Where does he go from here? (Is it down the lake, I fear) The challenge of the musically evolving teen idol
Craig Ferguson tells a story about being an unhappy film actor grumbling on the set of Jim Carrey vehicle Lemony Snicket about why he’d rather be elsewhere.
The producer’s response was uncharacteristically helpful by Hollywood standards: “I’m sure that can be arranged.”
His point, one Ferguson went on to prove as host of his own talk show for nine years, is that getting famous and staying famous are two different things. The latter takes a few ounces of cast-iron will.
Don’t trust any celebrity in film or music who sighs and says “yeah, it just happened. Crazy, eh?” if asked about a long career.
If they’re still successful after five or ten or certainly twenty years, be under no illusion. It is that they, or the team around them, planned it that way or made plans similar to that.
It’s all the harder when you’ve become famous because thousands have fallen in love with you, as Harry Styles, Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik will find out over the next decade.
Two separate occasions recently made me realise how difficult it is to tread the path from beloved teen idol to creative, credible artist.
One was The BBC’s Scott Walker Prom. A teen idol of his day created the Scott 1-4 albums and inspired Jules Buckley and his Metropole Orchestra, Jarvis Cocker and his former Pulp guitarist, Norwegian singer Susanne Sundfor and the wondrous John Grant to make an evening dedicated to his first four solo records. There were some gripes, most notable a hipper than thou review from The Guardian, about not marking the later more experimental albums like Bish Bosch and Tilt. But anyone who starts off in the public eye adored for his cheekbones and becomes loved for his chord changes and use of orchestration is a rare talent indeed.
Second was Nick Heyward, who gave a fascinating interview to Radio 5 Live and another to freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt.
And Heyward knows about these things after asking Geoff Emerick (whose first job in the studio was engineering Revolver) to work on his debut solo album, North of a Miracle.
Since Alan McGee used the Oasis money in 1998 to give the Haircut 100 man a solo album release Kite, Heyward has popped up at ‘80s Rewind festivals but making enough to make new records has clearly been a struggle. He must have asked himself where does he go from here when he couldn’t find his way to the lake.
Once the screams have died down for your looks, how many heartthrobs have carved out a career as credible musicians and made consistently interesting records? Scott Walker certainly. Tom Jones, perhaps. Justin Timberlake. Damon Albarn certainly. Taylor Swift possibly. George Michael and Michael Jackson, before we lost them. Chet Baker sadly didn’t hang around long enough to bask in the reputation he deserved. It makes the achievements of Scott Walker and those select others all the more impressive. And the constant battle for Nick Heyward to keep fighting the good fight all the more admirable.
For the rest, for those teen idols who want to disappear, well that can be arranged.
The A to Z of 2016
This site was named after a Prince single with alphabet in its title, so if there is to be an end of year review….an A to Z seems a better way than 50 records or the calendar year which would only start with that depressing moment Duncan Jones’ tweet, the Radio 4 programme, 6Music breakfast gave us the grim news. Trying to go through it in order (pointless), in terms of releases (it wasn’t all that, as the Best of/End Of year lists suggested…a list more of brand names in music than album achievement) seems an errand for another fool so without further ado….
Adele won most of the big awards for work she did in 2015, was brave enough to discuss her post-natal depression to Vanity Fair’s Lisa Robinson and announced four summer 2017 dates for Wembley Stadium by singing Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds. A is also for Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool because R, M and P were taken.
Bowie and Blackstar. What a way to leave the stage.
Christine and the Queens: The freshest newest act to hit magazine covers, the TOTP Christmas Day special and endorsement from Sir Elton Hercules John. Heloise Letissier sat regally above all the other pretenders to the French dance music throne who put out music in 2016. As that includes Daft Punk, Justice, Cassius and M83, she’s ruling over some pretty distinguished courtiers.
D is for Down Down. If Kings of Leon or Kasabian did something this good….imagine the music press….except they wouldn’t, would they? RIP Rick.
This whole alphabet could have been musical talents gone forever. Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White and The Eagles’ Glenn Frey were another two lost to us this year.
G is for Mark Giuliana, the incredible drummer on Bowie’s Blackstar. Bowie’s always had good drummers from Woody Woodmansey to Omar Hakim, but this guy…this guy is good.
Hype. Beyonce and Frank Ocean released records in the dark of night without pre-release interviews and hype. Which was the biggest hype they could have given them. Result: in this day and age, the dreaded insta-review, and the rest of us taking stock to figure out how good Blond and Lemonade are. And Beyonce did a new one at the Superbowl which, whoever you are and not withstanding the importance of the Black Lives Matter cause, was just disrespectful.
If You’re Feeling Sinister..anniversary gigs at a packed Royal Albert Hall, the same night at Brexit. Belle and Sebastian had them dancing from the dome to the soundstage on the floor.
Just Change It. Insta-reviews, ticket booking fees, secondary booking agencies buying all the tickets through bots, streamed records finishing top of the charts over songs which have sold more (Drake vs Justin Timberlake) and the BBC only showing two Top of the Pops a year. There are other changes in music it would be nice to make but we’re only in J.
Michael Kiwanuka. Difficult second album syndrome? Not really. This was the year when the man who came be known for the Sound of 2012 poll delivered one of the Sounds of 2016 with Black Man in a White World.
Lemmy died in the Christmas holidays of 2015 so L is for Greg Lake, who left us in December, sadly not leading to a concerted campaign for I Believe in Father Christmas to reach the top of the festive 40. The man who suggested Keith Emerson (also lost this year) should try the Moog and the rest was history (and a tour which cost them a fortune years before the Pet Shop Boys lost £1.5m on the Performance tour. Their dates at the Royal Opera House were exquisite, and presumably didn’t lose them that kind of cash).
George Michael’s death on Christmas Day was sad, inexplicable, miserable, unexpected (maybe not entirely), but a reminder of the fact this man was such a creative fulcrum from Wham! Rap aged 17 to Cowboys and Angels before he’s out his twenties, is staggering.
Nobel Prize. This was the first year they gave one to the guy in Wyclef Jean’s Gone ‘Til November video. Unless Herta Muller or V.S. Naipaul were in it and I missed them.
Lapsley, Operator. Another sound of 2016. And (sort of) 1977, or whenever you carbon date the height of disco.
Phife Dawg and Q-Tip joined forced for A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, their final album and first for eighteen years. 2016 wasn’t just the year of the musician death, it was the year of the fitting valedictory statement. In place of a last will and testament for the fans, they got to leave a great record without the hassle of probate.
Revolver. Like Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds, 50 years young. Anniversary pieces all round, including this one I wrote for Reaction.life. http://reaction.life/revolver-50-beatles-masterpiece-still-hasnt-outstayed-welcome/
Songs In The Key of Life…performed in full at Hyde Park. A magical four-hour night. Critics sniped that it was overlong, but any gig where the setlist actually has the words “Superstition etc” written and Stevie drops a DJ set including When Doves Cry and Kiss into the encore, is not too long for me.
Tapestry was also performed in full at Hyde Park. Carole King tore through that in around 40 minutes. So we had the cast of Beautiful, a selection of her hits for other people like It Might as Well Rain Until September but, above all, we had the unimpeachably great set of songs from 1971. (A book on that year, 1971, by David Hepworth, was probably the music book I enjoyed most in 2016).
Unforgettable. The orchestra pulled together by Jules Buckley performing Soul Bossa Nova in front of Quincy Jones himself for the Quincy Jones Prom. It’s etched on my memory but finding it online means it has to stay unforgettable.
The Vault. With Prince gone, and half-sister Tyka in charge of the estate, the questions remain. He’s made two unseen films. The Crystal Ball triple album. Every live show recorded for posterity, including the Piano and a Microphone shows. All in the mythical vault at Paisley Park, waiting to be opened. When? When? When?
X Factor. Respectfully, it’s over. With two episodes of TOTP a year, and Jools Holland starting Later and Later (gone midnight) and taking the self-indulgent move of heading to Maidstone, the only music show on TV that matters – even if you despise it, it breaks new acts and it’s where the big acts come to perform their hits – is in trouble. The second Christmas single in a row to miss the top three, a lack of big acts (no Beyonce, Justin Timberlake or Adele performing but they did have Honey G, James Arthur and Louisa Johnson, twice) and a feeling that another reinvention may be beyond them.
You Want It Darker. Leonard Cohen says goodbye in just as classy a way as Bowie. A meditation on death, hope, love and unfinished business getting close to being cleared up.
Zoolander. The sequel had Sting. The Original had Bowie. So thank you 2016 for making us remember how good 2001’s Zoolander was by giving us Zoolander 2. For those clamouring for a sequel to a film we love, Zoolander 2 gave us pause for thought.
Ten great George Michael songs for those who miss him
Everyone, apart from Andy Kershaw it seems, misses George Michael. Someone who could write and sing heart-wrenching ballads and uptown party bangers was someone who will always be loved. As the last song on this list suggests.
Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do)
“Hey everybody, take a look at me/I’ve got street credibility.” With the announcement of those words, everybody decided 1) He had the opposite 2) He had written a hymn to selfishness, shallowness and materialism. It would take a while for George to prove them wrong on all counts, often doing it covertly in terms of his donations. But as far as capturing the blue-eyed funk which only a select few ‘80s bands managed, alongside Spandau’s Chant No 1, Haircut 100’s Favourite Shirts, Level 42’s The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up), it’s a pretty good calling card for George and Andrew.
Freedom ’90 gets all the love because the video had a eating disorder (is that the collective noun?) full of supermodels and it was covered by Robbie Williams but the first Freedom had the same joyous swing that the other singles in Wham!’s imperial phases did – Edge of Heaven, I’m Your Man and Wake Me Up, Before You Go Go.
Boogie Box High – Jive Talkin’
George was a huge Bee Gees fan and released this under a pseudonym which was a very ‘80s/Prince thing to do. The original has a wonderful New York train track style inspired by the commute the Gibb brothers took to work with Arif Mardin. This one though has a vocal from George.
There’s something about the Arabic keyboard, chorus build and the switches in styles – it’s a smouldering R’n’B ballad, it’s a gospel epic, it’s a torch song. It could be to a man or a woman. To clarify: just because GM sings: “Put your tiny hand in mine”, that does not make it about Donald Trump.
Heaven Help Me
From the same era as Faith, this is not a George Michael track but one by his bassist Deon Estus, who also worked with Marvin Gaye. But listen to it. The backing vocals. The pleading sensitivity. The fact it was a hit. (US Top Five US). George Michael fingerprints.
Something to Save
There isn’t really a duff track on Listen Without Prejudice (Vol 1) although the further away it gets from Statement Pop, like Praying for Time, the better it is. This again has GM’s hallmark sound – simple, direct and beautifully sung. And a cello. Wham! Rap doesn’t have a cello.
I Can’t Make You Love Me
Second cover on the list and it takes certain cojones to take on a Bonnie Raitt song. It was this version that convinced countless X Factor and Idol wannabes to think they could do the song justice. The Singing Greek could but the rest of them…
What do you do when you’ve been tarred and feathered by the world’s press with the help of the Los Angeles Police Department? You do a comeback with a disco stormer which doesn’t ignore the whole thing but tackles it head on complete with revolving urinals on to the dancefloor.
The idea of losing love and finding it again when you have written the prospect off is quite inspiring. When you turn it into a song catchier than a February cold, that’s a beautiful gift. Wasn’t just Kenny Goss who was amazing. The person singing it was all right.
You Have Been Loved
The song, version here from 2014’s Symphonica, is tremendously moving in the way that only true simplicity can be. It was about his lost love Anselmo when written. Then it was about Diana when she died. And now it could be about the loss of anyone. Like George Michael.
Just seven of the things which made George Michael so Fantastic
The fact he was pop
Wham!’s first album contained “socially relevant” hits such as Wham! Rap and Young Guns (Enjoy What You Do) which incurred the wrath of Paul Weller and was reversioned by Michael Gove at a visit to a kids’ school. George decided ahead of Make It Big to write the album, and then live up to its name. Club Tropicana, Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Freedom, I’m Your Man, Last Christmas and Edge of Heaven and the world was a better place for it. As were the charts. Everything She Wants is arguably the best B-side since I Am The Walrus or at the very least Wherever I Lay My Hat. Nah, it’s better than that.
His own songs
After all of the above, he delivered A Different Corner, Faith, Father Figure, One More Try, Freedom ’90, Waiting for the Day, Heal the Pain, Something to Save, Amazing, Fast Love and Outside. Among others. The songs about his dearly departed love Anselmo Feleppa, Jesus to a Child and You Have Been Loved, are as beautiful as any he wrote.
Other people’s songs
It is often said of great singers – he or she could sing the phone book. Although he could have picked up and sung from the Yellow Pages, George had the musical smarts to be able to pick from songs made famous by Elton, Queen, Bowie, Nina Simone, Terence Trent D’Arby, Bonnie Raitt, his idol Stevie Wonder and New Order.
And on the subject of the phone book, before cynics say calling a cab firm may have helped him on occasion, how can he be remembered by occasional screw-ups, which were rare, and to which we’re all prone, over a myriad of great pop songs which only a handful can write. Away from Andrew Ridgley, he only released four studio albums proper, but the best of the songs on those are up there with the brothers Gibb, Anderson and Ulvaeus and The Carpenters.
He was brave
The self-sabotage of a public and long court battle with Sony to escape from his contract (much admired publicly and privately by Prince, who called him often) was extraordinarily courageous and ahead of a period now where pop stars, even those who post clips of their own singing on You Tube, are acutely aware of their rights.
Once he was outed by news organisations after a sting by the LAPD, he didn’t hide. Instead, he fronted up on CNN, and flipped the script on the haters with the Outside video.
He picked an argument on the second Iraq war when he was still hugely successful in America and in Britain. He took flak, and ploughed on with more interviews, and another anti-war song.
If you want more evidence, look at the people he sought out to sing with on stage or in the studio: Elton, the remaining members of Queen, Aretha, Beyonce, Pavarotti, Whitney, Mary J Blige, Stevie.
For a shy pop fanboy from Bushey, that takes guts too.
He was generous
The papers by now are full of stories of the nurses (collective) for whom he played a special gig, and the nurses (individual, and other public sector workers) for whom he would help out financially. The homeless shelter where he volunteered. Colleagues in the charity sector have given examples to this, and more will doubtless emerge. None, you’ll notice, appeared in any of his own interviews. The pop star who says “I love my fans” is not uncommon. The pop star who backs that up with cash to help them certainly is.
Wham! played China
Anyone who says Wham! weren’t cool might want to reflect on their own tour to China. Pre-1985, there weren’t any. While Paul Weller and Jerry Dammers were slating him, Yog, Andrew Ridgeley and Simon Napier-Bell delivered a coup beyond their dreams. Apparently, Chinese bureacrats regarded pop music, according to Shanghai-based impresario Andrew Bull, regarded pop music as “banal and filthy”. Only the good stuff.
He had star quality
He didn’t want to be a celebrity. He was often spotted at his local Italian restaurant in north London, or pulling pints at his local in Oxfordshire. He didn’t, publicly anyway, date anyone famous. He appeared sparingly at awards ceremonies and TV shows. Star People, from Older, sets out his position fairly openly. And yet, or perhaps because of that, there was an elusive force field around him which added to any public appearance. Having been in the same room as Eminem, Beyonce, Britney, The Beckhams and others, I’ve wobbled a bit but they were only people. But when George and then boyfriend Kenny Goss popped into my local 7-eleven and my flatmate told me, all dignity went out the window and I ran out just to view them from afar, just like the cameramen on Planet Earth do with snow leopards. There was just something about George Michael.