MOJO Eyewitness: Wham! Play China

On 7 April 1985 George Michael’s Wham! became the first western pop act to play the People’s Republic Of China. Read MOJO’s eyewitness account for the inside story…

Wham In China

by Pat Gilbert |
Updated on

“It was full of danger…”

Manager Simon Napier-Bell remembers wooing China’s apparatchiks, dealing with George Michael’s ego and dodging CIA intrigue.

“Jazz Summers [co-manager] and I had dinner with George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley at the Bombay Brasserie [in mid-1983], and George said, ‘If you want to manage us, your job is make us the biggest group in the world within a year.’ Jazz said, ‘Why don’t Wham! become the first group to play in Communist China?’ I got on a plane to Beijing the same week.

The challenge was to persuade the Chinese that letting a group play there would open up the country to huge investment. It was immaterial if they knew who the band were or not. But the problem was you couldn’t even travel to China as a Westerner unless you were part of an official delegation – then on a flight to Japan I met a mysterious man called Professor Rolf, who said he had contacts within the Chinese government and could help me.

The whole thing was filled with intrigue and danger.

Simon Napier-bell

I spent the next 18 months having lunch with a succession of ministers in China. The whole thing was filled with intrigue and danger, you never knew who, if anyone, to trust. In the end I was in an official’s office and [Chinese premier] Zhao Ziyang was on the other end of the phone and said, ‘yes’. The practical difficulties were immense: the Chinese had absolutely nothing in the way of infrastructure to stage a large rock concert: we took a crew of around 50 people and had to hire a jumbo jet for the equipment alone. We had two experienced tour managers to coordinate the whole thing – Benny Collins, who worked with Michael Jackson, and Wham!’s own guy Jake Duncan.

The Chinese were very good at extracting money from us. They charged us for everything, including a 100-strong local crew who did nothing. We were asked if we needed – for a fee – 1,000 ‘fans’ to greet us at the airport. I called up the head of CBS, Paul Russell, and said, We need a cheque for £500,000, and he called back and said we needed to make a film of the trip. I said, We’ll need another half a million. It was all against Wham!’s future royalties, of course – and it was like, ‘No problem.’

The tour was nuts! The day before we got there George had a meltdown in Hong Kong, he suddenly wasn’t sure about it all. We took 10 or 15 journalists with us, and they were ordered not to write about it if they wanted to cross with us into China. Beijing was a great show, but I foolishly asked the support act, a breakdancer called Trevor, to go down into the audience and get them all going, which unsettled the secret police. They made an announcement that everyone should stay in their seats. Then Lindsay Anderson, who was directing the film [1986’s Foreign Skies], wanted the house lights on to show the audience – but every time the Chinese thought the secret police were watching them and became subdued.

On an internal flight to a show in Canton the trumpeter went mad and cut himself with a penknife. The pilot went into a sudden 75 degree dive to upend him, and he was handcuffed and sedated. He was Portuguese, so it was really difficult to get the paperwork to get him into a mental hospital, but we did.

Because we were dealing with this insular regime, the CIA were on my back; they wanted to pay me to work for them, but not tell anyone, not even the tax man. I said, So you want me to break the law? No thanks. I got to know a lot of Chinese secret police, they were a lot more clever.

We succeeded in getting the attention of the world and so did the Chinese. We got the front page of Time, Newsweek, and within a month of coming home we were booking Wham! on a US stadium tour, when previously they were playing small theatres.

We were six months or so behind schedule when it came to George’s demand to make Wham! the biggest band in the world. But we did manage it and it was the start of China becoming the modern country it is today.”

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“A breakdancer called Trevor unsettled the secret police… ”

Tour manager Jake Duncan recalls the strange experience of getting a PA to Beijing in one piece, canine cutlets and over-zealous local crew.

“The only person who had played in China before was Jean Michel Jarre [in 1981]. But if anyone could make it happen, Simon could. Beforehand, Simon took [the production heads] to dinner and said, ‘This isn’t going to be like any tour you’ve ever worked on. You’ll need patience, politeness and understanding – we can’t offend anybody.’

We took most of the equipment with us, and hired the lighting rig in Hong Kong. It was all flown out on a special 747. We trucked a lot of stuff [from Hong Kong to Beijing] or flew with the Chinese airline CAC, or ‘kak’ as we called it, which pretty much summed up the service. When we got there, we couldn’t move around on our own. One day, we were taken to a food market, and Shirlie Holliman [of backing singers Pepsi & Shirlie] freaked out and said, ‘I think that’s a dog hanging up there.’ The translator, keen not to offend us, said, ‘If you don’t like dog, we also have cat.’

There’s an etiquette in China where you have to be painstakingly polite. You can’t be direct with people and call them a tosser. The Chinese didn’t want us to do any manual work; there were hundreds of local crew waiting to help us. It was difficult: electric equipment was being loaded onto open flatbed trucks in a country where it rains a fair bit. There’s also certain ways to safely unload, say, a Marshall amplifier; if anything was broken, there was nowhere to get replacements. So when we finally set up the gear in Beijing, we breathed a huge sigh of relief when we heard the first ‘one-two, one-two’ coming over the PA.

We didn’t know what to expect, and they didn’t know what to expect either.

Jake Duncan, Tour Manager

Things were helped by George and Andrew, who were very professional – George had his eye on the ball all the time; Andrew liked a laugh but didn’t miss a trick, either. If George dug his heels in about something, you could rely on Andrew to help him see it from another angle. But even the slightest change to the timetable disrupted everything. It was strange: we didn’t know what to expect, and they didn’t know what to expect either. No one had ever done anything like it before.

In the back of our minds we all knew if this doesn’t go well, how will other groups ever do it? And we didn’t want the people in China that helped us to lose their jobs. We pulled it off, but I can’t say it wasn’t stressful.

Two years later, I was involved in trying to get the Marlboro Country Music Festival to China. [Our delegation] spent a week being shunted from government office to office, waiting for two hours on wooden benches for nothing to happen. In the end we gave up, which showed just how good Simon was at setting the whole Wham! thing up. I’ve been back to China in more recent times with Westlife. Beijing is all steel and glass now. It couldn’t be more different than it was.”

This article originally appeared in MOJO 262

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