Back Tracks: WHAM!
The great thing about most reissues over the past few years is that labels seem to want to follow one rule: if they can reissue it, they will do their best. Of course there are people out there who like, say, Cutting Crew or a-ha – but who could have seriously predicted that labels would be open to the idea of reissuing those records with bonus cuts and all that?
Of course, this rule makes some of the great bands without reissues – Prince, The Go-Gos, that one Buckingham Nicks album – look like crazy oversights. That goes for any successful band, regardless of how much people openly like them. One prime example: WHAM!, the U.K. pop duo that today comes off as a novelty act but had a rather solid if short stint in the pop music world – one that would benefit from a more thorough review on CD.
WHAM!, comprised of George Michael and perennial “other guy” Andrew Ridgeley, were eager to make music by and for young people, with lyrics of fun, carefree nights out and having fun with fine ladies. (Stop laughing!) Thanks to a lucky break on U.K. music program Top of the Pops (they filled in for a last-minute cancellation), the pair became superstars in their native land. Success in other parts of the world wasn’t far off, thanks to their good looks, pop-soul sound and flashy MTV clips. Matter of fact, it was this month in 1984 that one of their most popular hits, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” hit No. 1 around the world.
In honor of that landmark, you can get the rest of the WHAM! story, and how rights holders Legacy have and could treat the WHAM! discography, after the jump.Fantastic (CBS, 1983 – reissued 1998)
The band’s first LP topped the U.K. charts and spawned a few wacky but catchy singles. The two best had to have been “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)” and “Young Guns (Go for It),” and I say “wacky” because not too many pop acts have hits about the positive virtues of unemployment (particularly not in Thatcher’s England!) or the dangers of getting married too young. Nonetheless, the album was a hit, although even then critics were less than thrilled. And, as was the case with all WHAM! records, there’s a lot of weird filler (the ridiculous cover of The Miracles’ “Love Machine” sticks out like a sore thumb). But overall, it’s impressive pop, especially when you consider that, despite their pin-up looks, Michael and Ridgeley (though particularly Michael) were, by and large, writing and producing their own material.
But the LP could benefit from a reissue Stateside (possibly in a sleeve that fixes the garish CD cover art of the original). There were a lot of remixes and instrumentals to be had for each single (“Young Guns,” chart-topper “Bad Boys” and “Wham Rap!,” which has a few different remixes that get consistently mislabeled on vinyl labels and compilations), as well as a fantastic B-side (“Blue,” the flip-side of fourth single “Club Tropicana”) and the single-only “Club Fantastic Megamix,” which was put out by committee to the band’s disapproval. There was in fact an international reissue of the album (the only such reissue for a WHAM! LP) that added three instrumental versions (“Love Machine,” “Nothing Looks the Same in the Light” and “A Ray of Sunshine,” which in fact was the B-side to “Club Fantastic”), so until a bigger release is ever planned, that’s the best fans have got.
Make It Big (CBS, 1984)
Few other albums have been fortunate enough to live up to their title, but WHAM!’s sophomore LP did. Half of its eight tracks were hit singles in the U.K. and the U.S. (all of them hitting No. 1 somewhere), and they were darn good, poppy tunes. Rather than rapping “DHSS” or dissing young fiancees, WHAM! opted for almost 100 percent fun on Make It Big (“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Freedom”), pausing every now and then to reflect on lost loves or hard relationships (“Everything She Wants,” “Careless Whisper”). Again, the other tracks were mostly fluff (save for a not bad cover of The Isley Brothers’ “If You Were There”), but the public didn’t care.
Yet for all its success, this record’s never gotten a deluxe version of its own. There’s enough material for it: you have your various single remixes, at least one major B-side (holiday perennial “Last Christmas,” released alongside “Everything She Wants” in late 1984) and the intriguing original version of “Careless Whisper,” produced by Jerry Wexler and released as a 12″ B-side in England but still unavailable on CD.
Music from the Edge of Heaven (Columbia, 1986)
This “final” album from the band isn’t much of an actual LP as it is a clearinghouse of songs and singles the band released in their final year of existence. There’s a few nuggets of gold here – perhaps more in the hits-to-filler ratio than any other album of theirs – thanks to “The Edge of Heaven,” “I’m Your Man,” the solo George Michael ballad “A Different Corner” (Michael’s second solo single, after “Careless Whisper” got the same distinction in the U.K. – a bizarre irony, as Ridgely co-wrote that tune) and “Where Did Your Heart Go?” – a cover of a Was (Not Was) tune. Add a few rarities (a live cut of “Blue,” the 12″ version of “Last Christmas” and a remix of “Wham Rap!”) and you’ve got the third WHAM! LP.
The Final (CBS, 1986)
The last WHAM! record in the U.K. was a proper compilation, which compiled all the singles plus “Blue” and “Last Christmas.” Depending on the format (double-vinyl or CD), some pressings have 12″ mixes, while others use the more familiar single/album formats. Of particular note is a slight remix of “Freedom,” which is slightly longer and features Michael ad-libbing over a trumpet line. I don’t believe this version was available anywhere else, and I’d daresay that The Final is worth tracking down (as an import, naturally) for that track.
The Twelve-Inch Mixes (Columbia, 1988)
This budget compact disc, available as an import (my copy’s from Australia), featured five extended versions. Two were just the album versions (“Careless Whisper” and “Wham Rap!”) but the others (“Freedom,” “Everything She Wants,” “I’m Your Man”) are honest-to-gosh 12″ versions. Considering that most CDs like Music from the Edge of Heaven seem to edit the “Extended Stimulation” of “I’m Your Man,” that makes this set worthy for rarity hunters. (A Japanese follow-up, 1990′s Best Remixes, was not as revelatory.)
If You Were There: The Best of WHAM! (Epic, 1997)
The first WHAM! compilation to properly hit U.S. shores, it plays like a watered-down version of The Final with a few album tracks thrown in (“If You Were There” and “Like a Baby,” both from Make It Big) and some new remixes: a brand-new mix of “Everything She Wants” and Michael’s own re-recording of “I’m Your Man,” released a year prior as a B-side to his solo single “Fastlove.” Opt for The Final instead.
Bonus Round: Foreign Skies / The Final Live (1986)
Sony would do well to release these two on CD or DVD: one’s a documentary of WHAM!’s tour to China in 1985 (the first Western pop act to do so), and the other is their final show at Wembley, which included guests such as Elton John and Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran. Neither have ever been officially released (though the Wembley show has been bootlegged heavily). Considering that George Michael has largely left his (innocent) WHAM! days behind, this could be the closest the world would get to a full-fledged reunion.