Influenced by funk and soul music and presenting themselves as disaffected youth, Wham’s 1983 debut album Fantastic addressed the United Kingdom‘s unemployment problem for young people and teen angst over adulthood.
Their second studio album Make It Big in 1984 was a worldwide pop smash hit, charting number one in both the UK and the United States. The singles from the album — “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go“, “Everything She Wants” and “Careless Whisper” — all topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US. In 1985, Wham made a highly publicized 10-day visit to China, the first by a Western pop group. The event was seen as a major watershed moment in increasing friendly bilateral relations between China and the West.
Wham became one of the most successful pop acts of the 1980s, selling more than 30 million certified records worldwide from 1982 to 1986.
Michael and Ridgeley met at Bushey Meads School in Bushey near the town of Watford in Hertfordshire. The two at first performed in a short-lived ska band called the Executive, alongside former school friends David (Austin) Mortimer, Andrew Leaver and Paul Ridgeley. When this group split, Michael and Ridgeley eventually formed Wham, signing with Innervision Records. British graphic design studio Stylorouge was credited with adding the exclamation point to the name of the band.
Michael took on the majority of roles and responsibilities within the band—composer, producer, lead singer, and occasional instrumentalist. Still teenagers, they promoted themselves as hedonistic youngsters, proud to live a carefree life without work or commitment. This was reflected in their earliest singles which, part-parody, part-social comment, briefly earned Wham a reputation as a dance protest group.
The debut record to be released by the band was “Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do)” in June 1982. It was a double A-side including the Social Mix and the Unsocial Mix. The record was not playlisted by BBC Radio 1 in the UK, partly because of the profanity in the Unsocial Mix. Separate videos were recorded for each set of lyrics. “Wham Rap” did not chart for the group.
In October 1982 “Young Guns (Go for It)” was issued. Initially, it also stalled outside the UK Top 40 but the band got lucky when the BBC programme Top of the Pops scheduled them after another act unexpectedly pulled out of the show.
Wham’s first manager was Bryan Morrison. The effect of Wham on the public, especially teenage girls, was felt from the moment they finished their debut performance of “Young Guns (Go for It)” on Top of the Pops. Michael wore espadrilles, an open suede jacket, and rolled-up denim jeans. Ridgeley stood behind him, flanked by backing dancers Dee C. Lee and Shirlie Holliman. Afterwards, the song shot into the Top 40 at No. 24 and peaked at No. 3 in December. The following year (1983), Dee C. Lee began her work with Paul Weller in The Style Council, and was replaced by Pepsi DeMacque. Holliman and DeMacque would later record as Pepsi & Shirlie.
Wham followed up “Young Guns (Go for It)” with a reissue of “Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do)”, “Bad Boys” and “Club Tropicana“. By the end of 1983, Wham were competing against pop rivals Culture Club and Duran Duran as one of Britain’s biggest pop acts.
Their debut album Fantastic spent two weeks at No. 1 in the UK album charts in 1983, but the album only had modest success in the US. However, notoriety and increased newspaper and magazine coverage were duly achieved with their antics of placing shuttlecocks down their shorts during performances on their first tour, the Club Fantastic Tour.
Soon after this, Ridgeley became conscious of legal problems with their initial contract at Innervision. While the legal battle raged, Innervision released a medley of non-single album tracks from Fantastic, entitled “Club Fantastic Megamix“. Wham publicly denounced the release and urged fans not to buy this Wham album. After all the legal wrangling, Innervision admitted there were royalty discrepancies with Wham’s contract. Innervision later fell to bankruptcy and the eventual dissolution of the label altogether in 1985.
Now signed to Epic Records, except in the US and some other countries where they were on Epic sister label Columbia Records, Wham returned in 1984 with a new album and an updated pop image. These changes helped to propel Wham’s next single, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go“, into the top ten of several countries around the world. It became their first US and UK #1 single, accompanied by a video of the duo with Pepsi and Shirlie, all wearing Katharine Hamnett T-shirts with the slogans “CHOOSE LIFE” and “GO GO”.
The next single from the Wham album was “Careless Whisper“, but it featured only George Michael in the music video. The single was also promoted as “Wham featuring George Michael” in many markets but, unlike any Wham single except “Wham Rap!” and “Club Tropicana”, it was also co-written with Andrew Ridgeley. The song, about a remorseful two-timer, had more emotional depth than previous releases. It reached No. 1, selling over 1.3 million copies in the UK. “Careless Whisper” marked a new phase in Michael’s career, as his label Columbia/Epic began to somewhat distanced him from the group Wham’s playboy image.
The next single was “Freedom” and was simply promoted as a Wham single. Wham used a video edited together from footage of their tour in China for “Freedom”‘s US single release, Freedom spent two weeks at #1 in the UK singles charts. Their second album, Make It Big, climbed to #1 on the album charts and the band set off on an arena tour at the end of 1984.
The double A-side single “Last Christmas/Everything She Wants” became the highest-selling single ever to peak at No. 2 in the UK charts. It stayed at No. 2 for five weeks and, to date, is the 24th best-selling single of all time in the United Kingdom, selling over 1.4 million copies in the UK. Wham donated all their royalties from the single to the Ethiopian famine appeal to coincide with the fund-raising intentions of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?“, the song which kept them out of the top spot. Nevertheless, Band Aid’s success meant that Michael had achieved #1 status in the UK within three separate entities in 1984—as a solo artist, as one half of a duo, and as part of a charity ensemble.
In March 1985, Wham took a break from recording to embark on a lengthy world tour, including a ground-breaking 10-day visit to China, the first by a Western pop group. The China excursion was a publicity scheme devised by Simon Napier-Bell (one of their two managers—Jazz Summers being the other). It began with a concert at the Peoples’ Gymnasium in Beijing in front of 12,000 people. They also played a concert in front of 5,000 in Canton. The two concerts were played without compensation.
Wham’s visit to China attracted huge media attention across the world. Napier-Bell later admitted that he used cunning tactics to sabotage the efforts of rock band Queen to be the first to play in China: he made two brochures for the Chinese authorities – one featuring Wham fans as pleasant middle-class youngsters, and one portraying Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in typically flamboyant poses. The Chinese opted for Wham!.
British Director Lindsay Anderson was engaged to accompany Wham to China and make a documentary film about the visit. The film was shot over two weeks of March and April and edited over late spring and summer 1985 in London. Anderson called his one-hour and 18 minute film If You Were There. In the final stages of editing, Anderson was dismissed by Wham’s management, the editing team quit, and the film was entirely re-edited, renamed and released as Wham! in China: Foreign Skies. According to a 2006 interview with The Independent, Andy Stephens, manager for Michael, said that the film [Anderson’s version] was simply not good enough to be shown in public: “It’s a dreadful film … It’s 20 years old and it’s rubbish. Why on earth should we allow it to be shown?”, although after viewing it in 2008 critic and journalist John Harris described it as “a rich, poetic, panoramic portrait of China’s strangeness to the eyes of outsiders”.
Sporting a beard, Michael appeared with Ridgeley onstage at Live Aid on 13 July 1985 (although they did not perform as Wham). Michael sang “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with Elton John, while Ridgeley joined Kiki Dee in the row of backing singers. In September, Wham released the single “I’m Your Man” which went to No. 1 in the UK charts.
Around this time, Ridgeley began a relationship with Keren Woodward of Bananarama. Ridgeley also took up the hobby of rally driving. “Last Christmas” was re-issued for the festive season and again made the UK Top 10, peaking at No. 6, while Michael took up offers he was starting to receive to add his voice to other artists’ songs. He performed backing vocals for David Cassidy, and also for Elton John on his successful singles “Nikita” (UK No. 3) and “Wrap Her Up” (UK No. 12), on which he sang co-lead vocals.
Michael was keen to create music targeted at a more sophisticated adult market rather than the duo’s primarily teenage audience, and therefore, Michael and Ridgeley officially announced the breakup of Wham in the spring of 1986. Before going their separate ways, a farewell single “The Edge of Heaven“, and a greatest hits album titled The Final would be forthcoming, along with a farewell concert entitled The Final. Announcing the breakup, Michael said: “I think it should be the most amicable split in pop history.”
The farewell single reached No. 1 in June 1986. “Where Did Your Heart Go?” was the group’s final single in the United States. The song, originally recorded by Was (Not Was), was a gloomy and sombre affair. The duo’s last release was a double-LP collection of all the singles to date, including some extended versions. This was released in North America as the severely pared-down Music from the Edge of Heaven with alternate tracks.
At London’s Wembley Stadium on Saturday 28 June 1986, Wham bade goodbye to their fans and each other with an emotional embrace at the end of its final concert. 72,000 people attended the eight-hour event, which included support artists, on a scorching hot day in London. The band had been together for five years, selling over 28 million records and 15 million singles. Foreign Skies, the documentary of their tour of China, received its world premiere as part of the festivities.
For several years after becoming a solo artist, Michael spoke negatively, in public, about his time with Wham, partly because of the negativity of intense media coverage on Ridgeley. Michael complained of the constant pressure he felt, and he claimed that the duo had been mistreated financially. He also spoke disparagingly about some of the videos and songs from the Wham repertoire, especially the video from “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, and the songs from Fantastic. However, his perspective on the era softened somewhat in the later years of his life. At his solo concerts he would still perform “I’m Your Man” and “Everything She Wants”, the latter being one of the more critically acclaimed songs from the Wham era.
Andrew Ridgeley moved to Monaco after Wham’s breakup and tried his hand at Formula Three motor racing. Meeting with little success, Ridgeley moved to Los Angeles to pursue his singing/acting career, the failure of which caused him to return to England in 1990. Regardless, CBS Records, having taken up the option on Wham’s contract that specified solo albums from Michael and Ridgeley, released a solo effort from Ridgeley, Son of Albert, in 1990. After poor sales, CBS declined the option of a second album. On 25 June 1988, George Michael’s 25th birthday, Michael played the third of three dates at Birmingham’s NEC as part of the Faith World Tour. He appeared deeply moved when he was surprised on stage by many members of his family with Andrew Ridgeley, who was pushing a trolley carrying a huge birthday cake. They led the 13,000-strong crowd in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” before Ridgeley accompanied Michael in a performance of “I’m Your Man“.
On 21 November 2009, there was a Wham-themed night on television’s The X Factor in the UK. Michael later appeared on the show’s final episode, performing a duet of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with finalist and eventual winner Joe McElderry.
In 2012, Michael said that there was no truth in speculation that he and Ridgeley were set for a Wham reunion to mark the 30th anniversary of the group’s first album.
Michael died from heart and liver disease at his home in Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire on Christmas Day 2016. He was 53.
- Fantastic (1983)
- Make It Big (1984)
- The Final (1986) (UK and Japan only)
- Music from the Edge of Heaven (1986) (North America and Japan only)
- The Final (1986)