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So much more than George Michael's tag-along: Andrew Ridgeley and the story of pop's most beautiful friendship

Wham
Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael in their Wham! days  Credit: Peter Brooker

On Wednesday night, Andrew Ridgeley took to the Brit Awards stage and spoke movingly about George Michael, his Wham! band-mate and “beloved friend”. In a ceremony built on glitz, smoke and mirrors, Ridgeley’s tribute stood out for its normalcy: a 54-year-old man wore a suit and read, a little mechanically, from a couple of sheets of A4. Here was a man who had known George Michael from childhood, explaining why he loved him.

It has been the only public appearance from Ridgeley in decades. He’s popped up on George Michael’s stage once, in 1991, since Wham! bade a bombastic farewell with a Wembley Stadium concert in 1986. Other attempts at reunions never quite came to fruition. Where has he been all this time?

Ridgeley spent a few years racing cars in Monaco before attempting, fruitlessly, an acting career in Hollywood. Mostly, he’s been doing what many of us would given an endless bounty of pop royalties: living quietly in Cornwall with Keren Woodward. They’ve been together since she was singer with Eighties band Bananarama.

Ridgeley is often dismissed as the guy who got lucky off the back of George Michael: the seemingly talentless teenager who played guitar while Michael wrote the songs, sang the lyrics and managed the business side of things. What few realise is that Ridgeley and Michael never suffered an from an acrimonious pop fall-out, because Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou couldn’t have been George Michael without Ridgeley. Here’s the story of their friendship:

‘I looked up to Andrew on every level because he just oozed confidence out of every pore’

The story of Wham!’s formation is well-known even to those with a passing interest in the Eighties’ band. Michael and Ridgley met at school in Watford, and bonded over pop music. By the time both were 18, they had landed a record contract and, with cheesy, high-octane hits such as Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, were on their way to global pop domination. As Ridgeley eloquently said at the Brit Awards: “in 1975 we were two boys who happened to share a mutual sense of humour, a love of life-affirming music, the artists and records it gave birth to and a shared sense that we understood it.”

Ridgeley liked Michael for his interests and sense of humour, but Michael, a first-generation immigrant of a hard Greek-Cypriot father, took to Ridgeley for his effortless cool. “When I was a kid, Andrew was the guy in the class that all the girls liked," he told Rolling Stone in 1986. "I was with him because I had a sense of humour. I had no reason to be confident in my looks. I had glasses, I was overweight, and my eyebrows naturally meet in the middle."

George Michael at his family home Credit: Rex Features

Michael wanted to be famous after seeing television footage of David Cassidy gazing out at a screaming crowd of thousands from the security of a glass tower; he wanted to be famous as desperately as he wanted to feel safe. Going into show business with the support of his best friend offered a considerable chunk of that safety.

“I had no physical confidence whatsoever,” Michael told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs, “and I looked up to Andrew on every level because he just oozed confidence out of every pore.”

Ridgeley and Michael discovered their mutual love of music – specifically Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road, which, as a double album, offered them “twice as much to talk about”, Michael remembered – after being sat next to each other at school. After hometime, they would listen to records and conjure up dance routines to perform on the floors of local discos. It was the Seventies, and while they ignored punk, the boys attempted to catch success on the coattails of popular genres at the time – leading to a hapless 2-Tone band called the Executive, with Ridgeley’s brother Paul on drums.

As the New Romantic scene took hold, Michael and school friend David Austin would busk in London tube stations and spend their earnings in the city’s clubs, gleaning what they could from the new dance records that were played there.

Back at Ridgley’s, the pair that became Wham! would write and record songs, with Ridgeley on guitar and Michael singing into a microphone attached to a broom handle.

As Ridgeley told an audience of 20,000 this week: “In 1981 we wrote and demo-ed Wham Rap, half of Club Tropicana, and the verse and the chorus of Careless Whisper. Naively we considered that sufficient to obtain a record deal, we were right, just about.”

These songs were genuine collaborations between the pair, at least according to Michael. Ridgeley created the chord pattern for Careless Whisper and some of the lyrics, while Michael wrote the vocal melody and the sax riff.

Even at the time, Michael later said, he was “supremely confident” that he was “writing pop classics”, but he left Ridgeley to define Wham!’s shiny-as-plastic image, the white short-shorts and brighter grins. “I was also supremely aware that if I kind of left the imagery more to Andrew, kids loved it.”  

‘I suppose also the realisation that bisexuality wasn’t a reality for me and I suddenly felt like a fake’

As history will attest, Wham! became very popular, very quickly. In four years the pair sold 28 million records, the bulk of which were shifted between 1984 and 1986, when Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Freedom and Last Christmas littered the top of the charts both in the UK and stateside.

Wham! in the early Eighties Credit: Rex Features

Michael had achieved a new generation of David Cassidy’s screaming crowds, only, as with many dreams, the reality wasn’t quite up to scratch.

Michael later admitted that the first year of Wham!’s success was “absolutely magical, [you’re] with your best mate, playing out your fantasies. It was just a dream, obviously.” He was, he told Rolling Stone, able to “wallow in the loss of those self-criticisms”.

But as the shine wore off the spotlight, Michael’s realisations about his closeted homosexuality made life difficult. It was exacerbated by the fact that it was him, not Ridgeley, who had been thrusted into the public eye.

'I went from being Andrew’s shadow to being really in the centre of attention' Credit: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

“I went from being Andrew’s shadow as a sexually confident being to being really in the centre of attention and then, at that level, somehow I lost all my confidence,” Michael said on Desert Island Discs. “I suppose also the realisation that bisexuality wasn’t a reality for me and I suddenly felt like a fake, so the whole thing turned me into someone who felt like the camera was my enemy.”

It’s impossible to find a photograph taken during the last 18 months of Wham!’s existence where Michael is looking directly at the camera. “It's as if I couldn't do what the camera expected of me anymore," he said, in 1986, mere months after the band broke up. "It was as if I subconsciously knew that those two years of Wham! playing to the camera wasn't really me. I was acting, and deep down I knew it.”

‘Andrew knew he was coasting’

Michael wasn’t alone: Ridgeley wasn’t feeling it either. Tensions rose during the band’s first year as the power balance between the old friends became apparent.

“There was friction. We'd start getting rude with each other,” Michael recalled to Rolling Stone. “There was a time I was really pissed off at him, because he'd been late for a photo or recording session. I was saying, 'For f---- sake, I'm doing all the work on this album. The least you can do is take care of your side of things.'”

Wham in the mid-Eighties Credit: Ann Clifford

The pair argued about it, but, as Michael admitted, when he argues, he “forces the truth from people.” It transpired that Ridgeley didn’t mind playing second fiddle to Michael, but he couldn’t bear the pretence that it didn’t exist. “Once it was out in the open, neither of us had any problem with it,” Michael said.

However, neither party had expected Wham! to last forever. Both young men had been studying the architecture of pop bands since childhood. As Ridgeley explained in a squirm-inducing interview with Terry Wogan in 1990: “It was a decision that we’d talked about early on our career. We always felt that a pop band could only last about four or five years and if it hadn’t achieved what it was supposed to achieve in that time then it wasn’t going to. So we felt that four five years was enough.”

As Michael struggled with his sexuality, so Ridgeley was fed up with, as Michael would later surmise in a documentary: “taking potshots as being ‘the lucky guy who’s coasted along with George Michael”.

Although Michael admitted that Ridgeley was “so much more than that”, Ridgeley’s musical contributions declined into the mid-Eighties. He barely played guitar on on Wham!’s second album, Make It Big, and appeared on only two tracks on the US-released compilation Music from the Edge of Heaven. This didn’t, however, test Michael and Ridgeley’s relationship because both were thoroughly aware of it – as were the rest of their entourage.

“[Andrew] knew he was coasting,” said Michael. “We both knew it. But we never lied to anybody about it. What people wouldn't accept was that Wham! was a vehicle, a successful image – two kids who strike it lucky. We never said we were a songwriting duo. Okay, Andrew doesn't sing. But we're accepting that. It's just that nobody else would. Wham! was working brilliantly. It was working for both of us. It was no con."

‘Simon keeps reiterating this point about me looking for an excuse to get rid of Andrew’

The decision to break up Wham! was mutual. Ridgeley wanted to pursue motor racing, Michael wanted to embark upon the solo career the 1984 release of Careless Whisper had hinted was possible.

“Together, we realised enough was enough,” Michael said. “We'd taken Wham! as far as it would go. We always said we'd go out when we were on top.”

Even fame, tabloid attention and groupies couldn’t fracture Ridgeley and Michael’s friendship, something that Wham!’s manager, Simon Napier Bell, struggled to grapple with. “Simon keeps reiterating this point about me looking for an excuse to get rid of Andrew. He keeps rubbishing our relationship,” Michael told The Guardian in 1986.

“I’m not going to let Simon do that – he’s always thrown such a cynical angle on everything he’s been involved in. It makes it all look such a sham. If we weren’t friends in the first place we wouldn’t have stayed together this long. But if people’s last memory of us is as two businessmen...”

Wham!'s final Wembley show

Wham! certainly ensured that they went out on the top of their game, with a three-hour-long concert at Wembley Stadium that incurred fines for overrunning. The sun shone all day – a rare and wonderful thing during a British summer – and 72,000 people came out for one final Wham! concert.

At its close, Ridgeley thanked George, and Michael bear-hugged him as a response, before they ran off exits on either side of the stage.  

When Ridgeley was interviewed the morning after, he spoke of the euphoria attached to playing to a crowd of thousands. But years later he confessed of his sadness during that last show, something Michael hadn’t known of until then.

“I didn’t enjoy it as much as other shows, because, I have to say that whole period leading up to it was a difficult one for me. I kept thinking, ‘When it’s over, the encore’s done, that’s it’, and that was a really difficult concept to get to grips with.” Michael said that he struggled to remember it, the sheer over-importance of the Wembley show had eclipsed the experience of it.

‘I had no idea how to close to lunacy I would feel without that support’

The post-Wembley Ridgeley was a man on a racetrack. He had a summer of Formula 3 events lined up, he was going to take a break from music. Michael, however, wasted little time: he gave interviews to a media hungry to know the story behind the break-up, and started to release music six months later.

All the time, he knew that his next career move would risk his friendship: “If I was going to go the place that I believed I was about to go to there was no way we could hang out in the way we had always done, there was no way, it would have been too difficult for Andrew,” he said in a documentary.

Speaking to Smash Hits journalist Sylvia Patterson in 1987, Michael admitted that life without Ridgeley “isn’t as much fun anymore”.

But the pair remained friends, as Ridgeley attested to Wogan – clearly digging for dirt – three years later. He and Michael saw each other quite often, they worked on Ridgeley’s doomed solo album, Son of Albert. “The split of the band was just a professional thing. We’d grown out of it, and it we’re still friends,” he said, wearily.

“You were the personality of the two, was that always the case?” Wogan prodded.

“That was years ago,” Ridgeley replied. “He seems to have refined his image to a good point now.”

“Is it true that you were always the business head?”

“Certainly not.”

George Michael with Anselm Felleppa

Michael released his second album, Listen Without Prejudice, in September 1990. Nobody was interviewing him, he was in the studio. But when they were, they weren’t asking him about Ridgeley.

Perhaps, though, he would have appreciated that. Michael didn’t come out publically until 1998. Between 1991 and 1992, he was falling in love with Anselmo Feleppa, a man that would help him to embrace his sexuality and showed him how to live, only to die months later, from Aids.

Feleppa’s death marked a turbulent and dark period of Michael’s life, without the daily support of Ridgeley.

“So I understood, that our relationship was going to reach a different kind of level,” Michael later said of how their friendship would be affected by his solo career.

“That was tough, that was tough. And I had no idea how much I was going to miss that, and miss that support, or how close to lunacy I would feel without that support.”