Features

Saturday Deluxe / 17 August 2019

Careless Whisper at 35

It’s all a matter of timing. George Michael‘s Careless Whisper – which went to number one in the UK charts 35 years ago tomorrow – was the right song at exactly the right time.

In 1984, we all listened to the same radio stations, watched the same TV programmes (Top of the Pops) and ‘mainstream’ wasn’t necessarily a dirty word. The ‘baby boomer’ generation were in their late thirties (ten years younger than my age now) while their kids were teenagers. There was a crossover period where we were both listening to the same music. Careless Whisper was like one of those Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials – it apparently effortlessly delivered the goods to a massive and expectant audience.

Even George and the Wham! team waited for the right time. They knew Careless Whisper – written when George was about 17 – was something special. They blocked attempts by the Innvervision label to release the first version – recorded at Muscle Shoals with Jerry Wexler – both because George wasn’t happy with that recording and also because the timing just wasn’t right. This was late 1983 and Wham! hadn’t yet had a big hit single in the US and phase two of their short career – the Make It Big album, which would go on to spectacularly deliver the goods – wasn’t ready.


The Jerry Wexler Version of ‘Careless Whisper’

Only when Wake Me Up Before You Go Go had been a transatlantic number one, and George had re-recorded Careless Whisper with himself in the producer’s seat, was Careless Whisper finally released in the summer of 1984 (in the US it was issued in early 1985).

The attribution with this single is rather confusing. In the UK it was definitely issued as a George solo single but that didn’t stop it appearing on Wham!’s second album Make It Big, with not so much as an asterisk (and some small print) to suggest it was anything other than a Wham! song.

In America (and Japan) it was credited as “Wham! featuring George Michael” which makes even less sense, since all Wham! records feature George Michael. The final quirk with ‘Careless Whisper’ is that it is actually one of the few examples of a Wham! song that co-credits George’s partner in crime, Andrew Ridgeley, as a songwriter (there are only three in total, the other two being ‘Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do)’ and ‘Club Tropicana’).

In the UK, ‘Careless Whisper’ was issued as a seven-inch single, two black vinyl 12-inch singles and a 12-inch picture disc. The rejected ‘Jerry Wexler Version’ (aka ‘Special Version’) still ended up on the B-side of the second 12-inch in the Britain (and on the Japanese 12-inch) but has never been issued again on any release since and remains unreleased on CD. There was an extended version of Careless Whisper which ran for about six and a half minutes (with that super dreamy atmospheric intro) while the B-side, in true Wham!/George Michael tradition, was an instrumental version (George was talented, but no one could ever accuse him of being prolific).

Let’s cut to the chase. Careless Whisper sold two million copies in the US alone. Amazing. These are physical records that people walked into a shop and bought. That figure increases to six million worldwide and it reached number one in almost 25 countries. It was an absolute monster. George rather grumpily complained in 1991 that it was “not a particularly good lyric” and that it was “disillusioning for a writer” that something he wrote so ‘flippantly’ could mean so much to so many people. Bah, humbug.

Because this was the era of miming on TV, and George, in particular, was very wary of live TV performance anyway, it’s rare to see a truly live performance of Careless Whisper in the original 1984 / 1985 era. Well here’s a treat, George and Smokey Robinson performing the song together in May 1985 at the ‘Motown Salutes the Apollo’ event. The backing is not great and the legendary Smokey Robinson does his best (!), but what stands out here is the supreme vocal ability and talent of George himself. The crowd reaction seems a little muted until George takes it up to another level at around the 2.45 mark with the “tonight the music seems so loud…” break. This is brilliant.

George Michael didn’t write that many songs, if truth be told, but the strength of his legacy is how massive the audience was when he was at his absolute peak. I love his early solo albums, but there’s no doubt in my mind that 1984 was George at his best. Every single from Make It Big went to number one in the UK or America and as most people know, the non-album ‘Last Christmas’ only didn’t get to number one because of the Band Aid single (it remains the best selling number two of all time, in the UK). So many great pop singles, but there’s just something about ‘Careless Whisper’. George would later say that he got bored of going for ‘the jugular’ with his songs. They would become more subtle, perhaps more sophisticated, but the pop genius of ‘Careless Whisper’ has never been surpassed.

45 responses to Saturday Deluxe / 17 August 2019

  1. What? Wham!? Worry? says:

    George Michael, Carelesss Whisper. There’s a purile joke in there somewhere.

  2. Inner Space says:

    The first time I heard it was on the Stuart & Ollie Henry evening program on Radio Luxembourg on sunday – 22/07/1984. It was official released the next day – 23/07. On the 24/7 it enters the official Radio Luxembourg chart only at no. 23- it was called “next weeks top 20” – they were usually one week ahead of the official UK chart.

    In the UK it is official seen on the chart ending 04/08/1984.

    http://www.umdmusic.com/default.asp?Lang=English&Chart=A&ChDay=04&ChMonth=08&ChYear=1984&ChBand=&ChSong=

    It enters the chart only on no.12 in the UK.

    Still amazes me to this day that this amazing song in fact didnt enter the chart at no.1 and stay there only for only three weeks.

    BTW, it it was released on the UK on the 23/07, how come it appeared on the chart during the week ending on 04/08 ? What about the week in between ? If someone can clear that up, it would be lovely….

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      Just to explain the charts. It was released on Monday 23rd July, and would have entered the chart on Sunday 30th. However history records that chart as the chart with the week ending Saturday 4th August. i.e. the chart ran from Sunday 30th all the way to Saturday 4th. So there was no ‘week in between’. I was confused by this myself. Therefore it went to number one the next week, which was the chart week ending 11th August, even though it would have been announced on the radio on Sunday 5th.

      • Alan says:

        Not on the Sunday. It wasn’t until around October 1987 that the chart was announced on Sunday. Prior to that, it was announced Tuesday lunchtime. Therefore what was on the radio the following Sunday reflected a sales period ending a week before.

  3. Igor says:

    There is one more version of this song – “Sound Shower Mix”, Japan promo only 12 Inch, hard to find, even if you have lot of money! ;-)
    .
    https://www.discogs.com/Wham-Careless-Whisper-Sound-Shower-Mix/release/7963088

  4. Alan says:

    35 years since I was 18. Wham, along with Frankie, plus many others were the soundtrack of that amazing summer. 1984 was a pinnacle for UK pop for me. There has been good stuff since, but it was a fantastic year. My first summer with a full time job, so lots of money to spend on music, and I did. Saturday afternoon, I was nearly always in Cardiff either adding to my burgeoning Bowie collection, looking for 12″ singles in HMV or Spillers, or trolling the market for “old” albums from 1980-82.

  5. Sam Lowry says:

    I did not like it when it came out as I just did not like low tempo songs (and still don’t). In the many years since, it has grown on me but still pales in comparison to the more up tempo Wham stuff.

  6. Al says:

    Nobody cares anymore, for me one of the most beautiful songs of the 80s, the most beautiful times are over unfortunately, I still hear today when I’m sad.

  7. Marc says:

    “Now that your gone” indeed!

  8. -SG- says:

    An absolute classic song. 1984 really did have a load of memorable songs. I understand his criticism of the lyrics, but by accident or simply masterstroke, the naive quality and the moody music, so perfectly capture the teenage mellow-dramatic experience. Yeah, this song is where it became obvious that there was something special about George Michael. And 35 years…. ahhh. 35 years was sooo much longer ago back in 1984.

  9. Shane says:

    Really a genius. Those early hits everyone quoted are top of the pops. That however would be limiting the musical atmosphere. They were tops of the world.
    He certainly followed them up for a few albums but i have to say nothing released after Older comes close.
    Also, his Five Live EP it a masterpiece. His delivery of Somebody To Love i get chills just typing this. It’s beautiful, impeccable, that voice hitting those (high!) notes flawlessly, the song itself already being one in a lifetime delivering such emotions. Just wow. Legendary. Legend.

  10. Filippo Rostoni says:

    Hi Paul in reality WMUBYGG hit the top spot in the US only in mid November 1984, and was released in the US as single in August 1984 (exact date unknown), after CW was out as a single in UK. Consider also that CW hit # 1 in UK on August 12th AND Freedom hit # 1 in UK in Mid October!

    So all in all when WMUBYGG was released in the US, George Michael had already 2 number ones in Uk on his CV, one with Wham one as a solo artist, and before Wake…peaked in the US he had already THREE #1s in homeland. So probably the strategy was different than waiting Wake… to be a transatlantic hit as you note. More like “US they’re guys with already 2 hits at home plus the singer had a third one”…probably this buzz brought it to # 1 in November, meaning it was not just a one off in UK but a complete domination! Cheers

  11. David Roest says:

    Older for me is an album to live in.

  12. Bengt says:

    Trip down memory lane …

    I, a Swede, went to college in the US in the 80’s. A girl from Sweden was visiting as an exchange student and I remember taking her back after a “date” (as it was known in the US).
    Driving home after a good dinner and possibly a drink or two, “Careless whisper” came on the car radio, and she remarked “I could drive all night just listening to this”. A comment that comes back everytime I hear that song.
    And no, before you jump to any conclusions, it was just a comment on the feeling of the night, driving home quietly, relaxed, not saying much, good music playing that fit our moods.

    Soundtrack to a time gone by …

  13. Karl X says:

    I was in my first year at university when “Wake Me Up…” became unavoidable on US radio and MTV rotation. As fun and infectious as it was, I dismissed it as the latest in Tiger Beat pop. Then came “Careless Whisper” and I was impressed by the vocal and production quality. “Everything She Wants” continued my curiosity. Then George went fully out on his own with the haunting “A Different Corner” and the foot-tapping “I Knew You Were Waiting” Aretha duet. By the time the “Faith” album dropped I was a full fledged die-hard fan and remain so to this day. He was a temperamental and fragile perfectionist racked with self doubt but the music he delivered was always personal, well-crafted and avoided filler. He was one of the few artists I traveled thousands of miles to see live. Happy that I had the opportunity to experience him in concert multiple times and still saddened that he left us too soon.

  14. Erik says:

    The one time I got up the nerve to ask my high school crush for a slow dance was for this song, always makes me think of Jennifer when I hear it and my 3 minutes of bliss…followed by another 2 years of bitter longing. Glad it was to such a great song.

    Never got into his Faith period which is why I was shocked how much I dug Listen Without Prejudice and was almost embarrassed to admit how much I loved it, being predominately a rock & prog guy at the time, but good music is good music, regardless of what labels we try and slap on it.

  15. Michael says:

    Fabulous song. He stopped that performance at the Apollo because something was not right. The audience applauded & he started again.

    The song came to him on a bus when he was 17.

    He was around this time listening to music such as Joy Division but he knew his gift was making commercial pop music. It was after the Faith album that he stopped making music that went for the jugular.

    My favourite of his music is any of the albums up to Older. Careless Whisper is genius. There is an earlier video version available on YouTube.

  16. Inner Space says:

    Looking back from todays perspective, I think many true fans would agree that Georges most mature / best work in terms of songwriting came with the Older album – especially the title track and remains this way in this complete discography. This is where his musical genius comes through the most IMHO. The fact that it didnt go much better as a single at the time is just the sign of the times – mid 90s chart music.

    Still, really hard to compare such a brilliant songwriter at the age of 17 (or 21) – the time of the writing / release of the Careless Whisper single and Older – 33 years of age.

    However, I dare to say Careless Whisper is and remains to be one of the best songs / particularly ballads of the whole decade. What he did with the song from the songwritting / arranging / production point of view at the time is nothing short of amazing.
    The decision alone not to go with the Wexler version for the A-side worldwide release – knowing / realizing it doesnt fulfill the songs full potential / not going to be a huge hit as it became in the end – is brilliant and a sure sign of a musical genius that he was.

  17. Dave says:

    Wexler version is fine, but yes, George and management were right to bury it.

  18. Mick Lynch says:

    A classic for all-time. When you listen back to the demo of Careless whisper they submitted, that got them their Innervision contract you could hear it was a masterpiece in the making

  19. X says:

    Please don’t listen to the compressed remaster of Older, it’s diabolical.

    • Alan says:

      Is there such a thing, X? I did check out the George Michael section in HMV the other week, and I noticed Older appeared to have a 2011 date. Also it was on Sony, so I’m assuming rights have passed from Virgin. Is that the remaster then?

      Older is a great album but he was smoking joints throughout the making of it. That isn’t judging, but the Wham and Careless Whisper days he was presumably clean. Raw talent there rather than enhanced. Would Older have been as good if he wasn’t taking any drugs?

  20. The Strangest Thing says:

    ‘Older’ album – in my opinion is George Michael’s pinnacle.
    I listened to Older for the first time whilst on holiday in Turkey – on headphones – whilst being driven to our hotel in 1996
    A truly brilliant experience.

    I appeal to everyone – dig out a copy of Older and give it a listen this weekend.
    It really is a class act. I could never understand how it doesn’t make one of the best albums of all time. Please listen to Older again before replying to this.

    We can then petition for an SDE multi disc affair, with a 5.1 mix which it truly suits/ deserves

  21. Jason says:

    Thank you for this retrospective look. George Michael…what a paradox. What a loss. As with Prince, glad to be around to experience him in the world while he was here.

  22. mike says:

    Just re-read his 1990 autobiography ‘Bare’, fascinating insight into the man up to that point. He knew Careless Whisper would pay his bills for the rest of his life, but didnt care much for it as a song and didnt like other of his songs had lesser public love.

  23. Mike the Fish says:

    The feel of the song is great, and there’s some great lines, but basically the protagonist is bleating on about being caught cheating.

  24. Terence Holmes says:

    Nice to hear a live version but I didn`t care for the duet with Smokey Robinson – their voices didn`t blend at all!

  25. Alan says:

    I’ve been listening to quite a lot of George Michael lately, though not so much this song as it isn’t on any of his studio albums.

    Is there a decent version of the video of Careless Whisper anywhere? On his DVDs, the quality of this (both sound and picture quality) are noticeably not as good as some of the other 80s videos. It’s in need of restoration (though obviously with today’s HD norm, anything from the 80s and 90s tends to lack clarity).

    After he died, I made up a three “disc” album on my phone of all his singles in chronological order. Everything that was on Ladies and Gentlemen, everything else from Twenty-Five (excluding Wham!) anything released since and anything that was missing from either (Monkey, Waltz Away Dreaming, If I Told You That etc). A total of 47 tracks. Would be good to see something like that released.

    Also could do with a compilation of all non-album tracks/alternative versions (though the deluxe editions released so far cover most of those – just need Older onwards).

  26. Craig Hedges says:

    George was mentioned on a programme I watched yesterday, made before he died, and a fan was saying how she appeared in the Wake me up video and as an incentive to stay to the end of shoot George and Andrew would give the fans a kiss. She remembered that Andy was more enthusiastic than George about this and the tale made me laugh….. then I stopped and got upset again. I’m still so angry about his death, his story illustrates perfectly was a big con fame is. He seemed like a decent bloke, he was way to hard on himself with regards to his abilities as Paul mentions about the lyrics to Careless Whisper. I’m hoping that the will be a deluxe version of Make it big this autumn.

  27. David Hannah says:

    Great article! There was also a 7″ poster sleeve edition to go with the myriad of formats…CBS knew what they were doing…

  28. Jan says:

    So obvious Sony should have re released it on 12″ and a CD for the anniversary with all the mixes and b sides, timed nicely with Andrew’s book. Whats going on there? Do they not have product idea folk or look at your site?Opportunity lost.

  29. Charles says:

    Gone too soon.

  30. Fady says:

    You’re right – he absolutely nailed the section immediately following “tonight the music seems so loud”. A reminder of Michael’s brilliance and also sadness that he’s no longer with us.

    Can’t believe it’s been 35 years since its release. If there are any 35 year olds subscribing to this site there’s a good chance this song is the reason they’re here! ;-)

  31. Kauwgompie says:

    Wow that’s a brilliant live version. Thanks Paul.

  32. ROBIN PULLEN says:

    ‘Guilty Feet Have Got No Rhythm’ is still one of the best lyric lines in a song ever, you would have to go a rather long way to find a better one

    • David M says:

      Preferably not on guilty feet …

    • Tyrone says:

      “It’s murder on the dance floor” Is a close second – my bunions are giving me hell.

    • Blakey says:

      I recall reading a George interview in Smash Hits from 84. They asked him what makes a No.1 single actually become just that? George said lines like ‘Guilty Feet Have Got No Rhythm’. And he was right.

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