Possibly the most flawless disposable pop album ever made, Wham!‘s second record, Make It Big, was released 34 years ago today, October 23, 1984. Despite my characterization of the music as “disposable pop,” this remains essential listening for any ’80s enthusiast. It’s only disposable in the sense that all of the biggest pop hits have been disposable – recorded to exist in the moment, sell singles, get radio airplay, shake teenage butts, all before making way for the next piece of disposable pop. This is not music that was meant to bear up through the hindsight of three and a half decades.
Hard to forget the oversized white t-shirts with bold print on the front – CHOOSE LIFE – a look co-opted from Liverpool bad boys Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Hard to forget the feathered hair, shoulder-padded suits, and flash earrings. Hard to forget all of the ’80s cliche moments that should have made this album so forgettable.
But it’s not the laughable visuals that make this album so memorable. George Michael took over as producer and was given much more leeway to create his own sound on this record. He wrote everything except for “Careless Whisper” (Andrew Ridgley‘s one writing credit on the album) and “If You Were There,” an Isley Brothers cover. In taking over all writing and production, George Michael took the first step on the path of realizing a vision that would be attained on Faith in 1987 and, to greater and more personal effect, on later albums like Listen Without Prejudice and Patience (which I revisited here).
The album is a pastiche of styles, from the explosive bubblegum of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” – a song rivaled only by Katrina & The Waves‘s “Walking On Sunshine” for being the most upbeat radio single released in the Decade Of Excess – to the Motown tribute “If You Were There.” Despite the despair in the lyrics, “Everything She Wants” is pure dancefloor fodder while closing ballad “Careless Whisper” felt like the band’s most personal and mature song to date. There’s a ’50s throwback number in “Heartbeat” and the once-bitten, twice-shy hellscape- albeit a major key, singalong hellscape- of “Credit Card Baby,” a jarring juxtaposition to the sweetly monogamous “Freedom.”
Stylistically, it’s all over the place, but Michael’s vocals and production pull everything together and the record works incredibly well; it is only on repeated listens that you might begin to speculate on how non-cohesive this collection of songs might have been in other hands.
And of course, having come out right after I turned 13, there are myriad memories tied to this album. While I’ll gloss over any pubescent associations (like the realization that George Michael didn’t really want to go dancing, but wanted to stay in and um… well… you know…), there are still moments from much later in life – my friends and I in our thirties, walking the streets of Boston in the middle of winter, belting out “Credit Card Baby” because we were the perfect amount of buzzed – that are forever tied to this record, even if those moments aren’t tied to the era in which the album was released.
It is trite and rote to note that the albums that stick with us the most are those from our formative years. Whole papers have been written on the subject. And while I consider this most disposable of pop albums to be absolutely indispensable, I would be curious to know how it would impact someone on first listen today. Apart from “Careless Whisper” are there any songs here that might attain pop-standard status? The question is academic, of course, as there’s no way to recreate the time period in which it was released. And while for me and my friends the album is timeless, now that I’m listening to it 34 years later, there are elements that place it very much within its own time period back there in the mid-’80s.
George Michael went on to be one of the most important musicians of his era, especially to me on a personal level – there are only a few recording artists whose music moves me the way his does. It all started here. Debut album Fantastic may have been Wham!’s first album, but Make It Big is really George Michael’s first album and our first glimpse into the artist and genius that he would become as we grew up.