The week of April 20th marked two significant historical events.
- Posted on Apr 18th 2011 5:00PM by James Sullivan
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While commentators bicker over whether Dylan let himself be censored for his first concerts there, we'll pose a pop quiz: Who was the first Western act to break the Great Wall of Chinese xenophobia?
The unlikely answer is Wham!, the British pop duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, who played China in April 1985 after asking their manager to make them the biggest pop act in the world.
It took Simon Napier-Bell -- a music-industry veteran who once managed the careers of the Yardbirds and T. Rex's Marc Bolan -- 18 months of wining and dining in China to get the government to agree to host the pastel pair. Installed in a hotel room, Napier-Bell called every officeholder he could find, inviting them to lunch. His first taker, the minister of energy, thought he was meeting a coal buyer.
"I fed the whole government, 143 people, three times each," the manager told the BBC upon the 2005 publication of his book 'I'm Coming to Take You to Lunch: A Fantastic Tale of Boys, Booze and How Wham! Were Sold to China.'
Fellow Brits Queen had designs on playing in China, too, but Napier-Bell sabotaged them by preparing two brochures, one of which showed squeaky-clean Wham! fans. The other featured Queen's Freddie Mercury in a salacious Spandex outfit. Conveniently ignored was the fact that one of Wham!'s earliest claims to fame was its first appearance on 'Top of the Pops,' when the band members stuffed badminton shuttlecocks in their shorts.
By the time the Chinese agreed to stage the concert at the Workers' Stadium Arena in Beijing, Wham! had in fact become one of the biggest pop groups in the world. The duo had three consecutive number one smash hits with 'Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,' 'Careless Whisper' and 'Everything She Wants.'
But Western superstardom couldn't guarantee success in the Sleeping Dragon. The crowd of 15,000 was required to sit, and a break-dancing opening act alarmed officials. On top of that, the audience was intimidated by director Lindsay Anderson's camera crew, on hand to shoot documentary footage: They thought it was the secret police.
After the trip, Anderson, a noted filmmaker and critic, had a falling out with George Michael, who hated the documentary ('Foreign Skies'). Anderson's original cut, which focused on the cultural divide, was recut as a more conventional concert film. As recently as 2006, Michael was still actively opposed to the original version, blocking a rare screening. Andy Stephen, Michael's manager, told the Independent it was "dreadful" and "rubbish."
The revised documentary premiered in 1986 at Wembley Stadium in front of 72,000 fans, at Wham!'s farewell concert. Before he died in 1994, Anderson savaged George Michael for undermining his "beautiful" film.
"I was struck by his total disinterest in China," he said of the onetime pop star, who has been in and out of the news, mostly for the wrong reasons, since his last hits. "His vision only extends to the Top 10."