17
Aug 09

GEORGE MICHAEL – “Careless Whisper”

FT + Popular70 comments • 8,050 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. 1
    Izzy on 17 Aug 2009 #

    7 seems awfully harsh from here – there really aren’t very many standards around, and coming up with one feels like it deserves extra credit in itself. Especially when it’s as good as this.

  2. 2
    wichita lineman on 17 Aug 2009 #

    Rather than ‘Marvin’ or even “Lionel’, I always imagine this being sung by Kristen Scott Thomas’s slimy Latin lover in Bitter Moon, all because of that ghastly sax line. It’s just as Bushey as the soul boy/dole boy banter on the first 3 Wham! singles. I was working in Our Price, Epsom, when this came out and it really struck a chord with the Surrey wine bar crowd. It’s intensely Home Counties

    The vagueness of the lyric I find quite appealing, the “wasted chance”, the “guilty feet”. I think the in-yer-face suntanned grins are what made me flinch at the sight and sound of Wham! Still think his best is yet to come, but at least this sign-posted a little depth, and that GM wasn’t only about Blue Stratos and blonde highlights.

    Simply Red’s song being Holding Back The Years? This was, at least, released pre-cocktail bar hit version – the Frantic Elevators’ 1982 single sounds more like a La’s demo and is (along with their preceding Searching For The Only One) at least as good as anything Lee Mavers has written.

  3. 3
    MikeMCSG on 17 Aug 2009 #

    Strange that on most Wham songs Mr Ridgeley’s input was deemed insufficient to merit a songwriter’s credit yet he is credited on this one (and has probably lived on it ever since) which then goes out as a George Michael solo effort. To compound the confusion it then appears on the next Wham LP. Go figure!

    Probably the first major hit about regretting adultery since “24 Hours From Tulsa” this is a very smart record which appropriates that Sade congas and sax supper club sound and establishes Michael as a major artist. It’s hard to be enthusistic about much of his subsequent output but this is an undisputed classic.

  4. 4
    will on 17 Aug 2009 #

    According to Simon Napier-Bell’s memoir of the Wham! years, GM had been badgering his manager to get his solo career up and running ever since the release of the Fantastic album. Careless Whisper was a dipped solo toe, the excuse being that it was “a George Michael-sounding record, rather than a Wham record” (or words to that effect).

  5. 5
    Tom on 17 Aug 2009 #

    #1 – in my head it was a 9, then the sax and somewhat oily production dropped it a couple.

    #2 – I was shopping in the Our Price Epsom at this point :) Well, when I got birthday or xmas money.

  6. 6
    Steve Mannion on 17 Aug 2009 #

    sax.gif

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 17 Aug 2009 #

    the rawness and confusion, as noted, are what saves it from being overly slick and controlled – something that has become a hallmark of George Michael’s later solo work.

    Maybe he should cover ‘Always crashing in the same car’

  8. 8
    LondonLee on 17 Aug 2009 #

    Well it’s a much better record than ‘True’ with which it shares space as the quintessential Disco-Pub slowie. 7 seems a bit low to me, as Tom said it’s an obvious stab at being “adult” but the fact that he’d written it long before makes me give George a pass on the careerist cynicism I felt about “Wake Me Up Before etc.” I think I’d go up to 9, despite the Essex boyracer smell that hangs over it it’s a very classy, seductive record.

    His later output does seem far too controlled and worked over in comparison, either he’s too careful or he’s not that prolific a songwriter. The latter I think, considering how long he’s been around his catalogue is very slim.

  9. 9
    Caledonianne on 17 Aug 2009 #

    When I said “next” re Two Tribes, I had no idea we were in for such a treat. Couldn’t stand the party-boy Wham! image, but kudos to the guy for a great song. I’m with the othes (for once!), 7 is too low. I think the song is a 10, the record (because of its 80s invisble braces-ness) a 9.

    The “guilty feet” line is a s close as GM will ever come to a Johnny Mercer-like “Huckleberry friend” tingler and be anthologised for decades. His stab at immortality.

  10. 10
    wichita lineman on 17 Aug 2009 #

    Re 3: Is 24 Hrs From Tulsa regretful or just shamefaced? “Told her I’d die before I would let her out of my arms” sounds more like a Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward situation – meeting the exact right person slightly too late (see also Elvis Presley/Ann Margret, though that ended in silent, Col Parker-inflicted tears). Either way, Careless Whisper sounds like fucking around and fucking up, but I like the way it’s left to the imagination (especially on the falsetto anguished parts).

    My workmate Simon at Our Price, Epsom, was Leatherhead born + bred and got me into Elvis (in depth) while at the same time being George Michael’s number one cheerleader (couldn’t convince me) – he saw him as an exact Home Counties, middle class contemporary. I related more to Philip Adrian Wright, a Captain Scarlet/pint of mild advocate, while George was, in my mind, a Blind Date/white wine spritzer enthusiast. Just shows the gulf that can develop in four pop years.

  11. 11
    anto on 17 Aug 2009 #

    Totally agree about the sax solo and plinky gutiar. Always puts me in mind of a coffee advert.
    I respect the manner in which George Michael seized his moment. Consider how every single he released between summer 84 and 1987 went to either number one or two. With no little dexterity did he switch from a seemingly clueless wannabe to a contender.
    Just out of interest how did Wham fans react to GM releasing a solo song so early on? Did Careless Whisper prematurely stoke rumours they would split or was it just accepted as a paralell manouver from George (who surely was already known as “the talented one” by this stage)?

  12. 12
    Tom on 17 Aug 2009 #

    Regretful adultery records – Everyhit has just confirmed the (astonishing IMO) fact that “Dark End Of The Street” has never been a hit in the UK, by anyone.

  13. 13
    Mark G on 17 Aug 2009 #

    Oh..

    There was another ‘version’ that George recorded with Jerry Wexler, that got issued as a limited edition 12″ single, but nowhere else, I believe. This was going to be the official version, but they preferred the demo…

    (wonder if it’s online somwhere?)

  14. 14
    Ben on 17 Aug 2009 #

    I remember this purely as the song that always used to finish top of Capital FM’s poll of the greatest songs of all time. Year after year after year, Capital listeners (back in the day when Radio 1 was your pop station and Capital was your slushy pop station and Heart didn’t exist) voted this to the top.

  15. 15
    Kat but logged out innit on 17 Aug 2009 #

    #14: Absolutely. Until Oasis turned up this always topped the annual Capital FM polls done over the Xmas hols, above Imagine and Bohemian Rhapsody. For ages I assumed anyone with a Capital FM bumper sticker liked this song, until I discovered that George owned a significant stake in said radio station in the mid 90s.

  16. 16
    Tom Lawrence on 17 Aug 2009 #

    First time I’ve really /strongly/ felt that you’ve under-marked a record, Tom – this is at least an 8.

    I know what you mean about the sax, yes, but… I don’t know. The “guilty feet” line alone ranks as one of the most poetic lines in pop.

    Is that a bit of the same synth choir fog that made 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” so memorable sneaking in at the end there?

  17. 17
    Rory on 18 Aug 2009 #

    My brother helped send this to number one for four weeks in Australia; as a lapsed Wham! fan, I probably thought it was another sign of George Michael selling out, although I suspect my main objection would have been the production rather than the tune or lyrics. At this remove, my respect for the latter quashes any lingering problems I might have with the former; I’ve heard enough melodies and lyrics by now to know a killer combination when I hear one. The production may be a “True” re-hash, but George’s vocals hold more appeal for me than Tony Hadley’s, and there are none of those overt soul-singer references in the lyrics – just that unforgettable line.

    Once again I’m caught by the Marks Out of Ten guidelines: going on ownership this would get no higher than 7, and on my desire for repeat listens it might be a 6 or even a 5. But that’s because the song has been so ubiquitous that I’ve never felt the need to own a copy and can bring it to mind whenever I want. Replaying it in memory strips away half the ’80s production and makes it even better, and the recording itself deserves marks for that, because so few recordings achieve that so effectively. (I have no desire, by comparison, to replay in my head the same tune and lyrics recorded in sub-Nickelback style.) This has to be an 8, and I could even be nudged to a 9.

  18. 18
    TomLane on 18 Aug 2009 #

    Oh hell, it’s a 10. And I love the sax solo. Like Tom said this is a defining ballad for George Michael. “Father Figure” as good as it is doesn’t have the universal appeal of this. In the U.S. this not only went to #1, but it got to #8 on the R&B chart. So, even though it hasn’t been covered by many Soul artists it’s more than likely to get played on Old School oriented radio stations.

  19. 19
    wichita lineman on 18 Aug 2009 #

    Re 11: It felt like a clear career move at the time and not a bid for freedom from Andrew Ridgley. No one thought Wham were about to split.

    RE 12: DEOTS again more guilt, not much regret. Can’t think of any other guilty adultery 45s off top of my head, apart from one coming up that’s Bunny-embargoed. The title – in the marble garbled vowels of the singer – sounds rather like a French cheese.

  20. 20
    johnny on 18 Aug 2009 #

    i have to agree with some of the others, this is a 10. in a year of nonsense gimmick-pop (i’m looking at you, lebon), finally a true standard which the author was smart enough to leave relatively sparse and open. what always strikes me when i hear “careless whisper” is there are no denials or excuses being made about the adultery. he is honest and accepting of the consequences. those lonely “da da da”s at the end always get me. a perfect contrast to the cold, clattering “two tribes”.

  21. 21
    Michael Daddino on 18 Aug 2009 #

    I hate this song primarily because of its three revolting instrumental hooks: the guitar solo, the synthy bit at the end (a phlegmier version of what you hear in “Moments in Love”), and the sax line. The last one–I realize for the first time–has always triggered unconscious associations with horn-based musical evocations of sexual sordidness like David Rose’s “The Stripper,” Charles Mingus’ Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and probably a dozen other things I have in mind but can’t exactly place. It’s kind of an overwrought–and yet still terribly bland–thing to have on a record like this.

    I hate this song’s video because it rests on such an obnoxious madonna/whore dichotomy: Girlfriend #1 is “sweet” and “nice” but Girlfriend #2 is obviously a HARLOT because she actually stoops to HAVE SEX with George Michael and gives Girlfriend #1 a smug little look about it, too.

  22. 22
    swanstep on 18 Aug 2009 #

    I always thought of the ‘guilty feet’ line as a howler, so it’s interesting to read that others love(d) it.

    Anyhow, beautifully arranged song that surprized at the time (in something like the way Time (Clock of the heart) had done earlier for Boy George): nobody quite suspected that something *this* polished was in the cards for Michael. And coming so quickly after the unstoppable ‘Wake me Up…”, it really did settle that Michael was a mega-star to be reckoned with. Best/peak moment? The beginning of the second verse that sets up the title: ‘Time can never mend’ as the bass tickles down some quicker notes. Bee-yootiful.

    No complaints from anyone about the vid.? (No complaints from me about, ahem, that swimsuit.) Not quite my sort of thing overall, but an admirable:
    9

  23. 23
    montgomery on 18 Aug 2009 #

    Regretful adultery… Billy Paul got to #1 in the US and #12 in the UK with Me and Mrs Jones.

    As for the song at hand, love the song but can’t go higher than an 8. The sax bit is a double-edged sword, it works as a great hook but, as others have noted, ultimately it’s an annoying one as well. There are much better sax hooks in the cannon (eg, Baker Street, Your Love Is King, most Coasters tunes).

  24. 24
    Pete on 18 Aug 2009 #

    As a big defender of overblown horn solo’s, I think Careless Whisper underblows a bit and thus underwhelms. The syrupy production cannot hide what is a terrific song, but if you ever do it at karaoke its stentorian pace and instrumental breaks give it an oddly deathly rattle. I own my sisters copy, and I think it may be the first single I can remember having that had an instrumental version on the B-Side. Which makes crystal clear that the fault in the song is in the production. Always felt more calculating than heartfelt to me, I will go with Tom’s seven here.

  25. 25
    Erithian on 18 Aug 2009 #

    I’ve not been joining in the game of allocating marks to Popular entries, but I should think this would be in the very upper ranges. It’s funny how people who dislike this sort of thing tend to ascribe descriptions such as cocktail-bar soul, Essex boy racer, which might have been familiar in their world and indeed that of the performer, but will be alien to a lot of people who nevertheless love the record. I was a world away from it in Manchester (heck, this was the summer I went to the Hacienda for the one and only time – to see Jonathan Richman!) but there was no escaping this and no mistaking its sheer quality.

    I’m not sure what time of year this was written, but it’s a perfect summer hit – the sultry saxophone, the languid pace, the overall tone redolent of the heat of a sticky summer night. The lyric flows beautifully, effortlessly, the vocal utterly convincing.

    Number 2 Watch – a grateful nation salutes George for holding off Black Lace’s “Agadoo” for two weeks.

    Channel 4 Top 100 Watch – this is the 34th best-selling single of all time in the UK.

  26. 26
    enitharmon on 18 Aug 2009 #

    Erm – was this George Michael? Well, blow me down! I saw this coming up and I thought “what? never heard of it”. And then when I heard it I just knew it, one of those songs that’s just part of the furniture, in a very agreeable way of course. It’s kinda not how I always imagined George Michael but then I’m now learning that most George Michael is not how I imagined George Michael. Perhaps I just thing in terms of early Wham! with a touch of disdain.

    But anyhow, this is something I am unwittingly very familiar with and one I have always liked a lot – but then I’m a sucker for a sax break. A very nice ditty, one that rises above the run-of-the-mill and packs a lot of spine-shivering power.

    You can see, can’t you, how by the second half of 1984 my relationship with the pop charts is finally disintegrating!

  27. 27
    mike on 18 Aug 2009 #

    Blimey, so much love for this? I’m considerably less fond. The verses drag tunelessly, the sax break grates, and the preening faux-sincerity fails to convince. So, yup, I was another disillusioned former Wham fan who thought they’d lost the plot in the quest to Make It Big. (And this isn’t a patch on “Nothing Looks The Same In The Light”, the sole ballad on the debut album Fantastic and a spot-on depiction of the aftermath of an ill-advised one-night stand, which I also took as an instant signifier of George Michael’s sexuality.) A grudging five from me.

  28. 28
    Tracer Hand on 18 Aug 2009 #

    There’s about 5000 reggae versions of this song, all of which are terrific. Which must count for something.

  29. 29
    Glue Factory on 18 Aug 2009 #

    For me, this is all about the fantastic middle-8 where George wants to “leave this crowd”, his control finally breaks and the melody spirals away from what had gone before. Listening again, I can hear that it’s a trick George returns to (at least once) on a future, bunny-embargoed record where he describes what he’d like to do in his BMW (not drive-into-the-back-of-a-lorry, unfortunately :-))

  30. 30
    Conrad on 18 Aug 2009 #

    I didn’t care much for this at the time, but by mid-1984 I was dividing my music listening between the Top 40 and, er, Bob Dylan, who I had discovered through hearing “Union Sundown” which I absolutely loved.

    In terms of the pop charts, I was more into Aztec Camera and the Smiths. Still, this was omnipresent throughout the summer of 84, as omnipresent as an England batting collapse in fact.

    I come to this objectively therefore – I’m listening without prejudice George – and while I don’t quite get the love-in, I do think it’s a beautiful song, recorded a touch too slowly. And I like the sax break -its memorable, it’s teetering on tongue-in-cheek, but clearly isn’t, and it helps give the recording a powerful earnestness.

    And it is a terrific vocal.

    7’s about right. On a good day an 8.

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