For many of us, music is a reminder of times or phases of significance in our lives. The songs together form soundtracks to the various emotions and experiences that define certain periods of our lives. But the age of a song evokes a different type of emotion in us. It either infuses us with a feeling of deep-rooted nostalgia or it could leave us wondering how and where time flew by. A part of me feels that right now as I ponder over the idea that George Michael’s timeless classic “Careless Whisper” went to #1 in the UK this week exactly 30 years ago. I remember hearing this song in the car while my mother was driving me back home from playschool in a suburb of Los Angeles. The memory of the hook-laden saxophone intro gently drifting out of the car speakers is vivid. The song sounds as fresh today as it did three decades ago. It is unlikely to ever leave the radio airwaves and time is unlikely to erode its sonic luster. To celebrate the success of this beautiful song and “cash cow” for the legendary George Michael, we thought it might be a good idea to highlight some noteworthy factoids and back-story around “Careless Whisper”.
The fascination around “Careless Whisper” for us goes beyond the song’s inherent musical merit. There is more and it sheds light on the talent and vision of George Michael.
For those of you that have watched some of George Michael’s early interviews, the contrast between the barely adult George Michael and the teen stars of today should be quite striking based on their interviews. George Michael had a demeanor that was very adult and his responses to questions were always incredibly measured. The adult in him manifested itself in his lyrical treatment of infidelity (“guilty feet have got no rhythm”) to a partner on “Careless Whisper”. He wrote this song at the tender age of 17. These days, we barely expect anything, lyrically speaking, out of our new crop of teen “stars”.
The Risk-taking Visionary:
Most young recording stars opt for an established producer to bring their musical vision to life and into the ears of the record-buying public. What many do not know is that the original version of “Careless Whisper” was produced by successful American producer Jerry Wexler at Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. This version of the song has an incredibly dated feel that gets locked in time. It is easy for us to say that today but George Michael was able to foresee this soon after the song was mixed and produced. Hence, he made the audacious foray into production territory and produced the song himself. This was an unconventional move for a relative amateur in the music industry. He had the confidence and the vision to outperform Jerry Wexler. Judging by the fact that we still hear the song that he produced on radio today, it is safe to say that his confidence and vision were not misplaced. The song we all hear and know has a timeless feel to it and cannot easily be “bucketed” into a specific era very easily. Here (below) is the version of the song produced by Jerry Wexler:
There is a second component to the visionary that George Michael is. As a youngster he worked as a restaurant DJ. It was his last night at the restaurant since he had been officially fired from the job. He did something remarkably impulsive. He played an early demo of “Careless Whisper” at the restaurant. The floor filled with folks slow dancing. This was the sign for George Michael that he had created something precious that would eventually turn into a life-long money spinner. It was a signal of great commercial promise. It is unlikely that George Michael was allowed to play any of his own material at the restaurant but he did it anyway knowing he had nothing to lose. The risk he took probably bolstered his confidence and set him on his path of global domination in the world of pop music.
The third component to the risk-taking visionary that George Michael was relates to his decision to dip his feet into “solo” waters while building the global pop brand that Wham! (the duo that launched him) was quickly morphing into. Outside the UK, “Careless Whisper” was credited as being recorded by “Wham featuring George Michael” since neither George Michael nor Wham were established entities outside their home country. But “Careless Whisper” was George Michael’s first solo effort. His tryst with solo stardom gave people a taste of what was to come if George Michael ventured out on his own post-Wham. It also whetted the appetite for George Michael the solo artist and performer.
In George Michael’s 1991 biography penned by Tony Parsons and titled “Bare”, there is a story in there that closely mirrors the lyrics in “Careless Whisper”. In this story, George Michael was attracted to one of the unattainable friends of his sister. At this time, George Michael still wore glasses, had terrible hair, and was on the heavier side. He ended up “settling” for someone else but the opportunity of the unattainable girl presented itself again post his metamorphosis from the “ugly duckling” to the Greek god that has been plastered on the walls of girls all over the globe. This time, there was mutual interest, and sadly for George Michael, “guilty feet had no rhythm” and he caved in to temptation. It is not clear whether or not “Careless Whisper” was based specifically on this story but one cannot help but think that it does.
This post is a “thank you” to George Michael for creating a beautiful and enduring piece of music that holds up well 30 years later. It is a shame the song does not mean much to him in the way that it does to his legions of fans around the world. In fact, these were his exact words:
“It disappoints me that you can write a lyric very flippantly—and not a particularly good lyric—and it can mean so much to so many people. That’s disillusioning for a writer”
Were there any other elements of the “Careless Whisper” back-story that we have missed? Please feel free to let us know by commenting below. Meanwhile, here is the classic we all know and love:
We play a LOT of music by George Michael on our internet radio station and you can listen to us from ANYWHERE in the world on ANY device. In case you did not pick up on this earlier, the blog you are reading is affiliated with Radio Creme Brulee – an online radio station that features an eclectic mix of current pop and rock music from both sides of the Atlantic alongside hits, forgotten gems, and rarities from the last three decades. The music of George Michael (both old and new) is a regular staple on our radio station. We don’t restrict ourselves solely to the singles. We also feature “rare for radio” George Michael songs such as “Edith And The Kingpin” and “Understand“. Alongside newer artists, we also play plenty of newer music by bands that rose to prominence in the 80s. Noteworthy examples include Simply Red, Wet Wet Wet, Tears For Fears, Duran Duran, Camouflage, Spandau Ballet, INXS, Depeche Mode, Johnny Hates Jazz, Simple Minds, and Culture Club.
Give us a spin when you get a chance.
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