Of the whole Duran-Frankie-Spandau-Culture Club generation of pop stars, George Michael is the one who has shown the most ambition and stamina.
Last year’s debut solo album Faith and the current nine-month world tour are a calculated effort to propel himself into the stratosphere,alongside Michael Jackson, Madonna and Springsteen.
So far it seems to be working, since the album has already sold over 10 million worldwide.
The venue chosen for his London concert last Sunday was distinctly unpromising. I had forgotten, since seeing the Stones there in the Seventies, that Earls Court is a concrete aircraft hangar as long as a football pitch.
Obviously, singers as popular as George Michael have difficulty finding places which can accommodate all the people who want to see them, but I doubted whether anyone could triumph in such inhospitable surroundings as this colossal Exhibition Hall.
I looked around and wondered how the show could work, since a dozen three-minute pop songs can never be a rock concert, not in my book anyway. Never before had I longed for the cosy intimacy of Wembley Arena, where Whitney Houston and Fleetwood Mac play happily to 9,000 fans a night.
Here the 17,000-capacity crowd was mostly young women.
Twice as many had come with their girlfriends as had brought their boyfriends and husbands and when the houselights went out they screamed hysterically, stood on their seats and chanted, “We want George, we want George !”
The curtain rose to reveal a six-piece band dressed in black, inside a massive white cage whose barred doors opened slowly. A figure stood on an elevated platform to the right of the stage : a young man in tight blue trousers, a black motorcycle jacket and a white T-shirt, gyrating provocatively to the Bo Diddley beat of his controversial single I WANT YOUR SEX.
It was a spectacular start and I was blown away by the imaginative way the 24-year old George Michael had chosen to present himself, by his synthesis of components from popular culture.
Sometimes genius is simplicity, and the Faith show was a sensational use of readymades, of past and current reference points that could be immediately understood by everyone.
This was 33% Elvis Presley, 33% Saturday Night Fever and 33% Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
What followed was vivid entertainment from a star who knows how to maximise his main assets : good looks, an excellent voice, and a flair for commercial melodies. George isn’t as slim as he looks on TV but his high- energy showmanship on hits like I’m Your Man and Everything She Wants proved that his dancing and stagecraft have improved dramatically since Wham’s farewell concert at Wembley Stadium in June 1986.
His music is derivative but he plays the game with more serious ambition than anybody else. He has plenty of time to write more ballads a memorable as Careless Whisper, the song which closed the show, and become more involved in further collaborations as challenging as I Knew You Were Waiting For Me, his hit with Aretha Franklin.
He encored with Village Ghettoland, the Stevie Wonder tune he had performed at the Nelson Mandela birthday concert the day before, Labelle’s Lady Marmalade, a theatrically suggestive duet with backing vocalist Lynn Mabry, and a reprise of the rocky Prince rip-off SEX, featuring saucy laser graphics, ultra-violet lights, strobes, lasers and other high-tech gadgets added to the relentless beat gave the show the fun and fantasy which we usually associate with the discotheque.
Disco is body music and George uses technology and body language to turn his concerts into big disco parties.
Near the end of the concert my friend Danny and I walked to the back of the ball, which was 120 yards from the stage. Incredibly, the show still worked and the sound was actually better. Girls stood on their seats, couples embraced and, remarkably, everyone stayed till the end of the third encore.
George Michael is not as literate as Sting, or as flamboyant as Boy George, or as bright as Annie Lennox. But it was clear that he knows his limitations because of the way he jokingly referred to his props : the guitar he can’t really play, the gold-rimmed shades, the leather jacket.
Six years ago this lad was just another suburban soul boy. What makes him special is that he had the ambition and bottle to go all the way. He has taught himself how to play keyboards, write songs, produce hit records, and handle the media. He moved to Los Angeles and took the voice lessons and the dance lessons, disciplines which most of his British rivals are too lazy or frightened to attempt.
He installed a £25,000 gym in his house to keep in shape and reckons he spends far too much money on the latest hi-fi equipment. He admits “I’ve not really noticed the difference between being rich and being very rich.”
Back in 1988 I thought that remark, which I had never heard from any other performer, was amusing and, perhaps, significant.
That a shy fat boy from Bushey should have built such a big career so quickly is astonishing, although we can only guess as at the personal price he might have had to pay for his obsessive desire to put distance between himself and his English contemporaries. He worries about his staff being too terrified to be honest with him.
Critics who complain about the outdated sexual politics of his performance are missing the point. They just don’t know, and never will know, what working class punters want from their pop stars.
As George says, “If I was watching someone being that cocky onstage, I’d think it was fun. It’s what makes Mick Jagger watchable, it’s what makes Prince watchable.”
After Wham! broke up he had said, “The only way you can get optimism across is to show yourself having a good time.”
On Boxing Day 2016, when I heard the 53-year old had died, I searched my computer and this popped up.
What do I think about 1988 now?
Well, I didn’t realise how big he was globally or what a gigantic tour it was.
The scale of this tour was far bigger than I realised at the time.
For a start, I thought he was doing one or two shows at Earls Court. He played six nights there.