360°Sound caught up with Matthew Horton, author of the 33 1/3 book on George Michael’s 1987 solo debut, Faith. Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series consists of short books on classic albums. Faith (#165 in the series) is among the best-selling LPs of all time with over 25 million copies sold globally. Of the seven singles released, four of them went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Faith,” “Father Figure,” “One More Try” and “Monkey.”
A writer, editor, and avid record collector based in Kent, UK, Horton has published many articles on music in NME, The Guardian, and The Quietus, among other publications. In this exclusive interview, Horton discusses Michael’s skills as a songwriter and producer and the legacy of Faith over 35 years later.
360°Sound: Why did you choose George Michael’s Faith for your 33 1/3 book?
Matthew Horton: Well, there are both wholehearted and cynical reasons for it. I was a Wham! fan back in the day, a 10-year-old kid when “Young Guns (Go For It)” arrived on Top of the Pops, and about to be a mad-keen record buyer. So, I grabbed every Wham! single when it came out, mimed along to “Bad Boys” in my bedroom mirror (strumming my tennis-racquet guitar, contributing about as much to the record as Andrew Ridgeley) and swooned as George Michael got all serious with “Careless Whisper.”
By the time Faith came out, I was 15 and deemed myself the now-mature audience George was aiming at. So, it was a seminal album for me. I felt the sophistication, even if I was faking it. And maybe he was too. Also, while it had a host of cracking singles, it held together throughout like no Wham! album before it. A new phase for us all.
If I’m absolutely honest, up until 2020, George’s second solo album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 was my favorite of his, and when the 33 1/3 open call was announced it soon came to mind. You see, I’d unsuccessfully pitched a rather more obscure choice a few years earlier, so this time I decided to be true to myself and go full pop. I wanted to talk about a record that had always been with me. Duran Duran’s Rio had already been nabbed [Editor’s note: Check out our interview with Rio author Annie Zaleski]; George was just waiting there. The (slightly) cynical bit was how my brain worked when I thought about pitching Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. It was the wrong choice. Faith was the monster, its story far bigger.
Percussionist Andy Duncan is quoted in the book saying Michael didn’t get too involved in the technical aspects of production, but he had a “phenomenal ability to conceptualize a piece of music and keep it in his head.” Discuss Michael’s approach to the production and his talent for hearing songs in his head and executing them in the studio.
He did well to claim the producer credit, didn’t he? I think that was important to him, to be acknowledged as an auteur, somewhere in the realm of Prince or Stevie Wonder, writing, producing, performing everything himself. He manages that on “Hard Day,” but everywhere else there’s a bit of help. The buck stops with him though. Chris Porter’s the engineer on the album – as he’d been on most of the Wham! catalog – assisted by Paul Gomersall and Paul Wright, but Porter and Gomersall, both of whom spoke to me for the book, certainly bow to George as the master creator here. It was just up to them to realize what he was dreaming.
Equally, it was up to the musicians to translate the sounds in his head. George couldn’t read music and he wasn’t formally trained on any instrument – Porter speaks incredulously and admiringly of “Last Christmas” as ‘the chopsticks of pop’ because George just played its deathless melody by stabbing the keys with a couple of fingers – he could just picture it all in his mind’s eye and found a way to convey it. More than one collaborator speaks in awed tones of George singing the chords of a song to get a session started.
Duncan was one of many interviews you conducted for the book. What were some of your main takeaways from the interviews regarding the making of the album?
There were musicians like keyboard player Chris Cameron and trumpeter Steve Sidwell who’d had a long professional relationship with George and were used to his ways. They marveled at his techniques, unorthodox or just plain staggering, but were never wrongfooted. Then there were guys like the arranger John Altman and session guitarist Roddy Matthews who found him entirely impenetrable and had no idea where they stood or what George thought of their work from day to day. Essentially, I think that goes back to him holding that picture in his head and expressing it in unusual ways. If you weren’t familiar with his MO, you’d be puzzled. Yet, however alienated they felt, they still reckoned him a kind of genius.
Michael said he was very unhappy and lonely when he was writing Faith. Discuss Michael’s mindset at the time and how it informed the songwriting.
In hindsight, we can all say he was struggling because he couldn’t quite be himself. Whether for the sake of his parents, or the sake of his female fans’ fantasies, George kept his homosexuality secret, and it took its toll. While the British tabloid press was desperate to ‘out’ him, he was busy recording “I Want Your Sex” – explicitly addressed to a ‘girl’ – and cavorting around with his then-partner Kathy Jeung in the video, and whether all that was disingenuous or not is up to you. But he battled through. It’s only later with Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 and his conflicts with Sony that his professional life scrapes uncomfortably against his need for a private existence.
On Faith, he’s a spurned, devastated lover on “One More Try” and “Kissing A Fool,” disgusted at the world around him on “Hand To Mouth,” nasty on “Look At Your Hands,” and playing second fiddle to a drug habit on “Monkey.” It’s all a far cry from “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Mind you, there was a cruel lover in the mix there, too.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
It’s fluctuated over the years. When I first heard the album 35 or so years ago, it was “Kissing A Fool” that affected me the most, I think because it was so different for him – and again, as I suggested earlier, it had an unexpectedly mature sound that maybe chimed with my self-image at the time. I’d grown out of Star Wars toys and was now ready for wine bars. That’s how it goes, right? Anyway, so refined, and it only needed dozens of takes.
Now though, it’s “Father Figure,” with the singer offering the protection he surely craves himself; the temptation to adorn the moment with a full gospel choir resisted in favor of just having Shirley Lewis accompany him; the vocal and the keyboards like ice; and finally, the ‘sex clap’. More on that in the book.
What do you think is the legacy of Faith over 35 years later?
For George, it was the overwhelming weight of fame and almost unimaginable success, and it pushed him under, at least for a while. For the rest of us, it’s frustrated band members from Robbie Williams to Geri Halliwell to Justin Timberlake to Harry Styles, who think they can break free, ‘do a George Michael’ and instantly switch from bright shiny pop singer to serious, cool artist without losing any fans – or at least smoothly replacing them. Those are the ones that made it. The template might look easy to follow, but you need the talent to pull it off and the strength to handle the fallout.
Click here to purchase a copy of the 33 1/3 book on George Michael’s Faith.
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