Choose The Good Life: Club Tropicana By Wham! Revisited
, August 1st, 2013 04:59
Eli Davies looks back at one of Wham!'s biggest hits and admires what she sees
As the millennium got closer in the late 1990s, a huge wave of 80s nostalgia started to built. People were throwing 80s-themed parties, putting on sexed-up versions of their school uniform for various ‘school disco’ club nights. Retrospectively, the decade was a land of fluorescent colours, big shoulder pads and blonde highlights, and certain cultural artefacts defined the aesthetics. From the TV the imagery was taken from Grange Hill and Dynasty, and the soundtrack was a kind of relentlessly upbeat parade of groups like Duran Duran, Culture Club and Wham! A handful of music videos from the period helped shape this re-branding, among them ‘Club Tropicana’, with its palm trees, inflatables and bright pink cocktails; the luminous camp on show in that video has had a lasting effect on the way that the song, and to some extent Wham! generally, have been viewed: cartoonish, tacky, a bit silly.
‘Club Tropicana’, released thirty years ago, was the fourth single from Wham!’s Fantastic album and marked something of a break for the group. Their hits up to this point had been gutsy little anthems of youth rebellion. In ‘Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do?)’ wage labour was the enemy; in ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’ it was monogamy, and in ‘Bad Boys’ it was parents and their stupid rules. George Michael’s instinct for a killer chorus is on show in all of these songs, but the sound here, with its rumbling soul guitar and funk beats, was a little baggy. ‘Club Tropicana’ was a far slicker beast: the vocals were honed, in came a loungey brass section and the lyrics were more at ease with the world. In the video the leather jackets and street corner rants have been ditched for swimming trunks and lounging by the pool. The boys had escaped the shackles of home and work and were now enjoying the spoils of their stardom.
This could be seen as pure Thatcherism: a couple of upwardly mobile kids from the suburbs, happily splashing their self-made money on flashy holidays and cocktails. The vision here is certainly aspirational, but, really, if you look closely it’s hardly elbows-out individualism. This is about making life as good as it can be. There’s something expansive about all this: they are celebrating a world where the drinks are free and there’s enough for everyone. "Come on", they seem to be saying to us, "we all deserve a piece of this."
Looking back on Wham!’s hits, it is striking how few of them are really straightforward love songs. Relationships are not generally a cause for celebration for these boys. In ‘Young Guns’ they’re for boring suckers, and the later double A-side pairing of ‘Last Christmas’ and ‘Everything She Wants’ gives us a pretty gloomy view, of full-on heartache on the one hand and manipulation, dishonesty and resentment on the other. Even in ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ and ‘Freedom’, which have ostensible love objects, it is hard to make out what they’re actually on about. No, the real source of joy in Wham! world, is something bigger and more inclusive, and this is all there in ‘Club Tropicana’. The song is littered with thrilling pop moments, from the cicadas/ slap-bass intro to the ‘Pack your bags’ middle eight and its dramatic build up.
George Michael himself has dismissed the Thatcherite label sometimes slapped on Wham!, arguing that neither their songs or deeds actually fit this image. And while their persona was never overtly political, they played the miners’ benefit at the Royal Festival Hall in 1984, and ‘Wham! Rap’ was deemed anti-establishment enough first time around to be banned by the BBC (and has acquired a new resonance in our age of the dumb ‘strivers v shirkers’ narrative). Wham! were never going to write a ‘Between The Wars’, but they could give us their own, more playful version of the demand for a living wage: pleasure, leisure, fun and sunshine. Compare all this with the bratty whinging of Bros, Wham!’s boy band successors in the late 80s, who are, it seems to me, far more deserving of the Thatcherite tag.
The new, jolly tans-and-teeth image brought in by ‘Club Tropicana’ was to continue with ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, the apotheosis of the Wham! brand of joyous pop. And listening to the songs and watching videos and interviews from around this time, they appear to be having a lot of fun with all this. There was little of the desire for credibility displayed by some of their peers: in one such interview from 1984 Ridgely happily fesses up to having had a nose job and Michael claims that Wham! are the only band around "completely unashamed of being screamed at".
Thankfully, Wham! called it a day just as George Michael’s slightly more ponderous side was beginning to creep in. Michael had already begun to stray beyond the confines of the group with his two solo efforts, and they wisely decided to quit while they were ahead (though their last few singles show a band past their peak). At the time Michael called it the "most amicable split in pop history" and acrimony did appear, on the surface anyway, remarkably absent from the break: the tortured stuff didn’t come out until later on for Michael, and Ridgely skipped off into the sunset to live the retired pop star dream, racing cars, marrying Keren out of Banarama and supping ale in Cornwall. There remains something wonderfully cheerful and optimistic about the whole Wham! project, and thirty years on ‘Club Tropicana’ seems to be the perfect expression of this.