George Michael and his pop duo made concerts by Metallica — who play China in January — possible.
(Editor’s note: CFI is a film, and occasionally television, industry publication, but the sudden death of pop musician George Michael presented an opportunity to look at the development of the popular entertainment industry in China through his group Wham’s 1985 performance in Beijing.)
April 7, 2015 marked the 30th anniversary of the first time a major concert by a Western pop act was held in China – a visit from Wham! (George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley), who played to a crowd of 15,000 at Beijing’s Workers Gymnasium.
It took 18 months to get the show off the ground, and that it was a bit of a consolation prize for the duo now making it bigger in the US earlier, according to the group’s former manager, Simon Napier-Bell. “Jazz (Summers, the group’s co-manager) came up with the idea of perhaps we could make you the first ever group to play in China. George [Michael] just liked the idea – he said, ‘yes – fix that.'”
Biography has a nice recollection of the event in which we learn that Napier-Bell engineered the pioneering concert by sabotaging the attempts of Freddie Mercury-led Queen to become the first major pop culture act to play China.
To see how far China has come since those heady mid-90s, check out this hour-long documentary of the concert on Youtube.
Since that time, China has gone back-and-forth multiple times on their willingness to let foreign bands to play. Sometimes it seems the floodgates are opening, other times it seems waves of conservatism take over.
Here are a dozen big Western bands that have managed to pull off Beijing gigs since George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley first did it over 30 years ago.
Roxette – Workers Gymnasium, February 19, 1995
We don’t add this because it was particularly memorable or we’re big fans of Roxette, but because they were the next in line after Wham! to perform in Beijing. This was the first in a line of many foreign acts that were asked to tone down their lyrics for their local shows. In this case, the Swedish pop act were forbidden from singing “making love to you” (they changed it to “making up to you”). See kids, things are a bit better these days.
Bjork – Workers Gymnasium, February 13, 1996
Many people remember when Iceland’s most famous native Bjork played in Shanghai in March, 2008, and, er, said some things maybe she shouldn’t have said, but less remembered is her February 13, 1996 gig at the Workers Gymnasium. Although fans seemed to enjoy the show, fewer than 1,000 people showed up to see it.
Deep Purple – Workers Gymnasium, March 31, 2004
Ian Gillan, a.k.a. the voice of Deep Purple, sounded as good as he did back in the band’s “Smoke on the Water” days. Most notable about this show was an opening, five-song set by China’s godfather of rock, Cui Jian. It may have been the poor sound quality, but Cui and his band were simply awful, and in the first time a major Chinese rock act shared the stage with a major Western rock act, Cui was blown off the stage.
Norah Jones – Workers Gymnasium, March 7, 2005
With nine Grammy Awards under her belt, the world’s most boring pop artist came to Beijing, quite a shock for a local audience unaccustomed to seeing artists at their peak. And she’s where, now?
Black-Eyed Peas – Capital Gymnasium, July 18, 2006
The first of a couple of performances by the Fergie and will.i.am and those other two guys in the musical collective took place at the seldom-used Capital Gymnasium.
Nine Inch Nails – Chaoyang Park, September 9, 2007
Even we had to look this one up to be sure. Yep, Nine Inch Nails, in Chaoyang Park. Things really were different back then before the Olympics.
Kanye West – Workers Gymnasium, November 1, 2008
Although the gig was an easy walk to and from the Sanlitun entertainment district, most fans were disappointed at the shortness of Mr. Kardashian’s concert, despite featuring a 16-song setlist.
Beyonce – MasterCard Center, October 23, 2009
Still one of the best-remembered shows in recent Beijing history, Beyonce came through her “I Am …” world tour. Fans can continue hoping for the long-hoped for Beyonce/Jay-Z Bejiing show.
Bob Dylan – Workers Gymnasium, April 6, 2011
The guy who helped create the protest song plays in Beijing. What then, is the grounds for excluding anyone else from playing? Fans attend to say they saw Dylan play live, as he is unintelligible and uninteractive.
Avril Lavigne – MasterCard Center, February 14, 2012
Now one of the few artists who regularly visits Beijing, Avril’s first stop was in 2008, but her Valentine’s Day concert in 2012 was a more more successful gig, and her pop-punk wowed her die-hard Beijing fans.
Elton John – MasterCard Center, November 25, 2012
Opening appropriately with “The Bitch is Back” on his 40th anniversary tour, Sir Elton did his hits from front to back. Probably his last visit to Beijing after first coming in 1984 with the soccer team he then owned, Watford FC, after making some remarks from the stage that some people didn’t like.
The Killers – MasterCard Center, October 1, 2013
After canceling a 2010 date, unlike most bands that pre-cancel their Beijing shows, The Killers actually did reschedule.
— A version of this article originally appeared on the Beijinger.