George Michael: Political Perfectionist
Making his new album has not been a smooth ride for George Michael: rejections of songs from industry people; a foray into politics that saw various newspapers try to destroy his career; and a loss of musical inspiration.
text: T. Knudsen
Musician George Michael has been practically living at Sir George Martin’s Air Studios in Hampstead, London since January 2003, writing and recording his new album, Patience. If that sounds unusually long to you, you’d be right - this is an all-time record for the studio that opened in 1992. All good things must come to an end, though, and on the last Sunday in January of this year, the time had finally come for the artist to bite the bullet, and wrap up his album that he says has taken five years of his life to complete.
The previous day, as George was showing me around the Studios where he had created his long-awaited new record, it rapidly became clear that there was still more work for him to do.
- Sorry! I’ve just come from finishing the artwork for the single, he declares apologetically as he is more than half an hour late for our meeting. - And we still need to get the final mix of Freeek! done. We’re working right up to the deadline, which is… tomorrow! George points out (not only to me) as he introduces his sound engineer.
Since re-signing with Sony Music late last year, there has been a tremendous buzz in the music industry surrounding Michael’s new 14-track studio album, Patience, his first since 1996’s Older. Although many didn’t realise it at the time, Older was George Michael’s “coming out” album, dedicated to his first long-term gay partner Anselmo Feleppa who died of AIDS related illness in 1993. Musically the tone of that album was sombre, coinciding as it did with Michael’s grieving process for the person that he felt for a long time was the one true love of his life.
On parts of Patience, Michael continues where Older left off with personal lyrics that offer people who care about his music a glance into his life. The song Amazing, for example, could have been just a simple love song. Instead, he decided to make it about his current partner, Kenny Goss, providing listeners with an intimate insight into their relationship, including allusions to the fact that they both take many lovers – a reference George says he wasn’t sure whether or not to include.
At over 70 minutes in length, it’s a longer album than is usual for George Michael, but it doesn’t contain any cover versions as fillers. - After such a long time I felt I owed it to those who have been waiting for years, to give them an album of all original material, he says. The closest he gets to a cover version is Flawless (Go To The City), which borrows heavily from the track of the same name by The Ones. The album, he says, is more radio-friendly than ever, although it does contain his controversial tracks, Freeek! and Shoot The Dog too. The album juxtaposes electronic sounds with live instruments; ballads with up-tempo numbers; in equal measure, very much marking a return to his classic style.
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
The making of the new album has not been a smooth ride: rejections of songs from industry people; a foray into politics that saw various newspapers try to destroy his career; and a loss of musical inspiration have all played a part in delaying the completion and release of the record.
His original plan had been to make the album an entirely up-tempo affair, feeling that it could be his last chance to write an album of dance music. When his “dance album” plan fell to pieces, the next idea was to make the album a series of social commentaries on modern life. Unsure about the best way to proceed contractually, Michael decided to sign a one-single deal with Universal Music. He released the first of these commentaries, Freeek!, in 2002 - a song about the easy access that that children have to pornography on the Internet. The song was not particularly well-received, and Michael’s large 30-something female fan base in particular were not impressed. But this negative reaction was nothing, compared to his decision to get political.
At the very moment that the first terrorist plane hit the twin towers in New York, George Michael had been trying to complete another social commentary song, this time about the problems with terrorism that he thought political instability in the Middle East would cause the Western World. The song came to be called Shoot The Dog. - I was working on this song, trying to finish it, but didn’t really know what I was going to do with it. Then my sound engineer called me into a room with a TV in saying “You’re not going to believe this…”
Against the strong advice of Universal Music and other advisors, Michael insisted on releasing the song in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. It was accompanied by a video satirising Tony Blair and George Bush. Even Michael was shocked by the response:
- Newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch in the US and UK were scathing in their attacks, using headlines such as Washed Up Pervert. What really hurt, though, is that not one single artist stood up to support me.
Months later, as a coalition of armed forces led by the US and UK completed final preparations for launching their attack on Iraq, Michael put all thoughts of music on hold, as he trailed around television stations giving interviews about why he believed the war to be wrong. He seemed to believe that he could persuade Tony Blair (if not George Bush) to pull back from going to war. And he didn’t seem to care so much about his musical career any longer. At the time of the release of Shoot The Dog, he had been adamant he was not going to let the press destroy him without a fight. But by the time that war was imminent, he said. – I’ve had 20 good years, and at this point, if my career suffers then to be honest that’s not the most important thing.
It was in the midst of this that Kenny Goss reminded him that what people really wanted from his was music, and Michael hurriedly recorded a cover of Don McLean’s The Grave – a song which had touched him as a young boy, just getting interested in music. He released for free, as an MP3 download and later agreed to include it on the Hope CD, proceeds of which went to war victims. - My Inspiration returned I was determined to make an album that would satisfy the audience.
This seemed to mark the return of his muse, and a determination to make an album that would satisfy his audience. After that, he was rarely away from the studio, and in the summer of 2003, he recorded what is perhaps one of his greatest ever songs, Through – a track with wonderful, soaring vocals, and one of the standout ballads on the album. With his inspiration back, Michael was working at full throttle. In July, the plan was to release the album in November, but as each month passed, the release date slipped. By November 2003, the record wasn’t complete, and he was still deciding on record contracts. In the end, he decided to sign with Sony the company he took to court in the 1990s. This time round, though, the contract is for just one album. Having given up on his record sales in America for years, the return to Sony will see George make a renewed attack on the US.
Patience is set for release on 15 March, with the single Amazing released a fortnight earlier. And, in a move designed to satisfy the extraordinary demand for George’s new work, Sony has made the single available to buy on-line where it has already topped the download charts. Amazing, it seems, was a change of heart as a first release on Sony. Last year, shortly before signing his new record contract, George Michael had told me that he was planning John and Elvis Are Dead as his first single – and indeed he’s already recorded a video for this song. The title of this song, which refers to John Lennon and Elvis Presley, has all the makings of a global smash hit, George used the multi-million dollar John Lennon piano he bought some years ago
– I used it to give the introduction the right feel, he says. - The album is a lot more radio friendly than before, explains the singer.
BACK TO PROMOTION
As well as making a musical return to form after the eight-year gap following his last album of original material, George has committed to promoting for his new record. And, for an artist that hates doing interviews, his schedule looks gruelling: - He’s doing 21 interviews in two days next week! grinned Andy Stephens, Michael’s current manager.
In addition to these interviews, George has others planned with radio and TV. A highlight should be another appearance on Parkinson, on BBC1. His last appearance there was in 1998 – coinciding with his infamous arrest – where he was unusually given a one-hour exclusive. He performed his then latest single, Outside, and his first solo single after the split from Wham!, A Different Corner. Michael said at the time that a lot of people considered Careless Whisper the first solo record, but that he considered it to be A Different Corner.
- I’m definitely doing Parkinson again in March. It will probably be a full hour special like last time, and I’ll be doing a couple of live performances! triumphed George. He has also completed a documentary to promote his new album, - They filmed my vocal performances for that back in December, he says.
Perhaps the return to doing so much promotion shouldn’t come as a surprise. George Michael told Trevor McDonald in a television interview, when he was being attacked by certain sections of the media for his anti-war stance, that he didn’t mind becoming Britney Spears with a flat chest and a big mouth if that’s what it takes.
A TOUR, GEORGE?
As well as promoting the album in the media when it’s released, even touring may be on the agenda. Michael who hasn’t toured since 1991 - thirteen years ago – has been reluctant to do so ever since his 1988 world tour, when he was promoting his biggest selling album to date, Faith.
- A tour? George says slowly, repeating my question - Well, at least I’ve booked Wembley Arena for towards the end of 2004! he smiles and winks at me.
Sources at Sony claim live concerts could come even earlier, perhaps in the spring or summer, but followers of George Michael have learned to be sceptical about his promises for concerts - even though it really does look like it’s going to happen. We can but hope it does indeed turn out to be "a stage show that will blow everything you’ve seen away". So, whilst George is Through with the studio (for now), it seems things are really just starting again for his millions of fans around the world who’ve shown such Patience.