The Horror of Wham!
I spent my mid-teens avoiding Wham! It was tough, but somebody had to do it. Somebody had to take a hit for the team. Somebody had to show the West Australian teenage population of the early 1980s that Ska– the sound of back-blocks London -, followed by several years of Gothic intensity, was the future. The alternative – a poptastic glitter-filled beach-cabana life – was not worth thinking about. Quelle horreur!
The two friends who formed Wham! in middle class London, Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael (well that’s the anglicised stage name he chose), were soon everywhere. Everywhere in short shorts. Everywhere in pastel colours. White-toothed smiles that defied the stucco-colour charts of normal dentistry.
Clearly none of those things were the future sound of music. And come to think of it, neither were boppy songs, fit bods, Choose Life tees, gaggles of screaming girls (well not a gaggle at least), and global mega-hit after global mega-hit over the course of four short years. I recall the Year 12 school formal with everyone bouncing the dance floor to Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. Kill me now – before you go go, more like it.
Although I gotta admit, the earworm of Everything She Wants, with its funky groove, killer bass, and astonishingly dark and honest lyrics, was something of a guilty pleasure. I think my Robert Smith/The Cure pancake face makeup even cracked in the light emanating from that song’s brilliance. Maybe there was something in these guys after all.
And suddenly Wham! was gone, burning brightly under the mirror ball before vanishing in a bright flouro-puff of nightclub smoke. And no one ever heard from them again. Well, no one ever heard of Andrew Ridgeley again – and he seemed to like it that way. Because the tortured, but brilliant soul that was George Michael went on to become one of the defining music artists of the next thirty years or so until his unfortunate early death at 53 in 2016. Everyone heard of George Michael all of the time. He was as ubiquitous as Wham! was, but for decades not years.
And now it’s time to revisit Wham! Culturally that is. That’s how nostalgia works. People get to an age that they can afford the time and money and other resources to explore the peaks and troughs of their youth, and it’s that time for the X-Genners. Coupled with that is the deep, almost visceral desire to go back to youth when hair was in all the right places, we met people in all the right places, and our minds were in all the right places.
So with that in mind, welcome back to the stage, Wham! Though, if truth be told, Ridgeley resurfaced a few years ago with a well-received book about the whole Wham! journey. He did the book tour with vim and vigour, looking as fit, tanned and cheerful as he did back in 1982, a real contrast to the final bloated years of George’s drug and illness spiral.
And so that’s where the documentary comes in. And I have to say it’s fantastic. Fantastic and moving. It’s a face-paced (92 minutes) race through those heady four years, produced by Chris Smith of Tiger King documentary fame. And I say it’s fantastic because, as so many commentators have noted, this is not simply a documentary about 48 months of rollercoaster pop group brilliance. Yes it is about that too, and it’s cleverly held together utilising the meticulous scrapbooks that Ridgeley’s mum kept, as its historical timeline. But it’s more. Much more. And that’s why there’s been so much commentary about it.
For at the centre of the documentary is the story of a deep friendship between two pre-teens that propelled them into a band. And more than that, a friendship in which, as one’s dwarf star diminished in the light of his friend’s supernova, was able to adjust and cope to the growing chasm, even as it led them inevitably apart. A friendship that, despite the press sneering at Ridgeley as a hanger-on, maintained itself to the end despite that chasm. A friendship that saw two early fifties male friends still having dinner and playing Scrabble together in 2016 just before George died.
Not that Ridgeley ever hit the skids. Thanks to royalties from some of the most enduring pop songs of the eighties he’s never had to work another day in his life. But George Michael became a mega-star and did so while Wham! was still an entity. Listening to Ridgeley today (and even back then), it was clear that while he was the less-talented one, he was also the more secure one. A security that exists to this day, it must be said.
The documentary, voiced almost exclusively off-camera, by the two men (Ridgeley contemporary and archived material from George), just lacks what so many broken bands, or creatively different stars portray: bitterness! There’s none of it. Ridgeley was proud of his friend from day one to the end of the line. You go to the documentary, interested to see what propelled them to superstardom, but you come away from it moved by a long-term male friendship in which both parties were kind to each other, loved and cared for the other, and felt no need to pull rank or put the other down to get ahead.
I’ve lost count of the number of comments about the documentary that arrow in on this friendship aspect of the documentary. And who comment, as Virginia Trioli, a senior Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist, did almost wistfully in her piece on the ABC online, on what seems to be a rarity among the modern male in the West. Alongside the usual Wham! nostalgia trip, Trioli observes:
It’s a quite remarkable story of friendship. Of the service to another that true friendship is, about the fundamental personal differences that good friendship transcends, and the truly moving thing that is an enduring and kind friendship between men when life, or talent, or even something like destiny, takes them in entirely different directions.
But it’s what she says about what she perceives is a marked absence today that struck me most, not least of all because it doesn’t correspond to my experience at all:
Those of us with men in our lives fervently wish that they would seek out, nurture, and maintain good friendships with their mates in the way that women so often do better: healthy relationships that don’t rely on booze or betting as the social glue, and ones in which they can be vulnerable and seek and give good counsel…I wonder if men of varying generations will have different reactions to this documentary. I suspect men my age and older could feel a pang of regret for the intimacy and trust they might have missed out on with the friends they have; but I wonder if younger men might look at George and Andrew as the best representation of how they now do the work to care for their own friends and maintain their friendships. I think younger men understand this better. At least I hope they do.
You get the wistfulness in this from Virginia don’t you? Why don’t men have friendships that park ego to the side, and that don’t revolve around “baser” elements of life like alcohol, sports betting, and silverback gorilla chest-beating? She talks about “men my age and older”, and Virginia Trioli is my age, or a year older anyway.
But I have to say that the description she gives of men our age is light years away from my own experience. And I can only put that down to one thing: the Christian communities I have belonged to over the years. I have had some bad church experiences over the years, well documented in this blog, but my overwhelming experience is of warm, honest, open, ego-less friends with men in my social and educational settings, and men who are not. And the common factor is Jesus. They all follow a man who went on the ultimate non-ego trip. A trip that took him to the cross.
I do wonder where non-Christian men my age go to get gentle, kind, stern, insightful, holy advice and friendship. Is it really true that booze and betting and braggado are the way in which we relate? Is the only man who speaks truth in love to us our clinical psychologist?
Not in my experience. And my friendship circle includes former drug-dealer enforcers who never cracked a book in their lives, who drank too much, beat up people and who spent time in prison. And some of the conversations they’ve had with me about how to raise children, love our wives, seek godly friends and avoid hubris, have been the best conversations I’ve ever had.
They’ll pray with me, shed a tear with me, and call me out for my stupidity. In short, one of my most trusted friends, is a tattooed tradesmen who lives on acreage, loves nothing better than camping and fox-hunting, and can’t understand why I drive a French SUV that has never seen a gravel track! Sacre bleu! (He’s also called Andrew by the way!)
Why are we friends? Because we are great men? No, but because we follow a great man! Jesus is the safest, most helpful, honest, self-sacrificial man I know, and all without ego. Better even than Andrew Ridgeley! Virginia says she hopes a younger generation of men is better at this male friendship thing than her age demographic. Not if they’re following the advice of that other Andrew, Andrew Tate, they’re not. And too many of the signs in our culture show that Virginia’s hopes may be dashed.
But once again, there’s Jesus. Jill and I attend a church in which, on average, we’re twenty years older than the congregation. Yet my experience of the thirty-something men is that they aren’t into the booze, betting and braggado either. They’re still full of that youthful spark, but when they get together the conversations don’t descend the longer the evening goes, if you know what I’m saying. They’re there for each other – and for the long term.
And perhaps, in the lonely – increasingly lonely too – world we live in, which lacks forgiveness, and is becoming dog-eat-dog, a church community of men who follow the best man who ever lived, who have found in him the best friend they ever could, is a way forward for friendless men.
Not men who don’t have drinking or betting buddies, but friends who take delight in seeing each other flourish, and see no need to shred each other or pull each other down. Those men are out there Virginia, and so many of them have this in common – they could stand together, and regardless of their musical proclivities; rock, Gothic, rap, death-metal, classical or yes, even Wham!, and sing with each other “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”.
The longing for strong, long-term male friendship, such as that displayed in the documentary, can be met, is being met, among men of whom Jesus says “You are my friends”. Perhaps Christian male friendship is the double-whammy our modern Western man desperately needs.