Updated: Feb 20
They came, they sang, they danced about a bit, and they made the nation very, very happy. What's not to like in Wham!'s purest of pop confections?
There is not a huge amount of joy around right now in miserable, lockdown Britain. At the tail end of a crushing strategy to suppress a virus pandemic, the country is reclusive, fearful and exhausted, its world-famous instinct to party apparently all but gone, overwhelmed by a crisis that has robbed it of its confidences.
If ever there was a time when the happy side-steppy charms of Misters George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley were needed, it is now, something hinted at tangentially by the recent topping of the UK pop chart by Last Christmas over the not so festive period.
In 1984, when Last Christmas was previously dominating the charts (well, nearly, sitting at number two in the yuletide Top Ten behind Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?) Wham! were at the peak of their success, not long before George Michael would begin his solo career in a more “serious” pouty fashion than previously seen during the finger-snapping Wham! heydays.
In so doing, Michael was partly acknowledging the quickly established critical opinion of what he and fellow Whammer Ridley, together with backing singers and equally finger-snapping Dee C. Lee and Shirlie Holliman, had achieved with the group, making it one of the happiest acts and sunniest sounds on the British music charts.
From humble beginnings in Watford, where Michael and Ridgeley met whilst at school, Wham! came to dominate the pop charts over a frantic four years, serving up a string of hits after getting an unexpected shot at performing on Top of the Pops, which the pop- and pretty boy-loving British public had by the early 1980s come to adore.
In their place at the top of the charts, and in poster form on the walls of teenagers everywhere, Wham! was not alone in the Smash Hits-driven 1980s pop regality, blue-tacked above the beds of teenagers (mainly female), alongside such fellow pop luminaries as Duran Duran (inevitably), Culture Club, Spandau Ballet (incredibly), Nick Kershaw (really) and Bananarama. The mid-1980s were, in the world of pop, bright and optimistic and Wham! was at the head of the march to a shiny new tomorrow.
For a while, anyway.
The arc of the Wham! rolled-up denim whirlwind during that brief, if transformational period, was, however, more complex than it may have appeared at the time. Spanning the fast political and economic evolution of the nation, from the failed collectivist, post-war consensus of the 1970s as it hurtled towards the booming individualist, free-market Britain of the mid-1980s, Wham! deftly reflected and influenced the national zeitgeist as it turned its face to the future.
Wham! was, essentially, a pop hit machine, powered by Michael’s song-writing (after early songwriting collaborations between Ridgeley and Michael, it was Michael who wrote the hits) and his ability to put across a visual feeling with confidence and elan. But within that winning perfect pop formula was also a keen eye and ear for the mood of a nation, and what the instincts of its teen market were, as Great Britain so rapidly evolved under the influence of quickly changing fashions and music television.
From its early incarnation bathed in bouncy rebellion, epitomised in the duopoly of hits, (the ungraciously titled) Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do) and Young Guns (Go for it!), to the culturally transitional Club Tropicana and the giddily hedonistic Wake me Up Before You Go-Go and the guilt-tinged pleasures of Last Christmas, Wham! managed to chronicle the mood of a nation dancing towards apparently better, more sunny uplands.
Listened to today in a lonely and hopeless land, Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do), with its chirpy, defiant insolence, urging its economically battered and struggling audience to dance away the troubles of early 1980s mass unemployment is the sound not so much of a different age, but a lost zeitgeist. “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” Michaels declares over a thumping baseline, as he and the Whammers handclap their way across the dance floor. “I said, I - don't - need - you. So you don't approve, well who asked you to?” Wham Rap! continues. “I ain't never gonna work, get down in the dirt, I choose, to cruise. Gonna live my life, sharp as a knife, I've found my groove and I just can't lose.”
Wham Rap! with its mood and bouncy optimism (the defining Wham! characteristic) also hints at a better tomorrow, partly delivered by the confidence it implores in its possibly (probably) struggling audience.
“Wham! bam! I am! a man! Job or no job, you can't tell me that I'm not.”
Wham Rap!: The Happy Days Are Here Again of its generation.
Young Guns (Go for it), its gauche companion piece from the Fantastic album, is another defiant call to dance floor arms, imploring young guys the world over to defy the demands and trappings of convention to continue a life of hedonistic freedom for as long as possible.
“Dear Mummy, Dear Daddy, now I'm nineteen as you see, I'm handsome, tall, and strong. So what the hell gives you the right to look at me, as if to say "Hell, what went wrong?" Michael spits out mid-way through the track. “Bad boys, stick together. Never sad boys, good guys, they made rules for fools, so get wise.”
It’s the kind of urgent, literal lyric that Michael would regularly deploy to connect with the Wham! audience before later turning his back on such crowd-pleasing and critic-dismaying frippery, changing himself instead into a more “serious” and “miserable” solo artist.
Club Tropicana, the less urgent and smoother manifestation of the upbeat Wham! ethos in musical form, eased up on the early career Wham! energy and replaced it with a more relaxed and nuanced soft disco shuffle, perfectly tuned for a nation coming to quite like this new world of consumer delights and instant gratification for labouring so very hard, thank you very much. Consumerism and leisure as immediate rewards for working the markets and opportunities offered by a more service-orientated economy perhaps were worth aspiring to, if they allowed more of the working classes to sit by a Mediterranean pool and enjoy a margarita or two.
“Club Tropicana, drinks are free, fun and sunshine, there's enough for everyone, all that's missing is the sea, but don't worry, you can suntan,” Michael laconically encourages his audience, a twinkle of irony in his voice. “Pack your bags, and leave tonight, don't take your time, gotta move your feet, don't you miss the flight!”
As with all Wham! single releases, Club Tropicana caught the populist wave and surfed it to upper chart success. Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Wham!’s giddy, silly and infectious Motown pastiche, was the final step up the pop ladder en-route to the Michael-produced Last Christmas.
Other hits would follow - I’m Your Man, The Edge of Heaven/Where Did Your Heart Go? - the latter hinting at the morning after reflective seriousness that Michael was hankering for by the time of its release (foreshadowed two years previously by the drunken sway of Careless Whisper, Michael’s pre-Faith calling card),
But for a generation of optimistic and expectant Britons who got caught up in the Thatcher economic and cultural revolution despite themselves, Wham! will forever be the not so bad boys who danced their way around a swimming pool somewhere in the sun and encouraged everyone listening to do the same.
“Do! You! Enjoy what you do? If not, just stop! Don't stay there and rot!”