Pop is beautiful music to legal ears: George Michael sings tonight. It's a change from arguing art over accountancy in court, says Jim White (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 23 DECEMBER 1993) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

TONIGHT, George Michael can be seen in his natural environment: singing to an adoring audience. Together with kd lang, Mick Hucknall and, acting as master of ceremonies, David Bowie, he will be wiggling his hips and stretching his larynx in a concert at Wembley Arena. The performance, planned last April at the behest of the Princess of Wales, is to mark World Aids Day. But it could not have come at a better time for the biggest pop star in Britain.

It will be his first appearance on stage in this country for more than two years. Not that he has been entirely reclusive in the intervening time. Last month, fans had half a dozen opportunities to see him in the flesh as he arrived at the law courts in the Strand. There to give evidence in a case he has brought against his record company, Sony, it was quite a performance. Accompanied by half a dozen minders with shoulders the size of wardrobes - providing him with high-profile security, from, presumably, attackers wielding unsatisfactory contracts - he was dressed much as he had been last time he was sighted on stage: modest black T-shirt, elegant black two-piece, black cowboy boots with silver tips. Only his face looked different - as well as his usual unpruned shrubbery of stubble, he was wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses; to add an air of gravitas, perhaps. This was the grown- up George, there to do business.

Not that the judge would have needed persuading that he was serious. In the past 15 years, pop musicians have provided good business indeed for the legal profession. Judges no longer ask 'Who Is Mick Jagger?' when they are required to be up to speed on the manner in which royalties were divided for 'I Want Your Sex.'

George Michael appreciated from an early age that to be a successful pop singer is to enter a lifetime of acquaintance with the legal profession. If you are Elton John, there is a libel action to pursue every few years; Boy George has bizarre paternity claims to wade through; Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain, in the great line of pop naughties stretching back through Jagger and Richards to James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis, prefer to enter the dock by the quickest route possible: they get themselves arrested.

But these are just the cases that, like Michael's, garner column inches. For pop folk, there are constant battles to be fought. Justin Hayward, lead singer of the Moody Blues, says there hasn't been a day since his band first scored a No 1 with Nights In White Satin in 1967 that they have not been involved in some sort of litigation. Disputes with managers, record companies, public relations officers, accountants, plagiarists, songwriters, distributors, wives, groupies, ex-wives and ex- groupies fill the waking hours.

Moreover, the Moody Blues have stuck together. Many a group, the moment it achieves a degree of financial success, has collapsed internally, members suing each other with abandon. The Beatles led the way, and everyone from the Drifters to the Bay City Rollers have rushed to throw most of their earnings into the pockets of expensive briefs. The Rollers have achieved comical levels of internal rifts, trying to stop each other from performing under the band's name. When Les McKeown, the tartan-clad former lead singer, appeared in a comeback concert recently, a solicitor's note appeared on the door of the auditorium. It pointed out that Mr McKeown was not a member of the Bay City Rollers, and any publicity indicating that he might be was not initiated by him.

'I don't even know who owns our name,' said Rick Wakeman, the erstwhile keyboard player of the progressive rock band Yes. 'I don't know if anybody knows who is allowed to use it, or why. Things become completely farcical when the law gets involved in music.'

George Michael first came into contact with the law when, as a desperate 19-year-old hopeful, he signed a record contract that had all the mutual benefits of one drawn up by a Mafia don: you do all the work, we'll take all the money. The judge who released him from it was shocked at its contents.

Michael's present dispute is different. He does not make great claim that he has lost out financially from the deal with Sony. His suit is much more subtle and, indeed, more significant than the usual run of unscrupulous- management-vs-nave-performer cases that are the pop norm. His argument is that, because of an over-lengthy, over-restrictive contract, Sony has constricted his artistic development, and prefers to see him as the global teen sensation he once was rather than the less financially significant adult entertainer he now thinks of himself as being. This, he reckons, is a battle of art against accountancy.

It sounds precious, but if Michael wins the ramifications, will be enormous. Lengthy contracts will become a thing of the past. Artists will have a footballer's freedom to move between employers. Indeed, Sony's main defence is that if the singer is victorious, the music industry will have to change all its practices. Which, one of Michael's lawyers pointed out, is like plantation owners complaining that the abolition of slavery would mean changes to the cotton business.

The case, like Michael's former partner-in- dance, Andrew Ridgely, has proved to have legs. Every music-business lawyer in Britain has enjoyed five minutes of fame, appearing as an expert witness for one side or the other. Never mind a marathon, this one could run longer than a track by Lynyrd Skynyrd. With no end in sight, his performance this evening will be a pleasant distraction from the lawyers and their bills.

And it will give the star a chance to show the watching world that George Michael has changed. The teen idol who once shoved a shuttlecock down his running shorts in an effort to make 14-year-old females see the quality in his songwriting, now, his admirers attest, is an artist of stature: a pair of lungs to match an enviable ability with a quaver.

He has been active behind the scenes to ensure the evening is a success. Not for him a quick outing to show his credentials as a member of pop's charitocracy. He has been involved in the planning of this concert from its inception, cajoling the other artists to appear with him.

It could prove quite a pop show. And it is one which, for a change, the lawyers will have to buy tickets.

CORRECTION.

Jim White's reference to George Michael's first contact with the law ('Pop is beautiful music to legal ears', 1 December 1993) incorrectly stated that a judge released him from his record contract, expressing shock at its terms. In fact, the problem was ultimately resolved by mutual agreement and there was no occasion on which a judge released Mr Michael from his contract and expressed shock at its contents. We apologise for any confusion caused by the error. The contract was described as having all the mutual benefits of one drawn up by a Mafia don. The Mafia of course had nothing to do with the matter.

(Photograph omitted)

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