George Michael left us far too soon last week, the latest in an annus horribilis for musician deaths that can't end soon enough. The emotional response seemed stronger in the UK and Europe, maybe in part because of the horrible irony of the composer of "Last Christmas" passing away on Christmas day. It is one of the most played holiday songs in the UK in the past thirty years, but never meant a thing in North America.
And yet, many North Americans have largely forgotten how much of a phenomenon the "Faith" album was. Oddly enough, George Michael's was a far bigger star in the UK and Europe both in the Wham years (pre-1986) and the post-"Faith" years ("Listen Without Prejudice, his late-90's comeback "Older"). But during those inbetween years 1987-1989, "Faith" was massive in the US, with an almost unprecedented six top five singles from the album, including four number one hits (versus none in the UK). It was the best selling album in the US in 1988, for comparison, Michael Jackson's "Bad" was released two months earlier and was a phenomenon unto itself. Singles from both albums dominated the charts for two years, and "Bad" set a record that still stands (challenged but not beaten recently by Katy Perry) with five consecutive number one singles from the same album. "Bad" was also one of the best selling albums (worldwide) ever, but at its peak in 1988, it was outsold by "Faith", at least in the US. This is the kind of rarefied company George Michael kept at the tail end of the 80's.
I was haunted by "Father Figure" at the time. In one sense it was almost intolerably sexy, backed by a perfect video accompaniment featuring Michael looking unspeakably cool in leather underneath impeccable lighting and shadow. The model that appeared in the video had a pristine body that was shot from the most titillating angles. The whole presentation was intimidating, and it may have thrown off my perception of realistic love and seduction was for years afterward. In another sense, the song and video were creepy and even frightening. Michael falls in love with a woman and stalks her relentlessly, lurking in dark corners, walking a fine line between voyeurism and possible criminal behaviour. The music is uncharacteristically spooky and atmospheric for a number one pop smash, and that was no accident. In his own "When Doves Cry" moment of inspiration, "Father Figure" was meant to be a mid-tempo rock number but Michael found that he loved the strange empty spaces left behind when he dropped many of the recorded tracks from the final mix. He was right -- less was more and erasing half of the song made it ten times as good.
For whatever reasons, Billboard number ones of 1988 were dominated by soft rock ballads with long running times (between five and six minutes). I can't recall any edited versions made for the radio. You might as well point to George Michael (and Michael Jackson, who was of course famous for his epic videos and for producing extended video versions of his songs) as the driving force behind this -- both "Father Figure" and "One More Try" run nearly six minutes.