Wham! were the definitive pop group of the 1980s. With their brightly colored short shorts and ridiculously catchy songs, the duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley ruled the charts from 1982 to 1986, when they opted to call it quits at the height of their fame. Along the way, the pair notched five No. 1 singles in their native UK and three in the U.S., paving the way for Michael to become an even bigger star with his subsequent solo career.
Here are 10 fantastic facts about the group that gave the world such timeless classics as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Last Christmas,” and of course, “Careless Whisper.”
1. George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley met as kids.
In 1975, 11-year-old Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, the son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurateur, was the new kid at Bushey Meads Comprehensive School in Hertfordshire, England. Andrew Ridgeley, then 12, was given the task of looking after the newcomer, who would eventually change his name to George Michael; the pair bonded over a shared love of Queen, David Bowie, and Elton John. They quickly developed a close friendship that would take them around the world in Wham! and continue until Michael’s untimely death in 2016.
2. Michael was a late bloomer.
This may surprise fans who first encountered Michael as a well-coiffed pop pinup in the ’80s, but Wham!’s more famous half wasn’t exactly a stud in school. “He looked a bit of a wimp in those days, actually, because he had these great big glasses,” Ridgeley told Smash Hits in 1983. “Huge steel-rimmed glasses and loads of curly hair. He was very, very plump and had one eyebrow, going right across. He plucks the middle of it now, but it used to go across like a pair of seagull wings.” Michael wouldn’t have quibbled with this assessment. “I don’t mind being painted as a short, fat, spotty, 14-year-old with glasses because basically that is what I was,” he told Tiger Beat Star in 1986.
3. They got their musical start in a ska band.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Britain was gaga for ska, the upbeat Jamaican reggae precursor that inspired UK groups like The Specials, Madness, and The Selecter. When they were 16, Michael and Ridgeley formed The Executive, a five-piece ska band that Michael later described as “terrible.” Michael’s first attempt at songwriting was apparently a tune called “Rude Boy,” which he later said “could have been a hit” had it been recorded by professionals.
4. Wham! were initially seen as a political act.
After the dissolution of The Executive, Michael and Ridgeley formed Wham! in 1981. The following year, they released their debut single, “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do),” a hip-hop-inspired song that found Michael rapping about the joys of being unemployed and collecting government assistance. As Ridgeley told NME, Wham! were “heralded as the voice of youthful social conscience,” which is pretty funny, given their later reputation as purveyors of frivolous, bubbly pop music. “Neither of us had full-time jobs,” he said. “Although George had a couple of part-time jobs, I had signed on [to the dole], so it was a tongue-in-cheek reflection of our lives.”
5. Wham! had “Careless Whisper” from the very beginning.
“Careless Whisper” is one of the most beloved tunes of all time. The sax-drenched guilt ballad topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic upon its release in 1984, and has since been voted the UK’s favorite song. Amazingly, Wham! were sitting on this gem right from the very beginning. A 16-year-old Michael came up with the song while riding the bus and fleshed it out with help from Ridgeley. An early version appeared alongside semi-completed renditions of “Wham Rap!” and “Club Tropicana” on the 1982 demo tape that earned the duo a deal with the record label Innervision.
6. Michael came out to Ridgeley in 1983.
While filming the music video for “Club Tropicana” in Ibiza, Spain, in 1983, Michael called Ridgeley into his hotel room and came out as gay—something he wouldn’t do publicly for another 15 years. Ridgeley was surprised but totally accepting. “He definitely seemed more relaxed, probably because he realized it had made no difference to me whatsoever,” Ridgeley wrote in his 2019 book Wham! George Michael and Me: A Memoir. Ridgeley added that Michael opted against coming out to the public for business reasons. “He felt it would undermine us and our chances of success,” according to Ridgeley. “And it was very important to both of us that Wham! was a success that we wished for.”
The Netflix documentary Wham! paints a slightly different picture. As Michael says in the film, Ridgeley and backup singer Shirlie Holliman persuaded him to keep his sexuality hidden, even though he was ready to come out publicly. “I don’t think they were trying to protect my career or their careers,” Michael says in the film. “I think they were literally just thinking … ‘My God, your dad will hit the roof!’” Michael took their advice, and as he says in the film, he began “creating a new character, forging an identity through my success.”
7. Wham! made history in China.
In April 1985, Wham! played shows in Beijing and Guangzhou, China, and in doing so, they became the first western pop act to perform in the Communist country. “It was the hardest performance I’ve ever given in my life,” Michael told the Chicago Tribune after the first gig. “I couldn't believe how quiet the crowd was at first. … I didn’t realize that they weren’t clapping because they thought we were begging for applause. And I didn’t realize that they weren’t good at clapping in time to western music because their sense of rhythm is so different to ours.”
Concertgoers received a cassette with original Wham! recordings on one side and Chinese-language renditions sung by local star Cheng Fangyuan on the other. According to the BBC, the Fangyuan versions featured some “added Communist flair,” such as this modified line in “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”: “Wake me up before you go-go / Compete with the sky to go high high.”
8. Wham! nearly nabbed four No. 1 UK singles in 1984 alone.
Wham!’s aptly titled second album, Make It Big, was a commercial behemoth when it was released in October 1984. The singles “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Careless Whisper” (credited to Michael solo in the UK and Wham! featuring George Michael elsewhere), and “Freedom” all reached No. 1 on the UK charts. The duo nearly notched a fourth chart-topper with “Last Christmas,” but that holiday earworm stalled at No. 2, right behind the charity supergroup Band Aid’s Ethiopian relief fundraiser “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Michael is among the superstars featured on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” so in a sense, he kept himself from scaling the charts a fourth time.
Michael later admitted to being slightly disappointed that the song didn’t reach the top of the charts—a feeling he blamed on fear and insecurity—though he believed fully in the Ethiopian cause. Wham! even donated all of their “Last Christmas” profits to fighting famine in the African nation.
Of course, “Last Christmas” has enjoyed tremendous staying power—there’s a seasonal game based around the nearly impossible task of avoiding the ubiquitous song—and in 2021, it finally reached No. 1 on the UK charts.
9. Wham! went out with a bang.
In spring of 1986, the duo announced that Wham! would be calling it quits, as Michael reportedly wanted to distance himself from the band's largely teen fanbase and “write to more honest emotions in his records, creating songs that people could personally relate to.“ But they weren’t about to go quietly.
On June 28, 1986, Wham! played a farewell concert at London’s Wembley Stadium that drew 72,000 fans. The duo delivered a hits-packed set that ended with a performance of their 1985 single “I’m Your Man” featuring a pair of special guests: Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran and Elton John. Before taking the stage, the group screened Wham! In China: Foreign Skies, a documentary about their historic trip to China a year earlier. This set a record for largest-ever audience at a film premiere.
10. Ridgeley only ever released one solo album.
Everyone knows what happened to George Michael after Wham! split up. He released the blockbuster albums Faith and Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 and became one of the biggest solo artists on the planet. Ridgeley, not so much. He’s given the world precisely one album, 1990’s Son of Albert, which sold poorly and received a critical drubbing. “It was disappointing and depressing to receive quite such a beating over that album,” he told Hello! in 1997. “The whole thing had been tongue-in-cheek and it was misconstrued. But it was perhaps ill-conceived style-wise and in timing on my part.”
But Ridgeley never had the same ambition as Michael. He didn’t begrudge Michael’s decision to break up the group, and he was never jealous of his friend’s mega-success. “It was enough for me to be in the band, having realized a childhood dream,” Ridgeley told Hello! “I had no desire to do anything else with my life.” Still, Ridgeley’s disappearance from the pop scene has often made him the butt of jokes, and the 2016 buddy action film Keanu features a memorable riff on the very different paths Michael and Ridgeley took after Wham!