Music, News & Commentary

25 Years Since: George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice Vol I

| |

Freedom. You’d think that worldwide fame and riches would buy some of that. But, for George Michael in the mid-1980s, its elusiveness was something that seemed central enough to base a whole, much awaited, album on. With the release of Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 25 years ago, Michael was seeking a new kind of freedom; artistic freedom. Not deterred by the indulgent efforts of mainstream pop stars seeking artistic cred, Michael was looking for that far horizon among sappy teeny bopper big wigs: to be taken seriously.
Unlike many parvenus, he succeeded in his creative goal. And you could hear the air going out of the excessive ’80s with each barbed line he laid on us.
Michael (real name, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou), born in London, hooked up with buddy Andrew Ridgeley and started performing together in the early ’80s. As Wham! (aka Wham!UK in the US) the duo came to epitomise the mid-’80s flouro-soaked, hair-gelled froth-pop with massive hits like Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go) which made Number One in the UK, the US, Australia in 1984 and Careless Whisper which got to Number One in the UK and Australia later that same year.
In the arc of those two songs, the beginning of Michael’s journey to Listen Without Prejudice can be traced. The ephemeral bubble of Wake Me Up and its accompanying over-the-top, happy clappy video was deflated in the tortured ballad that was Careless Whisper, complete with a suited Michael, sans dance moves, crooning alone in a largely featureless room.

From bubble gum to béarnaise.
After the break-up of Wham!, Michael released Faith as his first solo effort in 1984. It became one of the decade’s landmark albums, to date selling 25 million copies. Faith rocketed Michael into very rare air. Faith‘s biggest single was I Want Your Sex, which rather played to the ’80s, pop star hedonism and while the album carried “deeper” tracks like Kissing a Fool (which would not have out of place on Listen Without Prejudice), Faith still bubbles along on the syncopated riffs and dance beats. Today it sounds dated.

From the opening track of Listen Without Prejudice, you know you’re in darker territory. With lines like “And it’s hard to love, when there’s so much to hate… And the wounded skies above say its much too late,” the opening track, Praying For Time, throws us into a deeply fraught, questioning, political aspect of Michael’s persona. And it hardly lets up.

Following is Freedom! 90 in which Michael takes the risk of biting the hand that feeds him, and declares he isn’t really a pop star after all. Here he takes a journey from when he was “every little hungry schoolgirls pride and joy” to letting us all know that “today the way I play the game is not the same, no way.”
“There’s someone else I’ve got to be,” he pleads, and adds “I just hope you understand, sometimes the clothes do not make the man.” While he sings he would “really, really love to stick around,” Michael is turning his back on what made him the pop Sun God he had become. It was brave, borderline precious and possibly foolhardy.

Clearly there’s a lot going on here. Michael was yet to reveal he was gay – being somewhat forced to do so in 1998 after being caught in a men’s loo – and the pressure of acting a part for millions of adoring largely straight female fans was clearly beginning to show. Even donning standard gay kit, say in the Faith video, didn’t provide enough of a hint.
But, that’s just the start. Listen Without Prejudice is about escaping from the reality Michael has created, or that has been created for him by others; a tricky act when you’re one of the world’s biggest celebrities and there are numerous fortunes riding on your career and that very reality.
From those opening tracks, into a cover of Stevie Wonder’s soaring They Won’t Go When I Go, to Something to Save, Cowboys and Angels, Waiting for That Day, Mothers Pride, Soul Free and Waiting, there’s a clear theme of a young man (Michael was 26 to 27 when making the record) questioning the world and, most markedly, his bizarre place in it.
Listen Without Prejudice is political, self-exploring, self-criticising, confused and intelligent.
It’s also generous. It seems Michael wants to let us know that fame and fortune is not all it’s cracked up to be and that those who crave would be advised to be careful what they ask for. Michael was suffocating in that bubble. It’s an honest appraisal of the high life from way up there – beyond the reach of us mere mortals – from where Michael seems to question the need for fame at all, especially the kind of mega-celebrity he was at the time, and ponders its value in a world of need and sadness.
Rolling Stone said at the time of its release, “If Listen Without Prejudice starts a trend among Michael’s pop generation to move beyond image to integrity, it could make ‘rock and roll TV’ sound more consistently and convincingly like music.” Few made that move and music continues to be threatened by image.
Clearly Michael’s fans at the time were perplexed and maybe disappointed at his striking out for the orb of cred. In comparison to its predecessor Faith, Listen Without Prejudice sold poorly. A second volume of the album was always intended, presumably with similar themes, but it was dropped by Michael himself, perhaps leery of the consequences. Michael’s career never quite hit the same heights and he spun slowly and centrifugally from the heart of popular music, whose beat, certainly in the ’80s, he partly wrote.
Listen Without Prejudice is one of the markers for the end of the 1980s. It was a sobering of a largely out of control decade, a note of concern over the decisions humanity was making. Today, 25 years on, it has hardly dated. Its integrity is firm. Michael himself may have faded in the popular pantheon, but his album of 1990 stands him and his legacy in good stead. The creative aim of Listen Without Prejudice was well and truly achieved.

5 responses to “25 Years Since: George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice Vol I

  1. The best review of the best album Listen Without Prejudice, by a solo artist, of all time to my ears. Brilliant & thanks for writing it. Yes I am from the old generation but I am a huge George Michael fan. I have always thought he would have been happier to have been born earlier & been a huge music star in the 70s, an era that deep under the poppy songs there were singer/songwriters whose songs are not dated & are true poetry which are still about the world today.

  2. Thank you for an outstanding and insightful review of one of my all time favorite albums. While admittedly I never really cared for his work with Wham! or the Faith album, I couldn’t help but recognize the amazing voice Michael has always had. So when “Listen without Prejudice”was released I had to give it a listen.
    The first time I listened to the album the first thought that came to mind was “This man is no mere pop star, but in truth he is clearly an artist.” I believe this just as much now as back then.
    I only wished he would have continued on this path, but for whatever reason this was not meant to be. In my opinion, all of his work after “Listen without Prejudice” has been no where near the level of artistic brilliance he had achieved with that album, and in some cases it seemed as if he had taken a giant step backwards. Even though he certainly gained success with much of his other work, I can’t help but feel like this album was his only true “artistic” success.

  3. This is one of my favourite albums of all time. I listened to it almost every day. It stood the test of time which was what he wanted with his work. His life at a certain point and since he wrote from personal experience was not an easy one. His lover passing, his mum dying from cancer really didn’t allow him to be more prolific. He was also a perfectionist that’s why it took him a lot of time to put out new material.
    Nevertheless we know that everything that he put ou there is incredibly well written, produced, arranged, sung, etc…
    I was hoping for more material but something told me that this was not going to happen because he was clearly not in a good place.
    He will surely be missed. He was BELOVED by everyone. An altruistic, gentle, humble and kind person. My favourite artist of all time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *