A key segment of the new Netflix documentary Wham!, which chronicles the stunningly meteoric rise of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley’s pop duo from 1982 to 1986, is when they make history as the first Western pop act to perform in communist China. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment music editor Lyndsey Parker on a George Michael-themed episode of the Totally ‘80s podcast, Simon Napier-Bell — Wham!’s manager and author of the 2006 memoir I'm Coming to Take You to Lunch: A Fantastic Tale of Boys, Booze and How Wham! Were Sold to China – says the ambitious 1985 trip was all part of Michael’s grand vision of global domination. It was Napier-Bell who made that dream a reality... even if everything didn't exactly go according to Michael's master plan.
“The very first meeting [with Michael and Ridgeley], we went to dinner with them and said, ‘Right, let's discuss what we're going to do.’ And George said, ‘We want to be the No. 1 group in a year, and that's all you've got,’” Napier-Bell, who took on Wham! as a client after witnessing their “sensational” debut performance on Britain’s Top of the Pops, recalls. “I just laughed, and said, ‘That's impossible. The No. 1 group has to be the No. 1 group in America, because it's 60% of the world market. And you haven't even had a record released there yet! Let's sit down and talk about reality.’ And he said, ‘Nope. No. You've got a year.’”
That was when Napier-Bell’s business partner, Jazz Summers, suddenly volunteered: “‘You know, maybe we could make you the first Western pop group ever to play in China, and that would get on the news all over the world. And that would rush things a bit.’ And George said, ‘Yeah, I like that! Go and do that,’” Napier-Bell chuckles. “And so one week later, I found myself in China sitting in a hotel room alone, in this big, bleak country… sitting in this hotel room in Beijing, thinking, ‘What have I got myself into? Who could actually say yes?’
“And of course, the answer was [premier of the People's Republic of China] Zhao Ziyang, probably the second- or third-most powerful person in the entire world. How was I going get from this hotel room to him and persuade him? That's what I spent the next 18 months doing — and did.”
Brokering the deal for the two China performances took Napier-Bell a bit longer than the one-year deadline that taskmaster Michael had given him, because at first the veteran music manager, who’d worked with the Yardbirds and T. Rex, didn’t really have a strategy. Most of Napier-Bell’s early days in that lonely hotel room were spent futilely cold-calling random politicians, telemarketing-style.
“I got a book from my embassy, which gave me the list of all the ministries and the names of the ministers. And I sat there in that hotel room and started calling at top of the list,” Napier-Bell explains. “Every time I got through to a ministry, I tried to find somebody who spoke English. Sometimes it was just a cleaning lady, or sometimes it was someone high up who knew. And I said, ‘Could you tell them Simon Napier-Bell has come from London and would like to take the minister to lunch?’ I figured that would sound quite important to them: a foreigner, a posh name, and a good lunch. After I'd gotten a 10th of the way through the book, I gave up; it had been two days and I couldn't do it anymore. I was too miserable. So, I flew home and told everybody it was going ‘very well.’”
But a month later, a discouraged yet still determined Napier-Bell returned to China and “amazingly, when I checked in the hotel — the same hotel — they said, ‘You've got a message.’ And the message was from the Minister of Home Resources or something like that: ‘Yes, I'm about to come to lunch with you.’ So, I called back and [arranged] the lunch with him, and he turned up in a Chairman Mao suit — you know, those sort of blue boiler suits. He'd come on his bicycle; a minister in most countries would arrive in a Mercedes, but he was on his bicycle.”
As it turned out, the minister had mixed up his Rolodex contacts and mistaken Napier-Bell for a coal buyer he’d done business with. But that didn’t matter to Napier-Bell, who seized the opportunity. “I had my first minister!” he laughs. “And from then on I went back every month and bought lunch for him, and each month he invited more ministers, because I did good lunches. I paid for good lunches, and they didn't get good lunches because they didn't have nice big expense accounts. And bit by bit by bit, I got more and more people to come and have lunch with him. And each time, I went a little further in talking about the benefits of youth culture.”
At the time, no matter how posh his free lunches were, Napier-Bell knew that Wham! were a tough sell. “Everyone knows that youth culture is very subversive — there's nothing more likely to undermine governments than youth culture — and the Chinese knew that better than anybody. They didn't even want their own youth culture to flourish, let alone a Western youth culture. So, no one was going to say, ‘Oh, how lovely!’” he explains. “But my argument was, ‘If you invite Wham! or any group like that to come to China and the world sees that you are open to having foreign youth culture come in, they'll think you've really opened up. Everyone knows how subversive it can be, so that means you're confident, you're happy, you're opening up. And if you show that you're opening up, you'll get foreign investments — you'll get huge foreign investment coming in. And you don't have to let anyone in China know that this group has come here. That's none of our business; we don't care about that. All we care about is there are foreign TV crews to broadcast it to the rest of the world. And that will get your foreign investments, and you can keep it from your own people. We don't care.’
“And that was the deal. That's what they did. So, when Wham! went to China, nobody in China knew they were there, but the whole of the restof the world knew it. And in the next 10 years, billions and billions and billions of dollars floated in. Modern Beijing was built from that money, really.”
Once Napier-Bell had successfully wined and dined enough government officials – he estimates it was more than 140 people — to get the green light, he quickly booked the performances before the Chinese government might have second thoughts. The dates were set for April 7, 1985 at the 12,000-capacity Workers’ Gymnasium (the biggest stadium in Beijing at that time) and April 10 at Canton’s Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall for an audience of 5,000. Napier-Bell then returned home to London to work on lining up the international film crews that would give Wham! all the publicity that Michael craved. But the China announcement befuddled the European media.
“All the press said, ‘Why Wham! — why not a nice left-wing [artist] like [British protest singer] Billy Bragg, someone who's very sort of anti-capitalist? That's what the Communists would like.’ And I said, ‘No, no, you don't understand. What the government wants is a group who are notpolitical, who don't upset the status quo, who just are happy to get on the stage and play. They don't want someone coming there and getting into politics,’” stresses Napier-Bell. “So, to [Chinese officials], Wham! were the sort of the nice kids who did as they were meant to do by their government.”
Amusingly, the shrewd and strong-minded Napier-Bell had sabotaged an attempt by another U.K. band, Queen, to be the first Western music act to play China — by printing brochures for Chinese authorities, one that depicted the Wham! boys as jolly and wholesome, and another that portrayed Queen rock ‘n’ roller Freddie Mercury as wild and flamboyant. The Chinese government of course opted for the fresh-faced, floppy-haired, less threatening Michael and Ridgeley. But even after the massive success of their second album Make It Big, Wham! were not nearly as big as Queen – so that posed another challenge for Napier-Bell, when he tried to hype up Wham!’s upcoming Chinese concerts to reporters. But he came up with yet another cunning marketing ploy to solve that dilemma.
“The problem we had is when the foreign press and the British press asked why [Wham! were playing these shows], I said, ‘Because Wham! are huge in China and everybody loves them and knows their records!’ And of course, that was a complete lie. No one there had ever heard of Wham!,” he laughs. “And so we had the problem that dozens of foreign journalists were going to come to the gig and realize straight away that nobody knew the songs at all. … So, I flew back to China and I found a Chinese Mandarin-language singer [Cheng Fangyuan, of Oriental Dance and Song Troupe], and we recorded Wham! songs in Mandarin and made a cassette, which was the Chinese singer singing on one side and Wham! singing on the other side.” On the tape’s Chinese-translated version of Wham!’s biggest pop hit at the time, “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” Fangyuan added some “Communist flair,” singing: “Wake me up before you go go/Men fight to be first to reach the peak/Wake me up before you go go/Women are on the same journey and will not fall behind.”
“We gave the cassette away with every ticket which was sold, so that everyone who came to the concert would've heard the songs, and heard them in Chinese, and hopefully would sing along with one or two songs that sort of worked. Actually, we gave away two cassettes with each ticket,” says Napier-Bell. “I figured [fans could] keep one, and they could sell the other one and make back the money back from the ticket. And so a week before Wham! turned up, I saw in the local market that these cassettes were changing hands. It was a good marketing [tactic], as it did set things off.” (The tapes do occasionally show up on eBay and Discogs, selling for around $80.)
Despite the sense of familiarity fostered by Fangyuan’s disseminated recordings, the shows, which featured Michael and Ridgeley accompanied by an 11-piece band and several backup dancers, were a culture shock to many curious young attendees. A breakdancer hired by Napier-Bell to warm up the uninitiated audience before the Beijing event only confused concertgoers (Napier-Bell acknowledges that this was a mistake, saying it “killed the atmosphere” when the breaker ventured into the crowd and “horrified” venue personnel). Then audience members were warned by security not to dance themselves, or clap along to the music, despite Michael enthusiastically urging them to do so. (Michael later described the Beijing show to the Chicago Tribune as the “hardest performance I've ever given in my life.”) The fact that some fans actually mistook the event’s many foreign camera crews for secret surveillance police also didn’t help the vibe.
Cassette cover-song singer Fangyuan, who was in the Workers’ Gymnasium audience, later reminisced about the bizarre concert experience to the BBC, and she nostalgically warbled a few lines of “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” in both Chinese and English as well, as seen in the video below:
Regardless of mixed audience reactions, music history was made. While Wham! played both the groundbreaking Beijing and Canton concerts without compensation, self-funding the dates for about $1.5 million because Michael wanted full artistic control over the associated tour documentary, the duo’s visit to China attracted major global media attention. And so, Napier-Bell and Summers achieved what they’d set out to do after that first meeting with Michael and Ridgeley: They helped Wham! become, for a brief time, the No. 1 band in the world.
Just 14 months after the China shows, Wham! took their final bow at London’s 72,000-capacity Wembley Stadium, where the documentary Wham! in China: Foreign Skies was screened before their bittersweet farewell concert — setting a record for the largest audience ever at a film premiere. (Side note: The original documentary about Wham!’s visit to China, If You Were There… by British director Lindsay Anderson, was scrapped and re-edited as Foreign Skies, reportedly because the controlling Michael was displeased that Anderson had focused more on China than on band and had utilized too little concert footage. If You Were There… has only been viewed at private screenings due to it being blocked by Michael and his estate, but snippets of Anderson’s film did make it into the new Netflix Wham! doc.)
And thus, the groundwork was now fully laid for Michael’s even more world-dominating solo career.
“We had expected [Michael and Ridgeley] to be exactly what we saw on Top of the Pops: two happy-go-lucky guys without a thought in their heads, without a care in the world,” Napier-Bell recalls of that fateful first meeting between himself, Summers, and the young duo. “Andrew walked in exactly as the image we'd seen on TV — sat down in the chair, put his feet on my coffee table, picked up a book, and said, ‘Hey, very nice pad!’ — but George sat down instantly and said, ‘So, you wanna manage us? Well, who else have you managed? How are you going to do it? Who's gonna look after the money?’ He was hard and businesslike behind that exterior. … And we saw it instantly, that very first day.”
Simon Napier-Bell's Totally '80s interview — in which he also discusses and his own documentary, The Real George Michael; how Michael modeled his stage persona after Andrew Ridgeley; and the then-closeted Michael’s struggles with his sexuality — is available here.