Tucked away on the B-side of The Edge of Heaven, Battlestations is a fascinating anomaly in the Wham! catalogue. Raw, minimal, and influenced by contemporary dancefloor trends – but still very much a pop song – it gives a glimpse of what might have happened had the duo stayed together and taken a hipper, more experimental direction.
An understated, atypical deep cut from Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 – stripped-back, concise, acoustic-guitar driven, with just a hint of cello and tambourine. But it does a lot with a little: Michael’s vocal is really powerful and the moment when the stacked vocal harmonies kick in halfway through is a delight.
Blue started life as an unfinished near-instrumental hastily bunged on the B-side of Club Tropicana, and gradually developed on stage into a classy, blue-eyed R&B slow jam far better than a lot of songs on their debut album, Fantastic. Wham! rightly had a regard for Blue: it turned up on greatest hits album The Final.
Sometimes, the contents of Patience sounded a little too obviously like the work of someone who smoked an enormous quantity of weed, but My Mother Had a Brother – which retold the story of Michael’s closeted gay uncle, who killed himself on the day the singer was born – is tender and yet incredibly powerful.
Faith offered an embarrassment of songwriting riches, including the pained balladry of One More Try. A great version on Michael’s final album, Symphonica, strips away the synths and replaces them with choral backing vocals and a southern soul organ, revealing the song’s musical roots.
Inevitably overshadowed by Last Christmas, 2011’s December Song deserves to be better known. A gorgeous, heartfelt, harmony-laden but schmaltz-free ballad, it comes with a hint of darkness lurking in the background, as well as what appears to be a reference to Michael’s well-publicised troubles: “I went a little crazy / God knows they can see the child.”
If any song embodies what infuriated people about Wham!, Wake Me Up … is it. It’s neon-hued, incredibly perky and utterly brazen in its desire to be hugely commercially successful: they performed it on Top of the Pops wearing T-shirts that read Number One. It is also a fantastic pop song, which presumably infuriated people even more.
Another shift away from the sound of Faith, Praying for Time is audibly immersed in the oeuvre of John Lennon. The music recalls Mind Games, while the frustrated, sarcastic lyrical tone and the slapback echo-dosed vocals are very Instant Karma!. But it rises beyond pastiche: the melody is gorgeous, Michael’s vocals are superb.
Inspired by the Gap Band’s awesome Burn Rubber on Me – you can hear the influence in its backing track – Club Tropicana was the classic sweltering-summer-of-83 hit, despite considerable competition. There’s something oddly sarcastic about the lyrics: another Wham! hit more knowing than its reputation suggests.
Given his fondness for a joint, it was perhaps inevitable that Michael would be drawn towards the sound of trip-hop in the mid-90s. But Spinning the Wheel offers trip-hop of a particularly high, luxurious quality: a beat indebted to reggae, subtle samples, a lazily soulful song atop. Plus, the sound of a spliff being lit at the end.
The Wham! No 1 no one seems to remember – you certainly don’t hear it as often as the others nowadays – which feels unfair. It’s a sophisticated example of Michael’s way with an irrepressible 60s soul pastiche, with lyrics that played on the duo’s imminent demise: “One last time might be for ever.”
Reviled as the apotheosis of craven, weightless 80s pop, Wham!’s early singles were always more knowing than detractors seemed to notice. Bad Boys is a case in point: wilfully preposterous, extraordinarily camp (“Easy girls – AND LATE NIGHTS! / Cigarettes – AND LOVE BITES!”), it’s a song with its tongue cemented to its cheek that got taken in deadly earnest.
Amazing now sounds weirdly prescient, a hybrid of disco rhythms and soft-rock instrumentation that predates the latter-day obsession with yacht rock embodied by the Too Slow to Disco compilation series. The vocal, meanwhile, perfectly captures the sweet sense of wonder in the rush-of-new-love lyrics.
On one level, I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me) was as much a statement as a song, the presence of Aretha Franklin automatically conferring a new gravitas on her co-performer. Although he didn’t write it, the song won the pair a Grammy award for best R&B performance, deservedly so: I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me) is totally joyous.
Anyone looking for a queer subtext in Wham!’s material might consider just how upset Young Guns’ protagonist seems to be about his BFF’s impending marriage. Wracked with repressed yearning, or a straightforward warning about settling down too early? Either way, the sheer quantity of hooks it packs in – and its innate understanding of how to turn club music into pop – is astonishing.
Another solo Beatles-inspired tune from Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, this time founded in the effortless melodicism of Wings-era Paul McCartney. Michael pulls it off with such aplomb that McCartney himself signed up to appear on a new version, released on 2006’s greatest hits album Twenty Five: the warmth of their duet might make it the definitive version.
Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go may be more ubiquitous these days, but Wham’s second No 1 of 1984 is the better song: less tricksy and DayGlo, it’s a beautifully turned, effortlessly commercial Motown homage worthy of peak-period Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Faith opens with a snatch of Freedom by Wham!, played on a church organ as if at a funeral: the cocky update of the old Bo Diddley hambone beat that follows signalled one of pop’s great reinventions. Someone should cover Faith in a straightforward rockabilly style: as it is, there’s an absolutely ghastly version by Limp Bizkit.
A relative flop on release, which was less to do with its quality than that it was the fifth single to be taken from Listen Without Prejudice. Its hazy and, more than likely, stoned take on orchestrated jazz-pop is utterly beautiful, its lyrics surprisingly affectionate and generous, considering it’s about a love triangle.
The undisputed highlight of Patience was this mistily beautiful recollection of Michael’s childhood and teenage aspirations in the suburbs of north London. Intriguingly, it mentions his love of the Specials and the Jam, whose respective leaders, Jerry Dammers and Paul Weller, had been vocal critics of Wham!.
The musical response to Michael’s arrest for “lewd behaviour” in a California lavatory is one of the finest screw-you gestures in pop history: a gleeful, unapologetic, witty hymn to cruising – “I’d service the community, but I already have, you see” – set to the best disco track he ever came up with.
Few artists have ever moved from teen sensation to “adult” artist with the deftness of George Michael. The real signal that the Wham! years were over, A Different Corner is a fantastic ballad and astonishingly bold. Given that it’s stark to the point of sounding eerie, it seems remarkable it made it to No 1.
The video for Father Figure may have depicted Michael in a relationship with a woman, but the song’s lyrics told a more complex story: “Sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime.” Meanwhile, the shift from the hushed longing of the verses to the explosive, gospel-inspired chorus is just fabulous.
A song that pulls off Abba’s old trick of masking distraught lyrics – the protagonist’s protestations that he’s found someone else aren’t terribly convincing – with bulletproof ultra-hooky music. If it was easy to write Christmas songs as durable as Last Christmas has proved, everyone would do it and luxuriate in the annual payout. But it isn’t.
Ubiquitous on British radio after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the second of Older’s great elegies for his late partner, Anselmo Feleppa, concentrates not on Michael’s grief but that of Feleppa’s mother. Hushed and painful, it would be almost too sad to listen to if the melody were not so exquisite.
The song that first signalled Michael’s solo ambitions dated back to Wham!’s first demo, but you can see how he thought it was bit luxe and grown-up for their brash image. It’s a brilliant pop song regardless, and, in “guilty feet have got no rhythm”, it boasts one of the great once-heard-never-forgotten lyrics.
Michael described Older as the sound of him “trying to come out … to my fans”. Nowhere was that clearer than on the superb Fastlove, a paean to cruising, underpinned with grief: “I miss my baby.” The music is fabulously poised – subtle and lingering, yet funky, flecked with references to Patrice Rushen’s Forget Me Nots.
If you turned over Last Christmas, you found Wham!’s greatest song, evidence of George Michael’s rapid development as a songwriter: six and half minutes of lyrical misery – its protagonist is trapped in a loveless relationship with a demanding partner – set to sublime synth-funk that has somehow never seemed to date.
Never let it be said that Michael was afraid to take risks: after a three-year absence from the charts, he returned with an astonishing seven-minute mediation on loss and grief. The tune is haunting, the lyrics – which describe Feleppa’s death and pick over the emotional aftermath – genuinely extraordinary.
Freedom 90 might be George Michael’s equivalent of Changes by David Bowie: a loud declaration of a desire to keep moving artistically, complete with video featuring the leather jacket he’d worn in the Faith era set on fire. Perhaps it was a desire to get the message across that led Michael to set the lyrics to irresistible music. The buoyant house-influenced piano riff and Funky Drummer-sampling beats are very 1990 and so joyous they transcend their era; the gospel-inspired vocals soar, Michael himself sounding impassioned. The result is perfect pop music.
BBC Radio 2 listeners can vote for their favourite George Michael songs until noon on 11 December.