The idea of pop stardom fundamentally changed in the 1980s. With the advent of MTV, visually minded artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince suddenly had the opportunity to rule the culture as no artists had ever done before. This exclusive club of musical juggernauts got a new member in October 1987, when George Michael—the British singer, songwriter, and producer who’d made his name as one-half of the oft-dismissed bubblegum duo Wham!—released his blockbuster solo debut, Faith.
Blending pop, R&B, funk, ’50s rockabilly, and even jazz, Faith completely changed people’s perceptions of George Michael and his music. Gone was the goofy guy in the short shorts and fingerless yellow gloves seen in the music video for 1984’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Here was a stubbly dude in a biker jacket and aviators singing mature songs about sex and love. Faith was a massive hit with both audiences and critics, and it remains one of the decade’s defining albums. In honor of its 35th anniversary, here are 10 facts about Faith.
1. George Michael had major aspirations for the album.
While writing and recording Faith, Michael began thinking about himself as being in the same league as Michael Jackson and Prince. “I absolutely wanted to be in the same stratosphere as them, definitely,” Michael said in 2010. “I’d gone from, a couple of years before, being perfectly happy with being on Top of the Pops, to thinking, ‘I can do what Michael Jackson can do.’ I mean, he’d just done Thriller for f**k’s sake! I wouldn’t have the guts now. I wanted to be in that vein but, mostly, I wanted to make music as good as theirs.”
2. Faith really was a solo effort.
Unlike many of today’s pop stars, Michael didn’t rely on a small army of collaborators. He was solely responsible for writing and producing every song on Faith except one, “Look at Your Hands,” which he co-wrote with David Austin. Michael also played keyboards, bass, and drums throughout the album. He wasn’t quite Prince—who famously played every instrument—but he was closer than many fans probably realized.
3. The album was recorded mostly in Denmark.
Michael began recording the album that would become Faith in the late summer of 1986 at SARM West Studios in London, but he was constantly hounded by fans. Given the wealth he’d generated via Wham!, he had a financial incentive to leave the UK and its high tax rates. So he recorded the bulk of Faith at Puk Recording Studios in Denmark, a state-of-the-art facility whose construction had been subsidized by the Danish government.
4. Faith was a huge hit on the Black charts.
With Faith, Michael made history by becoming the first white male solo artist to reach No. 1 on what was then known as Billboard’s Top Black Albums chart (and has since been renamed the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums). That particular triumph meant a lot to Michael, who grew up loving soul music. “I was much happier with [Faith] being the No. 1 Black album than I was when it became the No. 1 pop album,” Michael said in 1988.
5. The album yielded four No. 1 singles in America.
“Faith,” “Father Figure,” “One More Try,” and “Monkey” all reached the summit of the Billboard Hot 100, making Michael the first—and still the only—solo male British artist to notch four No. 1 U.S. singles off the same album. As if that weren’t enough, the LP’s other two singles, “I Want Your Sex” and “Kissing a Fool,” cracked the Top 5.
6. He got some help on the fourth No. 1 single.
The version of “Monkey” that ruled radio in August 1988 was not the minimalist funk track heard on the Faith album. Michael enlisted producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—former members of the Prince-affiliated band The Time, who’d become massive hitmakers in their own right—to create a new version of the song. Michael loved what they’d done with Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” remix, and he wanted some of that same flavor. The Jam and Lewis reworking of “Monkey” isn’t exactly a remix; the duo built a whole new backing track and had Michael re-record his vocals. Then they mixed in sampled vocals from the original, creating a funky old-new hybrid that audiences found irresistible.
7. Faith benefited from some happy accidents.
Listen closely at the beginning of “I Want Your Sex,” and you’ll hear what engineer Chris Porter described as a “squelching, pulsing bass sound.” This was created purely by mistake, as something went haywire with the MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) unit and the drum machine began triggering odd sounds in the synthesizers. Porter was going to reset the machines, but Michael liked the odd noise, and they wound up using it during the song’s intro.
Something similar happened with “Father Figure,” a song that originally featured a proper snare drum throughout. Michael happened to listen to the track without the snare, and he loved the result. (The snares are replaced by finger snaps on the finished recording.) “It suddenly becomes a gospel record,” Michael said. “A couple of things in my career have been a complete accident, where I stumbled upon the sound. I know when something resonates, and one of my saving graces is that I can hear something when I stumble upon it.”
8. Faith isn’t mere pop fluff.
Although it was a massive mainstream pop album, Faith tackles some pretty heavy subjects. “Hand to Mouth” is a song about societal outcasts—like a vigilante gunman and a prostitute who leaves her baby on a stranger’s front steps.
“It’s all about Thatcher and Reagan really, but I don’t think I’d express it that much better if I did it today,” Michael said in 2010. “Look at Your Hands” contains references to domestic abuse. “Monkey” is about dating a drug addict. Perhaps most controversially, “I Want Your Sex” is about, well, wanting someone’s sex, though Michael’s pro-monogamy message is really the opposite of shocking.
9. The album was born of loneliness—which may explain its appeal.
Michael said he was “massively unhappy and lonely” when he wrote Faith. He believed those feelings made their way into the songs and struck a chord with listeners—even if the material was extremely commercial. “They recognize when someone’s genuinely lonely and hasn’t just written a morbid lyric,” he said. “I’ll probably never connect with as many people again as I did when I was lonely.”
10. Faith was also inspired by Michael’s sexuality.
“Within the period of recording Faith, I fell in love for the very first time,” Michael said in 2010. “That’s why that record was all about sex. I knew I was gay, gay, gay, because I knew that it was my heart.” The singer didn’t come out publicly until 1998, but according to music critics like Barry Walters and Armond White, “Father Figure” offers coded glimpses into the singer’s private life.