Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #14

Wham! – Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go

When the first frames of the video for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” flashed across the screen, my initial thought, I kid you not, was that Ted McGinlay had started a band. Now, this was ridiculous for two reasons. First, I had recently seen the (and I write this unironically for all the elitists out there) masterpiece “Revenge of the Nerds“, so I should have had a clearer idea about Ted’s looks. Second, other than a similar bouncy hairstyle, Ted and Wham! frontman Yog Panas really didn’t look all that much alike (though I can still see a resemblance in some shots – and I wasn’t the only one to see it.)

If you watched that video without any awareness of the band, you would have likely concluded it was a foursome, with Panas a.k.a. George Michael and long-time pal Andrew Ridgeley joined by the female duo of Pepsi and Shirlie (plus two other women who get a lot of screen time for people whose names I can’t even find on the internet). But the women were never more than hired help, and George had long before this moment passed Andrew as the creative force driving the bus that was Wham!. Andrew, who had once had to push George into music, was a smart lad who knew when he was in the presence of genius. He was just happy to be making music with his best friend.

I loved Wham! from the first listen, and, as a heterosexual 20-year-old male, was rather embar­assed by this initially. When I bought “Make It Big”, the album led off by “Wake Me Up”, I made sure to pair it with Van Halen’s “1984” so the cashier at Records on Wheels or wherever it was would know I wasn’t a wuss. My cassette of “1984″ was played all the way through once – maybe. “Make It Big” remained in regular rotation for several years, the cassette end­lessly flipped back over from B to A for one more listen to “Wake Me Up” (and often the next song, ”Everything She Wants”).

The song is a joyous pop confection that sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time. It has the feel of ’60s girl group hits, with finger snaps,  hand claps, ooo ooos and yeah yeahs, but sped up and with synths, and missing those booming drums and Phil Spectoresque pretensions. The use of the goofy “jitterbug” refrain calls back to swing dancing and early rock ‘n’ roll, and instantly pulls you into the song with a “WTF is that?”. I don’t know if any song feels happier, and it always puts me in a good mood.

George Michael went on to greater acclaim and bigger hits but no other song quite captures his mastery of the pop idiom. My wife and I don’t have much in common musically, but the Venn diagram of our tastes has George Michael smack dab in the middle of where the circles overlap. That his pop sensibility can align two such people – she’s never once listened to “Never Mind the Bollocks ” (which I played right after Wham! this morning, spazzing all over my kitchen), and I often greet her choices with a giant shrug – speaks to his genius.

As great as the song is, it really works better with the video. It’s so goofy, especially after they discard the all-white Choose Life get-ups they start out in for pastel beachwear. George has a sexy come-on at one point that even he seems to know is ridiculous. Andrew carries a guitar around and appears to be playing in a song that has little in the way of recognizable guitar parts other than Deon Estus’ bass, and they both pretend to play horns. Mistakes during filming are weaved in, and there is an energy that’s inescapable.

At the heart, though, is the love between George and Andrew. Ridgeley was a bit of a punchline, the much-less-talented hard-partying friend who George carried until he outgrew him. That Andrew then struggled post-breakup to figure out what came next (with a failed album (so obscure it isn’t even on Spotify) and even more disastrous car racing efforts) added to this. But the truth was, all Andrew had wanted to do for a long time was be in a band with George, and when you achieve all you want in life before age 25, it can take some time to come up with a Plan B. Like most of us, he eventually found another path.

You can see the bond in the video. My favourite moment is at 3:13. Michael makes a mistake, coming out of a twirl and landing in front of Ridgeley, who howls and puts a hand on his friend’s back. It’s such a sweet moment that the director included it twice. Then, at the end, George is alone at centre stage, looking confused, needing his support system. I always loved that they remained friends until Michael’s far too early death. And though their reign was short, the pairing left us with a lot of great songs – if you’ve forgotten that, just wait until next Christmas. It’ll come back to you.

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