17
Aug 09

GEORGE MICHAEL – “Careless Whisper”

FT + Popular68 comments • 1 views

#537, 18th August 1984, video

Every songwriter seems to have one: the perfect tune they wrote at the very pre-dawn of their career, before fame came knocking. Does it bother Mick Hucknall, I wonder, that he’s never written a better song than one he wrote when he was 17? There are plenty who’d say the same about this, and for certain George Michael never again wrote a lyric as immediate as the “guilty feet” line.

If “Careless Whisper” hadn’t come upon the teenage George in a flash, you might be tempted to view it as a somewhat self-conscious attempt to progress his career by writing a ‘standard’. But only the credit was cynical: Michael dropping the Wham to make an early and crude stab at separating the goo from the go-go. It’s the same impulse that would lead him to the disaster of calling an album Listen Without Prejudice – and “Careless Whisper” issued that directive much more effectively.

You can hear it’s a young man’s song, though – it’s the record’s saving grace. “Careless Whisper” is a knot of confusion – it’s over, no, I want you back; I did a terrible thing – but wait, was it so wrong? Who’s betrayed who with who? Why does the music die when they hit the floor? Nothing’s truly clear except Michael’s own anguish at screwing up so badly, expressed most perfectly in the song’s killer moment: “Tonight the music seems so loud! I wish that we could lose this crowd -” It’s a blurting rejection of the song’s steadiness, and some of the energy carries into George’s falsetto coda.

Certainly it’s a higher peak than the iconic horn riff, which – like the sad Spanish guitar flummery – doesn’t do much more than set a scene and telegraph its writer’s desire to make a cocktail soul classic. It’s worth noting, looking at the list of covers on Wikipedia, that despite “Careless Whisper”‘s undoubtedly massive success, few of the people who’ve taken it on are soul singers: there’s a feckless, appealing rawness to it which Michael’s overly smooth production can’t wholly conceal.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    Tom on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Haha I hadn’t read this thread for a while – dead-on from Steve! (a surname identifier might be nice, I assume you aren’t a Steve I already know…?)

    Always happy to have my unconscious and conscious biases exposed! Popular is a wholly subjective exercise and I’m the product of my time, place, gender, race, background etc.

    (The embargo on discussing future #1s is partly to stop said discussion triggering my contrarian buttons)

  2. 52
    Tom on 21 Aug 2009 #

    If anyone wants to start a guess-Tom’s-marks betting shop backchannel though, I’d be all for it.

  3. 53
    Tim on 21 Aug 2009 #

    I was going to say: first Peter Saville sleeve on Popular? But then I looked it up, and it seems he did “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” too. I was surprised.

    So: first really obviously Peter Saville sleeve on Popular?

  4. 54
    Tom on 21 Aug 2009 #

    WMUBYGG’s sleeve is so much better than this, which looks like they got the intern to “do a Peter Saville”.

  5. 55
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Aug 2009 #

    PS did the WMUBYGG sleeve posted on popular — the one with the girlie who isn’t pepsi or shirley?

    Can I just say how incredibly boring and trite P.Saville’s work looks these days — far more date-tied and trashily transient than everyone who wasn’t trying so VERY VERY HARD to zelig their way into Art History

  6. 56
    MikeMCSG on 21 Aug 2009 #

    #10 Agreed.Shamefaced is the better word.

  7. 57
    Tim on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Sukrat: yes, according to this: http://homepage2.nifty.com/truefaith/tosq/petersaville/1982-1984.html (from here: http://www.tosq.com/petersaville/ ) I tend to agree, but I think some of the stuff still looks totally luscious.

    The ! of Wham! on WMUBYGG reminds me of the colour coding on “Power Corruption and Lies”. Just saying.

  8. 58
    steve on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Sorry Tom. But having read so many of your critiques on most of the records on here, I think i have you sussed….Great minds think alike! The surname won’t help – Smith!…not kidding.

    You may be intrigued by the fact that I’m 20 years older than you, but also consider myself a bit of an authority of No. 1 hit singles. Up to 1984, that is. i found that from ’85 onwards, I rapidly aged out of the pop music world, so from hereon in I will have few opinions about the second half of your brilliant and entertaining website…..I’ll still read it though.

    P.S. I live too far from London for your upcoming Party, but if ever you’re in Manchester……

  9. 59
    Billy Smart on 23 Aug 2009 #

    Hm, interesting to hear Dale Winton playing this in its 1984 context yesterday, and it made me enjoy it rather more than I was expecting. In the context of perhaps the most bombastic sounding chart music ever (for good in the case of Frankie, Laura Branigan and Iron Maiden) this thing sounded positively sedate, and exudes exactly the right sort of moodiness. And the flamenco guitar is lovely.

    I found it really plodding and boring at the time, though.

    No-one has yet commented on the obvious but rather wonderful binary complimenting of this and Last Christmas; Summer/ I done you wrong – Winter/ You done me wrong.

  10. 60
    Billy Smart on 24 Aug 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: George Michael performed ‘Careless Whisper’ on the Top Of The Pops transmitted on the 23rd of August 1984. Also in the studio that week were; Alphaville, Break Machine, Miami Sound Machine and Spandau Ballet. Mike Read & Tommy Vance were the hosts.

  11. 61
    Matthew H on 24 Aug 2009 #

    Erm, SmashHitsWatch: George didn’t really draw the solo distinction, referring to ‘Wake Me Up…’ and this bookending ‘Two Tribes’ as “a Frankie sandwich! Or maybe a Wham!burger!”

    I’m not particularly warm to ‘Careless Whisper’. Bought it like a Pavlov dog but it became one for the mums really, didn’t it? I found that alienating.

  12. 62
    DV on 25 Aug 2009 #

    I always think of members of the Guild of British Saxophonists citing this as an example of how great things were in the 80s.

  13. 63
    Billy Smart on 31 Aug 2009 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: George isn’t on television all that often;

    ASPEL & COMPANY: with Peter Cook, George Michael, Jacqueline Bisset (1986)

    PARKINSON: Parkinson Meets George Michael (1998)

    PARKINSON: with George Michael, Alan Alda, Jamie Foxx (2006)

    PARKINSON: with Scissor Sisters, Stephen Fry, George Michael, Joan Rivers (2007)

    POP QUIZ: with Simon Kirke, Hazel O’Connor, George Michael, Jools Holland, Bill Bruford, Buster Bloodvessel (1983)

    POP QUIZ: with Jon Moss, Tracie, Steve Harley, George Michael, Curt Smith, Chris Rea (1984)

    THE SOUTH BANK SHOW: George Michael (1990)

    THE SOUTH BANK SHOW: George Michael: I’m Your Man (2006)

    STAR STORIES: George Michael: Watch Without Prejudice Vol 1 (2006)

  14. 64
    Brooksie on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Instant classic. Never really understood how something that’s forgivable for one artist is a stick to beat another. “Guilty feet” is a clunky line, but the song also features a lot of great lines and a cracking sax hook.

    “Tonight the music seems so loud / I wish that we could lose this crowd”
    “Maybe it’s better this way / We’d hurt each other with the things we want to say”

    Those lines alone are stronger than 75% of all ballad lyrics. They also have a ring of truth to anyone that’s been there. Even if it is well-executed calculation – it works.

    10 for me: George, you’re going to be a big star. Even if everyone knocks you, they’re just proving they can’t hear very well. You’re in another league. Kiss Frankie and Duran goodbye. Say hello to MJ and Madonna.

  15. 65
    flahr on 2 May 2012 #

    Coming to it a bit late, but I notice that the link at #57 reveals that the answer to the question at #53 is that the first Peter Saville sleeve on Popular is er Phil Collins’s “You Can’t Hurry Love” :/

    Tom is correct in pointing out how great the lyrics to the middle eight are; I don’t share his dislike of the sax hook, which is probably why I’d grade this one higher than him. For all it’s been overplayed it still sounds reet smooth.

  16. 66
    Erithian on 9 Jun 2012 #

    Who caught today’s Pick of the Pops rundown of the top 20 best-sellers of the 80s, during which Tony Blackburn sensationally revealed that this song was written by Andrew Ridgeley?

    He did correct himself after playing the record though, by saying that Andrew co-wrote it with George…

  17. 67
    Jimmy the Swede on 9 Jun 2012 #

    That puts me in mind of that wonderful old “Spitting Image” sketch which mocked Ridgeley mercilessly. Andrew’s puppet was asking who does this and that and that and this and a chorus popping up in reply singing: “We know it was George!” and Ridgley sheepishly admitting: “Alright, it was George!” Cruel but so true. Chocolate teapot, that bugger!

  18. 68
    punctum on 2 Jun 2014 #

    TPL on one of the most misunderstood of all number one albums.

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