Monday, 2 June 2014

WHAM!: Make It Big





(#306: 17 November 1984, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go/Everything She Wants/Heartbeat/Like A Baby/Freedom/If You Were There/Credit Card Baby/Careless Whisper

Thirty years ago, Paul Morley was keen on remarking that the nine-week reign of “Two Tribes” at number one changed nothing – Wham! were there before “Two Tribes” and there they were again (in a manner of speaking) afterwards. “It was…like nothing had happened!” Morley exclaimed. Given the fact, however, that the two number ones for which “Two Tribes” may have served as an extended parenthesis were, respectively, the first and last songs on the second Wham! album, it would not be unreasonable to counter-argue that, actually, an awful lot did happen, and because the intentionally noisy bombast of “Two Tribes” was succeeded by the suppressed quietude of “Careless Whisper,” that does not necessarily mean that the latter was not more deeply felt or expressed.

For Make It Big, from its title downwards, isn’t the cheery, glossy slice of triumphalist Thatcherite bubblegum that two generations of commentators have mistaken it for being. Yes, Tony McGee’s soft-focus photography has them reclining, and sometimes smiling, in comparative silky luxury compared with Fantastic. Their clothes are softer-fitting and their hair is longer; on the cover Andrew Ridgeley resembles a young Gibb brother. The music – largely recorded “in the sunny South of France” – is superficially smoother than before.

The Manhattan Millionaire syndrome again, in other words. But you’ll search Make It Big in vain for complacement, capital-lettered crows of “We’re in the money”; two of its songs, indeed, explicitly make the case against money being the beginning and end of everything.

That does not mean that the songs are in the above order for no reason, since it’s only by listening to the record, sequentially, that you slowly realise that it is a concept album, a series of eight thematically linked songs, or mini-dramas. Why Make It Big, then? Perhaps it’s a prĂ©cis of a longer philosophy, such as: If You’re Going To Fuck Up, Make It A Big Fuck-Up.

When “Wake Me Up” appeared as a single in the spring of 1984, Wham! fresh out of a lengthy legal battle with their former record company and seemingly refreshed, it baffled considerably fewer people than it charmed. In the context of this tale, it represents a splash of cold, sunny water to bring listeners battered by the Pleasuredome deluge back to their senses, back to life. Some viewed the record as a sellout, others as a rather too mechanically contrived “perfect pop” record (usually those whose notion of “perfect pop” was formed by the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension), all the “bang bang bang”s and “boom boom boom boom”s in their methodically right places, the endless hooks, the just-out-of-fashion references (“My beats per minute”), the carefully choreographed spontaneity of George Michael’s “Whoo!”s, the dextrous retooling from what was essentially a “Heatwave” template; Deon Estes’ alternately subtle and jubilant bass playing cannot be overlooked either.

But weren’t Doris Day and the jitterbug rather unorthodox reference points for 1984? And, if you listen more closely, things are very far from celebratory; the singer’s lover has left him sleeping in bed to go off dancing, and he is asking her in a vaguely pleading fashion to take him with her next time, or, better still, stay at home, and in bed, with him. “My best friend told me what you did last night,” Michael sings in mild disbelief – like “Careless Whisper,” the song turns upon what a “friend” tells somebody and how this information relates to the act, physical or metaphorical, of dancing. “Take me dancing!” cries Michael; at the end of the record, he will be crying “Please dance!” in a different way.

Things, to put it mildly, are not in order, and if Make It Big sounds out of character compared with Fantastic, then remember how the latter ended with “Young Guns (Go For It),” its last words being “Death by matrimony!” Despite the song’s warnings, and the doubts expressed by Michael’s protagonist himself within it, he appears to have gone ahead and married – almost certainly too young – and Make It Big outlines the consequences, and the descent. The speed of “Everything She Wants” has decreased from the brassy exuberance of “Young Guns” to mid-tempo Kashif/Shalamar cogitation, but the singer’s push-and-pull doubts are emphasised by the refrain – there is no chorus, as such – which shifts in restless, sustained, overshot semitones between C sharp major seventh and F sharp major (“Somebody TELL me!”).

Again, there is the advice of an invisible friend (“Somebody told me, ‘Boy, everything she wants is everything she sees...’”) to ignite the singer’s smouldering doubt. Actually it’s more than doubt; he knows, or perceives, that she’s only in it for his money, and at a couple of points he explodes – “I don’t know what the hell you want from me” and, later, “My GOD! I don’t even think – that I LOVE YOU!” Even the news that she is pregnant with his child – does that imply that her being only in it for his money is a concept that exists only in his mind? – inspires further rage and fear; Michael fuses Bardo and Fiddler On The Roof (“One step further and my back will break!”) and, far from being overjoyed at the news, he sinks into even deeper wells of fear and resentment: “If my best isn’t good enough,” he demands, “then how can it be good enough for two?” The extra bridge which was subsequently added to the song – it is not present on the original album - clarifies the parallels with the scenario of “Young Guns”; “All the things we sign/And the things we buy/Ain’t gonna keep us together.”

And so to “Heartbeat,” one of the four songs on the record which weren’t released as a single, and as a consequence don’t get played endlessly on oldies radio – and these songs all darken the story. Even though, sonically, “Heartbeat” is the brightest-sounding song on the record, with its very pronounced nods towards the Ronettes and Bruce Springsteen, and its more subtle nods towards Abba (the chorus), it is really the record’s darkest and key song; it is the end of summer, and Michael has been having fun all summer long, or so he hopes; he has been abroad on holiday. What he and we do know is that it is now September, and autumn is creeping in with the “smell of clover” (a hidden reference to the Devil?), with mythological references more fitting in the context of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs than the Brill Building: “Down by the gate, we sit and watch all our friends go by/And pretend we don’t hear the bell that rings through the summer sky.” Nothing looks the same in the light, indeed.

For he has met somebody else while on holiday, and fallen for them, and it is probable that they have had a one-night stand and that he has misinterpreted this as being something else. Hence he doesn’t hear from her and is left, emotionally paralysed, “standing on the line between desire and duty.” He spells out his real desires: “I need a lover where love is such a dangerous place to be,” he sings, but not in the sense of danger that means his having to find or earn more money to support a family; does he sing “I was happy with the kisses she gave me” or “I was happy with the kids she gave me”? The song ends with his world crashing down anew: “But now there’s nothing on Earth can save me,” Michael cries, “Why should I care? I can’t have you!” Beneath it all he is still twenty-one years old, and still wanting to run around, wherever he lays his hat, and so forth.

Side one ends with the forlorn and near non-existent “Like A Baby,” a sort of hushed prelude to “Careless Whisper”; we sit through one hundred and one seconds of pleasing and slightly disturbing ambient music before Michael’s voice is heard, contemplating, shivering: “You sang me a simple tune,” he mourns, “I took it for a song.” He relives the encounter over and over in his mind, thinking, trying to make the imagined real. “Because today/I could have sworn I heard you say/’I love you’…/I saw something in your face,” and Michael hangs on that “something,” shakes and caresses it as though he will drown without it. Later he confesses: “I need your love to hide me,” but it’s no good; she goes and leaves him “crying…like a baby.” The voice absents itself – it has barely been singing for a minute – and the ambient music drifts on, and on, into unspoken spaces. And yet, as with so many “unconventional” album tracks, this is the one which pinpoints the direction in which the singer will ultimately be travelling, just as “Light” did on this record’s predecessor.

Side two starts with more deceptive, flooding brightness. As Motown homages go, “Freedom” is more in the line of “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” than “Heatwave” – again, the “Penny Lane” trumpet coda is absent here and wasn’t added until later – but Michael’s pleading is of a different and more explicit stripe than that of “Go-Go.” He discovers that she too is two-timing, and (as in “Everything She Wants”) is mindful of “people” (is this the mysterious “friend” again?) saying things about her. But he loves her too much to lose her, or says he does, anyway; “I don’t want to play around,” he sings, and sounds as though he means it (even though we already know that he plays around). He’ll forgive her “just this once, twice, forever” because he knows to do otherwise would be hypocritical. Subsequent to his endless pleas for her to “tell me” in “Everything She Wants,” here she confesses that she thinks he’s “a fool to give you all that I do.” “I bet you someday, baby,” retorts a momentarily cynical Michael, sounding remarkably like Alison Moyet, “someone says the same to you.” The song is jubilant, ecstatic in its seemingly celebratory nature…but it goes on just that little too long for comfort, enough to sow the seeds of deceit and doubt (to counter “desire and duty”).

When the singer runs out of words – as he sings, “there are times with my friends when I don’t have much to say” – he turns again to the songs of his soulboy youth, and specifically to the Isley Brothers’ 3 + 3, from which “If You Were There” is taken; to counter his lover’s “other boys,” he admits to “the other girls” but wants to make it clear to his lover that this is not the same; if she could only see how he is without her, even when he’s doing all these other things, she’d know that he’d love her. It’s an unconvincing argument in any setting, and here Michael sounds like he is struggling to escape from the corner into which he has painted himself.

“And when justice is gone…there’s always force.”

“Credit Card Baby,” which lumbers along where “Freedom” bounced, probably deliberately, is one of the bleakest and nastiest songs to be heard on any eighties number one album. Having pleaded and made excuses until he is blue in everybody’s face, the cornered protagonist now has no choice but to become angry and accusatory. “You can have my credit card, baby,” he snarls, “but keep your red hot fingers off my heart.” You want money, he argues, then have it, but you’re getting nothing else, no matter how much you cry. Remember, this is only from the protagonist’s perspective. “Between the ocean and the sky,” he pronounces, “There are things you just can’t buy.” To balance out the pretending in “Heartbeat,” he says that she has only ever pretended to be in love with him. “You want to stay around me?/Well, that’s OK…it’s just a game that we play.”

“All I know is what I see.”

Is Make It Big fooling its listeners into thinking that they have purchased a smart, upbeat pop record, or asking its listeners to find sympathy towards somebody who is fundamentally a no-good cheating bastard?

“I should have known better with a girl like you…”

The music fades in, imperious yet defeated, a deserted cocktail bar, an empty seashore, the ghosts of your life you can never forget

…And then the decisive drum introduction, the saxophone in centre stage, getting its opening night (the best such song since “Baker Street,” some said; I’m not entirely sure about that, although I note that Hugh Burns plays guitar on both), opening up a song written by the two of them in 1981.

Before anybody knew who they were. When they were probably still signing on. In other words, this had been going on all the time.

And he, the cheating, lying, hateful bastard – I should make it clear that I am referring to the character George Michael is playing on this record, rather than that of Mr Michael himself – has lost everything, standing at the check-in desk in the lobby of the international airport to nowhere. We know this scenario from before; he leads her onto the dancefloor, they, or at least he, will never dance again – not like this, anyway – but there are two important differences from the picture painted in “The Last Waltz” and “Dance While The Music Still Goes On”:

  1. This is no regretful couple swishing and saying over a deserted dancefloor, alone in the world except for themselves. The song spells it out in its most animated segment: “Tonight the music seems so loud/I wish that we could lose this crowd.” They are in a packed, boozy nightclub, probably Bushey or Watford on a Friday night, and the beat of…”Whatever I Do, Wherever I Go” by Hazell Dean?...is throbbing so loudly they can scarcely hear themselves talk. The quietude and “miserable politesse” are in the singer’s mind only…and politesse has rarely been laden with more self-inflicted misery.
  2. They don’t know that this is their last dance; at some point in the night a “good friend” whispers something to her – she blows up, and he knows that he’s been found out and this is the end. He may well end up, by song’s end, face down on the floor of the club, pissed and defeated. It is the picture of aspirational opulence that he is visualising and not the reality.
Throughout the song he appears at pain to refute everything he has said in the previous songs; for instance, “Though it’s easy to pretend/I know you’re not a fool.” But he still has learned nothing. “To the heart and mind,” he muses, “Ignorance is kind/There’s no comfort in the truth/Pain is all you’ll find.” This might be sufficient self-awareness – Michael may never have composed a more searching line than “Guilty feet have got no rhythm” – but by song’s end he is crying, whining, into his cheap white wine: “What I did - was it so wrong/That you had to leave me alone?” Fairlight flamingos fly. Expensive synthesised voices recall moments in love – not so farfetched a notion, as both Andy Richards and an uncredited Anne Dudley play keyboards on the song. He’s inside; now his heart stops forever. But it is all signifier and no signified; provincial, tatty, mundane and world-ending.
 
And who exactly is this “friend” who turns up like a ghost throughout the record when called or uncalled for? It could only be Andrew Ridgeley; although he does play guitar(s) on the album, so does Hugh Burns – George did all the backing vocals. But never forget that this record was made by a duo; you hear one and never the other, but they need each other – as their former manager Simon Napier-Bell intimated, it’s a Butch Cassidy rather than a Brokeback Mountain thing, but there’s no doubt that the two, at this stage, remained interdependent, Ridgeley being the “wife” figure who comes up with the title for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” who cajoled George into performing in the first place, who is still there to advise George and tell him where he’s going wrong, what he’s doing right and how he could do it even better. You want tragedy? Make It A Big One.

And it’s only on even closer inspection that you realise that with the other lover, there is only one reluctant reference, in “Heartbeat,” to the other lover’s gender. Like everything had happened.

3 comments:

Mark G said...

It's funny how people took as ipso-facto that the writing credit for "Careless Whisper" was "George Michael/Andrew Ridgeley" was to make up for this being a solo single. I don't think it was ever stated as fact, either way, but why could it not be as much ARidgeley's work as George's?

Also, there was a first attempt at "Careless Whisper" recorded at Willie Mitchell's studio but the demo version won out. There was a very limited 12" issue of the 'alternate' version and I almost bought it to see how Al Green it was, but even now I've never heard it.

Tom May said...

Curiously, the "If..." and "O Lucky Man!" director Lindsay Anderson was employed the following year to direct a film about Wham!'s tour of China in April 1985. Not an entirely happy creative experience, as the detailed accounts in Anderson's diaries attest. Michael didn't reply to three letters from LA, encouraging to contribute to the project artistically in the editing stages.

In an October screening, most were pleased with it but Michael thought the material insufficiently 'modern' and pop promo like. Anderson approached the project as documentary - 'The idea of us representing the West [...] Slightly corrupt... only slightly - slightly ambiguous, I don't know - also a few scenes slightly surrealistic not involving them - taking things involved in the tour and putting them slightly out of context.' (LA, The Diaries, 2004, p.430) According to Anderson, "Wham! In China" was re-edited and refashioned by Jazz Summers as 'an acceptable piece of pop promotion', at the cost of another million dollars or so.

Anderson finishes his reflections on this episode by emphasizing the homogenizing process: 'I am not going to claim that the loss of "WHAM! in China!" is a creative catastrophe on the scale of Von Stroheim's "Greed": but I do think that between them the Whammies have destroyed, or suppressed, an enjoyable, informative, entertaining and even at times beautiful film.' (p.442)

Clabbe said...

Mark G > You're incorrect about the early version of Careless Whisper. It was recorded with Jerry Wexler at Rick Hall's FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Willie Mitchell's studio is called Royal and is located in Memphis, Tennessee.