Tag Archives: britain

Goodbye, George

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I thought that 2016 had already done its fair share of disposing of iconic artists, but it still had a few cards to play. So the irony of hearing George Michael had passed away on Christmas day seemed a cruel joke too far (one that social media predictably jumped on in its crass, insensitive way almost as soon as the news hit that evening). But like Prince and Bowie before him, the sudden and unexpected nature of his passing was perhaps the biggest surprise, given he was only 53.

I know that it’s the new norm in the social media age to bear ones feelings online, and to lace tragedy with hyperbole and flowery language, an arms race to see who is the most upset or struck by these events, but while Bowie and Prince have been ever-present in my life, they were never the soundtrack to my childhood. George Michael, in Wham! and as a solo artist was definitely that, even before I knew much about him, or – blissfully unaware as a 7 year-old – his life, I was dancing round the living room to Club Tropicana and Wham Rap and recording hits off the radio on tape (yes, remember that?) Like any child of the 80s (born in ’75, but growing up in that oddly bleak yet flamboyant decade), pop music was central to my formative years. And what a decade for pop it was, perhaps never bettered, with so many big acts to choose from, even the one-hit wonders were somehow brilliant (think Owen Paul, Jermaine Stewart, The Buggles, Cutting Crew, Nina, MARRS). But alongside globe-spanning heavyweights like Duran Duran, Madonna, Prince, U2, Queen and Bowie, George Michael felt much more like one of us. The son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurant owner, born and raised in Kingsbury then Radlett, meeting Andrew Ridgely at school with dreams of pop stardom.

Forming Wham! in 1981, (I don’t know what you were doing when you were 18, but I was listening to his records, and wondering what my Geography degree would get me in life) they had a no.1 album within two years, with 3 top ten singles, including Wham Rap and the iconic Club Tropicana. The latter was filmed at the famous Pikes Hotel in Ibiza, and when I found this fact out much later on in life, I spent 2 summers trying to find the place outside San Antonio, just to be able to stand where that famous video was shot, such was its legend. It seemed crazy that I could be walking around that pool (luckily, no white pants for me), replaying that video in my head, wondering – and wishing – what it would’ve been like to have been at one of those weekend parties there in the mid 80s with George, Andy, Freddie, Grace and the rest.  He just made it all look so fun.

From there, the hits rolled almost non-stop, with staggering numbers: 100m albums sold, 7 UK no.1s, 8 US Billboard no.1s, his debut solo album, Faith, sold 20m alone, not to mention the list of awards, from 3 Ivor Novellos to countless Brits, MTV, Grammy and American Music Awards. But above all, he was a star, and a star all of his own making. George Michael did things his own way, and all his success came at a time when, if you were gay, you still had enough problems to deal with from daily life, but when you were a megastar, you’d be hounded relentlessly and mercilessly by the tabloids, rabidly obsessed with outing and shaming homosexuals. These are the same tabloids now eulogising him. It has ever been thus, the hypocrisy hanging rank in the air.. But Michael refused to be ashamed of his life. Much has been made of him not coming out until 1998, following his much-publicised bust (sorry, sting) in LA by an undercover police officer. But he didn’t care personally that he was gay, only that coming out publicly would affect his parents more than anything. In many ways, he was still the outsider from suburban London, but also, he didn’t exercise rigid control on his public or private life because he was ashamed, but because he felt it was none of anyone’s business. This infuriated the press, who simply attacked him further, and just made us root for him even more. His refusal to be a sexless, ashamed, out-gay man, is to be lauded, and still feels an outlier today, but in the late 90s, (having endured and survived the turbulent 80s) he was one of a few pop stars to be willing to put his head above the parapet. Even back then almost half the UK still thought same-sex relations ‘always or mostly wrong’. Many thought his career would suffer then, but of course, it was arguably one of the finest ripostes to a celebrity shaming there’s ever been: he made Outside in weeks after that arrest and ‘scandal’, lampooning at once the press, the LA Police, homophobes everywhere, showing that gay sex was still just sex, and making them all uncomfortable at the same time. A masterstroke, and one that many others would never have dared risk. He did it with gusto and humour, and I only loved him more.

There was the usual narrative of the ‘troubled’ star, yet no one bared this truth more honestly than George himself, speaking of his demons and addictions openly and causing many of us that were teens or younger at the time to go back over lyrics and feel embarrassment over what was overtly personal and downright dirty songs, released in plain sight. But it was all part of a talent that wrote and sang songs that were emotionally inclusive and soul-baring. When he was playing the James Dean role on Faith, he was also singing about a quick shag on Fast Love, or more brazenly pushing the tolerance of radio stations and tv channels with ‘I Want Your Sex’ (famously writing ‘explore monogamy’ on his partner’s back in lipstick’. But for all his brazen nature, great copy and partying, tragedy and difficulty was never far away either. Watching Anselmo Feleppa, his partner, die of AIDS-related illness in 1993, and penning Jesus To A Child to commemorate him. Even the accidents and incidents that put him in prison briefly, the public shame heaped on him made him no less forgiving, and it was hard not to love him for that, particularly when you detest the right-wing press and their motives so much. All the while, he still looked for that next hit, writing dozens of news songs, fighting his label for control, and in recent years that next album that never saw the light of day, robbing us perhaps of a next chapter to his remarkable story.

And all through it, he was a trailblazer and a star. While he was releasing solo classics like Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1, he was donating money to charities and individuals. Stories of giving a nurse fifteen thousand pounds anonymously for her IVF, or a concert for NHS nurses following his mother’s death, donating royalties to Childline, or Terrence Higgens’ trust for AIDS, making clear that having ‘more money than he could spend’ didn’t mean he didn’t know how to use it. In a world where celebrities now do much work for charity but do like to talk about it, he was the opposite. His work for LGBT charities was huge, and he also wore the position of a global pop star figurehead for a movement with zest, whatever the personal cost.  The trail he blazed didn’t just inspire musicians and others from his music, but made it easier for people after him to be who they needed to be, and as his music success waned, his legacy’s impact increased only further.

Ultimately though, for those of a certain age, his death leaves a sizeable hole. From as early as I can remember, I danced to his music, wanted to be him – and yes, long before I had a clue he was gay, we all wanted to be him, or be with him, such was his attraction to women – and bought his records. The tapes I had from back then are mostly long gone – I still remember being so excited to buy the cassette single of he and one of my other childhood icons, Elton John, duetting on Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me from Our Price in Redhill in 1991, when it really wasn’t cool to like either that much any more – but the records remain. So many hits, that it seemed like one of his records was permanently in the charts from 1981 to the late 90s, a staggering output, especially when success is so fleeting in the modern musical world. He did so much that seems normal now, but lost him friends, success and money back then, whether it was refusing to be in his own videos (Freedom, particularly, irked Sony, but it’s now one of the most replayed videos that era, chock-full of supermodels), suing his own record company for creative control, and simply be unashamed being out and gay when it was accepted to be a career-killer. Lesser artists would’ve been hit, but he just did what he wanted to, and that’s why people rooted for him.

I’ve dabbled as a DJ over the past two decades, and now the radio show I do is based around being the best wedding set you’ve ever heard. Understandably, Wham! and George Michael have always been high on my list of #bangers since the start. How can they not? So many of them have such happy memories for me, whether it’s listening to Wham! in Africa when I was a kid, or mesmerised by him joining Elton at Live Aid, or cracking up when the LA policeman sued him for making Outside, with George at the centre of his own joke. And every new year’s day for the last seven years, dancing to Everything She Wants at Bugged Out. Even last week, I played Last Christmas (how could you not?) on my radio show’s festive edition. It seems so sad that it’s now an epitaph, rather than a celebration of someone you hoped still had gas in their career for a long time to come. He also joins the list of artists I never saw live and that I’ll never get that chance to. Everyone I know that did was in awe. That voice of his had few peers.

As we get older, it’s inevitable that those we love, and revere and worship will slowly slip away before our eyes. Only a fool would be unwilling to accept this. But 53 is no age to go, discovered by your partner lying calmly in bed on Christmas morning. Not when you’re re-releasing a classic album in 2017, and planning a documentary that we’ll now never see. Nostalgia is a business all of its own these days, but when a chunk of your childhood becomes a freeze-frame of memories, and no longer a living, breathing person, part of that dies with them. It’s not overdramatic to say that, because while I listen to so much new music, there’s a huge part of me that’s still that little nerdy kid dancing round the room with a comb singing Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, and wanting to be that flamboyant guy on tv in tennis shorts and a haircut bigger than my torso, bobbing around alongside Andrew Ridgely. Knowing that George Michael is ‘never gonna dance again’ is a sad, sad day indeed.

Brexit – where do we go now?

Back from the mud and pretending we’d not left the EU until I got home, I’ve been trying to rationalise the campaigns, the vote, the result, and what it means for the UK, England and the EU. Whichever way you look at it, it isn’t going to be pretty, and I very much doubt it’s going to be the ‘new Britain’ that many Leavers hoped from the mess that both sides threw around for the last few months. If we wanted our country back, what sort of country is that really going to be?

Some things to make clear: however disappointed I am in the result, and whatever bile and hatred is already emerging, all Leavers are neither racist, nor xenophobic, nor are they all little Englanders wanting us to return to the 50s (18 or 19), nor do they hate Europe, or each other, nor are they idiots. Some are some, many or all of these things, but just because some voted Leave as a protest (I mean seriously) and others regret it, that’s democracy. You can be disappointed in a result, detest those that drove us to it, even those that made that choice if you want to, but this is how democracy works. If we’re going to get angry, get angry that those that lied to us. Many voted to control immigration, save the NHS, ‘take back control’ (and what a loose and nebulous premise that was.. of what?), to make our own laws, to halt pressure on public services… all of which are admirable and sensible choices. Sadly, I very much doubt many of these things will be resolved.

The truth of the matter is – to me (my opinion, not attacking yours) – this was a referendum that no one but a section of the Tory party wanted. That section’s been there ever since we joined the EU in its earliest form. Cameron shat himself over the threat of ‘up to 10’ seats going to UKIP last May, so pledged this in their manifesto. He never expected to be in majority government, and suddenly had to deliver. All this from the threat of an ‘outsider’ who’s a former Tory councillor, stockbroker and pint-drinking middle England upper middle class Tory, Nigel Farage. This is the political mess our country has become.

Once the campaign started, you had one side (Leave) who were energised, with the EU as a punchbag, marking it out as the root of all evil – immigration, public services, economy, democracy, human rights, red tape – when much of it was created by the very govt they existed in. They had the might of the press behind them, whose lies they’d been supporting for years. They vented against the very experts that supported their last 6 years in power, as if figures just didn’t matter any more. A motley crew of Farage, Johnson, Gove, Duncan Smith, Patel and more, evoking the colonial era success of industrial Britain, an Albion that’s a figment of our imagination (we were a terrible country then) as if pulling up the drawbridge would move all our problems away, instead of merely making us having to deal with them in isolation. They preached lies from the start: 350m went to the EU every week, it would all go to: the NHS, science, arts, rural areas, defence… you name it, pluck out a populist idea and sell it. We’d solve immigration issues with a points system that already lets in 180,000 a year from outside the EU, we’d reclaim our democracy (as if forgetting our membership of NATO, WTO, UN, Commonwealth and many other climate and trade deals we don’t write ourselves) or complaining of unelected politicians (whilst choosing not to reform the Lords, which is exactly that), and then moved onto, emboldened, the rub of it all. They lost the economic argument, so they hit home on immigration. They may have criticised Farage’s posters, but did nothing while in power. The very Tories that decimated our public services in the myth of austerity now blamed immigrants for it, when they are net contributors to the economy, and have allowed the growing xenophobic and racist voices to rise and demonise them, the working classes and post-industrial communities. They caused the problem, they pushed it onto someone else. A perfect storm. They had no plan for victory (did they really expect it?) and didn’t care. They’d lie with impunity, it was never going to happen, was it? And these are the candidates for PM. Cameron was awful, but this lot… you just wait.

And Remain? Half-hearted or invisible campaigning, or simply not campaigning at all, so afraid of standing alongside they hated they sucked all momentum out of the positive message that could’ve been made. They led on the economy, supported by almost everyone, but couldn’t put out a good message. It was only one thing: DOOM. And yes, that’s what’s going to happen, but they were hamstrung on the truth. Blame the EU too much for immigration, and people will question how their austerity helped public services. Cameron and Osborne started strongly but were the only big voices that anyone recognised. Their hearts weren’t in it in the end. Then the rest? Greens and Lib Dems did work hard, but their voices were drowned out by the main protagonists, and the positivity submerged by the lies and negativity. And Labour? Split, as were Tories, down the middle, riven by an internecine war for the party. Corbyn appeared half way through to support an insitution he’s been opposed to all his career, and refused to share a platform with any other party for fear of his own reputation. His colleagues did, but the message was almost entirely negative, and positivity doesn’t resonate with fear. A half decent campaign would’ve likely won, and yet refuting all the Leave’s lies simply was ignored by the press most of the time. By the end, even after the tragic killing of MP Jo Cox, no one could appeal to compassion or sentiment. The campaign, like all politics now, seemingly, has been poisoned.

All the same, I, like many still held out hope that we’d sneak a win by a couple of percent. So, what happened? The split of age ranges said it all – 75% of young people (but not enough young people) voted to Remain, most cities did, Scotland did, as did Wales, but much of rural England and working classes voted to Leave, and this tipped the balance. Even then though, the result was a shock. Even personally, putting aside my beliefs, it’s depressing to think that we can survive in a globalised world where immigration, climate change, economics, crime and trade are all internationally formed and affected by shutting the curtains. But the supremely negative campaigns destroyed all hope in the whole referendum. Fears and worries were inflamed, division and hatred fed, to the point where many people simply saw it as the only solution. A kick against the elite? If you think Gove, Farage, Johnson and Duncan Smith aren’t elites then we are in trouble. Yes, kick Westminster, but this wasn’t a changing of the guard. It’s going to be a lot, lot worse.

So, what now? Economic shock, uncertainty, a plunging pound, and protracted battles for control of government and opposition. And what of the promises? 350m to the NHS, or schools, or public services? Just ‘suggestions’. Immigration? It ‘may well not fall’. Control is not constriction. Trade? Single markets mean free movement. Just ask Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. The EU council’s made that 100% clear. So we best invoke Article 50 now. Oh, that’s not going to happen? Why? When? Because the Leave campaign have no plan, no post-exit ideas. They didn’t expect to win. They’ll crow and laugh as the markets fall, we all lose money, because it won’t affect them. It never would. They’ve got their wish? Who cares what happens now? If you believe any of their lies, that’s understandable, the country is a mess that needs many many things solved, and so you feel hope and empowerment from voting to Leave. But this was never going to happen. It’s far more complex than a Yes/No choice. It’s a modern tragedy, a vote that should never have taken place, or was supposed to, on the whims of a party riven by internal division over Europe. This was never anything but a Tory civil war, that’s resulted in the country in panic. And it’s going to be the reason for division and hatred. We’ve seen that already, and it’ll be the excuse for everything ‘well we’re just the UK now, everyone else needs to leave, we voted for it’. It’s grim. Scotland will leave the UK, maybe Wales too. And we may end up with a result that betrays everyone’s hopes – both Leave and Remain.

What will the future look like? PM Johnson? A man so much more right wing than Cameron or Osborne, a born liar who ruined London if you weren’t an investment banker or CEO or foreign property buyer, or Gove, another former journalist that finds truth a mere inconvenience. Or Theresa May, a Remain campaigner that really was 50-50 and who gave us the Snooper’s Charter. We’ll have a UK Bill of Rights, tear up so much EU legislation that protected our workers rights, environment, industry…. and unless we have a sensible opposition party we’ll allow the Tory party to steamroller this country and sell it off to the highest bidder. All while the division they stoked keeps us busy. I’m no Labour cheerleader either, and I’m deeply disappointed in the party tearing itself apart, with neither wing wanting compromise, so while they should be uniting with Lib Dems, SNP and Greens to hammer this terrible government, they’re going to be fighting each other.

It’s a mess. And it’s a mess built on a decade of lies and mistakes from all sides. The rise of the right in Europe (and many elements at the extremes of it) is continuing and we have a battle to prove we’re a friendly, open country and region. Leaving the EU can only hurt that, and for the many Leave voters that do not share that sentiment, we have to come together to try and ensure we don’t retreat into ourselves and into hatred and division, because this result is the means for many to now see their views as accepted. I’m incredibly disappointed, and sad, and angry with the politicians that lied to us all along now being at the control. The country will suffer and I have no faith they will do what’s right.

Ever feel you’ve been cheated…?