Dance again, George

Profile: George Michael; He's back and he's seven-minute serious. Andy Beckett on pop's sharpest risk-taker
THE FIRST song written by George Michael for four years barely has a chorus. Instead it is a slow flow of sad words about lost love and death, slipping by as a guitar weeps and drums patter mournfully behind. In seven minutes - time for three songs by the younger, ruder British pop stars he will have to compete with when his single is released tomorrow - Michael never once raises his famously high, keening voice.

These seven slow minutes are George Michael's comeback. After three years struggling free of Sony, three years of arguing in court that the record company was unfairly restricting his talents, this is what Britain's biggest international pop star has produced.

British pop has changed in his absence: the charts have fragmented and filled up with more abrasive forms of guitar and dance music. "The people who would have been buying George Michael 10 years ago are buying Oasis now," says Paul Gorman of Music Week. Moreover, when Michael was last releasing records, in 1992, his sales were stalling. One single, "Cowboys and Angels", even failed to make the Top 40, his first miss since leaving Wham!, the frothiest and most popular pop group of the Eighties.

Yet few people expect the new single to fail; some predict it will go straight to Number One. This is partly because of its marketing: it was released to radio stations weeks ago and has been played heavily since. Michael's continuing fame also helps: last Monday a 12-year-old hit called "Careless Whisper" came top in a poll of listeners' favourite songs conducted by London's Capital Radio and it has done so for seven of the last 10 years. Most of all, however, the expectation derives from his perceived talent.

For Michael, who once stuffed shuttlecocks down his shorts to thrill Wham! fans, now aspires to be taken seriously. "I want to leave something behind me as a writer," he has said. To an extent, he has already succeeded: the South Bank Show canonised him in 1990.

Michael's new single is intended to take him closer to his double goal of fame and credibility. As such, it is the latest of several risks in his career: he broke up Britain's most popular pop group when he was only 23; he took on the Sony Corporation in the courts when (he said) it tried to force his subsequent solo career in the old teen-pleasing direction. Mostly, these risks have succeeded. Even the failure of his case against Sony for restraint of trade has helped him. Last July Michael was bought from Sony by a much-touted new media conglomerate called Dreamworks, founded by the film director Steven Spielberg and the music mogul David Geffen. They paid Sony $40m. Michael received another $10m and a much-improved royalty rate. The years in court have hardly hindered him: "The three years fighting Sony were as good as making two hit albums," says Simon Napier-Bell, who was Wham!'s manager and is now a friend.

Michael's celebrity has become self-sustaining. Last year he appeared in a British newspaper, on average, every day. In June, it was the Versace book launch; in July, he was thinking about a cliff-top house near Dublin; in August, he bought a cliff-top house in St Tropez and called it, after one of his nicknames, Chez Nobby.

When he came to give this celebrity some new musical substance, it was deftly done: first, he sang "Jesus To A Child" at an awards ceremony under the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Then he let people hear the song if they pledged money to charity. When he finally decided on a release date, he chose the least competitive chart of the year - and also the last chart before the music industry's annual convention. "George understands exactly how the music industry works," says Napier-Bell.Michael's artistic ambitions and the machinery of fame seem in harmony, his double goal within reach.

But George Michael has clashed with every record company he has recorded for. His understanding of the industry has made him more, not less critical of commercial compromises. Agreements he has made to further his fame have always come, eventually, to choke his sense of identity as "a writer". His contract with Sony was only the latest and most high-profile to be challenged, and cast off. As Napier-Bell puts it: "He wants to achieve an enormous amount. But he hates what comes with achieving it."

WHEN MICHAEL was young he was more amenable. He was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in Finchley, north London, in 1963. The slightly podgy son of Greek Cypriot immigrants - he lived above his father's restaurant for a while - all he wanted was to be famous and get girls. His father had changed his name and got to the final of a search for a television presenter in Cyprus once; Georgios was shown the commemorative newspaper photo: its headline read, "Jack Panos Is Chased Down The Street By Girls Wherever He Goes".

Georgios' parents got richer and moved out to Hertfordshire. He got spottier. One day at school he met a more confident boy called Andrew Ridgeley, also from a family of immigrants,- Egyptian and Italian. They started messing around with guitars and dance steps in their bedrooms. Soon they were skipping school to busk in London.

In 1979 they formed a ska band called The Executive. After a dozen tiny concerts and stony silences from record companies, they folded, but Georgios was confident enough to dress up and dance in public now. He changed his name to George Michael: "I have never felt any ethnic connection between the Greeks and me other than how hairy I am."

Michael worked as a DJ in Bushey restaurants and plotted. He wrote an early version of "Careless Whisper" on a bus. In 1981 he and Ridgeley sent a demo tape to Innervision, a small subsidiary of CBS. Thrilled by its acceptance, they signed a contract allowing them tiny royalties. It did not seem to matter: the next year they were dancing to their first hit "Young Guns (Go For It)" on Top Of The Pops.

Napier-Bell saw them. He had 20 years' experience, and thought Wham! "televised better than anyone". He became their manager, and quickly the hyperactive soul pastiches Michael had written as a teenager, called things like "Bad Boys" and "Club Tropicana", were in the Top 10, on television, and on tour - even to China.

Then Michael decided the Innervision contract was too restrictive. So he hid the master-tapes for Wham!'s first album at home and forced CBS to renegotiate.

But he was already tiring of Wham!, "all white teeth and silk shorts", as he saw it. Their cavorting image was more Ridgeley's anyway; Michael was interested in being a "craftsman". When they retired to a French jazz musician's chateau to record their second album, he wrote while an intoxicated Ridgeley was being given baths by his friends.

After the split in 1986, Michael made self-conscious use of the classic soul and funk elements which had been creeping into later Wham! singles. He duetted with Aretha Franklin and conquered the American charts; Ridgeley tried(unsuccessfully) to become a Formula Three racing driver.

As long as Michael's idea of good songwriting coincided with his new record company's commercial imperatives, all was well. Then Sony saw the sales slowing along with the songs' tempos - ballads of lovely, ever-finer texture. When the two parties came to court in 1992, public sympathy was with Michael. But in truth he had reached an artistic as well as contractual impasse.

While the lawyers locked horns, Michael stopped writing. His personal income dropped from pounds 14m to pounds 880,000. No one was going to repossess his firm-gated, thick-carpeted home in Hampstead, north London, but without work he was empty. He lives alone; he walks his labrador on Hampstead Heath. Otherwise, "I've never seen George interested in anything except waiting for the next bit of his career," says a friend. "Even when eating a meal."

NOW, after settlement with Sony and rescue by Dreamworks, his lay- off looks like luck or astuteness - unlike Prince or Madonna, Michael has not tired us with over-production.

But unlike them, he has not taken many artistic risks either. Michael has not used his self-proclaimed integrity and independence to try anything rash. On his new single he still sings about standard pop things like "all these tears" and "cold, cold nights". The lines still rhyme, and his voice still copies traditional American soul intonation like every other white balladeer. He could be mistaken for his hero Elton John, but never Bob Dylan, or even Jarvis Cocker from Pulp. His real skill lies elsewhere, in writing the obvious yet memorable melodies he has been trying to escape ever since Wham!.

And Michael's deal with Dreamworks is still just escape from one conglomerate for another. Indeed his new record company's very raison d'etre is the use of artists as flexible, cross-promotable "software" that he found so intolerable at Sony. With the latter came friction over Michael's refusal to provide his stubbly stare for an album cover; now, under his new contract, he is back on the cover of his new single, as airbrushed and moody as any disposable teen idol.

This retreat seems puzzling for such a stubborn, clear-sighted man. But perhaps George Michael only wants part of that goal: fame, yes, but artistic fulfilment - that can stay just a goal.