WHAM! The dance-pop duo's name immediately called to mind the fantastical, onomatopoeic pop art exclamations that would appear on the '60s Batman television show. George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley had everything going for them: good looks, great voices, and a knack for pure pop songcraft. In a mere handful of years, WHAM! launched nearly a dozen singles into the Top 10 of the U.K. singles chart. - a lucky seven entries. Their first album was entitled Fantastic; it was. The second was Make It Big; they did! By the time they bowed out with a clutch of singles (featured on two 1986 albums: the British compilation The Final and the American almost-an-album Music from the Edge of Heaven), George Michael was poised for solo superstardom. Surprisingly, the WHAM! oeuvre has never been comprehensively explored in the reissue era, with the 2020 Japanese Singles Collection perhaps coming closest. Sony Music U.K. has recently sought to rectify that with a multi-format release of The Singles: Echoes from the Edge of Heaven based on WHAM!'s U.K. discography.
Echoes from the Edge of Heaven, as well as a stunning new Netflix documentary on the duo, does more than simply shine a light on a beloved pop group. George and Andrew met in an interesting twist of fate: the awkward Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou - son of a Greek father and a British mother - met the charismatic Ridgeley when transferring to a new school. It was Ridgeley, long dismissed as "the other guy" in the duo, who inspired his pal "Yog" to pursue music seriously and cultivate a more confident image. Ridgeley also had the grace to support his friend and bandmate as he began to come to terms with identifying as gay (something he would not do publicly for over a decade, when an arrest in America cruelly forced the truth out of him) - and, perhaps most importantly for the duo's career, remained a pillar of support as Michael came into his own as one of the most gifted pop craftsmen of the decade. (WHAM! never formally reunited after their farewell gig at Wembley in 1986, though Ridgeley appeared during the encore of George's Rock in Rio set in 1991 and the pair remained close friends until Michael's tragic passing in 2016.
George's contributions to WHAM! were as terrific as they were unexpected, and the best of the best really gets to shine in this set. Debut single "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)" was a rare foray by white artists into the nascent hip-hop genre, and its fluffy, horn-laden clean funk belied a subtle message extolling the virtues of government social services. Tracks like "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "Freedom" and "I'm Your Man" had the kind of musical clockwork that could've fit in with the best of Motown, while the slinky "Everything She Wants" or fan favorite B-side "Blue (Armed with Love)" and "Last Christmas" - the latter now a genuine holiday standard - underlined Michael's songwriting versatility. (Amazingly, perhaps the group's truest standard - the Michael/Ridgeley co-write "Careless Whisper," issued as a chart-topping solo single in the U.K. and by "WHAM! featuring George Michael" in America - remains canonized as George's first work on his own, and thus excluded from the set.)
As a pop group through and through, WHAM! knew the appeal of a good single - not just the focus track on one side, but the goodies for fans in the grooves of B-sides and 12" releases. While a track like "Go-Go" strangely never received a remix of its own, many of the duo's hits got the extended treatment, all special in their own way. The "Extended Stimulation" of "I'm Your Man" leaves room for light comedy vocal sketches about "magic cars" and the odd guitar solo. The long version of "Everything She Wants" added a dramatic bridge to the song - one of Michael's best - and even debut single "Wham Rap!" was graced by several versions, including a somewhat meta "Unsocial Mix" ("Hey, everybody, now listen to me / Cut the radio bullshit, this is Side B"). That it took 40 years for these various uncollected gems to make their way into a set like this is kind of stunning.
Even so, none of the Singles: Echoes from the Edge of Heaven formats - chiefly the box set editions, offering 10 CDs or 7" discs - contain every single version/remix of a WHAM! song, hence the lack of "complete" in the title here. TSD has had the opportunity to review the vinyl box set, which tells the story of Michael and Ridgeley via 45 RPM mixes only. The CD version of the box has been beset by the unintentional omission of "Wham Rap (Special U.S. Remix)" which should be Track 5 of the first CD. Instead, the U.S. Special 12-inch mix of "Young Guns," present elsewhere in the box, is in its place, leaving that "Wham Rap" mix unavailable. The vinyl box only has 22 songs vs. the CD set's 30+; it, too, appears to have an unintentional omission as the original album version of "Freedom" is included rather than the single version (with additional vocals and a trumpet coda).
All twelve 45s are stored within a heavy, high-quality, retro carrying case. The presentation of the singles is equally top-notch, with each individual single housed in a sturdy picture sleeve within a custom outer slipcase. The 1982-1983 labels don't replicate the original Innervision art but instead use the familiar Epic design of the era. The accompanying 72-page hardcover book, slipcased like the individual 45s, has an introduction from Jennifer Otter Bickerdike plus full personnel credits and track-by-track liner notes for each single. This lavish tome is copiously illustrated with photos, film stills, and all sorts of memorabilia (advertisements, clippings, gold records, etc.). A box, similarly designed to the slipcases, holds the additional swag: a logo lapel pin; a keychain with George and Andrew in silhouette; an envelope with replica postcards, WHAM! Fan Club membership card, a ("Last") Christmas card, and a Certificate of Authenticity; and, finally, a cassette tape with ten of the 12-inch mixes otherwise absent from the vinyl box. John Webber at AIR Studios has handled the mastering for the collection, and the vinyl 45 pressings were all uniformly quiet.
The Singles: Echoes from the Edge of Heaven isn't the ultimate retrospective which WHAM! fans have been demanding; with such omissions as "Careless Whisper," it could never claim to be definitive. The WHAM! discography is such a small one that expanded editions of the three albums seem long overdue. The audio errors, too, are disappointing. But for certain collectors and completists, The Singles isn't entirely without its merits. Though expensive and unwieldy as a pure listening experience, the presentation is a fun throwback to the era in which the music was first released. Design throughout is exemplary, and the hardcover book - the most thorough text found in any of the formats - is a fitting tribute in words and pictures of Michael and Ridgeley's time together.
WHAM!'s music is very much of that time, but it also transcends it with sheer joy and effervescence. If The Singles isn't "Everything She Wants," it's almost there...and hopefully augurs for the comprehensive reissue campaign the duo's small but potent discography deserves.
The Singles: Echoes from the Edge of Heaven is available now:
10 x 7" box set: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
10CD box set: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
2LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada