In honor of the 30th anniversary of George Michael’s blockbuster solo debut LP Faith, celebrated this Oct. 30, Billboard asked six writers to pen essays about the album’s six classic smash hits — all of which peaked in the top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100, and all of which showcase a different shade of Michael’s singular brilliance. Here, Jude Rogers takes on the album’s second hit single and title track, the career-reinventing rock throwback “Faith.”
A denim-clad butt shaking just-so to a Bo Diddley beat, on ripped jeans his mum used to sew up, but now refused to sew any more. A leather jacket he’d bought the previous night with his sister, in Leathers and Treasures on LA’s Melrose Avenue. An old Gretsch guitar found in a pawn shop, that he didn’t know how to play.
The result of these easy fashion choices and purchases was one of the most iconic pop videos of the ’80s, made entirely on the wits of a boy who had just turned 24. The song accompanying those images was also of George Michael’s own devising, melding the past and the present of pop brilliantly, as well as his own.
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George Michael had announced himself as a solo artist with a provocative, Prince-like single before Faith: “I Want Your Sex” was the ‘80s equivalent of shrugging off a teen-pop past by swinging on a wrecking ball naked. But this second single was his debut album’s title track, as well as its opening song, and the moment where the New George was properly solidified — and sanctified, too. All those energetic Sun Studio rhythms linking him to the rock and roll greats: check. All those sharp, reverb-free, refreshingly modern, percussive vocal lines: check. Then came that organ sound, soaring spiritually in its first 34 seconds — played by Chris Cameron, later Musical Director for the Faith Tour.
This 34-second opening was actually the chorus from Wham!’s 1984 single “Freedom” revisited. That song was one of the duo’s finest, a Motown pastiche full of wit, melody and heart. Over 30 years on, Cameron recalls to Billboard the moment he first played it, early on in the Faith sessions, in Denmark’s Puk Studios. “I was talking to George about his harmonic writing, and how good it was – about how if you stripped the guitars, bass and drum parts away, his songs still worked brilliantly. So I played “Freedom” as an illustration [on the organ setting on the Yamaha DMX] — and he’d never thought of his music in that manner before. So he taped it.” (They also talked about how he should do an orchestral album at some point; Michael finally did this 27 years later, for his final album, Symphonica.)
Cameron never knew that Michael would use the section of “Freedom” he’d played for him on record, however. “George was lovely, but he would never tell you what he would do! He had the confidence of someone young — he had no fear. He had nothing to lose.” But using “Freedom” made sense to his collaborator nevertheless, knowing the way Michael worked. “He was always consciously revising what he’d done before — all the time. That’s not good enough. Let’s start again. The organ was doing that — it was ripping up that past.”
The organ gives “Freedom” the air of a spiritual cleansing at the the beginning of Faith. Nevertheless, it’s also an acknowledgement of the familiarity of his past, and his fame — as well as an acknowledgement of the quality of that particular song, particularly as breezier hits like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” often got more attention. “Freedom” also shared a familiar subject with “Faith”: the story of a person struggling with an untrustworthy lover. But by the time of “Faith”, the song’s protagonist was maturing and taking more control, thereby showing how Michael was too. The hero of “Freedom” is “like a prisoner who has his own key,” and who “can’t escape until you love me.” The singer of “Faith” thinks “twice before I give my heart away”, and knows “it takes a strong man, baby/ But I’m showing you the door”. In all ways, he’s finally willing to “wait for something more”.
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The “Faith” organ also offers the first moment of solo George Michael camp (pun entirely intended). Camp also crackles through the song’s video, of course: those wiggling, Elvis-channelling butt-shots, the string of pearls hanging off the Gretsch guitar strap. Director Andy Morahan was told off by management for there being too many of the former during the video’s production, which he discussed years later in a TV documentary about pop videos, currently available on YouTube. “I said this to George…and he said, ‘I think they’re funny, they’re camp.’ He knew what he was doing. He was putting it out there a little bit.’” In the same documentary, Michael also mentions how he personally added the string of pearls to his outfit. “I knew there was a camp aspect to it.”
Then he tells us something he knew then, but didn’t tell us until 1998: “By then I’d had sex with men, so I was a little less clueless as to how to present myself.”
No girls are mentioned in Faith, as they were back in “Freedom” — this is a more ambiguous song of strong men and “loverboy rules.” Slowly but surely, Faith was George Michael reconfiguring himself in lyrics, image and sound, acknowledging pop history, and his history, as he tried to move on. Three years later, he’d do the same thing again, burning the “Faith” leather jacket, the Gretsch guitar and the Wurlitzer jukebox in the video to next LP Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1‘s classic “Freedom ’90,” each item exploding into a ball of flames when the “Freedom!” chant rolls around.
The way that song began still speaks volumes too: “I won’t let you down/ I will not give you up/ Gotta have some faith.”