Making Wham!: Make It Big
By Mark Lindores | August 13, 2021
Wham!: Make It Big saw George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley embrace a poppier sound and a more colourful image. It cost them credibility, but earned them their rightful place as one of the biggest acts of the 80s…
As the curtain came down on the Club Fantastic Tour in November 1983, it also brought an end to the first chapter in Wham!’s success story. Having discarded their leather jackets and ‘baby biker’ image, the breezy fun and sunshine of fourth single Club Tropicana had proved to be the perfect fit for them and defined their future direction. The future, it seemed, was looking very bright.
However, finding themselves locked in litigation hell with their record label Innervision, they faced a fraught and lengthy battle to free themselves of a contract which amounted to little more than professional slavery (a term which would rear its head again later in George’s career).
Wham!: Make It Big – Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
As manager Simon Napier-Bell battled to resolve the issue on their behalf, George and Andrew were dispatched to Studio Miraval in the South of France to begin work on material for their second album.
They had worked non-stop throughout a whirlwind two years, and this trip was intended to give them an opportunity to recharge their batteries for when their legal problems were resolved and they were free to continue making music.
“That break turned out to be a really positive thing,” George wrote in his autobiography, Bare. “I had been working very hard and I knew I needed to sit back and collect my thoughts, as a person and creatively, so that I could write the second album. I needed that breathing space. It would have killed most bands, but I never doubted that the material I came up with would be good enough for us to come back up.”
Once a settlement was reached in March 1984, work began in earnest on rebuilding Wham! What had started out as a relaxed atmosphere quickly changed into a tense environment as George felt the pressure to deliver a solid second album.
Wham!: Make It Big –Freedom
New label Epic, well aware of the fickleness of the music industry, made it clear that they were keen to progress as quickly as possible while the group was still riding an initial wave of popularity; they wanted a single almost immediately and an album before the end of the year, as they already had it planned as one of the year’s biggest festive sellers.
While the battle with Innervision had bonded George and Andrew in unison against their former label, cracks began to appear in their partnership as Andrew’s partying and drinking threatened to spiral out of control. The press proved relentless.
“I suppose they might be looking for some Rod Stewart rock‘n’roll kind of figure, but I do the things most people do on a Saturday night – I just get photographed doing it,” he protested to Smash Hits. “But the press seem to have an angle for everything: Randy Andy! Arrogant Andrew! Aggressive Andrew! Or the latest, Dribbling Andrew! I just can’t win. Maybe I should change my name to Trevor.”
While George beat himself up over meeting deadlines, Andrew was seemingly oblivious, essentially using the break as an extended holiday by inviting friends to visit and living the superstar lifestyle without, it seemed, putting in the work.
The final straw came when The Tube’s TV crew arrived. As they waited to interview George and Andrew, the latter was being bathed by his friends in order to wake him up as he’d got too drunk to do the job himself.
Wham!: Make It Big – Everything She Wants
Though he recovered and was able to be his cocky, charming self once the cameras were rolling, Andrew was warned to get his act together after the interview by George, who was beginning to feel taken advantage of.
Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go was released as the first single from the album on 14th May 1984. The track was a sugar-coated throwback to the Fifties rock’n’roll adored by teenagers, right down to its “jitterbug” vocal line and finger-clicking harmony.
The boys were overjoyed when the song became their first No.1 single. Although it would be regarded as one of Wham!’s signature songs, George was disdainful of it later on, branding it “naff” and “stupid” and citing it as one of the main reasons Wham! were so derided by their peers and critics.
Careless Whisper, a moody ballad with an instantly recognisable sax hook, was an attempt to redress the balance. Released as George’s debut solo single, the song revealed him to be capable of producing material with a maturity which belied his 21 years. Like its predecessor, Careless Whisper topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
In August 1984, Freedom completed George’s hat trick of No.1 singles. The song, a bombastic Motown pastiche, ensured that when Make It Big followed weeks later, it was indeed the smash that Epic had hoped for.
As well as the three singles, the album featured the languid Like A Baby, an Isley Brothers cover in If You Were There, and two more pure pop confections influenced by Sixties soul music and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Credit Card Baby and Heartbeat.
“It’s more of a black LP than the last one was,” George told Record Mirror. “It’s a black/pop LP as opposed to a black/disco LP. It’s been derived from so many areas… I’ve just written what I liked and got rid of my influences all in one go.”
Wham!: Make It Big – Careless Whisper
Completing the album was Everything She Wants, a throbbing synth-based dance track which towered over everything Wham! had released previously. Later released as a double A-side with Last Christmas, it remains the biggest-selling single not to reach the top spot in Britain. In the US, it gave Wham! their third No.1.
Wham!: Make It Big – The Reaction
Make It Big was a huge success, heading album charts around the world. Though ecstatic, George was furious that the critics couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see past Wham!’s image and listen (without prejudice) to his music at face value. Though he feigned bravado, the criticisms affected him deeply.
Going on to sell in excess of 10 million copies, Make It Big was the pinnacle of Wham!’s success, propelling them to a level of fame in which the music became almost irrelevant. Like The Beatles before them, Wham! had reached a level where they weren’t listened to – they were screamed at.
One of the biggest bands in the world, they had made it bigger than they had dreamt possible.