People mocked Status Quo, but they were wrong – this was one of the most powerful British rock bands of all, and at their heart was Rick Parfitt’s crushing rhythm guitar
Saturday 24 December 2016
There he would be, stage right, dressed almost always in a shirt – usually white, or blue denim – with one too many buttons undone, untucked over blue jeans, white sneakers on his feet. His white Telecaster would be held with its neck at a 45-degree angle – the better to synchronise swinging it with his Status Quo bandmate of decades, Francis Rossi – and from it would come riff after riff after riff after riff, unyielding, implacable.
I dare you to laugh at Rick Parfitt. People did, often and long, but they were wrong. Parfitt was one of the greatest British rock’n’rollers, and if Status Quo had long since passed into light entertainment, so what? They had earned the right to make money, playing to appreciative crowds; they had earned the right to do whatever they wanted. It’s just a shame Parfitt couldn’t be with them on stage until the end – at their gigs in the run-up to Christmas, illness had made him an absentee.
You didn’t go to Quo for chameleonic reinvention, like Bowie. You didn’t expect a mastery of styles and intoxicating sexuality, as with Prince. You’d look long and hard for insight into Cohenesque insight into the human condition. But what you did get, especially from the classic “Frantic Four” line-up of the 1970s, was rock’n’roll as a physical force, something that hit you like a cannonball. Their breakthrough album, 1972’s Piledriver, was aptly named.
When the Frantic Four reunited for a series of gigs in 2013 and 2014, they were a reminder of what Quo had been, and a lesson that it was well within their powers to return to that. And at the centre of that bludgeoning onslaught was the rhythm guitar of Parfitt, his downstrokes turning his right hand into a blur, hitting the barre chords again, again, again, again. And when he took to the mic to perform one of his own songs, Rain, it was as heavy in its own way as anything I had ever seen on the stage at the Eventim Apollo, or Hammersmith Odeon, or whatever you want to call it – as crushing as Slayer or Iron Maiden or Judas Priest or Them Crooked Vultures. It was breathtaking.
Quo’s music – so often characterised as “heads-down, no-nonsense, mindless boogie” – was hardly sophisticated, but it gets treated with a contempt it really doesn’t deserve. It’s true that even in their heyday their albums could be patchy, but at their best they were punk before punk, their dedication to stripping away the fripperies as wholehearted as the Ramones, and their willingness to turn the blues into a hypnotic drone making them something akin to a Norwood Neu!, as Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley once suggested to me.
It would be fair to say that Parfitt never seemed to make any great claims for profundity. He appeared happy enough for Quo to be A Bit Of A Larf – hence the appearances in ropy films (Bula Quo!), the cheerful admission that he and Rossi were off their nuts on cocaine through the recording of Band Aid – rather than one of the building blocks of British rock music.
Beneath it all, though, and for a long time, there was darkness. His two-year-old daughter drowned in 1980; he had recurrent health problems – a heart attack and a quadruple bypass in 1997, another heart attack, another heart attack. And the drugs and drink years turned out not to have been a non-stop party.
“Through the late 70s and all through the 80s I was a bit of an ogre,” he told our own Simon Hattenstone in 2007. “I fell into the sex, drugs, rock’n’roll big time, and Richard, my eldest son, saw me at my worst. It was a big shock for him and he deserted me. I don’t blame him ’cos I was just not with it, I wasn’t here … Richard has described me as turning into a Mr Hyde. He said, you just became a different person, and it was almost like being out of a movie where you’d wake up and all the facial hair had gone and the claws had been drawn back, and you wake up and you’re this normal person for a very short space of time until you decide to drink the potion again. For three or four years he didn’t talk to me, and he came back to me at about 14. Wisely his mother kept him away from me.”
So the cheery, laughing man you saw on stage had won the right to that persona. And for all his rock star affectations – the flapping shirt, the bling, the golden mane that had started to look a bit out of place quite a long time ago – the thing about Parfitt was that he didn’t seem like a rock star, so much as what an ordinary bloke would be like if he were transformed into a rock star.
That might account for the love people had for Quo, for they really were a group who were loved. That’s why they could continue playing arenas – because they were, in a way that only hard rock bands really can be, a “people’s group”. They were reminiscent of things that people like, rather than the things they aspire to – a night at the pub, rather than on the dancefloor at Studio 54; a day trip to the seaside, instead of a month in Mustique; chewing the fat with your mates, not trying to think of something to say to a supermodel. And at the heart of it was what seemed to be a deep and genuine love between Parfitt and Rossi, bandmates for almost 50 years, and friends for longer.
Mystery and magic have a place in rock’n’roll, of course they do. But so, too, do their less exciting counterparts – familiarity, reliability, certainty. Parfitt and Status Quo embodied those characteristics, and they shouldn’t be scoffed at. No one says of Nile Rodgers, “Yes, but all he does is disco.” They celebrate the fact that he took one thing and took it to a state of perfection. Of course, disco is glamorous; it’s flashing lights and beautiful people and New York and the thrill of the night. Status Quo were last orders and the geezer in the tour T-shirt and Croydon and the bus home. But that’s life. To be perfect at one small part of music’s great display is a colossal achievement in itself.
George Michael obituary: "a full scale phenomenon"
Wham! singer who went on to a solo career and became Britain’s biggest pop star
Monday 26 December 2016
George Michael, who has died aged 53 of heart failure, was Britain’s biggest pop star of the 1980s, first with the pop duo Wham! and then as a solo artist. After Wham! made their initial chart breakthrough with the single Young Guns (Go for It) in 1982, Michael’s songwriting gift brought them giant hits including Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Careless Whisper, and they became leading lights of the 80s boom in British pop music, alongside Culture Club and Duran Duran. His first solo album, Faith (1987), sold 25m copies, and Michael sold more than 100m albums worldwide with Wham! and under his own name.
Michael remained a major figure in the music industry even when his record releases slowed to a trickle in the later part of his career, and a loyal fan base ensured that his concert tours always sold out. However, from the late 1990s onwards he was beset by a string of personal crises and clashes with the law caused by drug use. He had always felt ambivalent about the demands of stardom, and found it difficult to balance his celebrity status with his private life. After years of concealing his homosexuality, he eventually came out in 1998, after being arrested for engaging in a “lewd act” in a public lavatory in Beverly Hills, California.
He was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in Finchley, north London. His father was a Greek Cypriot restaurateur, Kyriacos Panayiotou, who had married Lesley Angold, an English dancer. The family moved to Radlett in Hertfordshire, and George attended Bushey Meads school, where he became close friends with Andrew Ridgeley. The pair formed a ska-influenced quintet, the Executive, in 1979, then in 1981 re-emerged as a duo, Wham!. They recorded some demos of their songs (written by Michael), and were promptly signed by the independent label Innervision.
Their debut release was the single Wham Rap! in June 1982, one of the first singles by a British group to include rapping. It didn’t chart, but the follow-up, Young Guns (Go for It), in October 1982 reached No 3, thanks to a timely appearance on Top of the Pops featuring a nightclub-style dance routine by the Wham! duo and backing singers Shirlie Holliman and Dee C Lee. Wham Rap! was reissued as Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do) and shot into the top 10, where it was followed by Bad Boys and Club Tropicana in 1983.
With Wham! blossoming into a full-scale phenomenon, their debut album Fantastic (1983) charged to the top of the charts. Wham! were now battling with Culture Club to be top act in Britain’s so-called “new pop” boom.
Michael and Ridgeley had become aware that their Innervision contract was bringing them a very poor return on their efforts, and having signed a deal with the Sony subsidiary Columbia Records for America, they chose to forfeit royalties from their debut album to sign with CBS (later bought by Sony) worldwide.
The decision proved wise, as their second album, Make It Big (1984), turned them into a global success story, spinning off singles such as Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Careless Whisper, Freedom and Everything She Wants. In 1985, Wham! achieved a massive publicity coup by becoming the first western pop group to visit the People’s Republic of China. The visit was filmed by the director Lindsay Anderson as Foreign Skies: Wham! In China (1986).
However, Michael was already eyeing up a solo future. Despite being included on Make It Big, Careless Whisper was credited to “Wham! featuring George Michael” in the US and was issued as a Michael solo single in other territories. By the time Wham! called it a day with a spectacular final concert at Wembley Stadium in June 1986, Michael had already released his first solo single, the chart-topping A Different Corner. Music from the Edge of Heaven (1986) was the final Wham! album, and The Edge of Heaven their farewell single.
Michael topped the charts again in early 1987 with a duet with Aretha Franklin, I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), and that autumn released his first solo album, Faith, to critical and commercial acclaim. Produced, written and arranged by Michael, it spawned hits including I Want Your Sex (considered too explicit by some radio stations), Faith, Father Figure and Kissing a Fool. In 1988 Michael set out on a world tour, which was a major commercial success but left him feeling exhausted, isolated and dubious about the entire rigmarole of superstardom.
His follow-up disc, Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, did not appear until 1990, and signalled Michael’s preoccupation with becoming recognised as a serious adult artist. Though Praying for Time brought him a chart-topping single in the US and the album reached No 1 in the UK, the level of sales was substantially lower than for Faith. He hardly helped his case by refusing to appear in any of the videos for the album’s singles. For the video for Freedom ’90, he recruited a batch of supermodels, including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, to lip sync the lyrics in his place.
In 1991 Michael and Elton John enjoyed a mutual triumph with their duet version of John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, a song they had performed together at the 1985 Live Aid concert and which they now recorded live at a Michael concert at Wembley Arena. It topped both the US and British charts. Michael was growing unhappy with his relationship with his record company, however, and in 1992 he began legal proceedings against Sony, claiming he was bound in artistic servitude to a company that “appears to see artists as little more than software” and claiming that Sony had failed to promote Listen Without Prejudice properly (it sold “only” 8m copies).
Panayiotou and others v Sony Music Entertainment (UK) Ltd came to the high court in October 1993, and was seen as a test case that could have dramatic repercussions across the music industry should Michael win. Although the legal proceeedings shed light on various restrictive practices in the business, he did not, since Justice Jonathan Parker found that Michael’s contract was “reasonable and fair”. One casualty of the lawsuit was Listen Without Prejudice Vol 2, which Michael scrapped, donating some of its songs to the Red Hot + Dance charity project to raise money for Aids awareness.
In 1993, the Five Live EP (released on Parlophone in the UK and Hollywood Records in the US) included tracks from the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium at which Michael sang with Queen, along with some live tracks from Michael’s 1991 Cover to Cover tour. Proceeds from the EP went to the Mercury Phoenix Trust to help combat Aids.
The following year, Michael premiered a new song, Jesus to a Child, at the inaugural MTV Europe music awards. The long, melancholy piece was written after the death of his lover, Anselmo Feleppa, who had died of an Aids-related brain haemorrhage in 1993, and when it was released in January 1996 became his first solo single to enter the UK charts at No 1. Another single, Fastlove, emerged in April 1996, followed a month later by his third solo album, Older, which was dedicated to Feleppa. It was on Virgin in the UK and David Geffen’s DreamWorks label in the US, where it went platinum. The album set a record in the UK by becoming the first ever to produce six Top 3 singles. That year Michael was voted best British male artist at the Brit awards, and received his third Ivor Novello award as songwriter of the year.
Intervals between releases of new material were growing ever longer, though Michael retained a powerful popular appeal. In 1998 came Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael, a compilation containing his best-known songs as well as duets and tracks from compilations not previously featured on his own albums. The album would become one of his biggest, going on to sell 15m copies. Nor was it entirely retrospective. The first single from it, Outside, was a new song, about Michael’s arrest by an undercover policeman in a public lavatory in Beverly Hills a few months earlier. The policeman in question, Marcelo Rodriguez, tried unsuccessfully to sue Michael for emotional distress caused by the video for Outside, which depicted policemen kissing. Michael now let it be known that he had been in a relationship since 1996 with the businessman Kenny Goss; they remained together until 2009.
In 1999 came Songs from the Last Century, a collection of cover versions spanning such disparate pieces as Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?, My Baby Just Cares for Me and Wild is the Wind. It was his lowest-performing solo release, not even breaching the top 150 on the American Billboard chart, though it reached No 2 in Britain. He now embarked on a lengthy period of recording material for a planned album of new material, the first fruit of which was the 2002 single Freeek!. He followed this with Shoot the Dog, a political piece attacking Tony Blair and George W Bush for their warlike posturing in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Perhaps even more surprising was the news, in 2003, that Michael had re-signed with Sony. The studio released his fifth studio album, Patience (2004), and it jumped to the top of the UK chart, and, although it would not climb higher than 12 on the US charts, it was a hit throughout Europe. It also generated a batch of singles, including Amazing and Flawless (Go to the City). Although Michael announced that Patience would be his last disc to be given a physical release (as opposed to digital download), this apparently did not apply to compilations, since 2006 brought a chart-topping greatest hits album, 25, as well as the 25 Live tour, his first in 15 years.
After several arrests for drugs offences, in 2010 Michael was fined and given a five-year driving ban and a prison sentence after admitting driving under the influence of drugs, having crashed his Range Rover into a Snappy Snaps photo store in Hampstead.
Nonetheless, he had evidently rediscovered his appetite for performing and recording. In 2011 he made a cover version of New Order’s hit True Faith for the Comic Relief charity, and recorded an MP3 version of Stevie Wonder’s You and I as a wedding gift for Prince William and Kate Middleton.
He launched his Symphonica Tour in Prague in August 2011. However, it was cut short when he fell ill with severe pneumonia in November, after the tour had reached Frankfurt, and he was admitted to hospital in Vienna.
He spent a week in intensive care and was not discharged from hospital until 21 December. Two days later he made a public speech outside his home in Highgate, north London, saying that the staff at the Vienna general hospital had saved his life. He suffered a further medical emergency in May 2013, when he had to be airlifted to hospital after he fell out of a car travelling on the M1.
In June 2012 Michael released the single White Light to mark the 30th anniversary of Wham Rap!. In March 2014 he released Symphonica, which became his seventh solo album to top the UK chart. This month, it was announced that he was working on a new album with producer and songwriter Naughty Boy. Also in the pipeline was a film, provisionally titled Freedom: George Michael, due to accompany the reissue of his 1990 album Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1. With Michael as narrator, the film would feature stars including Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Liam Gallagher and Mary J Blige as well as the supermodels who had appeared in his Freedom! ’90 video.
• George Michael (Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou), singer and songwriter, born 25 June 1963; died 25 December 2016