It was a Saturday night (actually a Sunday morning) in the summer of 1983, and I was watching “New York Hot Tracks”, one of several local shows that devoted itself to the then novel concept of playing music videos. Being a music geek at even this tender age (and being allowed to stay up WAY past my bedtime), things like this brought me way more pleasure than you’d expect from a 7 year old. One night, they played a video from a group I’d never heard of before called Wham! U.K. Aside from their odd name, the video and song (entitled “Bad Boys”) interested me because these Wham! U.K. guys looked and sounded like badasses, and the song sounded like a hit. The song never made it to American Top 40 or “Solid Gold”, and I wondered why. However, little did I know that “Bad Boys” (which did wind up charting somewhere in the sixties) was merely the beginning for George Michael and a year later, Wham! (minus the U.K.) have the #1 song in the nation with “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, a song that was stylistic light years away from “Bad Boys” (enough so that I initially wasn’t even sure that it was the same group).

Nearly three decades later, George Michael is set to embark on the next phase in a career that has seen him win three Grammys, a couple of American Music Awards, score millions in record sales, and hit the top spot on the American pop charts ten times. He’s had a successful career by any measure, and his success in other territories (including Europe) continues to this day. In his native England, he’s a certified icon-right up there with some of the legends he’s recorded with like Elton and McCartney, even though his level of recorded output is significantly smaller, due to time spent battling personal tragedies and legal troubles with his record company.

Although George’s catalog is rather small comparatively, it’s chock full of great material, and in commemoration of his career-relaunching cover of New Order’s “True Faith”, I wanted to put together this handy-dandy guide to the music of a true British soul man.

Wham! Fantastic! (1983)- George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley did not play around when it came to exclamation marks. Those who only know George as a pop/soul singer might be surprised to know that back in the early Eighties, he could bust a little hip-hop flow as well. Considering the time they were recorded- “Wham! Rap” and Young Guns (Go for It)!” are not entirely embarrassing. A taste of the George Michael sound that was to become more well known could be found on the ethereal “Nothing Looks the Same in the Light”, this album’s only midtempo track. Otherwise, these guys were all balls and attitude, whether being defiant (“Bad Boys”), sickeningly peppy (“A Ray of Sunshine”) or living the lives of continental playboys (“Club Tropicana”). George appears to be embarrassed enough by this album that none of the songs have made it on to any of his hits compilations, and it’s certainly not indicative of George’s more familiar work. However, it is a decent record, save for the excruciatingly bad cover of The Miracles’ “Love Machine”.

…and, fuck me. I guess they were on “Solid Gold”.

Grade: B-

Wham! Make it Big (1984)- The leather jackets and Elvis-style pompadours were gone, replaced by a more mature look. The rapping and pseudo-toughness were gone as well, replaced by a sound that would garner them millions in sales and three Number One singles in a row on the Billboard charts. George and Andrew (mainly George) were swinging for the fences with this one, and it paid dividends. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” might be the punchline for many a joke, but it’s also one of the Eighties’ most recognizable songs. “Everything She Wants” is an amazingly constructed pop/dance tune, and this album’s cover, The Isley Brothers album track “If You Were There”, is scads better than their massacre of “Love Machine” (although, quite frankly, the original version isn’t especially good, either). A couple of songs on the album aren’t quite on the “A” level (“Credit Card Baby” and the cod-Springsteen “Heartbeat”), but there were already signs that George Michael was becoming a genius songwriter, most notably “Careless Whisper”, a song that has become something of a standard over the course of the past quarter century.

Grade: B

Wham! Music from the Edge of Heaven (1986)

George Michael decided to fold Wham! in the midst of the group’s massive American success in 1985. They bowed out with this album, something of an odds and sods piece. There was a completely unnecessary remix of “Wham! Rap”, and the inclusion of “Last Christmas” (which had been a hit in the U.K. two years before). However, there was also the killer dance track “Battlestations” (a dry run for solo tracks like “I Want Your Sex” and “Hard Day”), anthemic-yet-sleazy pop tunes like “I’m Your Man” and “The Edge of Heaven” (should anyone have been surprised when George turned out to be an A-class perv?), the etheral ballad “A Different Corner” (which spawned one of the decade’s worst videos), and the level of cover material had gone from The Miracles to The Isleys to Was (Not Was) (“Where Did Your Heart Go”). As far as slapped together borderline-compilations, go-this one ain’t so bad.

Grade; B-

Strangely, there has never been a Wham! compilation released in the U.S., although several have been issued overseas. If You Were There-The Best of Wham! (which, oddly, has all of the songs available on iTunes a la carte while not being available as an album) is probably the best of the bunch, even though it also contains completely unnecessary mid-Nineties remixes of “Everything She Wants” and “I’m Your Man”.

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