MUSIC / Selling his soul, with good cause: George Michael does a lot of work for charity, as Smashie and Nicey would say. It's just as well, says Jim White, or he might not be working at all

IT IS NOT easy being a member of pop's charitocracy. Every time the great and the good of rock do their bit for the Prince's Trust or Comic Relief or Amnesty International, their motives come under suspicion. What are they after with their public displays of charitableness, the cynical mind wonders, a knighthood? Or simply a boost to a flagging sales career?

This week George Michael, abetted by Queen and Lisa Stansfield, releases an EP Five Live, a collection of songs recorded at last year's Freddie Mercury concert and during his most recent 'Cover to Cover' tour. All proceeds are destined for the Mercury Phoenix Trust, established after the Wembley concert to help sufferers of Aids. The record is, as might be expected from George Michael, a belter. But why has he done it?

If the notes on the record are any indication, Michael has a message he wishes to communicate, a message of Aids awareness. 'For God's sake,' he writes. 'For Freddie's sake, for your own sake, please be careful.'

According to his collaborator on the record, Roger Taylor of Queen, this was the original aim of the concert last April.

'Obviously Freddie was a tremendous loss to us,' Taylor explained. 'But we felt we had an opportunity we would be really crazy not to use. 'Aids affects us all' was the slogan we wanted to put across. We didn't expect to make money, but in the end we made several millions. We're anxious that this record continues that element of the original intent.'

Of course any financial gain will be gratefully received and targeted to Aids sufferers in Britain and overseas. And, despite suggestions of compassion fatigue, pop fans are apparently still putting their hands in their pockets to support efforts like this.

'There is good money to be made in the charity record market,' Taylor said. 'Bohemian Rhapsody made pounds 1.3m in Britain alone, for the Terrence Higgins Trust, and as much again in America for the Magic Johnson Trust, which is a good wad of money.'

But is charity and education really George Michael's only reasons for making this record? He is unusually vulnerable to an unfavourable reading of his intent. He is presently in dispute with his record company, Sony: his side of the argument runs that he signed up with CBS, and when the company was taken over by a Japanese hardware manufacturer with no sensitivity to his output, his artistic integrity was compromised. Because of the dispute, he is unable to release any new material.

But he can put out live versions of other people's stuff, if the proceeds go to charity. So, the only way George Michael's fans can get to hear anything new from him, the only way he can promote himself, can remind people of his extensive back catalogue, is to play the charity card. 'Charity is a coat we wear, twice a year' runs the lyric in his song 'Praying for Time'. At the moment it is the only coat he has.

According to Taylor, such a theory is misplaced. 'There is no doubt you can benefit from charity shows,' Taylor said. 'When we did Live Aid it increased sales on our catalogue five-fold. We had no idea it would. As that was the first charity show on that scale, it would have been pretty shrewd of us to predict it. But, after the concert last year, we were very careful that we released no product so that any benefit went straight to the charity. We plead absolutely not guilty to the charge that we used it for self-promotion. And I would hate anyone to think that anyone did the Freddie concert for self-promotional reasons. It was the furthest thing from George's mind, for instance. He has thrown himself into this project. The record really is all his idea.'

George Michael doesn't like to talk about the amount of work he does for charity. In fact he doesn't like to talk about anything at all, having self-imposed a ban on media contacts three years ago. But for this single, perhaps sensing that his motives might be under suspicion, he has decided to break that habit. On Tuesday he spoke to MTV, for simultaneous screening in America and Europe.

'Everyone's got really pissed off listening to celebrities patting each other on the back saying how generous they are being,' he said in the interview. 'And they are right to. The reason I am doing this interview is to support the Phoenix Trust. It's very important these tracks get heard.'

Despite a private financial contribution to charity that reaches almost Cliff Richard levels of generosity, Michael is selective about who he supports publicly. There is no question that if any other performer had died with Aids he would have been less inclined to become so involved. 'I only met him a couple of times, but Freddie Mercury had such a profound effect on me as a child,' Michael told MTV. 'I kind of drank in everything he did.' And he dedicates the record to 'Freddie, who probably saved me from life as a waiter'.

In the end the cynics may have to withdraw. From what can be gathered of Michael's motives, a mix of affection, concern and charitableness appear to be driving him here, not a desire to get one over on Sony. And, in the meantime, enjoy this record. If his dispute against Sony goes the wrong way, he has threatened not to record anything new again. In future, charity might be the only thing we hear from Britain's finest pop singer.

Five Live (Parlophone: CDRS 6340) comprises 'Somebody to Love'; 'Killer / Papa Was A Rolling Stone'; 'These Are The Days Of Our Lives'; 'Calling You'

(Photograph omitted)

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