In 1987 and 1988 five pop stars bestrode the globe like no others: Madonna Louise Ciccone, Whitney Elizabeth Houston, Michael Joseph Jackson, Prince Rogers Nelson and Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou.
Jackson, Madonna and Prince were all born in 1958; Houston and Michael five years later.
It would have seemed inconceivable back in the Eighties but, of the five, Madonna alone has celebrated a 58th birthday.
For a fourth evening this year, I went to bed last night and fired up a playlist of one of my favourite musicians to try to make myself concentrate on why I loved them rather than lay there feeling numbed by their passing. And “love” really is not too strong for the feelings I have for their music.
With David Bowie there was at least the marginal consolation that he had almost chalked up his three score years and ten. A couple of months older than my father, Bowie outlived his fellow Bromley boy by just a handful of months. Sixty-nine isn’t old, but at least it isn’t young.
With Leonard Cohen I found some comfort in the knowledge that he was 82. Like Bowie, he was still recording and releasing splendid albums until shortly before his passing. Eighty-two seemed almost reasonable: not so old that he had to experience the indignity of his mental and/or physical faculties deserting him, but still a very decent innings. And, by all accounts, the sort of fabulous life I once dreamt I might live.
With Prince, it was harder to rationalise. ‘Pop star in drugs overdose death’ is a cliché. ‘Pop star in prescription pain relief medication overdose death’ is just senseless, even if it highlighted the staggering number of deaths now attributable to prescribed opiates. While few could claim with credibility that Prince’s very best songwriting was anything other than an object in life’s rear view mirror, the only way I could process the news of his death was to tell myself that such a preternatural musical genius simply couldn’t be contained for too long by one small, blue planet. The best thing I’ve seen on the web all year remains Prince’s jaw-dropping contribution to this tribute to George Harrison.
I don’t tend to sleep very well. And so it was that I was awake and surfing at 2.30am yesterday and learned of 2016’s latest – and please let it be the last – kick to our balls. So it is that I’m awake and writing at 4am today. But 26 hours on, I still can’t process this one. I can’t rationalise it or take comfort from any part of it. And I think that’s because, despite being a multimillionaire several times over, George Michael always seemed like a pretty normal person – particularly in comparison with those who shared his late Eighties status. He was one of us – generationally and temperamentally.
Madonna’s best work (“Like A Prayer”, since you ask) was still ahead of her in 87-88, but she had already seemed somewhat aloof from reality. As the years passed, she would too often resort to shock tactics for them to seem much more than a desperate attempt to extend her allotted 15 minutes.
Michael Jackson just became weirder with each new day – and not in a good way.
Whitney Houston was lost to addiction, but even when apparently sober gave off an air of regal entitlement.
Prince always seemed otherworldly. I don’t often quote myself, but as I previously wrote about him:
It is unimaginable that Prince circa 1978-1980 would even land a record deal today: “So you’re an identity-bending pan-sexual funk alien, with a bum fluff moustache and a hairdo that makes you look like an Afghan hound; you’re wearing women’s underpants—and not much else—and you insist that you’re given absolute creative control and ownership of your publishing rights. I’m sorry, son, but I just don’t think we’re quite the right label for you…” Somebody within Warner Bros. Records in 1978 had balls the size of watermelons to sign that unprepossessing mess to a deal of that nature.
George Michael, on the other hand, seemed a lot like one of us: crashing into Snappy Snaps is something that could happen to any one of our friends and family. While he had his po-faced moments (like the record label dispute that staggered on for too many of his best creative years), he also had a sense of humour – parodying his arrest for public indecency in the video for “Outside” showed a glorious lack of pomposity. He knew he had failings but, unlike Madonna, Jackson and Prince, he didn’t try to deny them or claim he was anything other than one more of the eight billion lost and flawed souls walking the earth. His causes – Aids, the miners’ strike, nurses, the NHS – were our causes. While he was undoubtedly A Pop Star, he was also someone with whom you felt you could spend a happy evening talking to down the pub. One of us.
He was a hugely versatile and consistently excellent songwriter, whether paying homage to Motown in “Freedom”, blowing bubblegum with “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”, getting funky in “Fastlove”, aping old-style jazz on “Cowboys And Angels” or writing the third best Christmas song of all time. For me, he was Britain’s best writer of pure pop of his generation – the best since Barry Gibb.
Michael was also an underrated lyricist. While he would later decry the song’s lyrics, “Careless Whisper”’s chorus belies the fact that its writer was only 19:
I’m never gonna dance again:
Guilty feet have got no rhythm.
Though it’s easy to pretend
I know you’re not a fool.
Should’ve known better than to cheat a friend
And waste the chance that I’ve been given.
So I’m never gonna dance again
The way I danced with you.
“Waiting (Reprise)”, from Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, summed up the way I felt about my legal career:
The road that I have walked upon
Filled my pockets and emptied out my soul.
“Father Figure” and “Heal The Pain” both tenderly visit the experience of being judged too soon by others’ low standards:
When you remember the ones who have lied,
Who said that they cared
But then laughed as you cried,
Beautiful darling –
Don’t think of me.
He must have really hurt you
To make you say the things that you do.
He must have really hurt you
To make those pretty eyes look so blue.
He must have known that he could,
That you’d never leave him.
Now you can’t see my love is good
And that I’m not him.
The earliest Wham! singles – “Young Guns (Go For It)” and “Wham! Rap” – were astute pieces of social commentary for a teenage writer, even if the “abortion pays” line in the former was a little ill-judged. “Club Tropicana”, “Everything She Wants”, “I’m Your Man”, “The Edge Of Heaven”: so many delicious slices of pop.
I remember trying to tune in to Atlantic 252’s joke of a long wave signal in order to hear the otherwise banned “I Want Your Sex”. I remember listening to Dave Lee Travis’s Radio 1 Sunday morning show to hear exclusive plays of songs from Faith, 24 hours before the album was released.
And then there was his voice – a genuine blue-eyed soul voice. He was obviously a better singer than either Madonna or Prince, if perhaps not quite as good as Michael Jackson’s very best. But you don’t get to record duets with Aretha Franklin or Mary J. Blige unless you’ve got some singing chops. Just as you don’t perform live in front of hundreds of millions and select covers as demanding as “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, “Village Ghetto Land” and “Somebody To Love” unless you know you’re not going to fall flat on your face.
I don’t know whether he would ever have neared his Eighties and Nineties writing peaks again – probably not. And his voice was definitely no longer what it once was – though I’m glad I got to see in 2006 that he was still a fine showman. But I still feel dazed by the fact that we’ll never get the chance to find out.
2016 may well prove to have been the year that Generation X first properly confronted its mortality. We grew up under a mushroom cloud and in the shadow of the original Edstone, but because we were kids the threats of nuclear war and Aids were largely theoretical.
We’re now in our mid-40s to our mid-50s, we’re being prescribed varifocals and we now “ache in the places where we used to play”, as Mr. Cohen put it.
We’ve lost family. We’ve lost friends. Now we’re losing our icons.
If you don’t like Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad albums, you don’t like pop music. But Jackson didn’t quite belong to Generation X. He was a huge star throughout the Seventies before truly striking oil with Thriller, so he belonged to our older brothers and sisters as much as to us.
The same was true of David Bowie. While there was obviously much more to him than the Let’s Dance album, he was a fixture of our formative years because of that album’s commerciality, because of his stellar performance at Live Aid, even because of Labyrinth and Absolute Beginners. But it’s hard to deny that his best output spanned the Seventies.
Houston was perhaps never quite on an iconic par with the others, but you don’t rack up seven consecutive number one singles – as part of a run that saw her top the Billboard chart with 10 of 14 singles released between 1985 and 1992 – without the support of the bulk of the teenage record-buying market.
But Prince was totemic in our teens. Has there ever been a finer run of albums than 1999, Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day, Parade, Sign o’ The Times, Lovesexy, Batman, Graffiti Bridge and Diamonds And Pearls? (OK, I’ll grant you Batman doesn’t quite reach the heights of the others. But, still… And “BatDance” remains one of the most magnificently odd singles ever to top the US charts.)
And now Yog’s gone, too. Another of the fixtures and fittings of our youth stripped bare. But this time, the icon was a member of Generation X itself. One of us. Perhaps that’s why my soul again feels a little empty today.
We’ll move on. We’ll get on with it. We’ll do what must be done.
But I think many of us will do so with just a little more awareness of our impermanency.
Words I never thought I’d write: cherish Madonna while we still can.