Smash hits and shuttlecocks

They were the ultimate Eighties pop group, the young guns who took us to the edge of heaven. Then they decided to go go. Dylan Jones says thank you Wham!

In today's Spice World, it is easy to dismiss all that went before it, difficult to imagine any one pop phenomenon being able to inspire the same kind of national - if not quite global - loyalty. With pop music it's always Year Zero. Think of Take That, Bros, Culture Club or T Rex and we automatically think of bargain basements full of discarded copies of "Back For Good", "I Owe You Nothing", "Karma Chameleon" or "Jeepster".

As built-in obsolescence always seems to be the order of the day, it is unlikely that a greatest hits collection by any of the aforementioned teen dreams would stand much chance of making it to No 1 this Christmas. Yet, next week, Sony Music's Epic Records is releasing If You Were There ... The Best of Wham! in the hope that George Michael's currency can entice us to relive those rashly extravagant days of the mid-Eighties, when our radios rattled to the sub-Motown sound of "Wham Rap" (No 8, January 1983), "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" (No 1, May 1984), "Freedom" (No 1, October 1984) and the rest. Wham!'s controlled exuberance epitomised everything that is good about pop, and though they were in the charts for just four years, from "Young Guns (Go For It)" (No 3, October 1982) to "The Edge of Heaven" (No 1, June 1986), during that time they hardly made a duff record.

The late Seventies and early Eighties were not exactly giddy times in Britain, yet out of the recession came dozens of smart young pop groups willing to dance while London burned. None was smarter than Wham!. They were part of the biggest British-pop explosion since the mid-Sixties, as Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Culture Club, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet broke the American charts, paving the way for such unlikely glamour kids as the Thomspon Twins and the Eurythmics. Only Wham!'s music has lasted, and while the dulcet tones of Tony Hadley warbling "True" or Simon Le Bon puffing his way through the incomprehensible "Union of the Snake" conjure up images of funny hair-dos and over-elaborate designer clothing, when a Wham! record comes on the radio, we think only of a glorious, rose- tinted illusory past.

In the 11 years since George and his dancing partner Andrew Ridgeley broke up, Wham! have rarely been out of our orbit. Their songs are always on the radio, and George's "Careless Whisper" (No 1, August 1984) regularly tops the Capital Radio All Time Top 100. The duo have also had the perfect pop divorce: George having been granted ascension to the very top of the pop hierarchy, Andrew having faded from view like a GTi- driving Garbo. There have been few career hiccups for George, and no embarrassing comebacks from Andrew.

Hence this new compilation. If all goes according to plan - and it will - for Christmas 1998, Sony will release George's own greatest hits, including three new songs he's currently recording in London and Los Angeles. After this he will owe Sony nothing, allowing Virgin, his new recording company, to release the follow-up to Older in the year 2000.

I first saw Wham! in July 1983 at the launch of their debut LP Fantastic (such confidence!), in a small suite of offices just behind Fulham Broadway Tube station. While dozens of sneering music journalists and record-company bigwigs stood about, working at being brilliant, the two 19-year-old soul boys, dressed in Hawaiian shirts, cutaway jeans and deck shoes, jived together on the dance floor, jitterbugging along to their own version of the Miracles' "Love Machine". Rarely had I seen two men enjoying themselves so much. To be dancing to one of their own records! At their own party! In front of other people!

Suburban boys with West End aspirations - second-generation immigrants, Andrew comes from Italian/Egyptian stock, while George (real name Georgios Panayiotou) is Greek - they were high street through and through: their white T-shirts and socks came from Marks & Spencer, their blue jeans from Woodhouse. They hailed from Bushey in Hertfordshire, in the heart of the disco belt. For years they danced themselves stupid at the New Penny in Watford High Street, moving on to the Camden Palace as soon as it opened in the spring of 1982, immersing themselves in London's holier-than-thou nightlife. To west-London sybarites they looked oddly naive in their quasi-naff clothes and floppy fringes, yet anyone with eyes in their head and loafers on their feet could tell that they had a very spangly future ahead of them.

After they became famous they still went out, and it was not unusual to see Andrew on display at the Limelight or George down at the infamous Taboo nightclub. For about 18 months "Everything She Wants" (No 2, December 1984) was the hippest record to be seen dancing to, and George could often be seen doing just that, right in front of the DJ booth. It was a common sight, yet still disconcerting, and while you might have shared a space at the bar and adjacent spots on the dancefloor, there was George the next night, glistening with fame, on Top of the Pops. Once, in the Wag Club in Soho, I (drunkenly) confessed my love to him, such was my passion for his oeuvre. George, always cool as a cucumber, simply said "Thank you", before slinking off to dance to Phyllis Nelson's "Move Closer". Even at 3am in the bowels of some sweaty West End nightclub, he looked as though he'd just stepped off the plane from Ibiza: tandoori tan, summer whites, designer stubble (something the singer invented) and perfect Princess Diana hair. He was always serious about his hair: "Some days I made the covers of the tabloids. Some days Princess Di made the covers of the tabloids," he said. "Some days I think they just got us mixed up."

For a while we even shared a tailor, Wham! and me. From his shop in Kentish Town, an ex-boxer called Chris Ruocco would knock up the most delightful suits and stage costumes for the boys, and though it would be unusual to see George on the premises, you'd occasionally see Andrew trying on a new pair of trousers, his hot hatchback double-parked out front. I once went in for a fitting only to find Chris surrounded by 30 custom-built tartan suits, in readiness for the boys' upcoming tour of China. Needless to say, it was the Black Watch for me that summer.

George was less home-boy than homely boy. If he was the suburban sonneteer, happy in his bedroom writing tear-jerkers, then Andrew was the quintessential party animal, the Liam Gallagher of his day, unable to leave a party without a bottle of Moet in one hand and a bottle blonde in the other. He was always a good-natured boozer, always ready with a smile for the paparazzi, even if it was occasionally given by his backside, and even if he had just thrown up outside the Hippodrome. His nickname? The Vomit Fountain.

It was Andrew who realised George's pop ambitions, Andrew who acted the extrovert to George's shy loner. George might have written the songs (in four years Andrew only gained three co-writing credits, for "Wham! Rap", "Club Tropicana" and "Careless Whisper"), yet it was his partner who looked the part when they sang them. Andrew's image was crystallised on the 12-inch version of "I'm Your Man" (No 1, November 1985): a racing car is heard careering through a plate-glass window, followed by the sound of its driver cackling with laughter as he asks, "Where's the bar?"

The boys were managed for a time by Sixties pop impresario Simon Napier- Bell, but it was always George who had the vision thing, even at school. While most pop careers are rather haphazard affairs, Wham!'s seemed organised with staggering efficiency. At first there was a little contretemps involving Innervision, their first record company, but after seeking serious legal advice they signed to Epic, a division of the mighty CBS Records (now owned by Sony). Here they flourished, manipulating the media with consummate ease while delivering top-drawer product to their fans. Their songs were hardly arch (unlike, say, those of the Pet Shop Boys), but even to the untrained ear one instinctively knew the people behind them weren't stupid. Not only were they perfect fodder for 12-year-old girls, but they also had a superior ironic quality: whether you were an art student or an estate agent, you couldn't deny that Wham! were cool. On top of this they were a welcome antidote to the hoards of shoe-gazers filling the pages of the music press. Who wanted to listen to some doleful Bolshevik ballad of oppression (The Redskins and Matt Johnson) when you could be cutting a rug to "Club Tropicana" (No 4, July 1983)?

It all ended in the most spectacular, and - for a pop group - impressively orchestrated manner. Displaying unusual sagacity for a 22-year-old, Georgios decided the clock was nearing midnight, and that Cinderella really ought to go home. Ziggy Stardust-style, he broke up the band to go solo, organising one last showbiz gesture, the final farewell triumph at Wembley Stadium in the scorching summer of 1986.

One gets the feeling that Andrew could have carried on forever, but for George there were only so many shuttlecocks he could put down his tennis shorts. "The music business moves very fast, there's a big turnover," he told his biographer Tony Parsons in 1990. "There are bands that used to be Wham!'s immediate competition and today nobody remembers their names. It's frightening. Even the greatest talents diminish after years of constant pressure. And I don't want to be another one of the casualties. I want to step back from all the publicity and promotion and marketing to protect my ability, my gift as a songwriter."

If George was afforded a kind of pop martyrdom, Andrew gradually disappeared. With pounds 12m in his pocket, he didn't need to work, though initially he tried. He explored motor racing, did a bit of acting, even opened a restaurant called "92" in Rickmansworth. In 1990 he finally released a lacklustre album, "Son of Albert" (on the cover of which his name was initially misspelt) and then moved to Cornwall. He still lives there, wanting nothing to do with the promotion of the new LP.

"At least George and I managed to end it gracefully and with some taste," says Andrew. "We did it our way."

That they did. Pop will be as exciting again, that's for sure, but it will never be so unabashed, so carefree, or involve so many shuttlecocks.

Jitterbug!

! 'If You Were There ...' (Epic) is out next week.

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