Rock and Roll Book Club: Andrew Ridgeley writes about his years in Wham! with George Michael

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Andrew Ridgeley's book 'Wham!, George Michael & Me.'
Andrew Ridgeley's book 'Wham!, George Michael & Me.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

In 1985, Andrew Ridgeley was backstage at Live Aid, where he was set to sing backup for George Michael's duet with Elton John on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me." His tour director popped into the dressing room with astonishing news: Led Zeppelin had arrived for their wildly anticipated reunion set, and Jimmy Page was wondering if Ridgeley could come say hi.

Ridgeley's new memoir has the resulting photo of himself with the guitarist...and Page's 21-year-old daughter, a huge Wham! fan. Page didn't want to swap licks, he wanted to give his daughter the opportunity to meet one of Britain's biggest pop idols.

There are no two ways about it: you know who Andrew Ridgeley is because of George Michael. By the same token, though, you might very well not know who George Michael is if not for Andrew Ridgeley. When they meet in high school, at London's Bushey Meads Comprehensive, Andy Ridgeley volunteered to be the guy who showed the ropes to a new kid named Georgios Panayiotou. The new kid told everyone to pronounce his name "Yor-goh," and to Andy he became "Yog," right up until Ridgeley's last text to his friend in December 2016.

It was particularly poignant that Michael died on Christmas Day, Ridgely writes, because the writer of "Last Christmas" genuinely did love Christmas. What's more, the career-minded singer-songwriter knew that writing a holiday hit would be a good bet for perennial relevance (and income). He wasn't wrong: a movie inspired by the song, starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding, just opened in theaters.

Ridgeley and Michael bonded over their shared love of music (you'll be unsurprised to learn that Elton John and Queen were favorites), but initially it was Ridgeley who had the drive to form a band. Both boys were multi-instrumentalists, but Ridgeley settled into the role of guitar-slinger in their first band, The Executive.

From the beginning, they agreed they'd share frontman duties. The pair had much in common, including strong voices (Michael's was to become, of course, legendary), unashamedly pop sensibilities (though The Executive were inspired by the 2 Tone scene, and the first song they ever played live was a ska cover of Beethoven's Für Elise), and being the children of immigrants. Michael's father was a Greek man who became a British restaurateur, while Ridgeley was the son of an Egyptian father and an English mother.

Eventually the duo's bandmates fell away and they focused on collaborating solely with one another, using backing tracks and a pair of female dancers for their live shows. Ridgeley was in a relationship with one of their dancers, and their manager "leaked" a false story about the four having orgies together so as to play up the band's tabloid value and heterosexual swagger; Michael was out as gay to his bandmates but didn't come out to the public until the late '90s.

Wham! took their name from the first song Michael and Ridgeley wrote together, a hip-hop track called "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)." They'd already written "Careless Whisper" by the time they played that song on Top of the Pops, and their trajectory was set: Wham! became a transitional vehicle from the pop party vibe of the band's early hits to the mature songcraft of Michael's solo work.

"Careless Whisper," though, was a genuine collaboration, writes Ridgeley. He doesn't want undue credit for Michael's success in Wham! and beyond, but he notes that the timeless sax jam was one of the early songs the two wrote together before Michael took over sole songwriting duties.

It just had to wait for Wham!'s audience to be ready for its release...and, of course, for the recording to be just right. The band cut a version in Muscle Shoals that neither member was happy with; it was just too perfect. They knew it needed the perfect sax solo to elevate it from a great song to an iconic single, and they had no fewer than ten saxophonists try the lick before Steve Gregory finally nailed it, and even then they recorded it in a lower key with the tape slowed down, speeding it up to create the otherworldly sound that defined the eventual chart-topper.

Ridgeley also writes about the band's breakout hit, written by Michael inspired by a note he spotted on his bandmate's fridge. Ridgeley still has the note, reproduced in the book: writing to his mom, he scrawled in caps, "PLEASE WAKE WAKE ME UP UP BEFORE YOU GO GO."

The video for that song showcased Wham!'s distinctive aesthetic: a clean athletic vibe that made a perfect fit for the era of leg warmers, Jazzercize, Jane Fonda videos, and Olivia-Newton John's "Let's Get Physical." The CHOOSE LIFE shirts they wore, Ridgeley explains, had nothing to do with abortion: they were a Cold War cry for nuclear disarmament, created by designer Katherine Hamnett.

Wham!, of course, were not a particularly outspoken group. That caused some friction among their peers, writes Ridgeley, in an era when many artists were protesting the Thatcher administration in a country wracked with protests. Michael, though, preferred to make his statements more implicitly. He was generally private about his personal life, and he was concerned about the commercial and emotional risks if he were to have come out publicly.

Their apolitical nature caused some shadows over Wham!'s career — even "Last Christmas" was kept from topping the U.K. charts by the all-star anti-famine song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" — but ironically, it helped the Chinese government feel safe inviting them on a tour that helped inspire the youth of that country to demand more access to Western artists. Ridgeley remembers being disturbed by the tour's extraordinarily heavy security, and amused by the free cassettes distributed by authorities: one side contained original Wham! tracks, and the other had Chinese covers with lyrics rewritten to promote communist themes.

Ridgeley's book is aptly titled: it's exclusively about his decade with Michael, from the mid '70s to the mid '80s. He's kept a low profile since Wham! broke up: releasing a single moderately successful solo album, joining Michael once again onstage in 1991, and generally living quietly on his restored 15th century farm in Cornwall.

The book begins just as the band's career ended, with a celebratory final show at Wembley Stadium in 1986. Elton John came out to do "Candle in the Wind," Simon Le Bon made an appearance, and at the show's end the duo shared an embrace. "I couldn't have done this without you, Andy," said Michael. He had to yell to be heard over tens of thousands of screaming fans.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Nov. 20: Janis: Her Life and Music by Holly George-Warren

Nov. 27: Horror Stories by Liz Phair

Dec. 4: Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day by Joel Selvin

Dec. 11: Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues by David Dann

...and mark your calendar for The Current Rock and Roll Book Club Essential Reads Reveal at Number 12 Cider from 4:00 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 13! The Current Rock and Roll Book Club Essential Reads is presented with support from AARP Minnesota.

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