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What happened to George Michael's missing album? [June 14, 1992]
Plus: Elton John, U2, TLC, and Faith No More
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of June 14, 1992.
📰 In the news this week: Denmark are the surprise winners of Euro ‘92; Russia and the United States sign a major nuclear disarmament treaty; and Andrew Morton’s controversial biography of Princess Diana hits the shelves.
📽️New films in the cinema include Paradise, the first movie to star IRL power couple Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. There’s also the much-rewound steamy drama The Lover.
📺On TV, David Lynch followed up Twin Peaks with… a sitcom? Not many people remember On The Air, but it really happened. Please drop a comment if you’ve seen this one.
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This week’s Number 5: ‘Too Funky’ — George Michael
At the end of the 1980s, few stars burned as brightly as George Michael.
Michael had already found success as one half of Wham!, but his 1987 debut solo album, Faith, catapulted him to a whole new level of fame. The record sold 25 million copies and generated seven hit singles, including ‘I Want Your Sex’, ‘Father Figure’, and of course ‘Faith’.
And then, quite unexpectedly, he turned his back on it all. In 1990, he released his sophomore album, Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1, which turned out to be a mellow singer-songwriter affair with fewer radio-friendly bangers.
Even more surprising, he refused to do any promotional work for the album. He wouldn’t even appear in the videos, hence why the clip for ‘Freedom! 90’ features a bunch of supermodels sitting around in their underwear.
Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1 was a commercial disappointment after the boffo success of Faith. That said, it did manage to sell eight million copies and established George Michael as a mature songwriter, thanks to classics like ‘Cowboys and Angels’, ‘Praying For Time’ and (my personal favourite) ‘Heal The Pain’.
And now, the big question was… when are we getting Listen Without Prejudice Volume 2?
Rumours about the album started to swirl around at the end of 1991. Word on the street was that we would get a mix of studio and live tracks, and the whole thing would be more upbeat in general.
‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ did indeed appear as a stand-alone single in November 1991. It smashed into Number One, and it seemed to capture the public mood after Freddie Mercury’s AIDS-related death.
In April 1992, Michael appeared onstage with Queen at the Freddie Mercury tribute gig. He belted out a magic version of ‘Somebody To Love’, plus an innovative mash-up of ‘Killer’ and ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’. Both tracks seemed like natural contenders for the live section of LWPv2. (They did eventually get released in 1993 as the Five Live EP.)
And then, in June 1992, came the first new original song from LWPv2. ‘Too Funky’ seemed to show that George Michael was more naturally comfortable with 90s house music than the rest of his 80s contemprories (except maybe Kylie). The song sounded utterly fresh, utterly now. He even deigned to make an appearance in the video this time (although it still mainly focused on supermodels.)
The omens were good. Listen Without Prejudice Volume 2 was going to be huge.
But it never appeared.
Instead, in October of 1992, George Michael sued his own record label. The lawsuit lasted for two years, during which he went on professional hiatus.
Why did George Michael sue Sony?
His version of events goes like this: he used to be a shy, dorky music nerd who was too socially anxious to perform his songs without his mate Andrew standing beside him.
In 1982, Innervision Records came along and offered to turn him into a pop star. He was so excited that he agreed to an eight-record contract without stopping to think, “hang on, that’s a lot of records”. A few years later, Sony acquired the Innervision, and they released Faith.
The shy, dorky kid was now the world’s sexiest pop star. But deep down, George Michael was still a shy, dorky kid and a massive music nerd. He didn’t want to be known for shaking his ass in tight jeans. He wanted to be known as a songwriter.
Hence the title of the album, Listen Without Prejudice. It’s almost like an apology in advance, like he’s saying, “I know I did ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, but please just give these songs a chance.
Sony Records did not like any of this. Faith had made them a lot of money. They wanted him to knock off the serious songwriter nonsense and make Faith Volume 2. Under the terms of the contract he had signed as a teenager, he still owed them four albums.
Michael publically denounced this as “professional slavery” and lawyered up.
Sony were shocked. Paul Russell, the former head of Sony UK said in a 2017 interview, shortly after George Michael’s death:
We were all surprised when he sued. With Listen Without Prejudice, George had earned the right to be wrong. He said, ‘I want to make the record my way’ – and we let him get on with it.
So it was like, on Faith we had some input and the record did very well worldwide. On Listen Without Prejudice, he did exactly what he wanted to do then. When it didn’t sell as well, it was all our fault.
He had no case, that was the ridiculous thing. George’s contract had already been approved by the courts many years before.
This last point turned out to be the crux of the case. Michael had actually renegotiated his contract twice: first when Sony acquired Innervision, and again after Faith.
Russell went on to say:
CBS and Sony never refused to renegotiate an artist’s contract. So any artist who said, ‘I signed this contract but I think I’m worth more’, we’d say, ‘Fine, let’s see what we can work out’. But this wasn’t about money, this was George’s matter of principle.
It’s natural to take the artist’s side in a case like this, but the fact is that his case was surprisingly weak. For instance, one of his arguments was that Sony breached EU laws on Restraint of Trade. The judge pointed out that Restraint Of Trade rules apply to countries, not individuals.
It feels like we’re no closer to answering our original question: why did George Michael sue Sony?
Here’s the amazing, tragic thing about all this: the Sony lawsuit was not George Michael’s top priority in 1992.
In 1991, Michael was onstage in Rio, singing ‘Careless Whisper’, when he made eye contact with a man in the crowd. It wasn’t so much a case of Cupid’s arrow as Cupid’s assault rifle. Michael fell instantly, violently in love.
And there’s footage of this happening! At the 2:40 mark in the video below, you can see him kind of pause and stare hard at someone to his right. This is the moment George Michael’s life changed:
That audience member was Brazillian fashion designer Anselmo Feleppa. Michael and Feleppa started a whirlwind romance, and the two moved in together almost immediately.
Michael was still struggling with his sexuality at this stage, trying to convince even himself that he was bisexual. Feleppa, by all accounts, helped Michael figure out who he really was.
This happiness only lasted for a few months. Around Christmas of 1991, Feleppa went to see a doctor about a persistent cold. The diagnosis was grim. Feleppa had quite advanced AIDS.
In March 1993, less than two years after they met, Feleppa was dead. The sheer depth of the hole this left in Michael’s life can be heard in some of his later songs, especially ‘Jesus to a Child’.
It’s tempting to draw lines between these events, to say that A happened because of B. That the Sony lawsuit was the misdirected anger or grief about Feleppa’s condition. Or that it was an act of self-sabotage from someone who wanted to run away.
But here’s the thing about George Michael: the guy genuinely was an enigma. An intensely private man who obfuscated his true self as much as possible. We can make guesses about what he was thinking, but they will only ever be guesses.
Here’s what we know for sure: ‘Too Funky’ plus two other songs intended for Listen Without Prejudice Volume 2 ended up on the Red, Hot + Dance compilation, which raised money for AIDS charities.
We also know we’re going to have to wait several years for a new George Michael album. That album will be called Older, to reflect the fact that he’s no longer a young, sexy pop star.
George Michael started his pop career in 1982, when he appeared shirtless on Top of the Pops singing ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’. And he ended his pop career here, ten years later, with ‘Too Funky’.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 10 (↑ from 11): ‘The One’ — Elton John
The lead single from Elton’s 23rd studio album, which was also called The One. Just me or does it sound like the first draft of ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight?’
Number 13 (New Entry): ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’ — U2
Richard Branson wanted to use this in advertising for his short-lived Virgin Cola. Because Coke is The Real Thing, you see, and his drink is even better.
Bono, in a rare moment of self-awareness, said no.
Number 16 (↑ from 30): ‘Bell Bottom Tear’ — The Beautiful South
This was the last single to feature Briana Corrigan on vocals. A dispute with Paul Heaton about the sexist lyrics of ‘36D’ led to her quitting the band and being replaced by Jacqui Abbot.
She was a sad loss. Corrigan has a fascinating voice that’s somehow sweet and scorching, like an angel with a flamethrower. And Jacqui Abbot is also amazing of course, but she takes her songs in a whole other direction. Their respective Beautiful South eras sound like two entirely different bands.
Number 18 (New Entry): ‘Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg’ — TLC
TLC were absolutely enormous in the States right from the beginning. This, along with the other singles from Oooh…On The TLC Tip, all made the Top 10 thanks to the funky, infectious energy of these three youngwomen.
The rest of the world wouldn’t catch onto the magic of TLC until CrazySexyCool. Which is a shame—we missed them in their unabashed pop phase.
Number 35 (New Entry): ‘O.P.P.’ — Naughty By Nature
Speaking of fun, here's one of the most enjoyable singles of the whole of the 1990s. You’ve got a sample of Jackson 5, you’ve got saucy innuendo, you’ve got a wonderful shoutalong chorus—what more could you possibly want from a song?
Despite these attributes, ‘O.P.P.’ didn’t do much business in Europe. The fate of TLC and Naughty By Nature shows how much the American and European pop scenes were diverging. You might call this the Great Atlantic Rap/Techno Divide, and it would exist for the rest of the 90s.
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Album of the Week
Angel Dust — Faith No More
Faith No More have a complicated history with lead singers. Their first frontman was usurped in a coup instigated by the rhythm section and briefly replaced with a young Courtney Love. Chuck Mosley eventually became their lead for the rest of the 80s before addiction and violence saw him getting the boot.
Mike Patton was hired at the start of the 90s, but he treated FNM as a side project while trying to make it with his “real” band (Mr. Bungle, who are still going and still waiting for their big break.) Patton was effectively a session musician who loaned his voice to the 1990 album The Real Thing but had no creative input into any of the tracks.
And then, something unexpected happened. People went bananas for ‘Epic’ and Faith No More were suddenly America’s biggest “new” rock band.
The pressure was on to make a follow-up album, but that meant some things would have to change. Specifically, Patton was now a full creative partner with a co-writing credit on most of the tracks. And he flexed this power to force the band in a new direction (which eventually led to guitarist Jim Martin quitting.)
Let’s talk about the biggest song first. ‘Mid-Life Crisis’ is track three on the record and probably one of the most ambitious alt-rock songs of the era. It’s a kind of college radio Bohemian Rhapsody, with half a dozen incongruous musical concepts all vying for supremacy. Plus, it incorporates samples from both Beastie Boys and Simon & Garfunkel, which is quite ballsy:
Not only is this an amazing single, it also shows off the band’s willingness to experiment and generally fuck around during these sessions. The next track after ‘Midlife Crisis’ is a song called ‘RV’, where Mike Patton pretends to be Tom Waits while the band play a nightmarish carnival rhythm, because why not?
Angel Dust constantly refuses to settle down or meet expectations. Among its eleven tracks, you will find songs with names like ‘Crack Hitler’ and ‘Jizzlobber’, but you’ll also find a sweet cover of the theme from ‘Midnight Cowboy’.
You’ll also find a song about the joy of performing fellatio, written Roddy Bottum, who came out as gay a few months after Angel Dust. Patton, bless him, sings it with gusto:
Each track on Angel Dust offers something a little weird, a little challenging, a little brilliant, from the thudding rock-funk of ‘Land of Sunshine’ to the New Wave joy of ‘A Small Victory’. It’s an endlessly fascinating puzzle box of an album from a band that learned to harness their chaos.
We’ll kind of be talking about Utah Saints and Kate Bush, but mostly about Nazis and sex cults. See you then!