Warning: Reading Andrew Ridgeley’s memoir “Wham! George Michael & Me” may send you straight down a YouTube or Spotify rabbit hole. It’s a reminder that the pair, in a mere four years, churned out an astounding number of hits, among them “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Edge of Heaven,” “Last Christmas,” “Everything She Wants,” “Careless Whisper” and “Freedom.”
From 1982 to its final concert at Wembley Stadium in 1986, the high-spirited pop of Wham! provided much-needed escapism from the misery of record unemployment in England. As Ridgeley writes, “everything looked effortlessly fun for us because it was effortlessly fun.” They were wizards with a pop hook. They were young and handsome. They were agile dancers, capable of plausibly wearing tiny Fila shorts (an early sponsorship deal) and cropped shirts.
“Wham! George Michael & Me” is the first time Ridgeley has written about his partnership – professional and personal – with Michael since his bandmate’s shocking, untimely death at 53 on Christmas Day in 2016.
Those in search of salacious tidbits will be disappointed. The nearest Ridgeley comes to dropping any bombs is carping about Michael’s obsession with his hair, described here as an “uncontrollable mass of wiry frizz in the humidity ... George bleached, teased, and blow-dried to such an extent that friends who caught a glimpse of him on the front page of tabloids sometimes mistook him for Princess Diana.”
What emerges instead is a tender, admiring tribute to Michael, whom Ridgeley repeatedly calls his best friend. The tone is affable (Chapter 12, for instance, is titled Party Nights and Neon Lights) and light on analysis. Few observations obtain more gravitas than: “If somebody had told me when I was twelve that one day I’d be appearing on ‘Top of the Pops,’ I’d have thought they were completely nuts.” But for fans of ’80s pop, it’s an engaging, breezy read.
The two met in 1975, writes Ridgeley, when a new boy arrived at Bushey Meads Comprehensive School in Hertfordshire, England. Awkward, chubby and wearing a pair of oversized glasses, the boy blushed in mortification as the teacher mangled his Greek name of Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou.
Ridgeley was assigned as Panayiotou’s mentor, and an uncomplicated but deep teen-boy friendship bloomed, united by a shared love of Queen, David Bowie and Joy Division, Monty Python sketches and juvenile humor. Ridgeley gave him the lifelong nickname of Yog, derived from the pronunciation of his name as “yor-goh.”
They also shared a bond as the sons of immigrant fathers. Michael’s father was a sternly traditional Greek Cypriot who changed his first name from “Kyriacos” to “Jack” when he moved to London. Ridgeley’s Egypt-born father changed his surname from Zacharia to Ridgeley after seeing “Ridgeley Gardens” on a street sign and deciding that it sounded properly English.
The rise of Wham! was meteoric. At 16, the two music obsessives were writing songs and recording demos in the modest house where Ridgeley lived with his parents. At 18, they formed Wham!; by 19, they’d landed a record contract.
Before the release of their debut album, “Fantastic,” they had decided that Michael should take full creative rein and write and arrange their songs. Ridgeley’s reaction was typically even-keeled. “The decision still smarted a little, but it was the right one,” he writes. “George was so clearly developing into a writer of rare ability ... I clearly couldn’t match him.”
For Michael (by then he had, like his father, changed his name), songwriting “seemed to have become the vehicle through which he could draw out the person he wanted to be,” writes Ridgeley. Despite his glorious voice and his uncanny ability to deliver pop hooks, “beneath the surface, George was still struggling with his looks, his weight and his self-image. The new character gave him a layer of psychological armor.”
Not that they seemed to have discussed this. Their friendship, during the band and afterward, was joke-y and bloke-y.
“When it came to romance, neither of us had ever confided in the other,” Ridgeley said. “That’s just not what our friendship was about.”
While filming the video for “Club Tropicana” in Ibiza (“fun and sunshine, there’s enough for everyone!”) Michael called Ridgeley into his room and announced that he was gay. Ridgeley was unfazed. (“I wanted him to be happy.”)
But the era was less friendly, and Michael, who had grown ferociously ambitious, decided that coming out was a career risk he couldn’t take (he ultimately came out in 1998). It helped that Ridgeley was cultivating an image as “Randy Andy,” the promiscuous club hound. “I’d been painted as the sinner, but the situation suited (Michael) just fine,” writes Ridgeley. “While the press were distracted by me, they were blind to the truth about his sexuality.”
Three studio albums later, Wham! was done.
“We were a band built on the idea of youth and exuberance,” writes Ridgeley. “There was no way we could stay kids forever.”
After the breakup, Michael zoomed to superstardom with the release of 1987’s “Faith,” while Ridgeley settled into his identity as The Other Guy in Wham! He did a stint of race car driving, released a solo album that barely charted and married, in a match made in pop heaven, Bananarama’s Keren Woodward (his bio says he “now pursues a variety of interests”).
The book ends with Ridgeley texting his old friend on Christmas Day 2016, wishing him a happy holiday and thanking him for the annual Christmas treats Michael always sent. Soon afterward, Michael’s sister phoned with the devastating news that he had died. Ridgeley, blindsided, doubled over in grief and began to sob.
These days, Ridgely will come across something that takes him back to the early days and find himself overcome with nostalgia – not for the screaming girls and the stadium shows, the “tumult and the palaver,” but for the person he has lost.
“I’ve not had as strong a bond with any other chum since then,” Ridgeley writes. “I’ve discovered that type of intensity is harder to rediscover as you get older.”
Some of Michael’s fans will likely wish that this memoir was more revealing, but others will be grateful that their idol had a steadfast friend like Ridgeley.