Profile Was George Michael's Abu Dhabi show really his last? A portrait of the pop star's enduring career.
His final bow?
Tonight, George Michael is playing a headline show at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, supported by Alicia Keys. Fans of the British pop-soul superstar would be well advised to attend, as Michael has let it be known that this giant open-air show will be the last concert he will ever play.
Yet this claim should possibly be taken with a large pinch of salt. Michael has previous experience at announcing his live retirement. In August, he played two gigs at Earls Court in London that he had announced with equal certainty would be his swansong. Packed with sobbing, hyperventilating fans, the shows were billed as "The Final Two". Watching the first of the London performances, it was clear that it would be a shame if Michael were to retire prematurely, as here was an artist at the top of his game. He has not always enjoyed playing live - indeed, he did not tour at all between 1992 and 2006 - but at Earls Court he appeared relaxed, invigorated and at ease with the adulation he has not always welcomed.
Looking trim and lithe, Michael coaxed the maximum from his material, whether whooping through Freedom or crooning covers of The Police's Roxanne and the folk icon Ewan MacColl's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. He was also happy to revisit the bubblegum pop of his 1980s band, Wham!, leading mass singalongs of former hits including I'm Your Man and Everything She Wants. Michael's enthusiasm for live performance may have vacillated, but his commercial star has never waned. His 25-year career has seen him sell in excess of 100 million records worldwide, with seven No 1 albums in his native Britain and two in America. His 1987 album, Faith, remains one of the best-selling records of all time, with more than 20 million sales globally.
Michael is not, of course, the first superstar to tell his public it is all over only to change his mind and hit the trail again. Frank Sinatra was noted for his alarms, while in 1980 The Eagles broke up, tartly noting that they would reform only "when hell freezes over". Fourteen years later, the Californians were back on the road and flogging the Hell Freezes Over tour. Yet Michael's indecisions have always appeared rooted in self-doubt and personal crises of confidence rather than commercial expediency. The clues were there when he ended Wham! at their peak in 1986, keen to make more sophisticated music and attract an older audience than the screaming teenage girls that were the group's natural fan base.
The colossal success of 1987's Faith saw Michael embark on a world tour that lasted the best part of two years. The album spawned four US No 1 singles, but the singer was not enamoured of his arena-filling status. When the tour was finally over, he told his record label, Sony Music, that he would never again undertake such an arduous promotional schedule. Michael had wealth and commercial success, but he still craved credibility. His next album, 1991's Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, saw him retreat from pop into a more muted, melancholy strain of introspective soul music. Even the album's sole upbeat track, Freedom 90, found the singer bemoaning what had by then become an unhappy relationship with his record label.
Michael's dispute with Sony became an all-out war by 1992, when he refused to record Listen Without Prejudice Vol 2 and began legal action to extricate himself from his contract with them. He also declared that he would not tour again - a vow that he honoured for the next 14 years. Having vanished from the public eye, Michael reappeared in 1994 when he performed at the MTV European Music Awards. The legendary music business entrepreneur David Geffen then released him from his impasse with Sony, signing him to his new DreamWorks imprint and releasing Older, an album of po-faced, overly serious ballads.
Michael had achieved a degree of the critical respect he hankered for but he had stopped being much fun. A greatest hits set, Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael, was a contractual obligation to Sony, and 1999's Songs From the Last Century saw him whispering his way through low-key jazzy reworkings of lounge standards and, incongruously, U2's Miss Sarajevo. Yet even as Michael retreated further into himself and continued to veto live performances, his audience stayed loyal. His 2004 album, Patience, debuted at No 1 in his native Britain despite the singer courting controversy with a single, Shoot the Dog, that declared that the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had behaved like a poodle in following the US President George W Bush into war in Iraq.
With typical contrariness, Michael then promoted Patience by retiring from the record industry. In a rare interview with the BBC in March 2004, the singer said that he would never record another album, but would instead allow any new songs that he wrote to be downloaded from the internet for free. "I've been very well remunerated for my talents over the years, so I really don't need the public's money," he said, adding that he was optimistic the move would make him less famous: "I'll hopefully become a happier man."
Yet George Michael is perennially consistent only in his inconsistency. At the end of 2006, having released a second greatest-hits album, Twenty Five, to mark his quarter-century as an artist, he abruptly lifted his ban on playing live and set off on an 80-show tour that was seen by no less than 1.3 million fans. Michael upped the ante last year, taking the same set on a tour of European stadiums. Wham! had played their final gig at Wembley Stadium, London, in 1986, and in a neat act of synchronicity, their singer became the first artist to play the rebuilt stadium in June 2007. His £125,000 (Dh704,000) fine for over-running a curfew for 15 minutes was unlikely to make much of a dent in his formidable bank account.
Having once again declared that his latest string of dates would be his last ever, Michael set off on the third leg of his 25 Live tour in June of this year. After touring America and Canada for the first time in 17 years, he added his "Last Two" dates in London as an absolutely final farewell. Which brings us to the Zayed Sports City Stadium tonight. Will George Michael really keep his word this time and make Abu Dhabi the lucky venue for the last performance ever by one of the towering figures of British pop music?
Don't bet on it. At Earls Court in August, Michael ended his supposed final show with an aerobic encore of Freedom 90. As he skipped from the stage, the grinning singer bade his audience farewell with a cheery "See you next time!" So even if you are unable to get tickets for tonight, don't despair. The chances are this is not the last we will see of George Michael.