Class of 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee George Michael was such a superstar in his own right, it’s almost easy to forget that his ‘80s duo Wham!, formed with his childhood best mate Andrew Ridgeley, was the launching pad for his stellar career.
To be fair, Wham!’s run was quite brief. Incredibly, only three and half years separated their charmingly school-play-like “Young Guns (Go for It)” performance on Britain’s Top of the Pops — a last-minute booking, after an unnamed act dropped out, that gave Wham! their first U.K. top 10 hit and forever altered the course of their lives — and their bittersweet official farewell concert at London’s 72,000-capacity Wembley Stadium. However, Wham! sold a whopping 30 million records during that short timeframe, and their new self-titled Netflix documentary (which coincides with the band’s 40th anniversary, new greatest-hits collection The Singles: Echoes From the Edge of Heaven, and unexpected musical resurgence on TikTok) makes a compelling case that they were never just a footnote on George Michael’s lengthy résumé.
Wham! chronicles Michael and Ridgeley’s schoolboy days, when the more gregarious Ridgeley was actually Wham!’s bandleader and front-facing heartthrob, up through their surprisingly shared decision to part ways so that the prolific Michael, who at age 23 had already outgrown Wham!’s bubblegum pop, could pursue a more sophisticated solo sound. It was a breakup that Michael once described to Smash Hits as “the most amicable split in pop history.” And throughout both the Wham! film and his interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Ridgeley — who after Wham! pursued a race-car-driving career and released one solo album, 1990’s Son of Albert, before stepping away from the spotlight — displays an almost saintly sense of humility and absolutely no signs of resentment.
“Well, first and foremost, I couldn’t be resentful of my best friend,” Ridgeley tells Yahoo matter-of-factly. “It’s just not in me. I was the proudest person of [Michael’s] creative development throughout — and it was very, very swift, indeed. No one could have been more pleased than me.”
The Wham! movie actually makes a strong case that Ridgeley was a key contributor to the group, not the coattails-riding sidekick he was sometimes cruelly made out to be in the press. (“Almost everything came from Andrew,” Michael actually says at one point in the doc’s archival interview footage.) Ridgeley was the one who initially urged his shy and awkward classmate George, nicknamed “Yog,” to pursue music against Michael’s strict Greek father’s wishes. Ridgeley also cowrote “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do),” “Club Tropicana,” and “Careless Whisper,” the three demos that landed Wham! their Sony deal. But Ridgeley insists that setting the record straight about his involvement “wasn’t the purpose of the documentary.”
“I don’t think it would’ve served me, Wham!, or anyone else really very well, if that was the purpose,” Ridgeley says humbly. “Setting records straight is pointless, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never endeavored to do so. And if people’s perspectives change somewhat [after watching the documentary], well, then, they had the wrong perspective in the first instance.”
Wham!’s origins go back to Bushey Meads School in Hertfordshire, England, where Michael (real name: Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou) and Ridgeley became instant best friends at age 12. At that time, no one, not even Ridgeley or Michael themselves, could have predicted the superstar metamorphosis that Michael would undergo less than a decade later. “The interesting thing is, it was inconceivable to me that I would ever become the kind of pinup that I thought Andrew naturally was,” Michael confesses in one of the Wham! documentary’s vintage interviews.
“When we met as kids, I was a far more confident kid. Yog was always plagued by the sense of himself as a slightly chubby kid with big specs,” Ridgeley tells Yahoo. “You look at Yog in our promo stuff, early in our career, and then you look at him in the final [Wham! stage] where he’s become ‘George Michael,’ and I mean, the transformation is astonishing. I didn’t go through a transformation; there was no transformation for me to go through. I was confident in my looks. I never felt the need to look any different or any particular way. It just wasn’t a factor for me. I’m not sure I even understood that good looks were necessarily a part of being successful [in show business]. We started the band because we wanted to write songs and perform, and that’s really all that that mattered. I didn’t perceive anything beyond that; Yog did. And I think the fact that he was a less attractive youth was a factor in feeling that he needed to change. I think it informed a lot of his desire to succeed.
“Wham! had to be a success,” Ridgeley continues. “It was essential that Wham! was a success for George personally. He was discovering himself. He hadn’t found the person, or at least he hadn’t been able to reveal it to himself or bring out the person that he was. He was very strongly opinionated, and he had great belief in his talent. But it took a little time for him to really, truly develop.”
The young Yog wasn’t just grappling with his confidence and image as Wham!, who’d formed from the ashes of a short-lived local ska band called the Executive, began to find success. In an emotional “pivotal moment” in the Wham! documentary, Michael recalls how during a 1982 trip to Ibiza to shoot the “Club Tropicana” music video, he held a band meeting in his hotel room, with Ridgeley and background singer Shirlie Holliman, to tell them he was gay or possibly bisexual. (Michael had had his first romantic encounter with a man — a confusing and ultimately life-changing experience that inspired a sultry ballad on Wham!’s debut album, “Nothing Looks the Same in the Light” — about six months earlier.) The result of that hotel room discussion was Michael being persuaded to not to come out publicly at that time. And once he became the band’s main heartthrob and a global media sensation, mere months later, he felt it was already too late to tell the truth. “I lost my nerve completely. And just out of necessity, I went with full gusto into the progression of Wham!, creating a new character,” Michael sadly explains in another one of the film’s flashback interviews.
“We were just concerned about his father’s response,” Ridgeley, who along with Holliman was personally unfazed by Michael’s Ibiza revelation, clarifies to Yahoo Entertainment. “Some part of me felt that he should just tell, and you know, make it public. I couldn’t see that it could make any difference to [the band]. … I’m not sure, necessarily, that it would’ve inhibited us. But I certainly think Yog felt that [being openly gay] might compromise our chances of success. I didn’t feel the same way. I didn’t think it would have, had he chosen to [come out]. But I can see why he felt the way he did.”
While Michael was struggling with his decision to keep his sexuality secret from the tabloids and Ridgeley was dealing with mean-spirited media speculation about his artistic input, both men were the targets of music critics, who wrongly dismissed Wham! as a fluffy, fly-by-night boy band. “I don’t know whether the music press is the same these days, but certainly [back then], it took itself extremely seriously,” says Ridgeley. Wham!’s scrappy anti-authority singles “Wham Rap!” and “Young Guns,” which were inspired by “Rapper’s Delight” (“That Sugar Hill Gang track was just a complete revelation,” says Ridgeley of hearing hip-hop on British radio for the first time), were actually well-received by critics. The trendy press even hailed Wham! as “the new heralds of the social conscience,” Ridgeley recalls with a chuckle. But then Wham! ditched their leather-jacketed James Dean image for “the neon thing, that whole kind of leisure/holiday look” (which, incidentally, was mainly styled by Ridgeley) and incorporated “a sort of tongue-in-cheek element into our music and our visuals” for their lighter, brighter, hedonistic fourth single, “Club Tropicana.” Ridgeley recalls that this “really didn’t sit too well” with crusty music journalists, who quickly, viciously turned on the group.
“What happened with ‘Club Tropicana’ was we shook off all those kind of shackles,” explains Ridgeley. “We were free to be Wham! — the pure essence of Wham! — and that was a real step forward and change, because from that point we were a pop band and we weren’t encumbered by any weight of youthful social consciousness. We were just the essence of what we really were, which is two young men having the time of their lives. The lyric in ‘Club Tropicana’ was actually slightly tongue-in-cheek, a sort of view of the clubland culture that we were experiencing… the kind of escapism that that one experienced, or at least was supposed to experience, when you stepped into some of these clubs. … Critics certainly didn’t get that.”
By this point, Ridgeley had graciously come to another major mutual decision with his bandmate, which was to let Michael take over all of Wham!’s songwriting. “I understood very well that Yog was a songwriting talent of far greater breadth [than me],” he explains with his characteristic modesty. “I could have insisted, and I’m sure that he would’ve quite happily conceded, [to give me] one or two tracks on albums, had I really made a point of it. But I didn’t make a point of it. There was no point in making a point of it. George was a far more competent songwriter, and the songs that he was writing were perfect for Wham!, so there just didn’t seem any point.” With Ridgeley now less involved in the music-making process, he was slightly less affected by the media’s maliciousness than the more sensitive and serious Michael. “I accepted it long before the press perhaps turned against us — really, I saw it coming, to a degree,” he admits. “But [the criticism] did knock a little bit, because it was constant.”
Michael wanted to be seen as a legitimate artist, not as some pretty-boy pinup; one of the most moving scenes in Wham!, in fact, is when he’s named Songwriter of the Year at the 1985 Ivor Novello Awards (Britain’s most prestigious honor for music composers) and breaks into grateful tears during his acceptance speech. “Whilst we didn’t take our presentation and ourselves as Wham! seriously, the songwriting and the recording was a serious business,” stresses Ridgeley. “George said it himself: The fact that a lot of people couldn’t see the quality of the songwriting and the production, that they couldn’t see past the presentation and the image, needled him. But the fact is, actually we won American Music Awards. We won the BRITs’ Best New Act. Our peers and those in the industry, outside of the magazines and the music critics and such, did understand that George was talented.”
Ironically, it was one of the few Wham! songs that Ridgeley had co-written, “Careless Whisper,” that became the “obvious launchpad” for Michael’s inevitable solo career: The second single from Wham!’s aptly titled 10 million-selling sophomore album, Make It Big, was credited to “Wham! featuring George Michael” in North America, and solely to “George Michael” in the U.K. and Europe, upon its fall 1984 release. While Ridgeley says it “was so much a shared song” and “inextricably linked to the two of us,” when the two wrote the ballad in 1981 — with Ridgeley coming up with the chord structure and Michael adding the “amazing melody” — neither of them thought it would fit in with the more hip-hop/disco-influenced material of their edgy debut album, Fantastic.
“Careless Whisper’ was just a real sort of one-off; at that point in time, it was still difficult to see how it might sit in the Wham! context,” says Ridgeley. “We all knew we had a gem in ‘Careless Whisper’; it was what to do with it. And then when Yog asked me if I’d concede to him releasing it as a solo record, at that point it had been established that he was the songwriting force in our partnership, and that his songwriting was developing in a way that that would inform and shape his career.
“I knew, and he knew, that his future lay outside of Wham!, even at that point,” Ridgeley continues diplomatically. “Wham! imposed constraints upon his songwriting, which he was going to outgrow as an artist, as George Michael. He couldn’t forever write for Wham!, because Wham! was essentially the representation of our youthful friendship up to that point. But we were growing into men and adults.”
“Careless Whisper” was massive, topping the pop charts in 10 countries and selling 6 million copies worldwide, but Ridgeley says Michael later “felt ambivalent” about the track. “Oh, not even ambivalent! He was openly critical about it in latter years, because it’s slightly naive. It’s slightly contrived. The sentiment is a little bit teenage — we were 18 when we wrote it.” Michael also “really disliked” the sassy Fantastic single “Bad Boys,” because he “felt he had to write it to follow on from the success of ‘Young Guns.’ … It’s a really good dance track… but he couldn’t get over the fact that it was contrived and he had allowed himself to be put into a corner to have to write that.”
Understandably, by the time Wham! took their final bow on the Wembley Stadium stage on June 28, 1986 — at the very peak of their fame — Michael was ready to move on. And Ridgeley, unbelievably, was ready to let Michael go. “We knew instinctively, as Wham!’s career unfolded at that pace, that it had a finite lifespan, because Wham! was so much about us. Wham! was that snapshot of our youthful years we were going through, and it became evident that we’d have to bring it to a close,” Ridgeley says. Two compilations — Music From the Edge of Heaven in North America and Japan, and The Final in other territories — were released in the summer of ’86 to placate fans who craved more Wham! content, and Ridgeley reveals that “George talked about a third [Wham! studio] album” but it was “an idea sort of hovering there, never really explored.” However, he now speculates, “There are tracks on [Michael’s monster solo debut] Faith which quite possibly could have been Wham! tracks. I mean, ‘Faith’ itself could have been a Wham! track.”
Sixteen months after Wembley, Michael unleashed Faith, which went on to spawn four No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, sell more than 25 million copies globally (making it one of the most successful LPs of all time), and win the Grammy for Album of the Year. But the reluctant sex symbol continued to push against his earlier teen-idol image, eventually refusing appear in his music videos or do typical record promotion and famously suing Sony to get out of his record contract — a protracted legal battle that arguably derailed his solo career, as he didn’t release an album for six whole years in the ‘90s.
“I think he understood [in the Wham! days] that he’d had to play the game. He said so in ‘Freedom ‘90’ — it’s all there in the lyric. As his art became more important to him and he became a more serious songwriter, I think he felt that the compromises that he had been forced to make throughout his career, he resented them,” says Ridgeley. “So, some of the game, he chose not to play. He was in a position, to a large degree, where those decisions didn’t compromise the success of his music, but you know, he made it tough for himself. I support the essential concept of his dispute with Sony — that an artist should be free, as other people are, to terminate their contracts. However, it came at a cost, both financially and personally, for him.”
The ‘90s were difficult for Michael in another way. He had to contend with the nasty media again when he was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a Beverly Hills park men’s room in 1998 — a tabloid scandal that effectively publicly outed the star as gay, 16 years after that secret Ibiza hotel room conversation. While Ridgeley says he doesn’t think Michael ever regretted quitting Wham!, he muses, “I do think he probably missed the support that the context of Wham! lent to us both. He was out on his own, and he was quite capable of fending for himself, but at times it was really tough. So, whilst I don’t think he regretted the decision — and it was a mutual decision, to bring Wham! to a close, as it was inevitable — I think he probably at times felt that it was much harder than he’d bargained for.”
Ridgeley’s only seeming regret regarding Wham! is: “I wish we’d have toured more; we didn’t play enough, by any stretch of the imagination.” (Polyps that Michael developed on his vocal chords, which “wasn’t something that was actually resolved until a fair bit later in his career,” limited the band’s ability to regularly play live at the time.) While Michael and Ridgeley occasionally appeared together publicly after the Wham! split, like at the Rock in Rio festival in 1991, they “made a pact, if you like, that we’d never reform Wham!, because Wham! was a sort place in time,” Ridgeley reveals. The last time the two childhood friends met up, for a Scrabble game, was the September before the 53-year-old Michael’s shocking death on Christmas Day 2016.
In the end, Wham!, which was directed by Chris Smith (FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, Bad Vegan, Tiger King) is more than just a rockumentary: The film, which climaxes with the spectacular Wembley goodbye gig, is really a heart-warming story of partnership, of true brotherhood. “Our friendship was a big part of what Wham! was to people,” Ridgeley says proudly, and just a bit wistfully. “There was a lot more to it besides just having to write and record the songs.”
#couldnt #resentful #friend