There’s a new film out called “Last Christmas” which features the songs of George Michael, both before and after his days in Wham.
Although I haven’t seen the film yet, thankfully radio programmers seem to have rediscovered George Michael’s back catalogue as a consequence of the film’s blanket media coverage, which can only be a good thing.
George has been gone three years now and I remember being profoundly affected by his passing. I’m not sure why…I never met him or attended any of his concerts. Perhaps it’s because we’re a similar age and the picture I have in mind of him is of a vibrant, youthful, enthusiastic performer who had so much to offer the world of music. Maybe it made me question my own mortality.
Certainly the world of music is poorer for no longer having George Michael in it. He was a wonderful, if much under-rated, songwriter and record producer.
But some people could never get beyond his early career as a teen idol to see George Michael as the great artist he really was…which is a shame as they’ve missed out on some great stuff over the years.
Despite radio programmers’ recently rediscovered interest in the songs of George Michael I still haven’t heard “Praying For Time”. I’m guessing it’s probably not in the “Last Christmas” film, but I guess it’s probably also because “Praying For Time” is quite a serious-minded song at a time of year when people tend to be in a more frivolous mood.
“Praying For Time” was a thoughtful and melancholy reflection on the state of the world and did pretty well on its release back in 1990, reaching Number One in the US and Top Ten in the UK.
Although it’s not the George Michael song people tend to think of the moment they hear his name…that tends to be “Last Christmas”, “Club Tropicana”, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, “Jesus To A Child” or “Faith”, judging by a very non-scientific poll in the office last week… “Praying For Time” is the song I always think of when I hear George Michael’s name.
Like all truly great protest songs…”Abraham, Martin and John” anyone?…the genius of “Praying For Time” is that it conveys sorrow and poignancy without anger.
George’s tender, heartfelt vocals, nestled relatively far back in the mix, makes you feel like you’re overhearing a conversation about the world taking place on the table two down from yours in a café, or listening to the music your neighbour is playing just loud enough for you to hear through an open window, rather than someone shouting angrily at you through a megaphone.
This almost subliminal approach means George Michael is talking directly to your soul while “Praying For Time” gently washes over you. Its smooth sophistication is easy to half-listen to, but still your subconscious hears every word…which is just as well as George Michael’s words desperately need hearing…
These are the days of the empty hand
Oh, you hold on to what you can
And charity is a coat you wear twice a year
Yes, as we gear up in the UK for the annual Children In Need charity drive, Remembrance Sunday is fast approaching and Christmas is only around the corner, I can perhaps see why radio stations are favouring the lighter-themed end of George Michael’s back catalogue at the moment.
“Charity is a coat you wear twice a year” are hard-hitting words from a former teen idol, though.
Which George Michael was well aware of. “Praying For Time” came from his “Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1” album when George was trying hard to establish his credentials as a serious artist in the minds of the record-buying public.
I’ve always thought “Listen Without Prejudice” was a great album title. And highlights a real problem for artists in any genre who get typecast. George Michael was calling out to all the people who still thought of him as someone who cavorted around the Top of the Pops stage with Andrew Ridgeley in a Wham T-shirt.
“Praying For Time” is pretty much the polar opposite of “Club Tropicana” or “Wham Rap”.
And hard hitting, for those of us who could listen to it without prejudice…
The rich declare themselves poor
And most of us are not sure
If we have too much
But we’ll take our chances
‘Cause God’s stopped keeping score
The first time I heard “Praying For Time”, that line really stunned me…literally stopped me in my tracks…“God’s stopped keeping score”.
When “Praying For Time” came out in 1990, it was the tail end of a period of strong economic growth right through the 1980s…yuppie stock market traders driving Porsches…a time of excess and self-indulgence, putting yourself first and letting everyone else fall by the wayside in your quest for a bigger house, a fancier car, a bulging stock market portfolio.
But George Michael isn’t finished with getting us to question how we behave and the society we’ve created…
I guess somewhere along the way
He must have let us all out to play
Turned His back and all God’s children
Crept out the back door
If “God’s stopped keeping score” stunned me, “all God’s children crept out the back door” was the knockout blow.
It certainly got me listening without prejudice, but it also converted me into a firm George Michael fan from that moment on. It led to me looking at his earlier material in a different light…as a great artist who was discovering his craft as he went along and taking us on his own creative journey.
The tragedy of great songs like “Praying For Time” is that 30 years have gone by since its original release, but George Michael could re-release this song today and every word would be just as true as it was in 1990.
Even if we have been praying during the intervening years, it’s clearly not worked as well as we might have hoped.
And whilst that’s a sad indictment on the world, it does help illustrate what a great song “Praying For Time” is. Like all truly great songs, its lyrics are utterly timeless.
Although “Praying For Time” was a Billboard Number One and a Top 10 hit in many places around the world, it has somehow sunk without trace since 1990…unfairly, I think.
Even at a time when other songs from George Michael’s wonderful back catalogue are getting more airtime than they’ve had for years, “Praying For Time” remains a bit of a curio, a point of historical interest for his biggest fans, but not part of most people’s memories of him.
“Praying For Time” deserves to be remembered. And respected.
The fact that the world seems to have largely forgotten a beautifully-crafted song with such haunting and challenging lyrics as “Praying For Time” seems like a tragedy to me. A tragedy I hope you’ll help rectify by pressing “play” on one of the links below.
George Michael famously refused to appear in the music video for today’s song as he was in the middle of an epic fight with his record company at the time. So the video became just the song lyrics projected on a black background.
That sounds particularly unexciting, especially in the peak-MTV years of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but never has white text on a black background been presented quite so stylishly.
The apparent simplicity of the video only serves to emphasise the stark message of the song somehow, in a way that more typical music video of the era, involving squadrons of dancers and legions of backing singers, would only have trivialised.
George’s non-appearance at the time was seen as controversial. In my view, particularly with the passage of time, he made absolutely the right creative call.
In the years leading up to his untimely passing, George Michael was only in the headlines when life’s difficulties and challenges got too much for him.
But he was a great artist. He wrote the lyrics and the music to all his own songs. He was a phenomenal singer, often laying down all the singing parts on his records by himself and only using backing singers for live performances. And a record producer right up there with the best producers of all time.
I’m sadder than sad that George has gone. And I wish more people appreciated just how brilliant he was during his life. It might just have saved him.
But I’m glad George Michael and his songs are getting the prominence they deserve at the moment, even if that is through the medium of a no-doubt fluffy feel-good Christmas film. If one more person takes the work of George Michael more seriously as a result of hearing a song on that film’s soundtrack then that’s a victory in my book.
Whatever George Michael song is your favourite is fine by me. You’re celebrating a great, and criminally under-rated, artist whichever song you choose.
But if you can, please take a moment to appreciate my very favourite George Michael song…it’s the exquisitely beautiful, yet surprisingly challenging, “Praying For Time”…
The acoustics on the YouTube video aren’t quite as good as the Spotify track, so if you’d like to appreciate George Michael’s skills as a record producer and performer to the fullest, can I recommend you check out the Spotify track…but don’t overlook a surprisingly powerful music video just because of my slightly nerdy niggles with the acoustics…both are great!
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/6yLZc9Tmei7eDX4Z62x4bW