In September 1990, George Michael released “Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1”, the follow-up to the global monster that was his debut solo album “Faith.” My brother, a devoted George Michael fan for many years by that stage, bought the vinyl LP with its black-and-white cover shot of a crowd of immigrants. Brave move number one, where was that famous face?
I had bought the album “Faith” as a Christmas present for my brother several years previously and I decided to check out the new one. The needle dropped down on the record, the crackling began and I sat back to hear what I assumed was going to be Faith 2.
The first track was his single release of the previous month, the anthemic “Praying for Time.” It was a good if unexpected song, but he didn’t appear in the video for it which hurt its sales. It has this sixty-ish horn section on it that indicates that this first single and first track on the album are going in a very different direction to “Faith.”
In a new documentary both Elton John and Liam Gallagher agree (yes, George Michael’s music reaches and unites such disparate musical figures as those) that “Praying for Time” sounds like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” George admitted listening to Beatles albums at the time like “Revolver” and “Abbey Road.” Lyrically, the song echoes Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” and its socially-conscious struggle with rich white guilt. George was a very generous man during his lifetime, donating sometimes astronomical fees to charities in private which is true altruism. He clearly felt guilty about the immense wealth he attained and tried to do something to redress the balance. “And the wounded skies above” George sings in a beautiful poetic flourish that Sting would counterpoint in “Fields of Gold” with the line “we’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky.”
On to track two and straight into the superbly catchy “Freedom ’90.” Freedom was a constant theme in George Michael’s work and he’d already had a number one hit titled “Freedom” with Wham! in 1984. Freedom ’90 reevaluates what fame means to a more mature pop icon. It’s a seven-minute epic slab of funk that lays the ethos of the album bare for all to see:”Today the way I play the game is not the same, no way/Think I’m gonna get myself happy.” Once again, George would not the play media game by appearing in the video for this song. It instead featured the new wave of “supermodels” (the Kardashians of their day) – Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, etc. Directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, Alien 3), it is difficult to hear this song now without seeing that iconic 1990 video in your head.
In the video for Freedom ’90, George continues the violent deconstruction of his “Faith” image by blowing up his guitar, jukebox and setting fire to the BSA leather jacket he wore in the “Faith” video. It was reminiscent of the way David Bowie created the persona of Ziggy Stardust, it reached a crescendo of popularity and hysteria with fans and then Bowie bravely abandoned the image and created another one. Great artists do that though. They don’t want to become stale by pumping out the same stuff. They force audiences to grow and change with them by trying new things. The Beatles were the masters of that, of course.
“They Won’t Go When I Go”, a live recording of a Stevie Wonder song, is the third song on the album. If you want to hear a singer totally in control of his gift, then this is it. I had never heard the original tune, so I was literally listening without prejudice and I was blown away by it. It has the feel of an old spiritual song from the southern United States with that hymnal weariness seeping out of every groove in the vinyl. George’s voice goes crazily deep into bass territory and then right up to the top of his range and it is startling to hear it. It’s got a kind of Old Testament warning on the dangers of moral decay in the lyrics: “Unclean minds mislead the pure.” George covered many Stevie Wonder songs in his career and always made them his own. Stevie was like his spiritual and musical godfather. George had that quality that Elvis possessed of being a supreme interpreter of other people’s songs. Like The King, I thought every cover version he ever did was superior to the original and that’s a rare gift.
There’s some inevitable filler on the album like “Something to Save” and “Soul Free” but even they’re not bad. “Mother’s Pride” is an anti-war song that has its moments. George heard Don McLean’s achingly elegiac anti-war song “The Grave” as a child and it stuck with him (he recorded it in 2003 as war in Iraq loomed.) “Mother’s Pride” has the line “his country’s eyes” and it made me wonder if he’d based it on the poster for “Born on the Fourth of July”, also from 1990.
“Heal the Pain” is a gorgeous folky ballad that George claimed was influenced by Paul McCartney. Paul doesn’t feature on the 1990 version of the song but he did record a duet version of it with George in 2005: Listen here
George had received criticism from black artists like Gladys Knight and Public Enemy for winning prizes at black awards shows at the expense of black artists. It wasn’t his fault that these organisations deemed him worthy of inclusion and victory but George seemed to make a conscious effort with “Listen Without Prejudice” to veer towards the white influences of his youth. He even quotes The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on “Waiting For That Day”, which resulted in a co-writing credit for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
“Faith” displayed a wide variety of influences with urban RnB (“I Want Your Sex), Elvis-style 50’s rockabilly with a twist of country (the title track “Faith”) and even some Sinatra-style swing on “Kissing A Fool.” The production was super-slick and it became a monster George had created that he happily put to the sword on the follow-up. “Listen Without Prejudice” has a variety of influences too but the production isn’t geared towards the top 40 and multi-million album sales. George had gone up and up in that hot air balloon before and it terrified him. “Prejudice” is more mature and complex than “Faith.” It is more experimental and biographical. George has self-conscious things to say about fame and what it does to someone. He’s showing us the wizard behind the curtain that some of us might prefer to ignore and just hear the hits.
I didn’t like “Listen Without Prejudice” on first hearing it. A month later, after repeated listening, I thought and still think that it’s George Michael’s best album. It wasn’t the obvious sequel to “Faith” that I and a lot of other people were expecting. It challenged its audience to listen without prejudging what they assumed they were going to get. Now, in 2017, almost a year after George’s untimely and still shocking death, “Listen Without Prejudice” has a second coming in a deluxe remastered box set on October 20th. I will be getting it and reliving those shivery moments that George laid down so expertly for us. “”I believe I can leave songs that will mean something to other generations,” George said prophetically in the 80s . Indeed he did. The man was a true original and, yes, to use that overused word – a genius. We lost too many of those in 2016 – George, Bowie, Prince, etc.
I was lucky enough to see George Michael perform live in concert in Dublin twice on one of his last tours. He had one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard in my life. Like his idol Freddie Mercury, the songs George wrote were extremely high-pitched and difficult to sing live but he was note-perfect in the four hours in which I saw him. “I never heard him sing a bad note,” his pal Elton John said recently. I concur.
I worry for the future of music but it is a relief to know that no one can ever take away my memories of the great sounds of the past. “Listen Without Prejudice” happens to be one of them. Catch up with it now if you missed it the first time, kids. It’s a reminder of a time when albums were king, music meant something and creativity counted. Knock yourselves out.
“He was without doubt one of the greatest songwriters this country ever produced and certainly one of the best vocalists ever” – Elton John
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.