That Time George Michael’s Wham! Sabotaged Queen

By
Photography Herb Ritts

Published June 26, 2019

That Time When is Interview’s weekly trip through the pop cultural space-time continuum, where we return to some of the most overlooked moments from issues past. In this edition, we open up our October 1988 issue with cover star George Michael to revisit how the hell Wham! managed to solidify itself in the ranks of music history. 

If someone were to say that Wham!, the floppy-haired, jitter-bugging, melancholic Christmas-bop-making British ’80s duo, would be the first Western band to play in communist China, well, they’d be right. Following the release–and staggering success–of his debut album, Faith, George Michael—one-half of Wham!—spoke with Interview about the duo’s sudden rise to fame. The group’s fresh-faced demeanor drew criticism from bands like Tears For Fears, who once referred to them as “sex and sun tans and that’s it.” Michael, of course, had different intentions with the band’s lighthearted appearance, hoping audiences would catch on to what he saw as an experiment in satire and self-awareness, as he told Interview‘s Joseph Perkins in 1988:

PERKINS: When you were with Wham!, reviewers said that you were a musical lightweight, and you yourself have said that some of the criticism was deserved. They also suggested that you were incapable of producing anything more than bubble-gum music for teenyboppers, and most wagered that you’d never be recognized as a serious artist. Now, just a few years later, you’re being hailed as the heir to Paul McCartney and other musical greats. How did you manage this massive shift in your reputation?

MICHAEL: It’s quite simple: I managed it by doing away with Wham!’s duo image. Obviously, the way I looked changed and that helped a little, but I still have a very pop image. It’s a very video-friendly image. I find it a lot more real. It’s a lot closer to who I am than the whole Wham! thing. The Wham! thing was, as I said, very confusing, and much of our image was totally fake.

PERKINS: You mean the shorts and all?

MICHAEL: The thing that’s weird is that we thought it was funny. We expected people to get the joke—that we were two guys really making asses of ourselves. The shorts and that whole business was very tongue-in-cheek for us. We didn’t expect people to take it seriously. But naturally they did, and they thought we were a couple of wankers.

PERKINS: Presumably the title of your album, Make It Big, was tongue-in-cheek also.

MICHAEL: Exactly. Everything was meant to wind people up. I don’t know why we had this great pleasure in winding people up, but we really did think they would get the joke. And it backfired on us.

That backfire resulted in something of a historical upset. In the early ’80s, Wham!’s then-manager Simon Napier-Bell spent 18 months wooing Chinese government ministers with the hope of getting Wham! to perform there, which would make them the first ever Western act to perform in China. To convince officials, who were also considering hosting the band Queen, Napier-Bell showed them two persuasive (if not deceptive) brochures: one featuring “pleasant, middle-class” Wham! fans, and another of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury striking characteristically provocative poses. Wham! was ultimately chosen, dashing Queen’s chances to play China first.

The show itself, however, was uncharacteristically tame, at least by Western standards: “It was the hardest performance I’ve ever given in my life,” Michael later commented. “I couldn’t believe how quiet the crowd was at first.” During a ten-day visit to the country in 1985, Wham! played in both Beijing and Canton—to crowds of 12,000 and 5,000, respectively—without compensation. Audiences approached Woodstock ’99 levels of frenzy: “There were 7,500 people downstairs intimidated by the lights and the police standing around the outside, and upstairs you had 7,500 people getting more and more wild and crazy,” recalled Napier-Bell. “So it was a very strange atmosphere.”

In the end, however, there were no hard feelings. Michael performed “Somebody To Love” with Queen at Mercury’s tribute concert in 1992, which guitarist Brian May dubbed “pure Freddie.” We’ll never know what the world might look today like had Queen been the first Western band to play China—perhaps it would’ve made its way into Bohemian Rhapsody in lieu of that controversial Live Aid scene. But for now, we’ll just be listening to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” on loop.