Welcome to our latest author Q&A, where we chat to the writers behind new and upcoming 33 1/3 books! Today, exactly 36 years since the album’s initial release, we’re talking to Matthew Horton who wrote the 33 1/3 on George Michael’s Faith. Matthew tells us more about how the book came together and where his love of George Michael first began.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
How George Michael took all his fierce ambition, stifled soul and need for respect and became – just for a moment – the biggest pop star on the planet.
What drew you to Faith?
I searched deep within myself, which didn’t take long, and realised if I was going to get the chance to write a 33 1/3 I shouldn’t second-guess the audience, the selection committee or even my own instincts – I should just choose something I unabashedly love. I’m making that sound like a revelation when it’s probably the stance most 33 1/3 authors have taken, but a writer’s impulse is to look for a compelling story, of course, and you’ll often find yourself tackling something that might not immediately be in your wheelhouse just because it tells some grand tale. Plus – incredibly – there’s still snobbery about pop, a sense it doesn’t deserve the big treatment. So, if you think about it, it was pretty heroic I chose Faith.
I didn’t instantly clasp Wham! to my heart when I saw “Young Guns (Go For It)” on Top of the Pops as a 10-year-old, possibly because I was devoted to Duran Duran. One whole single later (the re-release of “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)”) I was on board and bought everything from then on. I don’t remember feeling crushed when George announced the split. I guess he’d softened us up with “Careless Whisper” and “A Different Corner”. When the Faith campaign began, I was a mature 15-year-old with a dab of aftershave and designer stubble (bit of growth above the top lip), absolutely ready for grown-up George and his sophisti-pop soul.
So, I guess I’ve always felt in lock-step with Faith, and with George a little – but if I’m totally honest, the first of his albums I considered for 33 1/3 was Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. The songs mean slightly more to me personally. Perhaps I had my heart broken around 1990. Probably several times. When I sat down and thought about it, though – two days before the proposal deadline – I realised Faith had the story. Freedom! Credibility! Gargantuan sales! The album, that is. Not the book. Yet.
If you were introducing someone to George Michael for the first time, what would you recommend they listen to?
It’s George Michael – they’ve probably heard it all. Just to make sure, they’ll need to listen to Wham!’s The Final, which charts the accelerated flowering of a pop genius’s talent, then Ladies & Gentlemen, his own regal Best Of. That’s the first steps covered, the hits at least, so the reward would be to dig deeper, listen harder.
One way to use the book is as passnotes for the Faith songs’ component parts. Play “One More Try” and recognise those soulful chords inspired by Chris Cameron’s favourite Spinners tracks. Pick out the unrepeatable high note on “Father Figure”, caught in the dead of night. Pinpoint the exact riff on “Monkey” that nearly took the top of poor Roddy Matthews’ finger off. And for the real heads, just whereabouts in the mix is that texturising triangle on “Hand To Mouth”?
What was it like writing the book?
In practical terms, it was a pop nostalgist’s dream. I decided initially that I’d gather as much information as I could, hoping themes would naturally arise to complement my theories about career realignment and ruthlessly targeted ambition, so I camped out in the British Library for a couple of days a week. Regretfully, there were other demands on my time/wallet that prevented me moving in permanently. Stationed in the Humanities 2 reading room, I could walk over to the shelves and heave out chunky binders of music magazines, noting down or photographing any mention of George, from gossip to review to interview. I was reading back issues of Smash Hits and Record Mirror that I’d treasured when I was a kid, looking on familiar stuff with new eyes, then filleting NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, Billboard, Rolling Stone etc for the rest. I built up a huge cache of Georgery to wallow in later.
Meanwhile, I was tracking down the main players – George’s friends, the musicians on Faith, producers, engineers, managers, contemporary critics and commentators. I didn’t want to be part of the story myself. I wanted to cram it with people who knew him or had a perspective on the era. It became a big Zoom party. Maybe I was strangely lucky this was happening during the Covid period, with everyone bang into video calls.
One striking thing that emerged from all these chats was the love and esteem in which George was held, whether by friends, colleagues or session players who’d just worked with him for a few days. Some were touched by his loyalty, others by his natural, untutored skill. I wish I could’ve met him, but I hope he shines through in the book.
Are there any interesting stories that didn’t make it into the final book?
If it was worth going in, it went in. There was one story an interviewee specifically asked me not to include, which would’ve made a fun anecdote, but might have put the odd nose out of joint. Otherwise, there was nothing I deliberately omitted. What I missed were the stories I didn’t quite get to, an interview or two that didn’t happen for whatever reason, usually logistics or time. I’m closer now to the official George Michael machine now than I was when I wrote the book. These tend to be fairly guarded institutions, particularly when the artist is no longer with us, and it’s only now that they can see I was acting in good faith – if you’ll excuse the pun. And then there was Deon Estus, George’s trusted associate, bassist on Faith and with Wham! before that. I’d been speaking with his manager about arranging an interview shortly before he sadly died in October 2021.
If you got the chance to write a 33 1/3 on one other album – what are you picking?
Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1! Or, what George did next. But if that seems a bit excessive, let’s go for Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 – another shy boy breaks America.
Matthew Horton is a music journalist and editor, whose writing has been published extensively in NME and The Guardian, as well as on websites including The Quietus and BBC Music. He is the author of George Michael’s Faith (2022) for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series and has also contributed to several other books, principally tracing the bewildering number of musicians who have been through Van Morrison’s band, and recommending songs and albums to hear before you die. He lives in Kent, UK, and spends most of his time in a small brick office at the bottom of his garden.
George Michael’s Faith is out now and available to buy in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).