt affections.

By the time of A Different Corner, George had fame and fortune - but they got in the way of true love. "I had everything I wanted, this was the first time I had ever really fallen in love and it seemed that it couldn't work because of everything I already had."

A note on the record sleeve simply read: "This record is dedicated to a memory."

George explained: "It was the first time I used my own experience and emotions for a song. It was totally therapeutic, I completely exorcised that little part of my life. Careless Whisper never moved me like that."

I Want Your Sex (1987)

The first single from George's mega-selling debut solo album Faith, this funky ode to carnal coupling stirred controversy as soon as it was released.

It was effectively barred from daytime airplay on BBC radio, while MTV edited the video, which featured the flesh of George's then-girlfriend and muse Kathy Jeung. In response to the media reaction, George said: "I became the antichrist for a couple of weeks."

Although his upfront approach scared off the mainstream media, the words "Explore monogamy" were written on that naked flesh in that video, and George explained that the song was a rally against promiscuity in the face of the threat from Aids.

The Aids scare was at its height at the time, and George said he was annoyed by the prevalent message that sex was something to be afraid of.

"My whole point was that there should be an attack on promiscuity but you could do it without making kids frightened of sex," he said. "I was trying to counter the idea that for something to be erotic it has to be forbidden and sleazy."

The minor furore did not harm the album's reception in the slightest - it went on to become one of the biggest releases of the 1980s, selling 10 million copies in the US.

Praying For Time (1990)

By the time he released his next album Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, George decided he needed to step back from the spotlight for fear of overexposure and burnout.

"If my life goes the way I want it to, I would like to never step in front of a camera again," he said.

That retreat meant he did not appear in the video for the pensive lead single Praying For Time, which told the story of a figure wrestling with the morality of money and religion in the modern age.

He sang: "So you scream from behind your door/Say 'what's mine is mine and not yours'/I may have too much but I'll take my chances/Because God's stopped keeping score."

Not everybody was sympathetic with George's retreat from the fame game - and it created a rift with his record label Sony, with whom he would fight a bitter court battle three years later.

He did not appear in the video for the next single Freedom 90 either - instead he enlisted five supermodels to stand in and showed his Faith leather jacket being burned.

Jesus To A Child (1996)

The opening track on his third album Older, the quietly mournful and moving Jesus To A Child was possibly George's most personal composition.

"I'm blessed, I know/Heaven sent and heaven stole/You smiled at me like/Jesus to a child," he sang. The song connected with fans - it was another UK number one.

While it was not public knowledge at the time, three years earlier George's partner Anselmo Feleppa had died of an Aids-related brain haemorrhage. He was the subject of the song.

"I think Anselmo was the first time that I really loved someone selflessly," George later said.

While he avoided talking about Anselmo at the time, speculation mounted in the press about George's sexuality.

He responded by saying: "I think that one of the things that is so difficult in the modern world to actually accept is that sexuality is a really, really blurry thing."

Outside (1998)

In 1998, George was forced to address the question of his sexuality after being arrested for lewd behaviour in a public toilet in Los Angeles.

Rather than retreat in humiliation, however, he decided to confront the tabloid scandal head-on with considerable brass and humour.

After his arrest, he told CNN he had his first gay relationship at the age of 27 and that "the songs that I wrote when I was with women were really about women, and the songs I have written since have been fairly obviously about men".

He did not just respond to the arrest by doing interviews - his public outing inspired Outside, a self-parodying pop hit with a video that featured him dressed as a police officer and dancing in a public toilet that transformed into a disco.

The song went to number two in the UK and became possibly the greatest example of a career-threatening indignity being turned into a liberating personal coup.

George went on to have 12 more UK top 40 singles before his death - although none reached as high in the chart as that bold coming-out anthem.

-By Ian Youngs

(BBC Entertainment)