If you weren’t a teenager in 1984, it might be hard to understand this, but here goes: There are Gen X-ers who remember where they were the first time they saw the video for the Wham! clap-along pop anthem “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
In it, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, the heartthrob frontmen of Wham!, wear big smiles and beachy short shorts as they perform their infectious bop — titled after a note Ridgeley had once left on his family’s refrigerator — for a small crowd of adoring fans. There were fingerless gloves, neon face paint, white “Choose Life” T-shirts that had nothing to do with abortion: It was a new-wave dance party for cool kids who thought Mötley Crüe sucked.
Ridgeley, who turned 60 in January, remembers making it as great fun.
“It was our first video with an audience,” he said during a recent video interview from his home in London. “The atmosphere was really quite excitable and exciting.”
Ridgeley and his bandmate are the subject of “Wham!,” a new documentary that premieres on Wednesday on Netflix. Directed by Chris Smith, it charts the British group’s climb to pop stardom, beginning with its ferocious appearance on the music show “Top of the Pops” in 1982, through the global success that followed the albums “Fantastic” (1983) and “Make It Big” (1984), and finishing with the 1986 farewell concert in London.
The film, which is itself directed like a power-pop video, explains how the duo’s modern mix of disco, funk, pop and soul, in songs like “Young Guns (Go for It),” “Careless Whisper” and “Freedom,” helped make Wham! one of the biggest pop groups of the late 20th century, even though it lasted just four years. Unlike bands that split over artistic or personal disagreements, Wham! didn’t have a rise and fall. “It was just a rise and they called it a day,” Smith said.
They didn’t break up either, said Ridgeley, but rather “brought Wham! to a close in a manner of our own choosing.”
Fans might be disappointed to learn that in the documentary Ridgeley is heard but not seen as he appears today: debonair and patrician, with silver hair and a still-cheeky smile. Smith said it would have thrown the film’s mythic aspirations off balance if Ridgeley were on camera but not Michael, who died seven years ago at 53.
After Wham!, Ridgeley told me, he and Michael were “no longer living in each other’s pockets” as they had done since they were kids. But their bond was fixed.
If Ridgeley is tired of being known mostly for his friendship with Michael, he didn’t show it. He brightened when chatting about Michael, whose loss left Ridgeley feeling “like the sky had fallen in,” as he said in 2017. But he didn’t seem into talking much about his life now, other than to say he enjoyed cycling.
The documentary includes archival media coverage and tons of concert footage, including scenes of groundbreaking shows in 1985, when Wham! became the first Western pop group to perform in China.
But it’s Ridgeley’s mother who supplied the most personal treasures. Since her son’s grade-school days making music with Michael, she kept about 50 meticulously organized scrapbooks stuffed with photos, reviews and other ephemera. They include snapshots from the mid-1970s when Ridgeley first got to know Michael as Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, the son of a Cypriot father and a British mother.
Ridgeley was also the son of an immigrant father — his dad was Egyptian — and a British mother, and he hit it off immediately with the boy he called Yog, a nickname he used often in our interview. The scrapbooks paint a vivid portrait of boys who loved Queen and “Saturday Night Fever” and desired to make music a career.
“The only thing I ever wanted to do from the age of 14 was to be in a band, write songs and perform,” Ridgeley said with a 14-year-old’s enthusiasm in his voice, adding that fame and celebrity “were never a motivating factor for either of us.”
Ridgeley said he and Michael knew Wham! would have a finite life span because Michael’s songwriting began “developing and evolving in a way and at a speed” that Wham! couldn’t accommodate. In November, Michael will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Since Wham!’s heyday, Ridgeley has battled the perception that he’s famous only because he was in a duo with a more talented artist. The documentary makes a case in his favor though, tracing how Ridgeley, a guitarist, collaborated with the composer and performer Michael.
Still, Ridgeley acknowledged that his musicianship wasn’t in the same league as Michael’s, “one of the finest, if not the finest, singing voices of his generation,” he said, sounding like a proud brother.
When Michael came out to him after they filmed the video for “Club Tropicana” (1983), 15 years before he did so publicly, Ridgeley said he supported him with love and a shrug. Michael was more freaked out by how his father might react than how the public would, Ridgeley said; had Michael come out during the Wham! years, Ridgeley said he and fans would have had his back.
“I didn’t think it was going to affect our success, and in the long term it probably wouldn’t,” he said. “It would have been difficult for a while for him, there’s no doubt about that. It would have required management by us all. But after the initial sensationalism, it’s on the table isn’t it?”
After Wham!, Ridgeley released a 1990 solo album that flatlined and he did a short stint as a Formula 3 driver, but he has otherwise stayed out of the limelight. The British tabloids have kept breathless tabs on his love life — including his 25-year relationship with Keren Woodward, a former member of another ’80s pop group, Bananarama — much as they did when they gave him the Wham!-era nickname Randy Andy.
“I don’t think I ever met anyone else who was on par with George the way Andrew was, intellectually and with a sense of humor,” said Kemp, whose husband is Martin Kemp of the ’80s band Spandau Ballet. “It was the best relationship I’d ever seen George have with anyone.”
Ridgeley said “few stones remain unturned” as he’s worked the past five years on projects that are all-things-Wham! In 2019, he published a memoir, “Wham! George Michael & Me,” and had a cameo that year in the romantic-comedy “Last Christmas,” which was inspired by the group’s eponymous chart-topping holiday single. Later this month comes “Echoes From the Edge of Heaven,” a Wham! singles collection.
He still seems to be in awe of what he and his best friend made together.
“I could never quite really get that we had achieved the same kind of success as the artists that we revered like gods when we were growing up,” he said. “We were playing Wembley Stadium, the same place Elton John played. You can say, ‘I am the same.’ But in your own mind, you’re never the same.”