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Aug 09

GEORGE MICHAEL – “Careless Whisper”

FT + Popular70 comments • 7,526 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. 31
    Rory on 18 Aug 2009 #

    #22 – Interesting to hear the “guilty feet” line described as a howler. I can see why, but to me it perfectly evokes the shuffling gait of the hangdog. I wonder if people love it because it suggests that intriguing emotional explanations could lie behind their bad dancing. “I’m never gonna dance again… jilted feet do the disco hustle…”

  2. 32
    Steve Mannion on 18 Aug 2009 #

    Tracer’s remark about reggae cover versions has really highlighted for me the ease with which this song would fit the rhythmic parameters of that genre. And now I’m hearing a flawless segue from this into ‘Ghost Town’ :D

    I don’t rate this any more than ‘Hello’ tho. It’s some way off but GM’s next solo effort resonates far greater I feel.

  3. 33
    ace inhibitor on 18 Aug 2009 #

    the ‘guilty feet’ line was borrowed as the punchline to Big Flame’s epic ‘Why Pop Stars Can’t Dance’. which unaccountably failed to chart

  4. 34
    Pete Baran on 18 Aug 2009 #

    Other covers of note would include the excellent Gossip one from that Radio One covers pile of toss last year.

  5. 35
    swanstep on 18 Aug 2009 #

    @rory. ‘Guilty feet’ always sounded rather silly to me (‘Howler’ may have been a bit strong) in rather the same way that ‘suicide blonde’ in an inxs song years later also did. Maybe loosely personifying body parts just makes me laugh. (But I unreservedly *love* stuff like e. costello’s ‘the high heel that you used to be has been ground down’ from Man Out of Time – so it seems there’s a fine line for me between genius and risible lyrics).

    At any rate, your ‘shuffling gait of the hangdog’ is beautiful, and charity now suggests that that probably *was* essentially what Michael was getting at (which makes me thick/insentive at least in this particular). Double or nothing if you can save/explain the inxs phrase too!

  6. 36
    Rory on 18 Aug 2009 #

    It’s a DIY bottle blonde. Dyed by her own hand. A bit more groanworthy!

  7. 37
    Izzy on 18 Aug 2009 #

    That Gossip cover *is* good. I also liked the ‘Heavy Cross’ remix featured on blue lines revisited recently, so long as I ignore the awful lyrics – seems like they’re a good band so long as someone else does the heavy lifting.

    Any suggestions as to which reggae versions of ‘Careless Whisper’ I should check out?

  8. 38
    mike on 18 Aug 2009 #

    Spotify has a lovers rock version by Jerry Harris, but it’s pretty awful…

  9. 39
    Mark M on 18 Aug 2009 #

    Re 33: I was waiting to see if BIg Flame were going to get a mention…

  10. 40
    Conrad on 18 Aug 2009 #

    “Careless Whisper” reached Number 1 exactly 25 years ago today

  11. 41
    AndyPandy on 19 Aug 2009 #

    ‘Club Tropicana’ excepted I wasn’t converted to George Michael until ‘Listen Without Prejudice’ (although his next SOLO number – nb not that apalling duet -has since become one of my favourite tracks of all time) but since then he’s become one of my favourite figures in popular music.

    That being said however I’ve always found this track quite cringeworthy and in particular have always found the middle eight about ‘lose this crowd’ etc particularly annoying – to me its not a culmination of a great track but more like a cynical (and quite predictable in its structure) attempt at wringing out very fake emotion.
    The complete antithesis of the honesty of the majority of his tracks since ‘Prejudice’.

  12. 42
    Elsa on 20 Aug 2009 #

    I think it’s both a great and terrible record – great in construction and performance; terrible not due to any particular element but as Pete said, the overall “syrupy production.” Part of this effect is the Spano-kitsch sound it has in common with Madge’s “Las Isla Bonita,” though I like that song less. Heard “Whisper” on the radio recently and the impressive and appalling sides of it rang loud and clear. I’d imagine most songwriters would be pleased to dream up something of this quality however.

  13. 43
    steve on 21 Aug 2009 #

    This is my theory of Toms scoring Method:

    1) Two Tribes – a really beefy MASCULINE song if ever there was one – you can hear it literally oozing testosterone!!!
    Tom is a man, he gives it 10.

    C/F

    2) Careless Whisper – Love song – oestrogen for miles around – FEMININE song.
    Tom is a man, he gives it 7.

    For me, both songs are each a masterpiece deserving 10, and yet if I was told I can only give 10 to one of them, it would be TT.(I’m a man, by the way)

    Much as you may protest over this generalisation – I defy any of you say that no songs have a gender bias that would affect your judgement, no matter what you may think about the “quality” of the production etc.

  14. 44
    steve on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Oh – I almost forgot – guess what’s coming next? Stevie Wonder I believe! This should be good. Another Million Selling LOVE SONG.

    If Tom was a sexy woman, he’d give it maybe….8 ?
    The male Tom can only give it…let’s see…I predict…3.

  15. 45
    Erithian on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Hmm, you might need the Sandi Thom tin hat for this, Steve…

  16. 46
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Hi Steve:

    Actually, there is a kind of embargo on starting discussions of upcoming songs till they actually come up — it usually comes with warnings about bunnies, for reasons lost to the mists of mentalism.

    In my opinion REAL men don’t need any stupid testosterone to be manly.

  17. 47
    Lex on 21 Aug 2009 #

    I love “Careless Whisper” because it’s basically a Sade song. Not quite as much as I love Sade, but an easy 9. I don’t agree with the “raw feeling” vs “smooth production” argument – the slick, smooth, adult glide of the sax/congas/synths is the perfect frame for the grown-up emotion of the song.

    (NB: I hate all Wham songs that I’ve heard, especially that awful “Go-Go” single that I didn’t have time to hate on when it came up.)

  18. 48
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Does anyone on the panel know when this species of late-nite sex-sax became a thing? I notice Daddino mentioned Mingus — did he start it? (Awesome if so…) And Gato Barbieri’s soundtrack for Last Tango in Paris was knida notoriois at the time…

  19. 49
    wichita lineman on 21 Aug 2009 #

    My shout (though a bit proto) would be Classics IV’s original version of Spooky from early ’68. Almost identical arrangement to Dusty Springfield’s now more celebrated version. More suggestive than sleazy, though.

    It felt like there was a real glut of sex-sax 45s in ’78, with B Joel’s Just The Way You Are top of the heap.

  20. 50
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Aug 2009 #

    It’s the kind of thing that’s a bit off the map of grownup jazz history, even though it overlaps with it: the kind of jazzers who pay attention to history tend to look down on it; the kind of fans who like it tend not to be good with history. You can probably go back to someone like Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins for the germ of it: but neither did it as a colouring-smidgen for someone else’s singing, and had a lot of other expressive modes (= they were jazzers). 50s R&B favoured honkers: much less languid or citified. There’s a biiiig jump between swing and swinging couples: the sax behind Sinatra isn’t louche in this one-night-stand kinda way. Bah — something else I forgot to quiz R.D.Cook about before he died :(

  21. 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)

  22. 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.

  23. 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?

  24. 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”.

  25. 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

  26. 56
    MikeMCSG on 21 Aug 2009 #

    #10 Agreed.Shamefaced is the better word.

  27. 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.

  28. 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……

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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