In this week’s edition of The Big Issue, we look back on George Michael’s life and legacy. He was a long-time supporter of The Big Issue, backing our mission to give a hand up to some of the most vulnerable people in society who earn a living by selling a magazine.
By giving exclusive interviews to the magazine, George Michael helped our vendors, who make a living on the streets, sell more copies. This week’s magazine contains rarely seen images of the music legend as well as a look at the releases of Older and new film Freedom Uncut.
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The year 1996 was a special one for George Michael. He released Older, the LP he always considered his finest work. And he also broke his silence, talking to the press for the first time in six years, by doing an exclusive interview with The Big Issue.
This was a period of great change for the singer. He had experienced such life-changing love and such acute loss before writing Older that he was a new man, a different artist.
That he channelled his feelings into one of the great pop albums of the 1990s, before choosing to speak to a magazine he knew was helping people through their own difficulties, is a measure of the man.
Only after his death aged just 53, five years ago last Christmas, did the full extent of his volunteering, his charitable giving and the help he offered people in need become apparent. But at The Big Issue, we knew. He showed us that kindness, that generosity – with his time and with his words – repeatedly over the years.
As Older is re-released in extraordinary spatial audio surround-sound (more on that later) 25 years – plus one for the inevitable Covid delay – after it originally came out, it feels like the right time to think about George Michael. The incredible music, the selflessness, the rich legacy.
Older is an album about loss, grief, recovery and hope. To understand the music on the LP, it is important to first understand what Michael had been through in the early 1990s. While singing Careless Whisper at Rock in Rio in January 1991, he had locked eyes with a man in the crowd. And something magic happened. Incredibly, they would find each other and fall in love. At 27, Michael had found real love for the first time, with Anselmo Feleppa – a shy, handsome Brazilian fashion designer.
They moved in together almost immediately in Beverly Hills. But by spring, Feleppa was feeling ill and that winter he travelled back to Brazil for an HIV test as his lover anxiously awaited news back home. Their worst fears were confirmed.
Despite his private heartbreak, the singer gave one of the performances of his life at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in April 1992 as Feleppa watched on, again, from the crowd. A year later Feleppa died during a blood transfusion aged just 36.
Michael was heartbroken. This prolific songwriter could not produce a note of music for two years. And adding to his distress was a long, drawn-out court case with Sony over artistic freedom, which he eventually lost in the High Court in 1994.
“They basically shat on me,” he told The Big Issue in that 1996 interview. “I was honest with them and said, ‘I’m 24 and I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that right now if I don’t do something quick then no one’s going to have anything to sell’.
“Now if a 24-year-old who’d just sold 15 million albums came to me and said that, I’d humour him. But it was like, ‘You don’t feel good? Well, piss off, we’ve got lots of other people to work with.’ It was incredibly disrespectful.”
Michael flew to New York, negotiated the buyout of the remainder of his Sony contract, and booked studio time. He was ready to return. Older and wiser.
Before long, he had begun writing Jesus to a Child, capturing his complex feelings about his love for and loss of Feleppa in a single song. Listening all these years later, after Michael’s long-time songwriting partner, collaborator and producer David Austin tells the story behind the song, is an emotional experience.
We are in Air Studios in North London, sitting at the mixing desk in the exact spot where Michael would have sat finalising the sound of the LP. And the original mixes have been recreated exactly as he intended, but for 12 speakers in spatial audio.
We are sitting inside the music. “If this was available when George was here, he would be mixing like this in this room,” says Austin.
A piercing drum comes from over my right shoulder, the Latin guitar swoops in from the left, the orchestra and strings are out in front. But it is the pristine, heartfelt, heartbroken vocals coming down from above that are so startling and so revelatory. Expensive studio speakers can show up any imperfections in a singer’s voice. They can also show up the perfections. And George Michael’s flawless voice is one of the greats. “Heaven sent and heaven stole you…” The words still send a chill down the spine.
As Michael told us in 1996, “The minute someone you really love is irretrievably lost you understand life in a different way. Your perspective changes. You understand how short life is, how incredibly painful it can be. But once you’ve seen the worst of things you can then see the best of things, so that experience was very painful at the time but very positive in its outcome.”
Listening back to more of the album, it is hard to believe that it would still be two years before George Michael officially, unambiguously came out. Anyone listening to the LP – and its second single Fastlove in particular – could be in little doubt.
“For anyone who had a clue about any kind of symbolism, I was coming out,” Michael said later. Even so, he was still reticent in our exclusive 1996 interview. “All the biggest pop stars have unanswered questions about their sexuality. It’s what draws people to them.”
After some further delving into his sexuality, he teased: “Anyway, who really cares whether I’m gay or straight? Do they think they’ve got a serious chance of shagging me or something?”
He also talked about his attitude towards anonymously giving his fortune to charity, helping those facing hardship. “I can give away large amounts of money without it having any effect on my life. So you can do a lot of good at arm’s length, which I’m sure people will criticise me for,” he said.
There was a lot of hardship around. This was, after all, the tail end of 18 years of Conservative rule, and George was no fan – despite earlier accusations of Wham!’s carefree pop somehow being symbolic of Thatcherism.
“That’s bollocks, isn’t it?” he told journalist Adrian Deevoy. “That was always a stupid, superficial view to take of me. I never had a Thatcherite attitude. I never believed for a moment that things were good.
“Thatcherism was based on that ‘trickle down’ idea – that everyone would eventually get some. And I always knew that was bullshit. I was incredibly ambitious, but for myself, not for money. And I was never, never a fucking Thatcherite.”
Back at Air Studios, we listen to Spinning the Wheel – a safe sex anthem, according to its creator. It’s beautifully produced, sounding bigger than ever with the new technology. Then it’s the incredibly moving, powerful single You Have Been Loved – the first track Michael started to record for Older and the last one he finished.
“When George started to record this track, he knew what he wanted to write, but the subject matter was so difficult,” Austin explains.
“But through this process of grief and making the album, he arrived at a place where he could finish something so difficult to write. This album was a huge healing process for him.”
All these years later, the LP retains its power. It is released in the wake of a new, extended version of Freedom Uncut – the documentary Michael was in the final stages of working on when he died, a shorter version of which was aired in 2017.
Listening to the music, watching the film, the tragedy of Michael’s early death returns. Throughout his career he’d taken a step back from the limelight when he needed to for his mental health or to focus on his domestic life. As the court case with Sony proved, and his decision to talk to The Big Issue when every news organisation in the world was clamouring for an interview showed, he had a singular vision for how his career should go.
He would be older still now. He was entering another productive phase before his death. The loss of the music never finished – Michael was such a perfectionist the idea of releasing incomplete demos and half-formed ideas feels wrong – is huge. But, as he says in the film, “I believe I can leave songs that will mean something to other generations.” And none more meaningful than those on Older.
Freedom Uncut is in cinemas worldwide on Wednesday June 22. Tickets are available online.
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