In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
How many people saw the “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video and assumed that George Michael and Andrew Ridgely, the two members of Wham!, were grinning evangelical anti-abortion activists? It seemed unlikely, and yet the T-shirts spelled it out in a gigantic font: “CHOOSE LIFE.” I don’t know what slogans the pro-life movement was using in the ’80s, but by the ’90s, when I was old enough to take notice of these things, those shirts seemed truly strange. These two bouncy young heartthrobs were dancing and smiling and flirting with the camera, all while blasting out the sort of slogan that angry Christians outside Planned Parenthood clinics were putting on placards.
Those “CHOOSE LIFE” shirts didn’t mean what I thought they meant. Wham! got the shirts from Katharine Hamnett, a British activist and designer who made clothes with political slogans. Hamnett has said that her shirts have nothing to do with the anti-abortion movement, that she was enraged to see her slogan co-opted by those interests. To the extent that the kids in Wham! were political, they were lefties, playing benefits for striking miners and singing about partying on welfare money. But you can see where people might get confused. Everything about Wham! seemed too bright and vivid to be real. If they were some sort of subliminal right-wing propaganda effort, it would’ve at least made sense.
“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Wham!’s American breakthrough, is one of those ’80s nuggets that refuses to go away. It’s zippy and memorable and unashamedly silly, and it pops up all the time in comedies and animated movies. Everything about the song, right down to the exclamation point in the group’s name, demands to be taken with a complete lack of seriousness. But that intense silliness did its job, topping charts around the globe and turning Wham! into a commercial force.
Georgios Panayiotou was 12 years old when he met Andrew Ridgely. (When Panayiotou was born, the #1 song in the US was Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki.”) Panayiotou, the son of a Greek restaurateur and a British dancer, was the new kid at Bushey Meads School, a secondary school on the distant outskirts of London. On his first day in class, a teacher told Panayiotou to sit next to Ridgely, who Panayiotou later called “this horrible little boy.” That teacher did Ridgely a pretty momentous favor that day.
Panayiotou and Ridgely became friends, and they started playing together in a ska band called the Executive. Panayiotou, who’d been determined to become a pop star since childhood, had already been working as a DJ around town. But the UK’s ska fixation didn’t last long, and the Executive broke up. Panayiotou and Ridgely, still teenagers, formed a new group called Wham! Sometime around then, Georgios Panayiotou started calling himself George Michael.
Michael and Ridgely recorded demos at Ridgely’s parents’ house, and they gave those demos to Mark Dean, owner of a UK indie called Innervision Records, when they ran into him at a pub. Dean signed the duo, and their second single, 1982’s “Young Guns (Go For It)” took off after they appeared on the BBC show Top Of The Pops. Very quickly, Wham! became a dominant pop group in the UK, where five of the singles from their debut album Fantastic went top-10. But Wham!’s musical heroes were almost all American, and they wanted badly to make an impact in the US. At first, it wasn’t happening; only one of Wham!’s early singles charted in the US. (1983’s “Bad Boys” peaked at #60.) Americans weren’t trying to hear George Michael rapping, “Hey everybody, take a look at me/ I’ve got street cred-i-bil-i-ty.”
After the success of Fantastic, Wham! broke away from Innervision Records, and after a quick legal battle, they moved over to Epic. That’s when Wham! got rid of the arty, parodic sensibility of their debut and went for a full-on Motown-pastiche vibe. They’d discovered that George Michael was the better songwriter and producer of the two of them, so Michael produced all of Make It Big, their second album. He wrote almost all the songs himself, too.
When Wham! were working on those songs, Andrew Ridgely was living at home with his parents, and Michael and Ridgely were still recording their demos there. One morning, Ridgely had left a note for his mother, who was getting up to go to work: “Wake me up up before you go.” Michael thought it was funny that Ridgely had mistakenly written the word “up” twice, and he turned it into a song, switching things around a little.
Like a lot of Wham! songs, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” is about dancing and having fun. Michael’s narrator wants to go out dancing, and he doesn’t want his girlfriend to go out without him. In what may have been unintentional foreshadowing, he seems more interested in the dancing than he is in the girl. He tells her that she puts the boom-boom into his heart and that she makes the sun shine brighter than Doris Day, but he really doesn’t want to miss the chance of hitting that high. (On the bridge, he sings that they should cuddle up in bed instead of dancing, but even then, the club is on his mind: “We’ll go dancing tomorrow night.”)
Michael loved Motown, and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” is his clear attempt at replicating the magic of the Hitsville USA production line. Michael told Rolling Stone that he wanted it to be “a really energetic pop record that had all the best elements of ’50s and ’60s records.” Plenty of people were making Motown homages in the early ’80s, but few of them were quite as blatant as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” with its high-stepping beat and its relentless feel-good vibes and its big, instantly memorable hooks. There’s a self-consciously retro quality to the song, with its “jitterbug” chants and its Doris Day namecheck. It’s a sort of fetishy celebration of anachronistic Americanisms, released at a time when Americans were in love with British synth music.
Of course, George Michael was a white British kid making records in the ’80s, so his version of Motown was never going to equal the real thing. Michael, who produced “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” himself, admitted that he recorded the song with a LinnDrum machine because the drummer had been late to the session. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” isn’t exactly an R&B record, but it has the thin, plastic, brittle quality that I hear in a whole lot of British R&B records. The hooks are wildly effective, but the music behind them is forced and awkward.
I say this as someone who loves silliness: There is such a thing as too silly. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” might be my breaking point. The song is so bright and dizzy and explosive that it begins to sound almost oppressive. Michael sings the hell out of it, and he sells the sense of joyous abandon. But the song has the same cheery nostalgic emptiness that I hear in the Grease soundtrack. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” will wedge itself into your brain for hours at a time, which is clearly what it wants to do. But after a few minutes, I sometimes wish I could burn it out of there.
The song’s video really doubles down on the whole silliness thing. The clip comes from future Highlander III: The Sorcerer auteur Andy Monahan, and it’s not a big-budget affair. Instead, it’s just Michael, Ridgely, and their backing band singing for teenagers at the Brixton Academy. The video is as cheap and bright and instantly memorable as the song itself, and almost all of that comes down to George Michael.
Monahan’s camera makes it clear that Michael is the resident superstar in Wham! Michael never stops moving, preening, making eyes at the camera. He’s a whirlwind of teeth and hair and calf muscles, and he makes it impossible to look away. Andrew Ridgely is mostly content to mug in the background, as if he knows that he won the lottery the moment that his teacher made him sit next to this kid. Wham! will be in this column again, and we will see George Michael many, many more times.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” soundtracking the glorious gas-fight scene in Ben Stiller’s 2001 masterpiece Zoolander:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit in Adam McKay’s 2006 film Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby where John C. Reilly sings “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” immediately before attempting to smother Will Ferrell with a pillow:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene in George Miller’s 2001 opus Happy Feet Two where a krill with Matt Damon’s voice sings “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” to a krill with Brad Pitt’s voice:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Meek Mill rapping over a “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” sample on his 2011 Dave Patten collab “Believe Me”:
(Meek Mill’s highest-charting single is the 2019 Drake collab “Going Bad,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 7.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Prince’s magnetically majestic lighters-up power ballad masterpiece “Purple Rain” peaked at #2 behind “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Honey, I know, I know, I know it’s a 10.