Yog, Andy, and George
Wham! and the Struggle For Fun
If you’ve watched the Netflix documentary you’ll know that it’s the story of three people: Yog, Andrew, and George.
Andrew Ridgeley and Georgios Panayiotou met when they were twelve, when Georgios joined Andrew’s state comprehensive school in Bushey, Hertfordshire, about 13 miles northwest of London, near Watford.
Andrew was assigned to befriend the new boy. He couldn’t pronounce his name, and called him ‘Yog’, and it stuck. They became fast friends and took the journey through adolescence together.
Both were sons of immigrant fathers who married English women. Yog’s father arrived from Cyprus in 1953, worked hard became the proprietor of his own restaurant. The Panayiotous lived in Radlett, a well-to-do dormitory town. Andrew’s father, Albert Zacharia, arrived from Egypt in 1956. Albert was a highly educated man who spoke several languages and worked for RAF intelligence in Cold War Berlin. He aspired to be, and became, culturally English, changing his surname after seeing a sign for “Ridgeley Gardens” from a bus. (Andrew says that after his father left the military, he worked in a camera shop. Really? That’s what this highly accomplished man chose to do for the rest of his working life? This has got a Le Carré subplot written all over it.)
Yog was physically awkward, a little chubby, shy, badly dressed. Andrew was gregarious, gorgeous, effortlessly cool. They bonded over a shared sense of humour and a love of music. Yog was a huge fan of classic soul, in particular, and they both loved new wave bands like Madness, and New York hip hop. In the wake of punk there was a sense that anyone could form a band and become a pop star. The two of them made a pact to do it together.
They had music lessons and became proficient at guitar and piano. Yog learnt the violin and led the school orchestra. His parents bought him a drum kit. He and Andrew rehearsed in the school’s music block, in the church hall, in a scout hut. At first they played with shifting groups of friends but over time the others dropped away and the core duo remained.
Yog got a job as a DJ in a Greek restaurant, the Bel Air. He was travelling to one of these gigs when the idea for Careless Whisper came to him:
I have always written on buses, trains and in cars. These days it's planes - but for me writing has always been about boredom and movement. With 'Careless Whisper' I remember exactly where it first came to me…where it happened, where I was sitting on the bus, how I continued and everything. I was handing the money over to the guy on the bus and I got this line, the sax line…Then he moved away and I continued writing it in my head. I wrote it totally in my head. I worked on it for about three months in my head. Andrew helped me in the finishing of it when we actually put it down on tape.
Yog’s tune fitted a chord sequence that Andrew had been playing with. The two of them made a demo. They knew it was great, a number one hit waiting to happen, especially after Yog played it at a squash club party and everyone loved it. It eventually did become a number one, but as a George Michael solo track. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but that’s what they were doing too.
Yog and Andy started travelling into London and going to clubs, including Le Beat Route, a terribly/fabulously named Soho club, popular with New Romantic types. It was on the dance floor at another club, Bogart’s, that Ridgeley started improvising a chant to a dance routine that he and Yog and worked out in Yog’s bedroom. Wham! Bam! I am! The Man! Thus was born a name, a debut single, and an attitude.
Yog and Andy loved hip-hop (the track they were dancing to Bogart’s was Rapper’s Delight), and they also loved New Romantic pop. They combined these elements in Wham Rap! Enjoy What You Do. They consciously wanted to write something that was true to their experience, which was not quite what music critics and other opinion-formers imagined it to be.
This was the early Thatcher years: recession, strikes, mass unemployment. Label bosses and critics wanted hard-hitting social commentary. Rolling Stone praised Joy Division for conveying “a vision of a world where suffering is unremitting”. The emblematic song of the era was Ghost Town by The Specials, a song about how nobody’s dancing anymore because everyone’s fighting.
But Yog and Andy were dancing, and so were their friends. They were leaving school with no job or career prospects, claiming benefits and blowing the money on clothes and music and clubs. They were hanging out at Watford swimming baths and the Three Crowns pub in Bushey. Being told they had no future felt oddly like a liberation. Might as well dance.
Enjoy what you do?
If not, just stop!
Of course, life wasn’t as simple as that, but it was when you were on the dance floor. The next single was Young Guns (Go For It), a song in the classic rock’n’roll vein of a rebel youth refusing to conform. The singer, “George” - Yog had changed his name - is warning his friend who just got engaged away from marriage - which, given what we know now, is interesting. Young Guns twins with Freedom from a couple of years later, an argument for marriage, or at least monogamy. It’s bubblegum pop but the lyrics are clever and literate: “Wise guys realise/There’s danger in emotional ties…Death by MATRIMONY.”
Wham Rap! and Young Guns had just enough social consciousness to get nodding approval from critics. Yog and Andy followed up with Bad Boys, which conveyed the same kind of disaffected hedonism. But it now felt fake to them, because they weren’t disaffected; they were just hedonistic. So they pivoted to Club Tropicana, deep tans, Fila sportswear and pheromomic shuttlecocks. And they never looked back.
The moment that Wham! became fully themselves, the critics turned on them. They were dismissed as shallow and frivolous. But pop has always been shallow and frivolous, that’s kind of the point. The music writer Simon Frith defined the history of pop as “the struggle for fun”. He meant the struggle of working-class to shape their own pleasures, but there are other kinds of struggle, and one of them is the struggle against expectations; against what the culture’s gatekeepers want or expect you to to be.
Yog and Andy were not working-class. Wham! was a creature of the English middle-class, specifically the suburban middle-class. In narratives of popular music, suburbs tend to be neglected in favour of the scenes and subcultures of city life. Musicians and critics alike portray the suburbs as zones of boredom, ennui, and alienation: places of stifling homogeneity which the artist strives to escape, in order to find their people and become themselves. That’s the mythos of Bowie and Suede and The Cure.
When Michael or Ridgeley talk about growing up it’s clear they were basically happy in Bushey. Yes, they wanted get to London and travel the world. But they didn’t hate where they were or feel they didn’t belong there. In fact the Wham! story should remind us of just how creatively fertile suburbs can be.
Contrary to myth, the suburbs are, or can be, very diverse - places where the Panayiotous and Zacharias of the world can find a decent home (even more true now than then). Suburban living tends to involve a lot of long bus journeys and train journeys, especially for teenagers without driving licenses. Boredom and movement; the ingredients of day dreams.
Bushey had no network of musicians and journalists, or an infrastructure for music - studios, record stores, gig venues. Wham! came together in more prosaic, multi-purpose places: a school, a pub, a church hall, a scout hut, the swimming baths, the squash club. Wham! didn’t emerge from a ‘scene’ which meant they didn’t sucked into making one kind of music, but put together a unique bricolage of bits they liked.
Wham! celebrated nightclubs and holiday resorts but their origins are touchingly domestic - dance routines worked out in teenage bedrooms. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go sprang from a note Andrew had pinned to the fridge asking his mother to wake him up - he wrote an extra ‘up’ by mistake and made a joke out of it. When Yog popped round one day, he spotted it, and the phrase stuck in his head. He connected it to his own parents, who were went to rock‘n’roll dance nights when they were younger, before Yog came along. Hence “jitterbug”, and lyrics that sound like they come from a more innocent time: “take me dancing tonight”.
It’s a beautiful little story, full of the quotidian business of home life: Andrew relying on his mum to wake him up, his little joke to her in the note, Yog’s affectionate romanticisation of his parents’ former life, all of it poured into this weightless pop song.
Wham! emerged from the alchemy between two friends (we’ll get to the third partner in a minute). Pepsi and Shirlie were sidekicks and close friends - Shirlie especially - but there never seems to have been any question that Wham! was Yog and Andrew. I do wish we’d heard from others, though. The documentary is enjoyable but feels superficial and constrained. It toys with its central idea rather than exploring it.
That’s a pity, because the idea, at least as I see it, is a fascinating one: that George Michael - solo artist, global superstar, songwriter and performer for all time - was a co-creation of Yog and Andy. He then came between them, and it’s not clear that the friendship survived. Let’s take a closer look at that story.
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