Christmas Day this year marks the fourth anniversary of the death of legendary singer songwriter George Michael. He was 53 years old when he died at his home in London, but his music and memories live on – especially for those who remember seeing the superstar in Hong Kong or China 35 years ago when he performed alongside Andrew Ridgeley as part of Wham!
The duo became the first Western pop band to play in China and, as a result, one of the biggest bands in the world. But how did the concerts come about?
Legendary record producer Simon Napier-Bell, who had managed artists including The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page, Ultravox, Marc Bolan, Japan and Boney M since the 1960s, was co-managing Wham! with musician and manager Jazz Summer at the time.
Michael and Ridgeley had already scored three successful hits with Wham! in the UK charts with Wham! Rap, Young Guns, and Bad Boys when they approached Napier-Bell to manage the band. If they were to be truly successful, Napier-Bell said, he needed them to break into the US market – something that had always been a challenge for UK acts. But instead of doing the obvious, the idea of Wham! playing in China was floated during their first management meeting instead.
“Going to China was just a way of getting the necessary press coverage to break them big in the USA,” Napier-Bell says. He recalls their first management meeting back in the early 1980s at an Indian restaurant in London where Michael, Ridgeley and Summer were all present.
“George and Andrew told us they wanted to be the biggest group in the world,” recalls Napier-Bell. “Jazz explained that it took his own band Blue Zoo three years to crack the charts, but then they broke up. And I told them that Japan took six years to get to the top and then they broke up. ‘Would you do that?’ I asked them.”
Michael and Ridgeley laughed, ‘Us? Break up? Impossible! Make us into the biggest group in the world and we’ll go on forever. But we can’t wait five years. You’ll have to do it in two.’”
“Jazz explained that the US had more than 4,000 radio stations and it would mean endless cosying up to DJs and hanging out with them,” continues Napier-Bell. “George and Andrew were not impressed and told us to find another way.
“It was Jazz who came up with the idea of being the first Western group to play in China. There was a moment of silence as the idea sunk in. ‘It would be like when Elton played in Russia’, Jazz said, ‘but bigger.’ George and Andrew looked doubtful.”
The concerts in Hong Kong, Beijing and Guangzhou did go ahead in the spring of 1985, but it took Napier-Bell two years and multiple visits to China to arrange it. It’s worth keeping in mind that the 80s were a time when China was still in the process of opening up to the rest of the world after decades of being closed off from it, so it’s no surprise arranging a pop concert was a challenge.
The tour started with two concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum in Hung Hom, before moving to Beijing’s Workers Gymnasium – which attracted a crowd of more than 12,000 people. A few days later the duo played for an audience of 5,000 in Canton.
“The audience had never seen a Western pop band before and knew nothing about clapping on the beat,” remembers Napier-Bell. “When George clapped on the beat they thought he wanted applause and gave it to him. The audience were told over loud speakers to stay in their seats and not to dance. But the audience were enthusiastic nonetheless and cheered hugely, letting out strange bursts of clapping which had no relevance to either the beat or the start and finish of songs.”
So did the plan work? Well, the concerts did indeed garner much attention around the world, but as for the royalties – the pair were paid in bicycles!
“The royalties from the cassettes we sold were paid in renminbi, which were not convertible,” Napier-Bell says. “When I asked how we could use the money, I was told we could buy things. I was thinking silks, carpets, gems, but they were insisting on bulldozers, steam locomotives and army bicycles. I settled for the bicycles.
“Back in London, I had a friend that worked in commodities who was able to find a buyer for the bicycles in Paraguay. They would pay for the bicycles in coffee – 27,000 kilos of the best Paraguayan coffee. ‘And coffee,’ my friend explained, ‘is as good as cash.’”
Much to the sadness of their fans, Wham! broke up after just four years together. However, Michael of course went on to enjoy an even more successful solo career.
Wham! and Michael combined ended up scoring an incredible 21 hits on the Billboard 100 chart in the US, with 10 of those ranking at No 1.
When Michael died in 2016, Chinese media paid tribute to the singer and the historic concerts that broke cultural barriers, calling them “sensational”.
Given the incredible stories he has to tell, Napier-Bell has since written four bestselling books on the record industry, including You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, Black Vinyl White Powder, Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay and I’m Coming to Take You To Lunch, on taking Wham! to China. More recently, he has directed several documentary films for Netflix including To Be Frank about Frank Sinatra.