9
Mar 12

GEORGE MICHAEL AND QUEEN – Five Live EP

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#688, 1st May 1993

Britain has a Pop Establishment as surely as it has a political one, and the charity tribute gig is its equivalent of a State Funeral. The line-up for the Freddie Mercury celebration at Wembley Arena is a curious thing, reflecting not just how much of a fixture Queen had become but how awkward it was to actually place them. On the one hand a bunch of hard rock and metal acts influenced by Queen, on the other a roll-call of British pop’s great and good, queueing up to try on Freddie’s stack heels.

George Michael’s turn is preserved here: he ringleads the remaining Queen members through “Somebody To Love” and “These Were The Days Of Our Lives”, and you also get three Queen-less cover versions from a recent tour. So it makes sense to look at this more as a George Michael record than anything much to do with Queen. This stuff dates from the zenith of the Respectable George phase, a public burial of the Wham! teenpop star. Michael’s need to be taken seriously could sometimes come off as chippy, but at the scale of international fame he was operating at grand gestures (calling your album Listen Without Prejudice) were probably needed. Even so this is the least exciting George Michael release yet.

Soulful singers who hit the arena tour level of success end up having to walk a tightrope between nuance and reach – the sound has to be big enough to fill the space, and that has implications for its intimacy. On this EP you can see Michael trying a few approaches to the problem. “Somebody To Love” enjoys the bigness, borrowing its phrasing from the original and trying to get the crowd involved. “Those Were The Days Of Our Lives” – pointlessly recast as a duet – tries to exploit the emotional power of stilling a huge audience. “Calling You” – very much a singer’s song, since it’s little but a repeated, agonised phrase – simply treats the space as empty: Michael’s projection of loneliness here gets deeper into me than anything else on the EP. As for the “Killer”/”Papa Was A Rolling Stone” mash-up, on paper it’s intriguing but in reality it’s mainly a recognition game, with progressively louder cheers as more people in the arena notice what’s going on. Michael doesn’t get the songs to talk to one another in any very resonant way, and he’s not helped by how plonking the “Killer” riff sounds, released from its claustrophobic studio home.

In fact, I’m left thinking this might have been a decent studio EP. The song choice – concealed loneliness, paranoia, regret, bittersweet reminiscence, and then loneliness again, naked this time – could have made it an interesting snapshot of George Michael at his most self-conscious and brooding. Instead it’s a picture of a good singer doing his best with the logistics of high-level stardom: what results is the very definition of worthy but dull.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Cumbrian on 9 Mar 2012 #

    I take the remaining members of Queen’s intentions at face value in setting up a concert ostensibly to honour the memory of their friend but also to encourage awareness and understanding of AIDS, raising some money for the cause. I suspect that there was an unstated intention too though. It seemed pretty clear why the majority of the crowd were present and I am not totally convinced it was to listen to the awareness part of the message. A supposed final chance to see Queen (of sorts) on stage and give Freddie Mercury a send off was more obviously the aim and in this, I guess the crowd’s aim was more in tune with the unstated one from the surviving members of Queen: to get the band on stage and feel a football stadium respond to their songs one last time.

    The opening bits of the gig took this well away from Live Aid territory, inasmuch as the acts that kicked the gig off were pretty far from the heritage scene (Metallica, Extreme – who did a quasi Queen at Live Aid medley, Def Leppard, Guns N Roses – though Bob Geldof turned up too, as well as Spinal Tap). Then it veered back into that territory by getting a bunch of mostly heritage singers in to sub on Queen’s songs. It was, I have to say, underwhelming at the time – and rather underwhelming when revisited.

    The received wisdom on this is that Freddie Mercury was a unique talent and no one could hope to replicate him. I’m not convinced that is exactly right. I think it is more that it’s very difficult to bring something new or interesting to the party in this situation, especially when these particular songs played to his particular strengths and changing stuff around for new interpretations is not what it’s all about. I’m unsure that a similar concert in the memory of, for instance, Whitney Houston or Robert Plant, wouldn’t descend into a bunch of facsimiles as well and, as such, it’s more probably a format problem than anything inherently superior about Mercury. Of the acts who performed early on, only James Hetfield managed to do much with his song– but then Metallica had been covering Stone Cold Crazy for years and he knew what he was going to do with it well in advance (i.e. growl it out like the proto-thrash metal that it is).

    And then, there was George Michael. By this point, my expectations were pretty low. He actually started with a truncated 39 and followed with the version of TATDOOL with Lisa Stansfield which also made it onto the Five Live EP; I don’t think it’s all that great – too soporific. To finish, there was Somebody To Love and, finally, after a night of being disappointed, here was something worth watching. He wasn’t channelling Freddie Mercury – this was his own performance – but his vocal is tremendous and energised the crowd to an extent no one had yet managed that day. By the time he’s punching the air above his head, “yeah yeah yeah”ing, he’s put the entire gig on his back. The orchestration of the crowd in the gospel section brings them along and then handing them the mike for the descending vocal line at the end* – this is the sort of thing that regularly gets derided but, fuck it, pulling 80,000 people together behind one song is a powerful thing, just as powerful as getting a warehouse or club full of people dancing to your tunes. George Michael did it and did it bloody well; something no one else managed on that stage that night (not Plant, Daltrey or Axl Rose, never mind those on the stage who never were bare chested “Rock Gods”).

    * A planned move. There is a rehearsal clip on Youtube where George never even attempts this descending line, he was always going to drag in the audience here. You’ve still got to sell it though and he definitely managed that.

    The following look on Brian May’s face says it all – a shocked grin across his face, it says, this is what I needed when I got up here, someone to make me feel like that just one more time. It certainly blew everything away on that night and is about the only real reason to watch the concert anymore. I don’t remember the rest of the EP getting much of an airing, to be honest (though am willing to be told I am wrong by those with better memories), so I’d mark on the basis of the lead track, which at the time, I’d have given a 9 but that could just have been because of the other readings of Queen songs that surrounded it. I’d still give it a 6 or 7 now though.

    Got to be honest – didn’t know the rest of the EP before listening to it a couple of weeks ago. Sounds like George had fun singing Papa Was A Rolling Stone. Calling You sounds like a vocal exercise to me – well done but, as Tom says, might have been better in a studio setting rather than in front of a crowd, in an attempt to make it more intimate.

  2. 2
    JonnyB on 9 Mar 2012 #

    #1 *also, the difficult bit.

    And I’d agree with all of that, although I’ve not seen the show since first time round. I seem to recall thinking that ‘Under Pressure’ was good also. But the rest – even as the grieving uberfan – I found a bit underwhelming. Probably because the songs are so tied to their original production and performance.

    I was dimly aware that this was an EP, although I only ever heard the two Queen songs so had it more in my mind as a double-A. He handles Somebody To Love beautifully and seems to lift the band – it works. Those Were The Days… well, it’s no more cloying than the original, which is faint praise I know. So agreed with the 4.

  3. 3
    thefatgit on 9 Mar 2012 #

    Norman Whitfield gets his first #1 since IHITTG, I think. Not much to add to what’s been said already.

  4. 4
    swanstep on 9 Mar 2012 #

    I don’t know the EP as such, but watched the original show, and like Cumbrian regard Someone to Love as the meat of things here. I watched the concert off and on live on MTV in the US on a Monday afternoon on which I was supposed to be grading final exams and reading final essays…. But it was hot as hell – summer had come early to the East Coast (nearly 30 C and 90% humidity where I was in mid April!), and I had visitors in town from Australia….so work would wait, beer was drunk, music was blared, all the while underwhelmed people made snarky comments about the various acts. Metallica’s James Hetfield is the cowardly lion, Bowie’s not going to do the Lord’s prayer is he? and so on.
    And then this happened. George Michael just killed it, and more or less as Cumbrian described in #1, everything came together. It truly felt like Live Aid redux: just as Queen w/ Freddie had owned that day, blowing everyone else off the stage, GM and Queen were better than everyone that preceded them and then completely bossed it on STL. Suddenly the sound felt balanced and huge, the editing/shot selection felt sharpened up (even helicopter shots now felt well-judged), all 70K+ people in the stadium in synch. This was it: one of the greatest live performances. Moving and stunning, it was easy to imagine Freddie smiling down, *that’s* how you do it lads.

    From a Popular perspective, STL getting to the top of the charts now helps makes up for the original single being kept off the top of the charts by (the to me unfathomable) Showaddywaddy. A good day in other words:
    8

  5. 5
    chelovek na lune on 9 Mar 2012 #

    Apologies for the mild digression so early in the thread, but….at the time, one story I recall hearing about the Concert, was that the Pet Shop Boys, having been invited to perform, expressed the intention of presenting their cover version of “We Will Rock You”, but were forbidden from so doing, on the grounds presumably that….well, it wouldn’t have matched the bombast of the (dreadful) version of Killer on this record, I suppose, in part.

    Does anyone better connected that I know if this is true? I’m afraid I can’t recall where I read or heard this. Might have been the NME, but equally might have been Chris Morris’s breathtakingly brilliant (still, in 1992) GLR Sunday morning radio programme….

  6. 6
    Tom on 9 Mar 2012 #

    I’m getting a “you had to be there” vibe at this point – I didn’t watch the concert, and while I’ll take your word that “Somebody To Love” was a massive highlight, I’m not sure that comes across on record – where it’s good but not special. Of course its impact is going to be different salvaging 3 hours of mediocrity rather than introducing 20 minutes of it, though.

  7. 7
    punctum on 9 Mar 2012 #

    As the title suggests, five cover versions, recorded live, and mainly George; two, the lead track “Somebody To Love” and “These Are The Days Of Our Lives,” come from the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley about a year earlier and see him backed by the three surviving members of Queen, while the other three are taken from various of the previously mentioned “covers tour” performances – all stemming from a time when George was publicly continuing to work himself (and his you’re-getting-none-of-my-royalties record company) out.

    His reading of “Somebody To Love” is so earnest as to qualify as anti-camp; none of Mercury’s raised right eyebrow here as he offers another slice of his tormented autobiography. “Each morning I get up, I die a little/Can barely stand on my feet,” “I try and I try and I try/But everybody puts me down/They say I’m going crazy,” “I have spent all my years in believing you/But I just can’t get no relief” – all easy to ascribe to his own state of mind. There is, however, something in the region of masochism about his wish to plead his loneliness in front of a huge gospel choir and an audience of 72,000, especially when he turns to the latter and cries: “I wanna hear every SINGLE person! See every SINGLE pair of hands!” with the accent determinedly on the “single,” demanding that they sing back to him, “Find me somebody to love” as though engaged in a mass ritual chant to liberate his soul – or maybe he was simply doing a live lonely hearts advert. Either way, it is a pretty disturbing performance.

    “These Are The Days” is performed as a courtly duet with Lisa, and George sounds as excited introducing her as he did Elton on his previous number one – “Straight back from Rochdale! Would you please welcome MISS LISA STANSFIELD!!!!” – even if Stansfield’s yearning Northern Soul diva strains aren’t quite what this model song of contented restraint requires. Of the other three songs, we have his well-timed join-the-dots linkage of “Killer” and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” – two dignified pleas from different generations against solipsistic, alienating individualism and for a true and warm sense of community and belonging, although with a combined running time of eleven minutes, more or less the same length as the uncut Temptations original of the latter song, he labours the point a trifle too much, though note his emphasis on the final “all alone, yeah” of “Rolling Stone.”

    The fifth track is his interpretation of “Calling You,” the song from the film Bagdad Café – and his taste certainly inclines me to think that we could swap mixtapes any time – a song which at the moment possibly means more to me than any other. The original film was, literally, dreamlike; a German’s idea of an American road movie, more Caspar David Friedrich than Edward Hopper, with the slightly unreal figures of Marianne Sagebrecht, CC Pounder, and Jack Palance looking as though newly brought back from the dead (and if you check his film credits over the two preceding decades, that wasn’t far from the truth). And the song, as sung by Jevetta Steele, has continued to resonate in the intervening twenty years; an unearthly yet patient union of small detail (“A desert road from Vegas to nowhere,” “A coffee machine that needs some fixing”) and holy transcendence (“Someplace better than where you’ve been,” “But we both know a change is coming/Coming closer…sweet relief”) interspersed with Steele’s stunning and perfectly pitched elongated cries of “I am calling you.”

    Well, you can understand that. George does the song due credit, and his own projected isolation is easily graspable, but he can’t resist extending the cry into melisma, and at over six minutes the point has long since been made. So, another postcard – perhaps even another proto-blog post – to tell us where he is, where he’s been and what, or whom, he’s grasping for. A few more years will elapse before we meet George again here, but when he reappears, he will make his presence gently, if grievously, known.

  8. 8
    Rory on 9 Mar 2012 #

    So many good lengthy comments already that I’ll keep this one short. I can see Tom’s point @6 about how this might come across on record, but my only exposure to this EP is through the video of “Somebody to Love”, which does come across as suitably epic, even to this particular somebody who wasn’t in the audience or watching on TV on the day.

    The original is one of the definitive Queen songs, so would rate very highly from me; but although this is a good performance from George Michael & Fredless, I wouldn’t go much higher than 6 – live recordings don’t get many repeat listens from me. Scoring EPs as a whole does mess up the game a bit, so I think I’ll treat this as a single with multiple b-sides and give it that score rather than water it down.

  9. 9
    Rory on 9 Mar 2012 #

    (Bah, not allowed to edit. I should have changed that before posting to “my only previous exposure”, because I have listened to the rest on YouTube now.)

  10. 10
    lonepilgrim on 9 Mar 2012 #

    although I’m not a fan of stadium rock I’m pretty impressed with George’s performance on the lead track of this EP – his own solo work can often be too studied and airless for my taste, so it’s refreshing to hear him cut loose.
    I wasn’t aware of the other covers – but the Bagdad Cafe one sounds intriguing. I loved that film.

  11. 11
    wichita lineman on 9 Mar 2012 #

    Re 5: It’s true, but I don’t think they were entirely serious. I’ve used Neil Tennant’s pomp-popping quote as the conclusion to a particularly testing chapter in my forthcoming book (April 2012, don’t hold your breath):

    “When they had that Freddie Mercury tribute concert we were going to offer our services to do We Will Rock You. We were going to come onstage with one of those old drum boxes with a little pitter-patter beat and make We Will Rock You into this tiny little fey statement. It would have been great if we’d done it wearing dunces’ hats, waving our heads from side to side.”

  12. 12
    thefatgit on 9 Mar 2012 #

    As a comparison piece…
    http://youtu.be/XP_eHGYzYtc

  13. 13
    chelovek na lune on 9 Mar 2012 #

    Thanks, Wichita, I knew somebody here would know the answer! April’s not far away… I spose at least the dunces caps got an outing in the video of “Can You Forgive Her?” the following year….

  14. 14
    23 Daves on 9 Mar 2012 #

    Not only was George Michael’s performance with Queen the highlight of the concert, it’s also the only bit of it I can actually still remember. Until reading the comments above, it had utterly slipped my mind that Metallica and Guns ‘n’ Roses were even there, yet my Mum is a huge Freddie Mercury fan, so there’s no doubt at all in my mind that it was on in our household for the duration. The only thing I can still remember is the fact that John Deacon seemed to be getting terribly sore fingers from the demands of hours of bass playing, and seemed to keep licking them for relief. Or perhaps he’d eaten a particularly tasty pack of pickled onion flavoured Hula Hoops earlier that day. Who knows? But when these are the things you actually notice and remember, it says nothing terribly good about the quality of the rest of the gig.

    I seem to remember rumours began circulating the very next day that Queen were going to stay together as a band with George Michael as their new frontperson, which gives some idea of just how impressive his performance was. It seems utterly fitting too, since in my mind Freddie was always more of a pop star than a rock star – flamboyant rather than fist punching and militant.

    The single itself is merely OK, and the only noteworthy thing I can think of to say about it is that it’s the only Parlophone 7″ single in history to actually have “33 1/3 rpm” swirled alongside the centre rather than the famous “45rpm” logo. Again, an unimpressive minor detail in lieu of anything more interesting to say.

  15. 15
    Mark G on 10 Mar 2012 #

    Didn’t Papa/rolling stone get a 12″ ‘remix’ also? No mean feat for a live performance!

  16. 16
    anto on 10 Mar 2012 #

    This is the eigth or ninth encounter Popular has had with George Michael in just under 10 years. For someone with a rather bitty output compared to the workaholic types like Elton and McCartney he’s certainly had a lot of number ones so inevitably you forget 1 or 2 and this was the single I had forgotten about.
    His delivery of Somebody to Love in particular epitomises how he came across at this time well-groomed and oh-so-professional a bit prematurely middle-aged even. This man was born the same year as Jarvis Cocker and Ian Brown. Actually Georges pop persona seems to have worked out in reverse. He was already was a self-parody at 21 then he went through the proper artiste phase then big venue entertainer in a pink jacket and in recent times hard-partying loose cannon.
    I remember the line-up at the Freddie Mercury concert seeming odd – Axl Rose and Liza Minelli on the same bill? For all its heartfelt meaning it was all rather tacky. A lot of the performers didn’t seem aware just how strange and randonm it all appeared.

  17. 17
    swanstep on 11 Mar 2012 #

    @12, thefatgit. Thanks for that link. Buckley man,… I know his noodly guitar accompaniments aren’t everyone’s cup o’ tea, but they work for me. Michael’s track has that horrible synth-piano all over it, but you kind of put up with it if that’s the only version you know… Listening to Buckley’s willowy guitar version then feels like being let out of prison. I wonder whether Michael still does Calling You live, and if so whether he’s adopted any of Buckley’s arrangement?

  18. 18
    swanstep on 20 Mar 2012 #
  19. 19
    MBI on 22 Mar 2012 #

    As an American, I am kind of shocked that almost none of the songs (minus a couple Wham! songs) I associate with George Michael have popped up. Where’s Faith? Monkey? Freedom ’90? One More Try? I Want Your Sex? Father Figure? I feel like what’s going on with George Michael is the same thing you described with Michael Jackson — tons of #1s, but they don’t describe the artist that well.

  20. 20
    lonepilgrim on 4 Apr 2012 #

    all that we wants (is another entry)

  21. 21
    Erithian on 4 Apr 2012 #

    I don’t know whether others had more efficient ways of seeking out new music back in the late 70s, but for me those autumn days are redolent of waiting to hear the new Queen single. You’d read about the impending release of the new single and album in Record Mirror, and for a few days you’d wonder what a song called “Somebody To Love” or “We Are The Champions” might sound like. Then one morning Noel Edmonds would say he was about to play the new Queen single in two songs’ time, and you’d make a quick calculation as to how late you could get out of the door and still make it to school for registration.

    That was the feverish state that “Bohemian Rhapsody” had got you into. And it has to be said that, since nothing could quite live up to that level of anticipation, both STL and WATC disappointed me at first before I came to terms with them. (“Bicycle Race” disappointed me and still sounds a dud, whereas “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, described by the RM reviewer as “three years out-of-date Manhattan Transfer” was an immediate winner.)

    It’s fair to suppose that fellow pop fan George Michael, a year younger than me, might have had something of the same experience, and that once he’d listened a couple of times he’d have realised that it swung like a good ‘un. It crashed straight in at number 4 and looked a cert to depose Chicago from number one – but then stopped! in the same position! while the clearly vastly inferior Showaddywaddy climbed to the top. Nevertheless, it was a song he no doubt absorbed as part of his pop education, and just over 16 years later, in circumstances no-one could have foreseen in 1976, he got to sing it to a stadium-full of people and take it to its rightful place.

    And yes, what a job he does with it. He goes into it off the back of the duet with Lisa Stansfield, during which he sways along to Brian May’s guitar solo while Lisa stands still. In between the two songs (I’d forgotten this before YouTubing just now), there’s a heartfelt plea to the crowd – “it’s estimated that by the year 2000, 40 million people will be infected with HIV: and if you think they’ll all be gay people or drug addicts, then you’re pretty much lining up to be one of them”. And perhaps that plea was on his mind as “Somebody To Love” kicked in. The concert was on 20 April 1992; Anselmo Feleppa, his partner since the previous year’s Rock in Rio festival, would be diagnosed with AIDS later that year and die on 26 March 1993 – his death inspired “Jesus To A Child” – and shortly afterwards this EP was released.

    As for me, no such poignant associations with this record. On 2 May 1993, while it was number one, Aston Villa’s surprise home defeat to Oldham handed Manchester United their first league title for 26 years. Truly, those were the days of our lives.

  22. 22
    Baztech on 5 Apr 2012 #

    lonepilgram….haha brillant post ISWYDT…

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