16
Nov 09

GEORGE MICHAEL – “A Different Corner”

FT + Popular137 comments • 13,126 views

#568, 19th April 1986, video

At first brush “A Different Corner” sounds too diffuse and tentative to count for much – the kind of single that gets to #1 when its maker is a big enough star that anything will. But this is misleading – “Corner” is wispy and cloudy because it’s an attempt to capture a particular kind of confusion and despair in a pop song. Listen more closely and its politeness – all those nouvelle cuisine dabs of keyboard and guitar – is revealed as paralysis. Michael is impotent: he’s worse off for falling in love, he would go back if he could, he’s terrified of the rejection that might follow if he goes further. A strange fear grips him: in its sketch of sensitive abjection, “A Different Corner” touches the same nerves and explores the same pitiable ground that mid-eighties indie was making its own. “I don’t understand it, to you it’s a breeze / Little by little you’ve brought me to my knees” – you could imagine David Gedge writing that!

You couldn’t imagine him singing it like this, mind you. “A Different Corner”‘s kind of wandering, choked-up slow soul would end up being a key part of George Michael’s repertoire, the style he deployed when he wanted people to know he was getting personal. It’s been the source of his worst performances as well as his best, but “A Different Corner” avoids self-indulgence by its relative concision – just two short, tightly written verses given plenty of space in a simple arrangement. The delicacy of that arrangement is fragile – even a touch like the acoustic guitar between verses on the album and video version seems to overload it. But the single mix keeps its balance between comfort and sparseness, its broken-up piano lines halfway between the wine bar’s consoling ambience and ABBA’s icy, grown-up pain. This song of disillusionment and ruined hopes is remembered as a minor single, if at all: for me it’s the best number one George Michael’s been involved with.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom on 16 Nov 2009 #

    ha the sleeve makes it a bit harder to love, as does the video (in fact I suggest you avoid the video ENTIRELY)

  2. 2
    punctum on 16 Nov 2009 #

    “Dedicated to a memory” it says on the reverse sleeve, and on the sleeve’s front there is a black-and-white photograph of a man with his back turned to the camera, some distance away, walking into a huge park, unutterably alone. Although Michael was still officially one half of Wham!, the record drips with pungent tears of reluctant farewells, although its subtext is more elusive.

    A far more complex and satisfying record than “Careless Whisper” – and yet also a far simpler one – “A Different Corner” can fairly be said to be the first entirely solo UK number one single, in that it was entirely composed, sung, played and produced by the same person. It could with equal fairness be described to the most radical of 1986’s number ones; there is no chorus, and the song’s reflective cycle wafts by in placid echoes of repetition. Comparisons were made at the time with Eno’s Another Green World – that refractory Harold Budd treated piano, the same steady, unobtrusive flow of electronics, the distended vocal drones in the background (though the latter may also owe something to the intro and outro of McLaren’s “Madam Butterfly”) – and through its snow-white sleeve and aura of finality, Laura saw a kinship with “Atmosphere.” This latter was not far-fetched, since George Michael had recently appeared on a BBC2 arts programme where he reviewed, among other things, Mark Johnson’s book An Ideal For Living: A History of Joy Division, and spoke warmly of their music.

    “A Different Corner” is indeed a remarkable piece of music in that here, after four years, we finally see the real George Michael emerging, out of the shuttlecocked shorts and faux-machismo, with a finely-judged and emotionally open vocal performance worthy of an older and sadder Cassidy or Donny, and it’s a George Michael we could learn to love. And yet, although he sounds more open than on any of his previous records, the real meaning of the song had to remain buried for a dozen more years.

    The giveaway comes in the lines, “I would promise you all of my life/But to lose you would cut like a knife/So I don’t dare.” In other words, he loves his best friend (“‘Cos I’ve never come close in all of these years/You are the only one to stop my tears”) but he loves him that way also, and he is tortured because he cannot bring himself to tell him (his “I’m so scared” is the reddest of excoriating wounds) – the same subtext compelled to remain within the shadows of “Johnny Remember Me” and “Have I The Right?” The music’s careful placidity is a striking counterpart to his agonised voice – and where does that “And if all that there is, is this feeling of being used” come in, when really it’s the paralysing fear of rejection that prevents him from getting close to his desired Other but also stops him from moving away; the torture of lifelong compromise – “I should go back to being lonely and confused/If I could…I would…I swear.” Then his unheard pledge also echoes into the far horizon, just as the man retreats into the greenery, walking away…in silence.

  3. 3
    Steve Mannion on 16 Nov 2009 #

    Have come to love this but still not quite sure how/why. Just think GM’s voice suits this vast warm space particularly well, like an angst-ridden archipelago in breezy Med waters. Popular ballads don’t actually tend to sound this empty yet huge (do they?) but I suppose at this point he felt he could do anything (fair enough really). 8 and his best #1 too yes.

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 16 Nov 2009 #

    Its also the only one of George’s eighties number ones not to be an overt pastiche of any other sort of music. Which is why I think that my peers found it a bit watery and tuneless at the time (also that ‘arty’, black and white video would make any song seem more boring than it actually is). The lack of a chorus also means that is doesn’t hammer its meaning into you.

    These ambiguities are all of the reasons why I now like this so much as a sometimes lovelorn adult of course!

    For a contrast, try the live version from a 1998 Parkinson appearance on the B-side of As. This is a lot more defined both vocally and musically, with a chiming acoustic guitar and “Oooh-Oooh”ing female backing vocals. I would guess that this more overtly soulful interpretation would chime better with most present-day listeners.

  5. 5
    Rory on 16 Nov 2009 #

    As far as I know, I’ve listened to this exactly once, earlier today. On a first listen it doesn’t seem his best, although it’s okay, but there are hints of deeper things that could reveal themselves on further acquaintance. I’ll let others give it a score.

    Time to bow out for a while. I’ll be too busy to comment for a couple of months, and the roster of 1986 hits doesn’t contain many that I could add to: some I know, some I don’t, but none that I own, and only two that were also number one in Australia. See you all again sometime in 1987.

  6. 6
    Tom on 16 Nov 2009 #

    #5 Hurry back Rory – I really like your comments (and I’m always keen to read the takes from people who WEREN’T ‘there’, as much as those who were)

  7. 7
    Rory on 16 Nov 2009 #

    Thanks, Tom, will do – it’s an impending marathon-trek-to-homeland-for-Christmas-and-New-Year that will be keeping me busy, but once I’m back I’ll be back! (I was glad we reached a-ha and the Young Ones in time… next significant personal target is a safe distance away.)

  8. 8
    Andrew Hickey on 16 Nov 2009 #

    punctum – I Just Called To Say I Love You came first as an entirely-solo number one…

  9. 9
    MikeMCSG on 16 Nov 2009 #

    Great review Tom though ultimately I didn’t like the song at the time because its emotions were completely alien to me and don’t care for it now because as you (in kindly terms)identify he’s been regularly re-wrting it ever since (eg his penultimate no 1 in 96).Although I don’t doubt Michael’s sincerity there’s also too much self-conscious “tastefulness” in the arrangement that reminds me of Bryan Ferry’s dreary post-Roxy output.

    #2 Punctum, I remember the show (Eight Days A Week) and I was watching that edition in our hall of residence with a diehard NME reader who started abusing Michael (perhaps for the hair and Katherine Hamnett T-shirt) before he’d opened his mouth and then shutting up when GM revealed tastes similar to his own. I seem to think Tom Robinson was one of the other guests which is an interesting coincidence. A good programme which has been resurrected in disguise as The Late Review perhaps because presenter Robin Denselow went on to work on Newsnight.

  10. 10
    thefatgit on 16 Nov 2009 #

    My friends and I would sit next to the jukebox in our local. We had a kind of “ownership” of it. So each of us in turn would put the 50p in and pick 3 tracks (3 tracks for 50p seemed a bargain at the time). Then one of our group got a girlfriend, not a normal occurrence amongst those who clung on to adolescence in the face of inexorable adulthood and it’s associated responsibilites. She joined our group at the table and also got her 50p’s worth from the Jukebox. She always picked “Careless Whisper”, “A different Corner” and “Freedom”. Without fail. We used to tease her slightly over her obvious Wham! devotion and her “schoolgirl crush” on George Michael. She played along and took all the teasing on the chin, but I always associate the “If I could…I would…I swear” line with us lads filling the pauses with “Bum Andrew”. Chortle, chortle.

    We really never realised how close to the mark we were, but of course the object of his affection was not Ridgeley, but someone else.

  11. 11
    punctum on 16 Nov 2009 #

    Andrew #8: I did say “first entirely solo UK number one single”…

  12. 12
    punctum on 16 Nov 2009 #

    (i.e. first entirely solo UK number one single done by a UK artist – sorry if I didn’t make that clear)

  13. 13
    Jungman Jansson on 16 Nov 2009 #

    1986 still seems to be hit-and-miss as far as my personal memories go, as I only recognise about half the songs featured – and this isn’t one of them.

    I started out with the video, as I usually do, and it really doesn’t do the song any favours. I then listened to it on its own and still didn’t appreciate it very much, but when I came back to it a day or two later, it was a lot better.

    Still it doesn’t really resonate with me. I have been a lovelorn (young) adult at times, but – happily enough – not for a good few years now. And it’s not a state of mind that you want to enter again unless absolutely necessary; maybe that’s part of the explanation. I’ve been trying to pick apart what else could be amiss, and the best thing I can come up with is that George’s somewhat mannered singing is slightly off-putting. I don’t actually think that’s the real problem, but for whatever reasons, I can’t really connect with this.

    It is different to what we’ve had here lately, and most likely carefully crafted – and I can appreciate that in a way, but there’s just something sterile about the whole thing. I’ll do like Rory and leave it at that; I also have a feeling that the song might grow on me if I let it.

    SwedenWatch: #18 for a single week. It fared better on the Tracks chart, reaching #5 eventually.

  14. 14
    AndyPandy on 16 Nov 2009 #

    One of my favourite tracks of all time but it took me until I was well and truly converted to George after “Listen Without Prejudice” to realise just how good this is…

  15. 15
    wichita lineman on 16 Nov 2009 #

    Honesty is a weasel word in pop, but there has to be a good reason why I thought this was something quite special while pretty much all of GM’s oeuvre to date had made me feel like I was being sprayed with fake tan against my will. It’s a rare love song that runs with a chorus of “I’m so scared”. Tom, that’s a great write-up, and the David Gedge line is apt as – from memory – the C86 weekend at the ICA happened in April ’86 (can anyone confirm this?), possibly when this was no.1.

    And yes, David Gedge and Abba. It’s all true.

    Punctum – the sleeve is surely ‘based’ on Atmosphere, isn’t it? The wordless bv’s also remind me of Eyeless In Gaza… which may be a little less likely as an influence, but you never know. And while the piano is thin and ugly (DX7?) I love that knackered fairground organ sound, a kind of candied hurdy gurdy; pretty unusual to find such a warm sound on a mid 80s hit (compare the rattling ballbearing-in-a tin-can sounds of Freedom or I’m Your Man).

    I can’t think of anything GM’s done since to rival A Different Corner for precise emotional impact; interesting how his similar but crucially out-of-the-closet Popular entry a decade later struck me as rambling at the time, and hasn’t stuck at all. An 8 (would’ve been 9 without the Latin guitar and with a real piano).

  16. 16
    LondonLee on 16 Nov 2009 #

    I had to watch the video as I couldn’t remember this at all, and even listening to I had no sudden “oh, that song!” reaction. I pretty much always like hearing George’s voice but this one seemed just a little too wispy, and the video made me think of David Brent which didn’t help.

    If I hadn’t know it got to #1 (well, I’d forgotten it did until a few minutes ago!) I would have reckoned it was a b-side. A bold choice, I’ll give him that.

  17. 17
    Mark M on 16 Nov 2009 #

    Re 15: the main C86 gigs were in July – was there something before that?

    It took a long, long time for this song to grow on me, years I’m guessing. But it’s terrific. Agree that it’s George’s indiest moment – apart from Joy Division, thinking maybe Cherry Red-era Felt, and it also is something of a precursor to Morrissey’s Last Night On Maudlin Street, to again revisit Moz’s mistaken Yog-baiting.

  18. 18
    Izzy on 16 Nov 2009 #

    No drums! That must be an unusual thing for a number one. Having said that, we have another percussionless one later in the year, plus one other which might as well be – a bare few seconds of the strangest drums I’ve ever heard, if indeed that’s what they are. We’ll get to those soon enough.

    It’s not in the nature of popular to throw up too many hidden delights, but I’d never heard this before and it’s a lovely thing. It’s very hard to get a grip on, but there’s a strong song in there. It’s a nice performance by George, he pulls off the trick of being simultaneously full-on and restrained, possibly achieved by simple use of the volume control on the mixing desk. The arrangement is nebulous to say the least. It’s a bold choice alright, he must’ve felt confident indeed to even suggest this to the record company as a single.

  19. 19
    lonepilgrim on 16 Nov 2009 #

    I don’t really care for this too much although I don’t hate it – the production is too pristine and controlled and the lyrics too unspecific for my tastes.
    For livelier use of sparse production I was happier grooving to Kiss by Prince in 1986.

  20. 20
    wichita lineman on 16 Nov 2009 #

    The more time passes, the weirder it seems that Prince’s UK chart positions were so low. EVERYBODY loved Kiss from where I was standing – and age has hardly dimmed its charms compared to 1986’s other hits – yet it only made no.6; Sign O The Times – no.10; Raspberry Beret – no.25! But his Popular moment will arrive, eventually.

    Yes, C86, July. Spoils a happy coincidence but there you go.

  21. 21
    swanstep on 17 Nov 2009 #

    At the time, the instrumentation and general,’bellowing from a mountaintop’ of this track felt nicked from a range of better, more interesting songs including Howards Jones’s Hide and seek (which was one of the few things to go down a surprising treat at live aid – which George M. surely noticed) and Gabriel’s Family snapshot and (vaguely) Bush’s magnificent Cloudbursting, which was in the charts at the time (Gabriel and Bush’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ and Gabriel’s Mercy Street would be out in a couple of months on _So_). So all ‘A different corner’ had to recommend it was Michael’s great voice… It’s not enough. This is barely half a song in my view. (I’m staggered that Tom could give this an 8 and the fully realized standard/near-standard ‘careless whisper’ a 7, but I am consistency’s fool, or something, I guess.)

    My popular-induced perspective now is a little different. ‘A different corner’ now specifically looks like another carriage on the pity-party/charity ward pop train that’s carried a range of unpromising tracks to UK #1’s since ‘If I was’:

    If I was a stronger man
    Carrying the weight of popular demand
    Tell me would that alarm her
    We’re heading for something
    Somewhere I’ve never been
    Sometimes I am frightened
    But I’m ready to learn
    ‘Bout the power of love
    But please be gentle with my good heart
    which is so very hard to find
    And Please don’t ask me to defend
    The shameful lowlands
    Of the way I’m drifting
    Gloomily through time

    Take it away, George!

    Or don’t:
    4

  22. 22
    taDOW on 17 Nov 2009 #

    to go from ‘everything she wants’ to mid-period sting – YECH! most egregious popular overrating since ‘lady madonna’; praying to jesus ‘praying for time’ or ‘jesus to a child’ didn’t top the charts over there. concurrent comics equiv.

    3 for me

  23. 23
    Jungman Jansson on 17 Nov 2009 #

    Wichita Lineman @20 – I recently put together a playlist featuring all songs from the 1986 Tracks charts (Popular’s fault, obviously) – just to get a grip on the year in pop, or something like that.

    “Kiss” really stands out among them, it’s a true head-turner that sounds very different to its contemporary peers. I’ve been listening to said playlist off and on while doing other things and that’s the only song so far that’s almost jolted me when it comes on. “A Different Corner” features as well, but apparently I haven’t even noticed it.

  24. 24
    swanstep on 17 Nov 2009 #

    Another better, roughly contemporary thing this track reminded me of *a lot* at the time: Blue Nile’s easter parade.

  25. 25
    anto on 17 Nov 2009 #

    ” A Different Corner. ” is notable for being one of the few eighties number ones by a major name that hasn’t been over-played.
    It’s easy enough to find a slot for “Freedom” or “Wake Me Up….” on compilations and “Careless Whisper” is no doubt still deployed towards the end of the night at a particular type of dance, but I don’t even remember hearing ” A Different Corner” until a solo appearance by Mr. Michael on ” Parkinson ” in about 1998/99. It seemed very low-key by Georges usual standards. When I heard the original single version I was somewhat thrown by how spacious and sparing the chours-less arrangement was – As bare (and lonesome) as the minimalist decor of the flat in the video.
    By the time of the third listen I was struck by how open-hearted the lyrics are. Yes he over-sings it a bit, but it was a brave diversion in amongst the stubble-chinned confidence of his other singles around this time (1985-87). At one point I took it to be a song about the difficulty of coming out. A blank reading on my part as I’ve since found out he wrote it about a love affair with a female singer.
    It appearss ” A Different Corner ” was not so much George Michaels
    ” Losing My Religion “. It would be more accurate to identify it as George Michaels ” Help! ” like Lennon in 1965 this is a young superstar saying ” no! I’m not alright”.
    Whatever the subject it’s a touching and remarkable track by a singer whose records I can generally live without.
    I think Toms review describes it very well.

  26. 26
    swanstep on 17 Nov 2009 #

    @JJ 23. Do you have lots of Smiths on your playlist (they were in their singles pomp in 1986)? And doesn’t Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ jump out just as much as ‘Kiss’? I certainly remember both tracks making dancefloors *explode* in part because their basic sounds were novel.

  27. 27
    TomLane on 17 Nov 2009 #

    A #7 peak in the U.S. Kind of a forgotten Michael hit, but this set the stage for “One More Try” and “Father Figure”. So delicate it almost floats right out of the speakers. A solid 7.

  28. 28
    Jungman Jansson on 17 Nov 2009 #

    Swanstep – just “Panic”, it’s actually the only Smiths song to ever have charted on Tracks – which was, and still is, a mainstream-friendly, listener voted chart show on Swedish public service radio (the national P3 channel which more or less corresponds to BBC Radio 1). But it’s THE standard for pop charts here – it’s the one which made people have heated schoolyard discussions, compile statistics and draw diagrams. The actual sales charts are also presented on national radio every week, but they never had the same cultural impact.

    An arcane selection process governs which songs are eligible for voting, but it’s basically based on P3’s general rotation playlists. This, and the fact that the chart is listener voted, inevitably means it’s biased in some ways that the sales charts are not (and vice versa), but the one clear and unambiguous trend that I’ve been able to spot so far by pouring over the late 80’s and early 90’s charts lately is that Tracks was very slow on the uptake when it comes to house and hip hop. There is a good amount of italo/euro-disco though, for far longer than I would have expected. I would’ve guessed the Smiths to be more popular than they actually were, but apparently they were too indie.

    (If you’re really interested, you can find the Tracks chart archive here: http://www.sr.se/p3/topplistor/tracks/?listID=1&getListY=1986&showyear=1986 )

    “Sledgehammer” does feature, but I think I’ve listened enough to it before for it to be so familiar that it doesn’t provoke any kind of reaction. Bear in mind that I’ve just had this playlist puttering about in the background while doing other things, I haven’t examined the songs in any particular detail or with an analytical frame of mind. “Kiss” on the other hand is a song that I certainly recognise but have never really listened to actively before – as for why, I have no clue.

  29. 29
    swanstep on 17 Nov 2009 #

    The vid.: Wolfman meets Barry Gibb 1138.

  30. 30
    Izzy on 17 Nov 2009 #

    This section of Popular has caused me to have another look at The Smiths. They started off with some very nice hooky tunes, up to around ‘William It Was Really Nothing’, but their releases over this period are some very poor pop singles – very poor choices actually, they could’ve done with halving the number of releases and using different tracks instead.

    I’d be surprised if any of them got much airplay*. Certainly it’s hard to imagine anyone being suddenly turned onto the band by, say, ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’. ‘Panic’ feels very much like the exception, and even then sabotages itself with the horrible phrase Morrissey picked for the coda. It all smacks too much of band-as-cosy-cult.

    I guess I’m writing about this here because ‘A Different Corner’ is about as uncommercial a big hit as I can imagine, but there’s still more immediacy to it and a more intuitive understanding of entertainment. Partly it’s just that George is a better singer, but he’s also desperate to convince the listener, to draw you in, in a way that Morrissey (on the singles anyway) never does.

    * Actually, here’s a quote from Geoff Travis: “I can’t understand why ‘How Soon Is Now?” wasn’t a top 10 single, but perhaps I’m being naive. If only their singles had been played on the radio”.

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