What a kick just a buddy and me/
We had every big shot good time band on the run boy/
We were living in a fantasy/
We won the race/
Got out of the place.
In those lyrics from 1990, George Michael must have been looking back to his days in 80s group Wham! with friend Andrew Ridgeley. They met at school and both wanted to be in a band. In 1981 they put together some demos (recorded in Ridgeley’s parents’ living room) and tried to get a record deal. None was forthcoming until a friend of Ridgeley’s, Mark Dean, heard the tapes and saw their potential. Dean had just secured a contract with the mighty CBS records in the UK: his own independent label, Inner Vision, would be partially funded by CBS and they would handle the manufacture and distribution of Inner Vision’s records, paying Dean a royalty for those sold. An agreement seemed beneficial to both Wham! and Inner Vision. Michael and Ridgeley would get the attention and personal service associated with being on a small independent label while having a major company ensuring their product made it to the record shop racks; Inner Vision would be launched with an exciting new band. In March 1982, a contract was drawn up, but Michael received advice that it wasn’t a particularly attractive one. Royalties were small and there were all sorts of clauses that limited his and Ridgeley’s earning potential. At that time, the Wham! boys were rehearsing in inadequate facilities and Michael’s father was not sure George should be investing so much time in this pipedream of becoming a rock star, given there was a job for him in the family business. So when Dean informed Michael that CBS would not include Wham! in the summer release schedule unless Inner Vision had him under contract, Michael signed anyway despite the concerns with the terms. The alternative seemed to be another year going past before a Wham! single was issued, and even the smallest percentage of some sales was better than 100% of no sales at all.
Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do) was chosen for the first single. Was it a protest record? Was this serious political commentary? What was a white boy from Hertfordshire like Michael doing making a rap record? And what exactly was Ridgeley’s contribution? The answers to these questions weren’t terribly important: it was just a fun song with a bit of a social conscience and an early fan was Neil Tennant, who made it his Single Of The Fortnight when writing in Smash Hits on 24 June: “A hard, hot and witty rap on the subject of unemployment. Brilliant words, real excitement, hundreds of ideas, built-in participation and maximum humour. I’d be lost in admiration if I could find time to stand still.” Despite this endorsement, it wasn’t a hit. It did scrape inside the Top 100 for a few weeks in July but that was it.
Next single Young Guns (Go For It) established Michael as main composer, lead singer and producer (and sometimes instrumentalist) for Wham!. The group’s big break came in November 1982, when another act pulled out of appearing on the BBC’s early-evening ‘Top Of The Pops’ show. Although the single was only at #42 that week – ‘Top Of The Pops’ usually focused on the hits in the Top 40 – they were invited to fill the slot that had opened up. Shown on the edition of 4th November, it was a remarkably assured debut featuring a charismatic performance from Michael and Ridgeley and regular backing singers/dancers D. C. Lee and Shirlie Holliman (who would appear on the cover of Smash Hits herself a few years later as part of duo Pepsi and Shirlie). The single went up the chart 18 places the following week. It was what they had needed to get themselves noticed, and a repeat broadcast of the same performance on the show two weeks later sent the single into the Top 10.
The next move was to re-promote Wham Rap! which made the Top 10 early the following year. By now, work on the debut Wham! album, to be titled Fantastic, was nearing completion. Bad Boys was the final single to be released prior to the album and it became Wham!’s biggest hit to date when it was released on the May Day bank holiday in 1983, going all the way to #2. It also gave them their only hit from Fantastic in America, making #60 on the Hot 100. Despite this, it has apparently never been one of Michael’s favourite compositions; he once described it as an “albatross”. (The 1997 album If You Were There, from which the title of this blog is taken, was compiled by Michael himself and included all he thought worth preserving from his Wham! years. Bad Boys was notable by its absence, although it had appeared on other Wham! compilations in the past.)
Unfortunately, at this stage Michael and Ridgeley weren’t making any money, and the realisation that they weren’t likely to in the near future no matter how many records they sold had started to dawn on them. The production costs of Fantastic were covered by Inner Vision but they were recoupable from Wham!’s sales royalties. Wham! found even after three Top 10 hits that if they were making a PA in the evening, they had no money to get a cab home again afterwards. Much of this had to do with the deal that Dean had made with CBS over a year earlier. It included clauses such as this: CBS would pay no royalties to Inner Vision for 12” singles until a minimum of 30,000 copies of a title had been sold. As Inner Vision was specializing in dance music – the very genre where the 12” format was most popular – this restricted an important potential revenue stream for Dean. He had passed this problem on to Wham! with their contract with Inner Vision: Michael and Ridgeley didn’t receive royalties for 12” singles at all, no matter how many they sold. As they were a dance act, and tens of thousands of the singles sold were likely to be on 12”, not all the sales contributing to a high chart placing were earning them any money.
Michael decided his band needed a new producer and new record company. Just as Fantastic appeared in the shops in July 1983, Simon Napier Bell was hired to look after them.
NEW SINGLES on sale from May. 2
ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK Messages (Dindisc DIN15)
WHAM! Bad Boys (Inner Vision IVLA3143)