As a devoted music fan there is one thing that I have learned, especially over the last 12 months as we have lost so many of our long-standing music icons and idols; you don’t need to know someone personally in order to mourn their passing.
For me, 2016 said goodbye to several artists that I have been a fan of since I was a young freckled lad growing up in fairly small-town Christchurch, New Zealand . David Bowie was the first major mainstream artist to take a bow this year, but it was the passing of Eagles founder and front-man Glenn Frey a week later that hit me very deeply. Frey’s passing was the first for me to recognize that, while we like to think our idols are invincible, they are mortal just like the rest of us and can be taken away from us just as quickly. With further icons including Prince and Leonard Cohen falling later in the year, December came with the biggest blow yet when news broke late in the evening of Christmas Day of the sudden passing of solo superstar and former Wham! front-man, George Michael. For me and many of his fans, the heartbreak from this news was and continues to be intense.
Michael’s music spanned all genres and his involvement in the recording process was unprecedented, having taken the driver’s seat on writing, producing, arranging and playing many of the instruments on the majority of his solo releases along with writing the bulk of the Wham! catalogue. Opening his career as one half of 80’s power-pop duo Wham! who secured global hits with singles that included Wham Rap, I’m Your Man, Club Tropicana, Bad Boys and Everything She Wants, Michael first teased his soulful solo style with his debut solo single, Careless Whisper and transformed from teen pin-up to smooth crooner with adult contemporary hits that would see him through the next couple of decades.
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During his solo career, Michael experimented and developed as an artist in his own right, becoming one of the most successful and most awarded artists in music history with over 100 million album sales. 1987’s debut Faith welcomed in the new George Michael era with a masterpiece rich in acoustic classics like the title track and the cheeky Monkey along with haunting ballads with the jazz soaked Kissing A Fool and One More Try delivering some of the songwriters most prestigious material. The musicians follow up album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, with its heavier pop footing, offered fans another handful of signature hits such as the uptempo Freedom and cinematic power-ballad, Praying For Time.
With his time taken up by a lengthy and highly publicized legal battle with his record label, Michael’s third solo record, Older, was released in 1996 and was drenched in jazz and a rich brassy seasoning. Sexy numbers like Fastlove and the mournful Jesus To A Child caught my attention immediately, but it was You Have Been Loved and the lyrical genius of The Strangest Thing that propelled my appreciation for music and the craft of songwriting to a whole new level and became my instant favourite George Michael tracks.
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Never one to saturate his fans with releases, it wasn’t until 2004 that we were gifted with a follow up studio album. While greatest hits package Ladies and Gentleman, with his in your face, coming-out hit Outside, and jazz covers collection Songs From The Last Century filled in the long gap between studio releases, Patience quenched our thirst for more originals from the superstar and with gems like the sexual Freeek!, the political Shoot The Dog, pop drenched Amazing and powerful ballads John and Elvis are Dead and Round Here as well as floor filler Flawless (Go To The City), Michael proved that time had not withered his artistry in the slightest.
Little did fans know at the time but Patience would become the very last original studio release from the iconic musician.
Despite my adoration for a number of Wham! singles and early solo hits like Faith, Father Figure, A Different Corner and Praying For Time, I was a bit of a late bloomer to the work of George Michael, some may say. It was his 1996 album Older that seduced me away from the tight pop bubble in which I lived and introduced me to an artist unlike any other. When Older was released, I became an immediate fan and collected everything I could from the George Michael repertoire. A Faith inspired leg-band tattoo and a couple of my own demo collections containing covers of Faith, Kissing A Fool and Careless Whisper later and it was safe to say that I had transformed into a super-fan by my early twenties.
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When I moved to London in the early noughties I retained hoped that seeing Michael live would one day become a reality, and with the release of his second greatest hits collection, Twenty Five, that dream was realized as he took to the road to perform his first string of shows since 1991’s Cover to Cover tour. During his globetrotting tour of 2006-2008, I was lucky enough to see Michael 4 times at Earls Court, twice at Wembley Arena and twice at Wembley Stadium as well as attending two of the superstars outstanding dates at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2011 as part of his Symphonica tour – the final tour of his career.
On 4th January 2017 I went to Michael’s home in Highgate, London to pay respects to a man and an artist who has influenced me greatly and who has helped shape my appreciate of music and how I view the arts. I lay a flower on the top of thousands more that rest outside the gates and on top of the musicians 4WD that sat beneath a gay pride flag and sentimental notes from fans. The scene was astonishing but not unexpected. The tributes that have flowed from fans and his musical peers is unlike any other I have seen in my years and for good reason. This was someone who, despite achieving such monumental success from a young age and transforming into one of the greatest artists of our time, remained true to himself and true to his fans.
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When news of Michael’s death began to filter through social media, the global reaction was one of both shock and heartbreak. The world not only lost one of the finest musicians and vocalists in music history, but it had lost someone who had shown such generosity to so many over the course of his career. The LGBT community had also lost a brother; someone who stood up and fought for the rights of his fellow LGBT brothers and sisters and someone who took an unapologetic approach to the living on the fray – a mainstream figure who lived an unconventional existence and who was proud to fall outside the borders of where a typical superstar would usually reside.
As a music fan and proud, openly gay man myself, George Michael represented so much more than just hit singles and a jukebox flirt. His presence as an artist and LGBT ally provided solace and security in a world growing increasingly prejudice against minorities and one that has never been more musically manufactured. The unfiltered and unapologetic coat that Michael wore when it came to life, music, sexuality and all in between is worn by so few artists and has now left a huge gap and his presence in music is one that will forever remain void.
RIP George Michael xxx