The other half of Wham!

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

Have you heard the story about the time that Andrew Ridgeley, the 1980s heart-throb, refused to answer the door to Andy Warhol after John Lennon hissed at him: ‘Do you want him coming in here taking photos when you’ve got icicles of coke hanging out of your nose?’? How about Ridgeley’s fondness for orgies, during which he used to watch couples having sex on his snooker table while yelling: ‘Make sure you don’t come on the baize!’? No? Well, that’s probably because these are taken from Elton John’s gloriously filthy memoir Me, in which he describes the many successes and wild excesses of his life in eye-popping, thigh-clenching detail.

Even at the height of his fame, between 1983 and 1986, Ridgeley (the one with puppy-dog eyes and a rich teak tan) was never that kind of pop star. The worst incident he can recall in this good-humoured memoir is an occasion when the other member of Wham!, George Michael (the one with a Princess Diana quiff and a voice that could melt ice at 100 paces), spotted Joan Collins’s yacht moored off Saint-Tropez and yelled out: ‘Joan! Show us your knickers!’ It’s not exactly 18-certificate stuff. And that’s hardly surprising. Although Wham! may have sung about teenage rebellion (‘Easy girls,/ And late nights,/ Cigarettes, and love bites’), with their unthreatening good looks and crisp white Katharine Hamnett T-shirts (‘CHOOSE LIFE’) they were more like half a boyband waiting for the others to show up.

Actually, Elton John has a walk-on part in the Joan Collins story, as it was after drunkenly leaving a nightclub as his guests that the boys from Wham! saw her boat bobbing around in the harbour. They were no less self-made than he was. Just as Reg Dwight had donned a pair of sparkly outsize spectacles and announced himself to the world as Elton John, so the boys had reinvented themselves after their first meeting as awkward teenagers at Bushey Meads comprehensive in Hertfordshire.

Georgios Panayiotou, known to his friends as Yog, a ‘studious and shy, broccoli-haired 16-year-old with a muffin-top waistline and a wardrobe full of questionable outfits’, would swap his own ‘oversized steel-framed specs’ for contact lenses and become George Michael, clad in tight denim and leather like a Tom of Finland fantasy sprung into life. Andrew (‘Andy’) was less complicated — and also far less talented, as he freely acknowledges — but he, too, was the son of an immigrant, who had been expelled from Egypt during the Suez crisis, changing his surname from Zacharia after seeing a street sign for Ridgeley Gardens.

The way Ridgeley remembers it, the key decision was his alone (‘Yog, we’re forming a band’), and his memoir provides a brisk summary of their rise to chart-topping success, from a first gig in the 18th Bushey and Oxhey Scout hut, via appearances in grotty nightclubs, to global fame and sales of 30 million records.

But the real story is the fact that he was merely the booster-rocket propelling his friend to superstardom. This produces some interesting language choices, as he describes how Wham! was a pop band that ‘George and I had always intended to burn brightly, but briefly’, or confesses that ‘George and I knew it was a game’. In this context even ordinary pronouns have an unusual amount of emotional pressure built up behind them. ‘By the time we wrote “Careless Whisper’’, we communicated almost exclusively through shared jokes, knowing references and comedy quotes,’ Ridgeley recalls. But by this stage it wasn’t ‘we’ singing any more. Contrary to what he had promised in Wham!’s first UK and US No. 1 ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, George Michael was indeed planning on going solo.

Despite admitting that he sometimes ‘felt envious of George’s prodigious talent’, and poking fun at his friend’s habit of teasing and straightening his hair in a lengthy ritual of ‘singed curls and hairspray’, this is a remarkably generous memoir from someone who quickly recognised that while for him being a pop star was just a game, for George Michael it was much more: a compulsion and a curse.

Inevitably his death casts a shadow over the final pages of this book, but otherwise this isn’t the place to look if you want any serious introspection on the fleeting nature of most pop careers, or what it’s like to spend the rest of your life basking in the afterglow of early fame. It simply isn’t that kind of book. Instead this is, in more than one sense, the biography of a friend.

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