Christmas Day 2016 marked the death of another musical legend, George Michael, just as Christmas Day 2006 took my musical hero James Brown. As an ’80s baby I grew up with George Michaels music, and his death is shocking to me because he was a month younger than my own oldest brother. What I will always appreciate in addition to Michaels huge overall pop success is the way he always incorporated Funk and R&B into his musical palette. One of the reasons I will always be thankful to British artists of the early 1980s is their constant inclusion of elements of Funk, disco, R&B, soul and other historically Black musics into their sound palette. This was in contrast to many major Rock & Roll groups of the 1980s who seemed to be scared off by the “Disco Demolition rally” and chart freeze out of the late ’70s. The British groups, being from overseas, never had a problem saying “we’ve been influenced by Black music”, whereas American acts could often pretend to be colorblind while bowing to music apartheid on MTV. This also stretched into the British groups inclusions of their own domestic Black musics, such as Lovers Rock and all the various strains of Reggae. The funky flavors were always present in Wham!’s music but they were really prominent on George Michael’s 1987 smash hit, “I want Your Sex.” I’ve written before about how the year 1987 was one of the most important musically as the general pop scene made a strong shift back towards grittier funk. “I Want Your Sex” is a jam that hit me back then in my childhood years, and the version I want to highlight today is the 2 part version, just like the Isley Brothers ’70s funk hits, which is notable for the way it proves that behind many a brittle sounding ’80s jam, lays a flowing funk bomb waiting for a change of instrumental tones and recording techniques.
The song starts off with a strong synthesizer bass note dead on the one, supported by some percussive synthesizer blips providing a counter rhythm, slowly mixing in percussion sounds, followed by a drum fill and the groove proper. The song has an insistent ostinato, repetitive simple one note bass line on the synthesizer that bubbles under the groove and creates a heavy momentum. Behind that groove the cowbell beats out steadily on all 4 beats. When George begins to sing, the bass line goes to another chord that sets off the sequence for the verse. George’s verse begins, “There’s things that you guess/there’s things that you know/there’s boys that you trust/and girls that you don’t”, which in retrospect quite frankly sound like he was dealing with his sexual identity way back then! After the verse proper, he introduces a little pre chorus refrain sung in a higher falsetto, stripped down to just a drumbeat backing the vocals. After he swears to tell no lies to his target of affection, he gets off a great line, “Don’t need no Bible/just look in my eyes”. In true soul man fashion he ends the pre chorus by laying his desires down quite flat, singing, “A mans got his patience/and here’s where mine ends!/I want your sex!” After which the musical feature of the song that stuck out the most to me in my youth is introduced, a funky gospel organ chord played on the synthesizer that lands on the upbeats, which accentuate perfectly the slow nasty funk grind of the tune.
After another verse, an instrumental bridge is introduced, consisting of a riff that moves upward, played in unison by a pan sounding synthesizer tone and the bass. It is somewhat reminiscent of the instrumental unison riffs Stevie Wonder would introduce in songs such as “Black Man”, “Master Blaster”, and “Sir Duke.” While the unison riff plays, synthesizers provide almost wah wah like riffs in the background. The riff goes upward as the arrangement moves to another refrain from Michaels. In classic post-AIDS ’80s style, Michaels ends that chorus with, “Sex is natural/sex is fun/sex is best when its/one on one”, with the “one on one” part being sung in a deeper voice. The groove oriented nature of the song is emphasized by another percussion breakdown following that section.
On the extended Part 2, after Michaels vamps on with great vocals, the song moves from its grinding ’80s naked funk groove to something different, big band, live instrument funk. It’s as if Michaels took his song back 10 years earlier to 1977, as the bass is no longer played on the synthesizer, replaced by an electric that matches the gospel organ riff rhythm for rhythm, except the organ riff itself is now played by a powerful horn section and acoustic piano, with its sharper, more percussive tone. The rest of the song vamps on through a well arranged groove structure with many highs and lows before it vamps out on a funky note.
George Michaels smash 1987 album “Faith”, was so funky, soulful, and steeped in Black music that it reached the top of the R&B charts in its day. I remember it was a topic of discussion in Jet and Ebony Magazine at the time that so many white artists were becoming big on the R&B scene and what the ramifications of that were. On George Michaels’ behalf it was pure soulful enthusiasm and skill, and he went on to prove that many times over the rest of his career in his choice of duet partners, his cover songs, and his original material. “I Want Your Sex” reached all the way up to #2 on the pop charts. It was considered very controversial in its time for its straight up declaration of lust, which of course was well situated in the Blues and Soul tradition. The sanctified gospel chording of the song and its declaration of passion sit George Michaels squarely in the sacred/profane soul man tension that provided the fuel for great male soul singers such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Prince. As for me personally it brings back fond memories of the days when there were certain songs you definitely were not supposed to let your parents hear you sing! And this song as well as Michaels entire catalog were part of the gifts he left us all to contemplate in his absence.