George Michael: The story of how Wham! made music history by playing in China

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley made music history in 1985 when they became the first Western pop act to perform in China after the country’s years of cultural isolation.

The Wham! duo beat the likes of the Rolling Stones and Queen in landing a concert spot in the communist nation, securing their place as one of the biggest bands in the world.

The gig was dreamed up by their manager Simon Napier-Bell, who worked on the scheme tirelessly for 18 months to get Michael and Ridgeley onto the stage in front of its most unknowing and curious audience yet.

Michael and Ridgeley’s thoroughly modern sound and look – complete with feathered, dyed hair and heavy-shouldered jackets – was new and foreign to the 15,000 fans who had managed to secure a ticket against the odds to see the show.

Dancing and singing along to the gig, held in Beijing, was reportedly banned by authorities, but the crowd managed to find their rhythm and dance regardless to the pop twosome’s infectious sound after warming up.

The filmed concert – later turned in to a documentary of their visit to China – formed a part of the band’s world tour.

Napier-Bell recalled on the landmark concert’s 20th anniversary in 2005 how he was in conversation with members of the Chinese government for months trying to convince them to allow the event.

He told the BBC: “It was two years of lunches – I fed the whole government, 143 people three times each.”

He eventually managed to convince them that their pop music-free country needed Wham! and a PR stunt like the concert to open up the possibility of attracting the foreign investors they so desired.

Napier-Bell said, of his tactics: “They had fallen for that. Also, I agreed instantly. Once they said yes, I didn’t say ‘in six months’ time’ – I said ‘in two weeks’.

“I think they might have backtracked, but they couldn’t. The next morning it was in every single paper – tabloid and broadsheet – everywhere in the world.”

Napier-Bell also confessed to having directly sabotaged the efforts of Queen, who were also attempting to score a show in China.

Chinese TV presenter Kan Lijun, who acted as the on-stage host at the gig, remembered the historic moment on its 30th anniversary.

She told the BBC: “No-one had ever seen anything like that before.

“The singers were all moving a lot and it was very loud. We were used to people who stood still when they performed.

“All the young people were amazed and everybody was tapping their feet. Of course the police weren’t happy and they were scared there would be riots. One time, people were excited after a sports event and they flipped a car.

“Back then, if we wanted to listen to pop music with lyrics like that, we had to do that in secret.”

She added: “If you were caught, you would be taken to the police station and they would keep you there all night. It was a time of many taboos.”

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