30 Years On: George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1.
Writing about an album that’s your favourite is hard. Writing about an album that is thirty years old is also hard. When you put the two together, you’ve got your emotional attachment rolled up with the memories of a great record.
George Michael’s second album ‘Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1’ was released on September 3 1990. I wasn’t yet 18, I had just got my Leaving Certificate results and was off to do a course in the Senior College in Ballyfermot.
The day I got my results I got two presents from my parents. Andrew Ridgeley’s ‘Son of Albert’ album on vinyl and George Michael’s single ‘Praying For Time’, the lead single from ‘Listen Without Prejudice’.
I will be honest, it took me a while to get ‘Praying for Time’. The poppy George from the Faith and Wham! days was definitely gone. George had grown up and was hoping the audience would grow up with him.
It wasn’t the first time that George had written a social commentary, not just a song about lurve. Wham! started off with ‘Wham! Rap’ and the refrain ‘DHSS’, a song all about life on the dole and kinda liking it. On the ‘Faith’ album, ‘Hand to Mouth’ spoke of two characters living in poverty and what they did so they wouldn’t live hand to mouth.
For grown-up George, this was the start of something else. He didn’t want to be on the cover of the album, opting to use Arthur “Weegee” Fellig’s photograph of Coney Island, in fact he didn’t want to promote it or appear in videos. Lyric videos are the norm now, but back then it was George with ‘Praying for Time’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’
When I press play on the album now, I’m somehow transported to the first time I listened to ‘Praying For Time’, playing it on the record player in the living room at home. George was 27 when the album was released. On this track he seems wiser than his years but his vocals show his own vulnerability.
It would take a great song to counter balance ‘Praying For Time’. ‘Freedom 90’ was perfect. Upbeat, catchy and a now legendary video featuring all the supermodels of the era. Simply divine. As much as I hated burning the Faith era BSA jacket, the symbolism is stacked high!
The song is amazing. I’m so lucky to have seen George perform it live eight times. In a concert environment, it becomes a unifying anthem. Freedom always will be on my ‘Pick me up’ playlist. There is nothing I don’t like about the track, the bass line is to die for the breakdown is really clever. Big big track. How big? Just listen to Scissor Sisters’ Take your Mama.
Alongside his own writing, George was known for his covers. This was still in the times before the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert and the Five Live EP. George’s version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘They Wont Go When I Go’ is still haunting. The simple keyboards with such pure vocals and harmonies are sublime.
One of George’s greatly underrated tracks is ‘Something to Save’. On this album, George used guitars more than previously. Guitars and strings, simple bass. What gets me everytime is the honesty of the lyrics. Everything is laid bare. There’s nothing to hide behind. One of my favourite George songs. Definitely.
Here’s something that not a lot of people know. I used to write a lot of music. I spent hours every day playing guitar and writing. This album was a huge eye opener for me. The song structures, the lyrics, being clever but not too clever, trying to embrace different genres.
‘Cowboys and Angels’ straddled the jazz / lounge genres. It ended side 1 of the album and was the last single released from the album. I was gutted when the single didn’t reach the UK top 40. It reached number 45. Realistically the album had sold so many copies that there was no need to buy the single, unless you were a massive George fan, like me.
Singles are chosen from an album as the best tracks, the songs to showcase your work. There’s a strange out of placeness sometimes, as tracks released as singles are often not in the running order of the album. ‘Waiting For That Day’ was the second single released and the track to kick off side two of the record. More guitars, ‘Funky Drummer’ drum samples and a Rolling Stones riff.
I remember I made copies of the album into blank cassettes and played them until they wore out. I was never too far away from a copy of ‘Listen Without Prejudice’. I had vinyl, CD, legit cassette, even my old boss went on holidays to Morocco and brought a present of a dodgy bootleg, locally released there.
Grown-up George was making me think, that’s what he wanted to do with this album. It’s called Listen Without Prejudice for a reason. The past is gone, this was George in 1990. This was what was in my ears and in my head in 1990.
Heading into 1991, the world was once again in a state of flux. I remember I was staying in digs with family friends when the Gulf War started. It was a horrible week. It was snowing, I tried to get to Rathmines from Ballyfermot when a lorry jack knifed on the Kylemore Road, blocking traffic. I sat on a bus, listening to George, trying to stay warm. I get home, get food, go to bed. I wake up to find there’s a war happening.
‘Mother’s Pride’ is a beautiful antiwar song and George’s first time to really show anti war sentiments. It was a B Side to ‘Waiting For That Day’ and was picked up on American radio. Loved ones of soldiers calling in wishing they would come home. ‘Mother’s Pride’ became a song to cling onto for them. It’s a song that always gets me ‘He’ll hold a gun til Kingdom come’, really says all you need to know about war.
‘Be good to yourself because nobody else has the power to make you happy’
George Michael – Heal The Pain
George had become a master of the album, how to pace each track, pull at the heart strings with one, wrap you in a warm cuddle with the next. I’ve always thought of ‘Heal The Pain’ as a warm hug from George. I really like acoustic guitar era George. Faith was a faux fling back to the 50’s. LWP always seemed more real. In ‘Heal The Pain’, you can hear how real the instrumentation used is. Bongos, guitars, bass, nothing is over processed or produced. Beautiful.
The vinyl crackle of Soul Free kicks in and the rhythm all makes me want to dance. Soul Free was a B Side to Heal The Pain but was released as a single in some territories. When you hear this and Freedom, it makes sense why the Freedom B Side was a remix / mash up of Soul II Soul’s Back to Life (with a dash of Sinead O’Connor for good luck.)
The album’s closing track ‘Waiting (Reprise)’ sees George in a reflective mood and sometimes I wonder if it’s a premonition to what the world will hold for him.
You look for your dreams in heaven but what the hell are you supposed to do when they come true?
George Michael – Waiting (Reprise)
The track closes the LWP Vol 1 chapter beautifully. Even 30 years later, the vulnerability and passion in George’s lyrics still get me. They bring me back to a time where all I cared about was where I would get the next couple of quid for some records.
I’m not sure I’d actually want to revisit 1990 though. Ireland was a different place, it was a lot harder to be who you really wanted to be. Small towns were extremely small. Homosexuality was still illegal. It’s crazy to think that. Listen Without Prejudice had lyrics that struck a chord with me. They got me through and became part of my fabric. I questioned every single note on the album, took it part and always found another reason to love it.
Listen Without Prejudice Vol 2 never happened. George released three tracks on the Red Hot and Dance album. The Five Live EP was released. It would be 14 years until George’s next new album of material with ‘Patience’.
In 2017, a deluxe version of LWP was released, along with the MTV Unplugged special and some LWP Vol 2 era tracks.
I adore George’s voice, I adore his music production, I love his lyrics. Every time I hear his voice, my heart skips then drops when I remember he’s still not here. He was and still is the best to get me in a good mood, to cheer me up, to make me dance, to give me a warm cuddle of a song.