On April 7, 1985, Wham! made history by becoming the first Western pop group to perform in China.
It took 18 months’ worth of lunches to convince Chinese officials that Wham! was worthy of jitterbugging all over their concert floor — fluffy hair, suggestive hip swaying (thank god twerking wasn’t invented yet), and gargantuan shoulder pads and all.
The British duo’s manager, Simon Napier-Bell, took on the task of making George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley the most famous pop sensations in the world, and if that meant making an international splash by taking the entire Chinese Communist government out for a bite and sabotaging Queen, then he was going to do just that, dammit.
But China wasn’t inviting Wham! because they felt a personal pop affinity to their hits like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Everything She Wants,” or “Club Tropicana”; rather, the Communist country was looking to open its doors to foreign investment and wanted to appear open and welcoming to the rest of the world. Knowing this, Napier-Bell had to convince officials that Wham! would help them achieve that perception.
As for sabotaging Queen, he knew the Freddie Mercury-fronted band was competing to perform in China. To dissuade government leaders from going with them, he showed two brochures: one of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley looking like friendly middle-class young lads and the other of Mercury posing in all his flamboyancy. The Chinese decided on the young lads — and Wham! the rest is pop music history.
As for the concert itself, it was a bit of a dud. Amid the crowd of 15,000 at the People’s Gymnasium in Beijing, the atmosphere was a mix of joy (mostly from the Western concert goers), confusion, and paranoia.
Hoping to wow attendees, Napier-Bell ordered a breakdancer to perform in the crowd, but he quickly realized that it was a mistake.
“The powers that be were just horrified at this,” he recalled in a BBC interview in 2005. “In the interval, they announced on the loudspeaker that nobody could stand up, everyone had to sit down through the whole show — which was 100% my fault. I really killed the atmosphere.”
If things couldn’t get any worse, the crowd on the ground level began fearing that the camera crews were actually the secret police and thus, sat frozen in their seats.
“There were 7,500 people downstairs intimidated by the lights and the police standing around the outside, and upstairs you had 7,500 people getting more and more wild and crazy,” said Napier-Bell. “So it was a very strange atmosphere.”
But the mutual agreement between Wham! and China went generally according to plan. “In the end everybody got what they wanted from it,” he told the Taipei Times. “Wham became the biggest, most famous band in the world and the Chinese got a concert that proved they meant what they said about opening up.”
Regardless of all the blood, sweat, and lunches that Napier-Bell endured to make this feat happen, sadly, it would only be months later that Michael and Ridgeley would decide to call Wham! quits.
In a recent interview, George Michael admitted one of his biggest professional regrets was the dismantling of Wham!, but rumor has it that the duo are considering reuniting for ole time sake. Just the thought of it makes us want to jitterbug.