Sunday, December 21, 2014

So This Was Early Wham!, Huh? AKA George Michael: Godfather Of Gay Hip-Hop

Just when I thought I knew you, Georgios.

Until this very moment, I'd never quite understood why music writers and their cohorts have treated Wham! as a distinct artistic entity separate from George Michael. Wasn't Wham! basically George Michael's early career under a funny, gimmicky name? Why do people talk about Wham! as if it was its own "thing"? That's like treating the Tubeway Army as its own "thing," or the Stone Poneys as their own "thing." Nowadays, people just admit that the Tubeway Army was basically Gary Numan, or that the Stone Poneys were basically Linda Ronstadt, so the record companies just add "Are Friends Electric?" or "Different Drum" to their artists' respective "best of" compilations and everybody's happy. Besides, didn't Wham! only have three or four hits anyway?

Not so fast, my American friends. Because once again, the Yanks missed out on the early chapter of a revered British performer (or perhaps dodged a bullet?). It is time to tell you about Wham!'s first album, Fantastic. This album spawned not one, not two, but four UK Top Ten singles, none of which made a mark across the pond. Four hit singles? Must have been quite the album, right? Well, once you hear early Wham!, you might understand why George Michael is glad it still bears the name "Wham!" and not "George Michael."

The All Music Guide gives Fantastic one-and-a-half stars. Some excerpts from William Cooper's review:
With Fantastic, George Michael and partner Andrew Ridgeley introduced themselves as leather jacket-clad, street-smart "rebels" ... much of the material on Fantastic suffers from the duo's pretentious, tough-guy posturing ... Michael's smart-aleck, self-conscious lyrics are often unintentionally hilarious ... Fantastic isn't a good album, but it's oddly entertaining ... Unfortunately, that probably wasn't George Michael's intention. But even he might get a good laugh out of it.
And yet, inquiring minds wanted to know, so I gave it a listen. Maybe I have the taste of a three-year-old, but I actually kind of like this shit! What I didn't count on, though ... was the rap.

Oh yes. Before George Michael set his sights on becoming the next Marvin Gaye, apparently he set his sights on becoming the next Sugarhill Gang. If you've ever heard Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and thought, "This is pretty good, but I wish they were white, British, and gay," then Fantastic is the album for you.

Exhibit A: "Young Guns (Go For It!)." It turns out Wham!'s whole illustrious career was, arguably, a BBC programming accident. From Wikipedia:
The song was Wham!'s first hit, although it came with some help from the BBC music programme Top of the Pops, which invited Wham! on to the show as a last-minute replacement for another act which had pulled out. It helped that the producer of Top of the Pops had seen them previously on another programme: Saturday Superstore. Wham! were just outside the Top 40 threshold of the UK Singles Chart at the time, which meant they had not climbed high enough in normal circumstances to get on the show, but they were recruited nonetheless as the highest-placed artists still climbing the charts from outside the 40.
The BBC probably figured, "Well, these guys are obviously a flash-in-the-pan, what's the harm, really?" Once the British viewing audience caught a glimpse of the previously unknown George Michael, who at first glance is wearing a leather vest, although one could arguably claim that the leather vest is wearing him, they surely must have realized that Elvis Costello was not about to perform "Shipbuilding." Throw in a quasi-teddy boy flat-top hairdo, and who could resist?

As for the "rap": it's an anti-marriage, pro-bachelorhood saga pitting the carefree male pal of a young man against that young man's commitment-hungry girlfriend. I mean, yeah. Who wants to marry some girl when you can hang out with your shirtless biker buddy, right?
Hey sucker
(What the hell's got into you?)
Hey sucker
(Now there's nothing you can do)

Well I hadn't seen your face around town awhile
So I greeted you, with a knowing smile
When I saw that girl upon your arm
I knew she won your heart with a fatal charm
I said "Soul Boy, let's hit the town!"
I said "Soul Boy, what's with the frown?"
But in return, all you could say was
"Hi George, meet my fiancee"

Young Guns
Having some fun
Crazy ladies keep 'em on the run
Wise guys realize there's danger in emotional ties
See me, single and free
No tears, no fears, what I want to be
One, two, take a look at you
Death by matrimony!
For this Top of the Pops performance, Andrew Ridgely attempts to play the uncertain young man, but fittingly, he merely mouths to the sound of George's voice from the studio recording. Also of note: the female in this little drama is played by Shirlie Holliman of future Pepsi & Shirlie fame (the black woman here would soon marry Paul Weller, and Pepsi eventually became her replacement - although Coca-Cola would argue that Pepsi can never be a suitable replacement for anything).

Props to the funky bass player laying down the imitation "Rapper's Delight"/"Good Times" groove while George rocks the mic, but it's the chorus that hints at the silky, soulful George Michael sound to come; check out that tasty self-harmonization on the line "danger in emotional ties." Also, after the exclamation, "Death by matrimony" (clearly the most gruesome kind of death), I like the rapid-fire series of synth notes suggesting wimpy conjugal gunshots. The crowning touch would have to be the rapid flashing of the word "Wham!" repeated across the screen Warhol-style in the final seconds. In short, "Young Guns (Go For It!)," both song and television performance, is the most ridiculous pile of nonsense I have ever seen. Naturally, the song shot to #3 and turned Wham! into megastars.

So hey, why stop rapping now? Because next came "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)," an ode to the joys of registering for unemployment, which I assume in the UK was a bit easier to do than in the US ("DHSS," a chant in the song, stands for Department of Health and Social Security). "Wham Rap!" is sort of a conservative's worst fears realized: if young people can receive money without working, then maybe ... they won't work!
Hey everybody take a look at me
I've got street credibility
I may not have a job
But I have a good time
With the boys that I meet "down on the line"
I said D-H-S-S
Man the rhythm that they're givin'
Is the very best
I said B-1, B-2
Makin' claims on your name's
All you have to do

Wham! Bam!
I am! A man!
Job or no job
You can't tell me that I'm not
Do! You!
Enjoy what you do?
If not, just stop
Don't stay there and rot
I'm not sure if this one is painfully shallow or oddly profound, but I've probably just spent more time analyzing "Wham Rap!" than Wham! themselves ever did. I mean, you could forgive the British public for thinking this "Michael George" fellow wasn't going to last: he's openly bragging about sitting on his ass and not amounting to anything!

The most unintentionally revealing moment in the video arrives at 2:20, after the lyrics "If you're a pub man/Or a club man/Maybe a jet black guy with a hip hi-fi/A white cool cat with a trilby hat/Maybe leather and studs is where you're at," when Mr. Michael promptly appears in leather trousers, jacket, and cap, looking a little too comfortable for the occasion.

In hindsight, it's tempting to ask oneself, "How could people not realize that he ... you know ... 'buttered his toast with the other side of the knife,' " but I think this topic was a little trickier back then, because, let's face it, most British male pop singers of that era came off as slightly gay anyway. Quick: name one that didn't come off as slightly gay. Adam Ant? Nope. Robert Smith? Nope. That guy from the Human League? Nope. Sting? Nope. Probably Phil Collins, and that's about it.

Professor Higglediggle provides the appropriate cultural perspective. From Father Figure:
By appropriating African-American inner city culture and transmogrifying it into coded homosexual behavioral tropes, Wham! turned embryonic Old School hip-hop into a Hegelian dialectic between black struggle and British effeminacy. The vernacular of the "street" became the vernacular of the "bath house." With "Young Guns (Go For It)" and "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)," Michael and Ridgeley subverted the macho braggadocio of Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC and utilized it to dance along the liminal space between hetero-normative cool and the outlandishness of Queer Theory. They dared to suggest, to a nescient public, that one could indeed embody both "gay" ... and "ghetto."


Herr Zrbo said...

Oh Little Earl, I'm so sorry that I didn't get around to reading this post until now, because what an amazing post it is!

I don't know how the hell you found that video for Young Guns but it is truly amazing. It really is a white, British, gay version of Sugarhill Gang. And then Pepsi is there too! Though I think I recall that Pepsi & Shirlie were an offshoot of Wham! so I guess it's not surprising.

There's so much great insight in this post, and then you top it off with some actual respectable research from Prof. Higglediggle. I think I might have to share this on facebook.

Little Earl said...

Well thank you, but why ... this post? Aren't all my posts amazing? I suppose there are various degrees of amazing. And why The Allnighter, Glenn Frey? Sorry, just had to slip that in there.

Also, to clarify, it's Shirlie who was singing back-up at this point, not Pepsi. Maybe Shirlie was the secret brains behind the whole thing. Here I am, making fun of Andrew Ridgeley, and maybe George Michael was stealing all his songs from Shirlie the whole time!

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