The mid-1980s saw British pop duo Wham! enjoying a period of international popularity to rival New Romantic kings Duran Duran. But on April 7, 1985, they’d do something not even the biggest music artists of that era (or previous eras) had done – Wham! would become the first Western band to perform in post-Mao Zedong China.
Suffice to say, this was no easy feat.
Patience, cunning, a million pounds, and a propaganda campaign against Freddie Mercury all played a role in getting Wham!’s George Michael, 21, and Andrew Ridgeley, 22, in front of a crowd of 12,000 at the People’s Gymnasium in Beijing on that historic April evening.
The release of Wham!’s second album, 1984’s Make It Big, saw them top both the US Billboard and UK charts, with the band scoring number-one hits at home and across the Atlantic with 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go' and 'Careless Whisper.'
(Although the latter is often credited as Wham! Featuring George Michael, or just a George Michael single, depending on the country of release – foreshadowing Michael’s imminent solo career.)
The band’s second album
The year wasn’t even close to finishing, and the band was already setting new industry records for singles sales. A September 1984 Smash Hits article describes Wham!'s success:
“Wham! are in a strange position. They’ve been staggeringly successful this year, selling just under two million singles. There’s even talk of an entry in The Guinness Book of World Records as George Michael is the first person ever in the same ‘calendar year’ to have a group number one and a solo number one.”
To support the success of their sophomore record, Wham! packed up their synths, saxophone and hairspray and took to the road on the 39-date 'The Big Tour.'
Beginning in December 1984, the four-month world tour saw the band entertain fans in sold-out stadiums across the UK, Ireland, the US, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, and… two concerts on the Chinese mainland – a career first for any pop group from the Western hemisphere.
After the death of Mao Zedong, China had begun a period of 'Reform and Opening-up' under Deng Xiaoping, which saw increased trade and cultural relations with the West.
Nevertheless, invitations to China were subject to strict vetting by the Ministry of Culture, and discussions could drag on for months and months.
For one man, the amount of time it would take was of no concern.
The mastermind behind the tour was record producer, promoter, and one of Wham!’s two managers, Simon Napier-Bell (who also managed Ultravox, Marc Bolan, and Japan, to name just a few).
During his keynote speech at the 2015 International Music Summit, Napier-Bell remembers seeing an opportunity to boost the band’s international profile:
“We couldn’t care less if nobody in China knew a thing about it, all I wanted was the publicity outside of China because it would help make my group [Wham!] bigger.”
Wham!’s manager spent 18 months wining and dining Chinese officials and ministers, gradually planting the idea that a Western pop band performing in China was good for Chinese society, foreign investment, and international reputation.
However, the band and their manager were not the only Westerners vying for the bragging rights of being the first pop band to entertain fans in the Middle Kingdom.
Chinese officials informed Napier-Bell that they were being courted by a few “other” artists who wanted to add the likes of Shanghai and Beijing to their international touring schedule. One of these acts posed a real threat as they were arguably bigger than Wham! – Freddie Mercury’s Queen.
Simon Napier-Bell's tell-all book
Napier-Bell understood the stakes and just who they were up against. Unafraid to use underhanded tactics to secure his band’s place in history, the tour architect prepared two “nice dossiers,” as he called them, that were “very beautifully presented,” and submitted them to Chinese officials.
He explains the difference between the two documents:
“One showed Wham! as these lovely two young, nice middle-class guys, who loved their mum and dad and bought them presents on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and at weekends went to Sainsbury’s and Tesco to help old women carry their shopping home.”
The other dossier included images of the band Queen; well, specifically Freddie Mercury, who just so happened to be in “full-drag” at a Christmas party. Underneath the photo, Napier-Bell included an Urban Dictionary-esque definition of a queen:
“A homosexual, a man who dresses in woman’s clothing and wears makeup.”
The plan worked.
The successful sabotage of the main competition put the – apparently – cleaner-cut Wham! in poll position, and a few more dinners (13 in total, Napier-Bell estimates) of drunken shrimp with Chinese ministers sealed the deal.
Napier-Bell had achieved what no other industry mogul had: His band would be the first to play in China.
The 1986 documentary, Wham! In China: Foreign Skies follows the band’s 10-day stay in China. During this time, they would perform two concerts: one in Beijing on April 7, 1985, at the People’s Gymnasium, and another three days later at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Guangzhou.
The hour-long documentary contains concert footage from both the Beijing and Guangzhou dates; however, most of it is montage scenes of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley walking through the streets of Beijing and Guangzhou and taking in the sights...
George Michael & Andrew Ridgeley on the Great Wall
Andrew Ridgeley poses with a couple of 'fans'
George Michael & Andrew Ridgeley in Tiananmen Square
... Tai Chi and traditional musical performances in a park, a media photo op on the Great Wall, a game of football, and afternoon drinks in the ambassador’s garden – all set to a Wham! backing track.
George Michael & Andrew Ridgeley in the ambassador’s garden
Arriving in Beijing for the first time, the duo walks through the airport after having their passports stamped by an immigration official. Looking around at the arrivals terminal, a confused George Michael asks:
“Where are all the screaming kids then?”
The band’s first moments in China were a sign that this would be no normal tour.
Nor was it going to be the usual money-maker.
China was not ready to host a concert on this scale, so the band and their crew had to bring everything with them, even down to the “fuse wires” as Napier-Bell recalls.
The record label would be financing everything during their time on the Mainland, from the 800-person state banquets to the wages of the ticket sellers. They'd be covering the one-million-pound price tag, and all profits went to the Chinese government
Even if they were in it for the money, “Getting it out of China” was the problem, according to George Michael.
Nevertheless, Chinese officials had devised a creative way of getting profits to the band in the event they should sell millions of cassette albums. George Michael remembers being asked, “Would we like to be paid in bicycles?” They politely declined.
That being said, the band would not be selling millions of cassettes.
Napier-Bell had convinced the Western media that China’s decision to invite Wham! was based on the band’s popularity with Chinese fans, which was not entirely true.
Despite exaggerating the band’s reputation, Napier-Bell – ever the savvy manager – already had things covered. To avoid fans turning up unfamiliar with Wham!’s back catalog, concert tickets (which cost between $1.75 and $5.50) would come with a special cassette featuring songs in their original format... and then in Mandarin – sung by a local entertainer.
Again, his plan worked. Wham! mania took hold in the hutongs of Beijing and neighborhoods up and down the rest of the country:
“Very few Chinese knew about Wham!, but a week later, every music fan in the country seemed to know everything there was to know about the band,” Napier-Bell explained to That's Beijing's Karoline Kan back in 2014.
“[The plan] obviously worked because [travel writer] Colin Thubron mentions endlessly hearing Wham! being played everywhere when he visited China shortly after the concert.”
The Beijing Concert
The night of the Beijing concert, as Chinese fans begin to fill the stadium, George Michael confesses that he is unusually “nervous” during his backstage warm-up.
And before the band even take to the stage, problems start to appear.
Wham!’s opening act DJ Trevor has worked the crowd up into a frenzy, and a government official announces over the loudspeaker that there would be no more clapping, dancing, or getting out of seats during the rest of the evening.
And, of course, the crowd complied.
The band delivered a technically sound performance that evening, but an uncharacteristically stiff George Michael seemed to struggle with the lack of audience interaction.
After the gig, a dejected George Michael laments (during a full-body massage) the decision to stop people from participating:
“We went out and played to 13,000 people… sitting down.”
Wham!'s Beijing Setlist
Wham!'s setlist at the Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing on April 7, 1985, approved pre-arrival by the Ministry of Culture:
Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
A Ray of Sunshine
Young Guns (Go for It!)
Everything She Wants
Like a Baby
If You Were There
On To Guangzhou
While the Beijing concert may have been a tepid affair for fans and the band, Guangzhou would prove to be very different. Playing to a smaller crowd of 5,000, none of the previous concert's restrictions on audience participation were in place.
Tonight, the band is confident and in full control. George Michael commands the stage in all the ways expected of a young man at the top of the international charts, galvanized by a more animated and engaged crowd who clap, scream, and reciprocate the frontman’s energy.
The only thing that stops the band’s momentum this evening is a brief interval for a costume change. Returning to the stage in white trousers and a blazer, a solitary blue spotlight falls on a shirtless George Michael’s bare and hairless chest.
A lonely saxophone intro teases the audience before settling into something some of them seem to recognize.
George Michael takes center stage and carefully delivers the opening verse over a twelve-string guitar and synth. He intentionally draws out the stanza’s final note as pockets of the crowd fail to contain their excitement.
The lights go up, and George Michael begins to move in time with the drums as they usher in one of the most instantly identifiable saxophone riffs in the history of pop music. And so begins the band’s magnum opus (arguably) about a guilt-wracked two-timing lover.
Careless Whisper in Guangzhou
The Guangzhou concert brought 'The Big Tour' to a close, and the final night’s performance of Careless Whisper has secured its place in the pantheon of music mythology.
The song seems to contain everything within it: Napier-Bell’s determination and guile, China opening up to the West, a band at the peak of their fame, and a young singer showcasing – in a part of the world unfamiliar with his music and talent – the reasons why he would go on to become one of the most successful artists of his generation.
At the very least, the legacy of 'Careless Whisper' in Guangzhou lives on in the YouTube feeds of music fans. One such user comments:
“This was a beautiful time in our musical history. The way he hits that note in the beginning – wonderful performance!”
After the 'The Big Tour,' Wham! played the legendary Live Aid in 1986 and released a third album, Music from the Edge of Heaven, which would be the band’s last.
A bearded George Michael (a look he would continue to sport throughout the rest of his career) wanted to move away from the teenage fanfare of Wham! to start making more mature music.
Like many famous frontmen before him, George Michael had successfully made a name for himself outside of his original band, and now it was time to go at it alone.
A final concert at London’s Wembley Stadium on June 28, 1986, saw an emotional Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael say goodbye to their fans and each other, bringing Wham!’s five-year career to a close.
In his 30-year solo career after Wham!, George Michael released a run of multi-million-selling albums, including one of the best-selling albums of all time, Faith, and received multiple international accolades along the way, including two Grammys (eight nominations) and four MTV awards.
If silverware wasn’t enough of an indicator of his popularity, the UK-based charity the Radio Academy claims that between 1984–2004, George Michael was the most-played artist on UK radio.
Ridgeley, on the other hand, momentarily stepped away from music and relocated to Monaco to become a Formula Three racing car driver. He returned to music a few years later, releasing the poorly-received Son of Albert under his own name.
Despite rumors throughout the years of the band reforming, and Ridgeley sporadically appearing onstage to perform with his old bandmate, Wham! never got back together.
George Michael died at home from heart failure on Christmas day, 2016. He was 53 years old.
Ridgeley paid tribute to his friend and former bandmate on Twitter:
"Heartbroken at the loss of my beloved friend Yog.”
A year after 'The Big Tour,' Paula Yates, reporting for The Tube, asks the band why they wanted to play in China so much if it wasn’t for the money. George Michael, sipping from a glass of white wine, says:
“It was the idea of introducing a part of our Western culture into their culture. I mean, it was a real shock, and it was just a privilege to do it, just the idea of doing it.
“It was a pain in the arse as well, once we got there, but it was still a privilege.”
The band members were not the only ones to feel fortunate.
“Now our country has adopted an open policy, we have the chance to see this type of program, we are so lucky,” says a Chinese fan immediately after the Beijing concert.
A satisfied attendee of the Beijing concert
Not (Technically) the First
While Wham! was the first pop group to play in China, French electronic-music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre was the first Western musician invited to perform... in 1981, four years before George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley set foot in the country.
Jarre’s five-date 'The Concerts in China Tour' paved the way for other major international acts to follow in the years to come.
Since then, the Rolling Stones (2006), Eric Clapton (2007), Linkin Park (2007), Beyoncé (2009), Bob Dylan (2011), and Metallica (2013) are just a few of the many who’ve entertained Chinese audiences with their Ministry of Culture-approved setlists.
With the recent announcements from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism calling for the reinstatement of “procedures for handling and handling and approving applications for performances by those from overseas,” we’ll hopefully be seeing many more international artists coming this way in 2023.
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