Random Tracks: Wham!’s “Last Christmas”

In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.

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Wham!- “Last Christmas”

PEAK: #11 on January 4, 2020

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You

If there’s one rule that most Christmas songs follow is that you have to sound cheery and upbeat. After all, Christmas is a holiday that’s meant to be happy as we look forward to gathering with loved ones and receiving presents while being off from school or work.

All of this makes “Last Christmas,” the ’80s classic from the George Michael fronted duo Wham! a bit of an oddity. It’s a bright and cheery sounding Christmas song where George Michael is singing about a lover who did him wrong one Christmas and the conflicted feelings he still feels. Weird combination!

The origins of “Last Christmas” came from George Michael one day in 1984 while visiting his parents with his Wham! bandmate and friend Andrew Ridgely. As Ridgely explains, he and Michael were watching a soccer match when Michael went upstairs and came back all excited. Michael then took Ridgely up to his old bedroom playing the melody that would make up “Last Christmas,” “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music. Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts.”

The lyrics of “Last Christmas” don’t have much to do with Christmas but instead uses it to tell a tale of heartbreak. George Michael had a love one Christmas that he gave his heart to only for them to give it away the day after. Now faced with another Christmas, Michael won’t make this mistake again vowing to give his heart to someone special. But Michael is still having some lingering passion for this person, “Once bitten and twice shy/I keep my distance/But you still catch my eye.” The arrival of Christmas gives Michael unresolved feelings about his ex.

Right away, there’s a lot that I don’t get here. So Michael’s love interest gave away his heart the day after Christmas. Wouldn’t that person want to give it back if they didn’t want him the day after? And how does Michael give his heart to someone else if his love interest already gave away his heart last year? And is he just picking someone special specifically for Christmas? From the tone of his voice, it sounds like Michael is doing this just to get back at his ex for doing him wrong the year before. I know I’m probably being too literal in my interpretation but there’s a lot of questions I have here.

To give George Michael credit, he does do his best to sell the song singing in a breathy vocal style that conveys the bitterness and heartbreak of the lyrics. Towards the end, he lets it all out by singing in soulful vocal runs. Supposedly, it represents the pain he still feels. I don’t know if Michael wrote it about a real relationship but he sounds believable here in his delivery.

Musically, “Last Christmas” doesn’t sound very Christmasy. The production is extremely ‘80s synth-pop built around a hard smacking drum machine, shiny synths, as well as sleigh bells and bell-like chimes to add a Christmas flavor. As with most of Wham!’s hits, it’s essentially all George Michael as he wrote, produced, and played every instrument on the song including a Linn 9000 drum machine, a Roland Juno-60 synthesizer, and sleigh bells. It’s the type of production that while dated does its best to insert itself into your brain with a chorus that anyone who works in retail probably has memorized by heart. It’s also a bit cheerful for a song about being upset at your lover betraying you after Christmas.

A lot of people seem to really like “Last Christmas.” I’m not one of those people. It’s not the overplay that kills it for me though it certainly is a factor as with most Christmas songs but the fact that it’s a song that can get boring after a while. I hear this song and it just doesn’t do much for me. I can certainly appreciate the craft, the different subject matter for a Christmas song, and that Michael did the song all himself but as a Christmas song it’s not high on my list. All I’m saying is that Wham! and George Michael have done better than this. 

The music video, directed by Andy Morahan, was shot in Switzerland showing Michael and Ridgely with their girlfriends meeting friends at a ski resort. (Michael was gay by this point but wasn’t publicly open about it yet.) One of those friends in the video is Matin Kemp, bassist for the British band Spandau Ballet. (Spandau Ballet’s highest-charting single, 1983’s “True,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.) Throughout, we see everyone setting up for Christmas as Michael is seen pining for Ridgely’s girlfriend before eventually getting together as Michael shows her a piece of jewelry and fooling around in the snow. Everyone leaves at the end where we see Michael with his girlfriend and Ridgely with his girlfriend in the same way we saw them at the beginning suggesting the video represents the last Christmas where Michael’s girlfriend left him for Ridgely. Awkward! 

When Wham! released “Last Christmas,” around Christmas 1984 it was good timing to be a hit. By late 1984, the duo had quickly become one of the biggest acts in the world. They were already instant hitmakers in their native UK a year earlier but had broken through in the US with the catchy retro cheese “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” being their first #1 hit. “Last Christmas” was released in the UK as a double-A side with the icy dance-pop jam “Everything She Wants” as its B-side. Charting together, “Last Christmas” b/w “Everything She Wants” got stuck at #2 on the UK Charts behind the Band-Aid charity smash “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” a song Michael himself participated on. (In the US, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” peaked at #13.) Like the Band Aid song, funds from Wham!’s single were given to Ethiopian famine relief efforts. Wham!’s single has sold so much over the years that right now it’s the biggest-selling non #1 hit in UK history.

Across the Atlantic, “Last Christmas” wasn’t given much of a push here. This was understandable considering Billboard’s hard exclusionary stance on Christmas songs and how prior Christmas songs had underperformed on the Hot 100 up to that point. Instead, “Everything She Wants” was released as the A-side becoming Wham!’s third and final #1 hit in May 1985. “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a single in America and thus didn’t chart as Hot 100 rules at the time stated. But the recent rise of streaming has allowed “Last Christmas” to chart first appearing on the Hot 100 during the 2016 season just after George Michael’s sudden death on Christmas Day that year. 

Every year since it has grown on the charts peaking at #11 last season. This year, it has a good opportunity to get into the Top 10 for the first time in the 36 years since its release. As long as people have someone special to give their hearts to around Christmas then “Last Christmas” will continue to be around.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jimmy Eat World’s alt-rock take on “Last Christmas” they released in 2001:

(Jimmy Eat World’s highest-charting single, 2001’s “The Middle,” peaked at #5. It’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Cascada released a cheesed out Europop cover of “Last Christmas” in 2007. Here’s the video for their version:

(Cascada’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “Everytime We Touch,” peaked at #10. It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the pop-country version of “Last Christmas” Taylor Swift released in 2007 on the EP The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection:

(Taylor Swift has already appeared once in the Ones of the ‘10s and she’ll be in it again.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bouncier version of “Last Christmas” Ariana Grande released in 2013 complete with new lyrics:

(Grande’s version of “Last Christmas” peaked at #96. Ariana Grande will eventually appear in the Ones of the ‘10s.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the 2019 film Last Christmas, a movie based on George Michael’s music, Emilia Clark sings “Last Christmas” during the concert scene with Andrew Ridgely making an appearance. Here’s that video: