As It Happens

When China met Wham! Thirty years ago, the band staged first Western pop concert

In April 1985, no one in China knew Wham! The country was just emerging from the isolation of the Cultural Revolution and pop music was pretty much forbidden. Then the band pulled off a musical coup.
Wham!'s George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley (right) on The Great Wall during their April 1985 trip to China. (Photo: Peter Charlesworth/Getty)
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The Chinese who went to see Wham! play in Beijing in April 1985 were mostly bewildered.

Thirty years ago in China, no one listened to Western pop. Young people wore drab Cultural Revolution style clothes. They didn't go out to clubs because there were none. The nation was just beginning to wake-up from decades of strict repression and isolation.

Then, the perkiest act in pop music came to town -- the first Western act to ever play in China.

"[The audience] didn't know how to react. They'd never heard music so loud, so rhythmic. They'd never seen people dressed like that," the band's manager Simon Napier-Bell tells As It Happens co-host Carol Off. "When George clapped along with the beat, they thought he was asking for applause. They were mezmerized."

The crowd wouldn't have even recognized the songs, if Napier-Bell hadn't come up with a clever idea. He had a local singer record versions of the band's music in Chinese. Then he gave away cassettes with the originals and the covers to everyone who bought a ticket.

Lots of acts wanted to be the first to break into China. The Rolling Stones. Queen. But it was Napier-Bell who managed to pull it off for Wham!. The key -- gentle persistence.

Simon Napier-Bell was the manager of Wham! and the mastermind behind the 1985 concert in Beijing. (Photo: simonnapierbell.com)

The Wham! manager checked into the Holiday Inn in Beijing and began calling every government minister in China and inviting them each to dinner. At first, there were no bites. But he returned every month or so and repeated the calls. On his second trip, he got his first taker -- a junior minister who had confused him with a foreign investor.

Even ministers didn't have the American dollars they needed to eat the luxury food at the hotel. So, it wasn't long before he had half the cabinet eating at his table.

"I didn't ever really pitch [the concert]. I didn't want to ask a 'yes-or-no' question because they could say 'no'," he explains.

"I started off saying, 'You know, it would be really nice one day, if a Western popular music group came and played in China.' And on the second time, I said, 'You know, I'm a manager of a pop group myself and, if one did come and play in China, it would be awfully nice if it was mine.' . . . and I'd slowly add things in."

Eventually, it worked.

You can see footage of the Wham! trip to China in the band's video for their single, "Freedom." In it, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley seem to be having a blast. But, that wasn't really the case.

"They hated it. They were mobbed by photographers," say Napier-Bell. "And all of those people were around when George and Andrew were taken for their sort of forcible sightseeing to The Great Wall."

All those reporters and camera operators, hundreds of them, were from abroad. Napier-Bell had sold the concert to the Chinese as a way to show they were open to foreign investment. But he had his own agenda -- to jack up Wham!'s profile in America. And it paid off.

Before China, the group had only two hits in the States, "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and "Careless Whisper." Thanks to the Beijing gig, Wham! made the cover of Time and Newsweek. The group was on all the major networks every day for a week. And two weeks later, Wham! was booked on a stadium tour.

"No one ever had ever broken America in such a short time," says Napier-Bell.

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