The video for “Club Tropicana” opens with Pepsi and Shirlie, backing singers for Wham, first driving and then walking into a set for a poolside party; we know it's summer, we know it's a warm balmy night because they are wearing little more than bikinis. The jeep they emerge from was an early ‘80s revelation in car terms and fashion accessory parked smoothly in a sandy path to the villa. It was the car of choice for a generation desperate to aspire The two, Pepsi and Shirlie – my role models – walk into a scene of luxuriant excess. Andy Ridgeley floating on a designer-lilo with brick-phone in hand, onlookers surrounding the pool with only Ray Bans and laughter in common and then the camera pans to George, beautiful, lithe, sensual and tanned George starts to sing with cocktail in hand and tiny white mini-trunks covering his pertness. It is a scene of Californian-esque, sun-filled luxury, although the first scenes are shot at night the words and actions speak only of sun, of the hedonistic pleasures associated with what seemed at the time a mythical life that lived over the rainbow, just out of reach.
Released in 1983 it came after depressing, intense years of widespread race riots, the Falklands War and mass unemployment. If you were a teen in those years and about to leave school there was a real sense of gloom and despondency, a sense of a world that was splitting further into the people that had power and the people who weren't heard. I was 18 in 1982 and at Art School. We were the 'Camden Palace on a Friday night generation’: rolled up jeans – we used to bleach them ourselves to get a sun-washed look, mohair jumpers and espadrilles, that French Riviera look in London Town. We longed for better days, we longed for sunshine and fun. We used a product called 'Sun-In' to lighten our hair, with often disastrous orange consequences. George Michael – brilliant, tanned and tipped George Michael – came along, the son of Greek Cypriot restaurateur who had a beautiful, very un-British soulful voice and an ability to write great songs from an incredibly young age. He wrote “Careless Whisper” at 17. He stood out, even in Wham he stood out. His ability to capture and deliver upon the desires and aspirations of a generation of people who wanted more, who dreamed of making it big here and maybe in the USA, who dreamed of laughter and fun against a backdrop of Thatcherism, unemployment and war.
George Michael gave us sunshine when we still stored candles in case of power cuts, gave us hopeful slogan Ts in place of football strips, introduced us to tropical cocktails when there had only been lager and cheap acidic-wine before and George gave us brilliant songs to dance and sing along to. He elegantly caught us up in happiness even when he was quite possibly deep in turmoil. Fame for him in the 1980s was a cage wrought from systemic homophobia that decreed that sexy young male pop stars must be pinned up on the bedroom walls of thousands of adoring young girls. It was the age of the Smash Hits centrefold. George was quite simply a beautiful national pin up, his sexuality a deal breaker then, people just couldn't come out, people 'cottaged' because that was one of the places gay people could meet. Certainly I earned a fair sum of money in public toilets back then, enough to pay for a Friday or Saturday night out. I'm not proud, I'm not ashamed, it was a fact of life before these rights we now enjoy called acceptance and equality. As we sipped from our Pina Coladas and bumped into each other 'Ray ban-wearing' on the dance floor, we understood his dilemma. He was riding the crest of an incredible wave of popularity; we understood how fraught standing in a queue outside a gay club could be, we avoided queuing in them, it wasn't safe. It was pre Section 28 but the landscape for anyone 'different' was fragile. We lived and partied underground, the last tube in and a seat downstairs on the last night bus home, creatures of the night who remained tight lipped at work or college in the day.
We had little daytime access to a sense of community so the burden of secrecy for a brilliantly successful young gay pop star would have been enormous.
I came out to my parents as queer by leaving a book out about the treatment of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. There were no YouTube videos and the few queer magazines were high on the top shelf and certainly not stocked in 'family newsagents'. We had little daytime access to a sense of community so the burden of secrecy for a brilliantly successful young gay pop star would have been enormous. He had no role models, other now prominent gay icons were still claiming heterosexuality or perhaps bisexuality. Elton was still yet to marry Renate Blauel and there were the first faint, distant rumblings of a suspected 'gay plague'. Rock Hudson had yet to reveal his status or his sexuality. It was a time in which Liberace still held firm the showbiz pretence of being straight whilst dressed in fabulous rhinestones from head to foot. This was pre-transition for me and I was an incredibly feminine target for the lads on a 'drink night', still swigging lager but oddly wearing the same uniform as us: espadrilles, rolled up jeans or chinos but perhaps by now a stripy nautical top. I spent much of my life hiding, scared to be found out and scared about being beaten up. It was a daily worry. A life-fact that I had to plan and often weep for. George Michael rode that wave of fame and closeted unhappiness brilliantly so much of the time, hiding his pain from us whilst producing great song after great song. We don't give him nearly enough credit for that. Only after an incident in a public toilet in America did he come out with utter disdain for the haters and homophobes with a track and video about police entrapment, a practice long used to criminalise gay men caught in the act of sex since the middle of the last century. George was fragile – who among us isn’t? George made mistakes – who doesn’t? But George introduced us to sunshine, to happy dance, to cocktails and most importantly to a ballsy sense of freedom to a whole generation of queer folk tired of having to skirt round society trying to fit in. George gave us the right to proudly stick our fingers up at that and he did with a beautiful voice and an exquisite ability to write songs that still all know and still all sing. The Club Tropicana video ends with all four: George, Andrew, Pepsi and Shirlie departing the sunshine villa dressed as cabin and flight crew. Epic. @justjuno1