This is an exclusive piece written for us by Jaime Gill. A slightly different, extended version of the blog appears at the www.poplifer.com blog alongside explorations of other pop culture giants from Pet Shop Boys to The Smiths”.
TAKE A GIRL LIKE THAT – CELEBRATING EURYTHMICS’ “SAVAGE” 25 YEARS ON
There was a deep duality to the eighties. On the one hand, there was the popular image of the decade: all day go glo pop, gender benders, hairspray abuse and infuriatingly catchy, overproduced chart fodder like “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me”. At the same time, never has the mainstream been more heavily infiltrated by oddball, subversive synth pop, with bands like Human League and Soft Cell, intent on breaking pop out of its four-man, guitar-bound straitjacket. When David Bowie went to number one in August 1980 with the askew, astounding synth-driven “Ashes To Ashes” he sealed this new movement with rock royal approval.
One band captured the duality of the eighties better than any other. For some, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart’s Eurythmics are most fondly remembered for their one and only number one, the infuriatingly catchy, extravagant sugar rush of “There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)”. Others may remember solemn AOR balladry like “The Miracle Of Love” or bombastic anthems like “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves”. This was the globe-straddling Eurythmics, the ones adored from Texas to Tokyo, wolfing down revered collaborators like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin for breakfast.
But that’s not where the Eurythmics began. Their debut, “In The Garden”, was a deeply odd, adventurous record, and although their breakthrough – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” – delivered monster hits, what strange and bleak hits they were. This period also enshrined Annie Lennox, sharp-suited and flame-cropped, into an icon of androgyny and oddity to rival the newly famous Boy George.
The duo’s third album, “Touch”, continued to explore dark, minimal electronica but also detoured into glossy chart pop with “Right By Your Side”, an aspect of the band that slowly gained primacy in the next few years, culminating in the overblown AOR that bloated 1986’s “Revenge”. The band continued to sell vast numbers of records across the world and were one of the world’s most reliable stadium-fillers, but their days as a sonically experimental, emotionally fierce pop band seemed to belong in the past.
Well. Along comes the girl…
For U2 fans seduced by upbeat anthems like “When Tomorrow Comes” or catchy-chorused FM rock like “Thorn In My Side”, the release of “Beethoven (I Love To Listen To)” must have come as something of a shock. Christ, for people who had spent their entire lives listening to Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees and early Cure records, “Beethoven” must have come as a shock. Constructed from bruising drum loops and a shuddering synth line, the verses saw Lennox adopt a cruel, teasing, cut-glass English accent and muse aloud “Did I tell you I was lying by the way, when I said I wanted a new mink coat?/ I was just thinking about something sleek to wrap around my tender throat”.
“Beethoven” was promoted with an extraordinary video by the then-barely-known Sophie Muller. Not so much a pop video as performance art, it stars Lennox as a furious, frustrated housewife trapped in a grisly American Mid-West Home, knitting with red-eyed fury, before marching into domestic war with a psychotic little girl and a sinister transvestite, before finally morphing into a glittering, terrifying vamp, wrapped in a shimmering gown and a Marilyn Monroe mane of bright blonde hair. The spectre of Guy Bourdin, the unsettling seventies fashion photographer, hovered over it all, and helped create one of the strangest and most emotionally disturbing concoctions ever released by a hugely famous pop act.
The visual creativity sparking between Lennox and Muller at this point was too abundant to be confined to a single video, and the album was twinned with a video album, a fully realised video twinned with each song. This gorgeous artifact yielded some of the most intriguing moments in the whole of the Eurythmics canon, from the acidically hilarious Julie-Andrews-psychotic-breakdown backing for “Do You Want To Break Up?” to the slow-motion distress of the title track’s imagery.
The sheer weirdness at work was best encapsulated by a showing of the “Beethoven” video on a UK Saturday morning children’s show of the time. When the time came for the obligatory phone in, Lennox asked young viewers to say what they thought the song was about. Given that experts on feminism and sexuality like Camille Paglia would have had trouble deciphering its soup of rage, theatricality, suicide and ugly sexual politics, the children were understandably at a loss. “The lady seems a bit angry,” one child managed – getting right to the bruised heart of the matter.
Of course, “Beethoven” could have been a red herring, an anomaly in an already peculiar career. But the subsequent release of the album “Savage” proved that it wasn’t. Released 25 years ago this month, “Savage” the album was almost as peculiar and avant garde as its lead single, and every bit as enthralling. It isn’t just Eurythmics’ masterpiece, it’s one of the greatest records ever made. It flopped of course, yielding just one proper hit – the icily brilliant “You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart”, showcasing one of Lennox’s most magnificent vocals – but earnt its place alongside records like Kate Bush’s “The Dreaming” or Suede’s “Dog Man Star” as relative commercial failures but total creative triumphs. (Note – we are far from the only people to recognise the album’s dark, twisted genius – go to Ultimate Eurythmics for an extraordinary array of reviews, perspectives and art celebrating the album’s 25th anniversary).
There is a darkness that swirls around “Savage”, even when the music itself shines. “Shame”, the album’s second single, is as musically beautiful as anything the band ever created, moving gracefully through chiming synthlines and crystalline vocals to a swooning coda. Lyrically, however, Lennox is on furious form, denouncing all popular culture and its cheap, anaesthetising effect. She pronounces “shame – on the TV and the media”, blasting even those sacred cows “The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.”
Similarly slippery is the bass-driven, feathery “Heaven”, where Lennox’s Monroe-esque coos and sighs disturb as much as reassure, or the brilliantly funny “Do You Want To Break Up?”, which moves from crushed verses into a chorus of acidic, mocking chirpiness. In one masterstroke it seems to satirise all pop and how it alchemises the emotional distress of heartbreak into cheap chart catchiness.
These moments of sonic sunniness – however insincere – are an essential counterpoint to the more directly bleak moments. The title track moves with the slow, sighing inevitability of clinical depression, painting a picture of a jaded, embittered woman – “all cynic to the bone”. Emotional abuse is the subtext to most of these songs, and it flowers fully in the unbelievably raw “I Need You”. The stripped down acoustic backing and naked vocal only highlight the dead-eyed masochism of the lyrics: “I need you to really feel the twist of my back breaking/ I need someone to listen to the ecstacy I’m faking.” Even PJ Harvey’s “Rid Of Me”, perhaps the most extreme album on female sexual distress ever made, might have flinched from these words.
The duo themselves certainly flinched or – if you prefer – moved on. Their next album, 1989’s “We Too Are One”, returned Eurythmics to the rockier, poppier territory of “Savage”’s predecessors, as well as the number one spot. Creatively, however, it found the band apparently running out of steam, although one song – the sublime “Don’t Ask Me Why” – drank from the same cocktail of spite and grief that fuelled “Savage”. Shortly after its release the band, split up, paving the way for Lennox’s solo career to go briefly supernova.
Neither Lennox nor Stewart would ever again release a record as strange, unsettling and consistently brilliant as “Savage”, and the album was soon forgotten by that clumsy, forgetful creature, the public imagination. On the band’s first “Greatest Hits” collection, one of the best selling of all time, “Savage” barely features, with only “You Have Placed A Chill” earning a place (it does earn three spots on the accompanying DVD however, paying just homage to the sheer visual flair of the whole enterprise.)
But “Savage”’s relative obscurity doesn’t matter. The album is still out there, 25 years later, lurking on the sidelines of mainstream pop, lipstick smeared over a sneering mouth. It is still waiting to surprise, seduce, distress and astound anyone who seeks it out. And it is still the most convincing argument for why Eurythmics are one of Britains’ greatest, most under-rated and most misunderstood bands.