Stroud Green Road is one of London’s more depressing thoroughfares. Noisy, dirty and deprived, it looks as if the buildings which line this lead-perfumed thruway have actually shrunk in size out of sheer self-loathing. There’s one thing very green and pleasant about it, however: it houses the most remarkably exotic bazaar of vegetables you could conjure up.
Schiaparelli pink watermelons lie split and staring up at you alongside pumpkins, banana chips, plaintain, guavas, melons, sugar cane stalks, mangoes, aubergine, sweet red bells, spicy chillis in waxy green and gold, hairy-skinned okra and rosy English apples. Gigantic yams tower over fresh bunches of bay, overspills of parsley, piles of Kentish cobnuts.
In the smalltime groceries which line this London street, there’s perfect ethnic variety and harmony – right out in front. The sheer suggestiveness of all this bounty has to put a little spring in your step. But me, I’m already humming.
In the sprawling stone church I left behind a half-mile back, I heard a golden slab of calypso whose glorious carnival authority could make this nation of vegetables RIOT right out on the tarmac.
Like the produce, that raw slice of sound has yet to be carved and steamed into perfectly digestible submission. But its sheer Mardi Gras rebop had grabbed me completely by surprise – not least because of the exultant strength with which its Voice crunched into the lyrics.
“That’s probably one of the first genuinely happy tracks we’ve ever recorded,” says Annie Lennox, running a hand through her crew-cut-which looks like the violent orange scribble of a child’s crayon drawing.
“It’s so simple that the words might almost be trite, but I feel that; I feel just like lifting up those lyrics. The real meaning of that song for me is even simpler – it’s that happiness really does exist as a possibility. That it can feel every bit as real as the moat frightening depths of depression.”
We’re sharing a black leather chair inside the stone church Eurythmics have rented for the next 21 years from eccentric puppeteers Bura and Hardwicke, of Pinky and Perky fame. The property was mainly Dave Stewart’s project at a time when he was managing his and Annie’s two year old operation by himself.
After a double divorce-from both longtime management company Arnakata and from longer years of living together as a couple – both Dave and Annie were barely above the “depths of depression”.
“We really had nothin’ going,” Dave now says. “Eurythmics weren’t selling any records to speak of; the Tourists were long split up; and then me and Annie split. Yet we were still going around with the same hopes which had always been in our minds. There was never a point at which we thought, ‘There’s no way, we’ll never be able to be a group now.’ Believe me, though, everyone thought we were NUTS. People all said. ‘Listen, this is unhinged, you’re too far out there, you’re not gonna pull anything off.’ Especially when we told them we were making our next album on an eight-track in a warehouse.”
To complete that album – Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) – Dave and Annie had to break completely with their management company, a move which left them “not just broke but badly in debt”. Undeterred, Stewart soldiered on with business.
“I started doin’ stuff like ringin’ up Michael Appleton myself, to tell him what we were doing. And I became so entrenched in this business stuff that I was almost becoming part of it. I’d even wear certain clothes, pick ’em out when I went to the bank to arrange loans to buy the recording equipment. And all the time I was still writing, arranging and producing with Annie.”
Dave and I sit upstairs in the converted church, chatting in that modest and homey 24-track studio which materialised out of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. And how sweet they are!
Even as we speak, the shop next door is framing a Rolling Stone cover where Annie’s head virtually obliterates the logo. Inside the mag, a lavish history lauds the duo’s conquest of the US Top 20 – and the No.1 status of the album’s title song. A Cashbox cover is already framed; the trade publication’s testament to “man and woman, soul and synth… the perfect balance for the modern world”.
But the LP which launched these lofty plaudits (plus a thousand comparisons to Grace Jones and David Bowie) turns out to have been made in Chalk Farm, over a picture-frame factory.
“They had a machine,” Dave tells me, “that a guy would operate with his foot, like BLAM!” (He slams his Italian-sandalled foot against the heavy carpeting).”Only he would do it at unpredictable intervals, so we couldn’t stop the sound getting on the tape with Annie’s vocals. Eventually, we had to wait till six to start every day. But that was OK, because this great empty warehouse was really spooky, and it had fantastic echo.”
Dave shakes his head. “People think that album is so high tech. But we couldn’t even afford a claptrap – the classic disco thing, you know, that goes ckkk-ckkk-ckkk! It’s just me and Annie, banging on the wall with a handful of picture-frames! If we’d had the money,” he continues, “of course we would have used a claptrap. But not having it made us a lot more inventive.
“That was basically Conny and Holger’s influence,” he says, alluding to longtime kindred spirits Conny Plank (original Tourists sponsor) and Holger Czukay, honorary Eurythmic. “Cause they’d always say, ‘If there’s no fun involved, if you just press a button and THAT does that, then you tend to just say, oh, we’ll use that button to do that and this one to do this..’ And your music just goes further and further away from you.”
Sweet Dreams contains other unorthodox sound effects: the expulsions of breath which punctuate ‘Love Is A Stranger’, for instance.
“Do you know Tilley’s Cafe in Camden?” asks Dave.
Sure, I say. The one with the cheap pies and the gigantic helpings and the great Stax records; the one that nice guy George runs for his Mum.
“Well, that’s George on ‘Love Is A Stranger’ going ‘ha HA HAH’ into the mike.
“We were always there eating, see, and George would say, ‘What are you two up to?’ ‘Cause of course he’d never heard of us. So we said, ‘Ah, we’re makin’ a record, it’s right up the road in this warehouse… why not come along. You can join in.’
“He said he wouldn’t mind having a look but he kept saying he couldn’t play anything. So we gave him this mike and said, ‘Look, just go HAH on the first beat of every bar…’, but he didn’t get which was the first beat for a while. Then, because we had an effect on it and he could hear how it sounded – he really started gettin’ into it!” Dave laughs. “I think that’s why he put our picture up in the restaurant.”
The Camden workplace hosted other sorts of visitors, too. At one point, participating flautist Tim Wheater invited his former teacher James Galway to drop in.
“I remember him sittin’ there,” says Dave, “while we were playing this really weird thing called ‘Armadillo’ where Annie sings like… Arabian. And Tim’s playing the flute with an onion skin so it sounds like a snake-charmer, and I had my suspended double-neck guitar. All of this is blaring through big speakers and James Galway just sits there between his manager and this other guy – caught in this absolutely mad avant/pop noise and Annie in this black wig wailing away. I mean, we were enthusiastic but we sort of related James Galway to Stars On Sunday – and then he really liked it!”
“Annie reckoned it was the most nerve-wrackin’ experience of her life, though. ‘Cause when you’ve got thousands of people watching it’s one thing, but someone who’s also a master of the instrument you love – well, that’s something else.”
The week before Galway’s visit, Eurythmics had spent a day jamming with Rico and his mates on ‘I’ve Got An Angel’. Though the tapes were never used in the final edit, Dave says it was another great experience.
“He knew it would be a drum computer but it wasn’t normal because I had it going through a space echo… so though he started out sceptical, after he had a little smoke and that he really start getting into it.
“In a way it sort of adds up our whole experience: Rico one week, James Galway the next. We’ve worked with amazing people all along. Like, the voice on ‘Esta Es La Casa’ is Tim Wheater’s girlfriend, this secretary who is South American. We liked that because it sounds pre-recorded… like the news or something. But the laugh is natural – she’d never done it, never had cans on or anything so she just cracked up.”
It’s this combination of disciplined musicianship with spontaneity and humour that has always attracted such diverse musicians and producers – DAF’s Robert Go, Can’s Jacki Liebezeit, Blondie’s Clem Burke, Scritti’s Green, Conny Plank, Holger Czukay, Chris and Cosey, the Blockheads’ Mickey Gallagher, Gang Of Four’s’ Eddi Reader, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s son Marcus and Tim Wheater, not to mention an assortment of gospel singers – to Dave and Annie, ever since their earliest days in the Tourists.
But the press have consistently portrayed them as defensive; as artists who had to make a case for working at all.
Having interviewed them at various intervals since 1977, when I first met Ann, I often wondered why a pair with such obvious intelligence and enjoyment of life as well as music should suffer such regular dismissal in print. I didn’t mean their music – that has taken its time finding an equilibrium appropriate to the combination of their separate personalities.
It was the loaded resistance to what Dave and Annie themselves personified – resilient, imaginative, genuinely unconventional – which I found disquieting in interviews and profiles. The most pleasant part of seeing them again is finding out that not only has mass success left them unchanged as people, but that the settled prospects of their own company (D&A Ltd) and its homey new premises have provided Annie, in particular, with a more relaxed perspective.
“To be honest with you,” she says, “it’s only beginning to hit us now that we’re making an album – we’ve come straight off the road, we haven’t been living so-called normal lives in nine months. Well,” she smiles, “you could make that six years, really. And what’s funny is that all this new stuff has just emerged, and emerged being what it is… very up and strong, and – very positive.”
It completely surprised me by what a step forward it already sounds from Sweet Dreams. Annie tucks her legs up into the chair.
“Well, Sweet Dreams represented what was available to us physically and how our minds were working at the time – and that’s enough for me. Och! You know, I’ve now seen so many people be so defensive about their work …just as I used to be, because you’re so afraid of being misconstrued. And you’re misconstrued from the word go! It’s paranoia that makes you try to explain everything so very carefully; God, did I go through that!
“Ironically,” she continues, “I became a pop star before, musically, I was ready for it. With the Tourists we just fell into this thing and, personality wise, the group was still at odds with themselves and how they wanted to be represented both musically and visually. So the result was… something which wasn’t quite sure of itself and wasn’t able to attain anything really clear.
“On In The Garden., we were still unhappy with the direction; our management company was really restricting us. And I was already labelled as something which was basically worthless. Disposable, you know? A ‘personality’; a something which had no credibility.”
Annie also had a breakdown.
“It just shocked my system. It was a struggle to say, Wait! I do think I have credibility: I do think my ideas are far-reaching. So I’ll just have to use them to make music that people can identify with but which does reflect my ideas about life.”
Annie rests her head on pale hands.
“It’s like – there is only one Roxy Music, there is only one David Bowie, one Smokey Robinson. When people reach the peak of their musical achievement they’ve defined their own territory, they typify themselves. Really great groups find out what really represents them and then bring it to a peak. And what I’m talking about is a something that you can only find out for yourself, if you see what I mean.
“I get these stupid questions now like, ‘What does success mean to you?’ And I just say one thing – there’s one key word: it’s success on my terms. I’m happy with something now. Because I may be in this for different reasons than other people.
“I’ve never been all that enamoured about seeing my name in lights or whatever, I honestly have never really seen myself as a pop star. That’s something I’m coming to terms with now because, in actuality, I am one now. But there’s an awful lot of people start from that premise; that’s their ambition.”
Earlier Dave and I listened to snatches of the album in progress. And, even on rough mixes of tracks like ‘Regrets’, ‘Paint A Rumour’, ‘Broken Hearts’ or ‘Blue’, I’ve been delighted by the 3-D danceability and ecstatic insistency of what I’m.
On ‘Regrets’, Annie’s positively breathtaking voice floods the room, providing main vocals plus tri-gospel be-bop backing. Dave steals a look at my beaming face.
“Sort of an electronic Staples Singers, eh?” In one break, there’s the sound of water pouring into a tumbler amped up a zillion times into the body of the beat. I have to laugh.
It’s not so far from the Camden warehouse after all.
Downstairs again, Anton Corbijn is crouched in a corner firing off pictures of Annie as she lies sprawled along the length of a black leather couch. She’s pulled down a zip-up red sweatshirt to bare her shoulders and she’s wearing a bright, bouffant orange wig. Dave tells me that Phyliss of Yorktown Wigs, New York (The B-52’s wig woman) has sent it over specially; in America, Eurythmics’ interests are looked after by B’s manager Gary Kurfirst.
Below the gleamin’ coiff, Ann’s wearing baggy Capri-length jeans and red low-heeled pumps – she looks like a red-headed Natalie Wood.
Dave and I retreat to the kitchen with Dick Cuthell, who’s arrived to add trumpet and percussion on various tracks. Cuthell’s still jetlagged from a recent jaunt overseas with Madness; Dave makes everyone tea on an ancient cooker which came along with the church. He’s telling Dick how ironic it is to be taken as a state-of-the-art synth operation.
“The other day I bought the International Musician Yearbook of all the synthesisers and products on the market. I had this train journey, so I thought, Ah, I’ll read about all these new things. And I opened it up and – the foreword was by ME! I’d written the foreword! And completely forgotten it…
“But it was really funny ’cause it was all SO high tech and from my little introduction you could tell that I knew nothing, really, about how things work … I mean, I know the exact process you go through with a computer to get a result, but if somebody put me on the spot to explain all those technical terms, I’d be hopeless. And it looked like they’d picked me because I knew all about the stuff – like a synthesiser whizzkid or something. Ha!”
With similar reason, Dave and Annie declined to participate in the 1983 New Music Convention.
Dave groans, “Oh, immediately you call anything ‘New Music’ with that slant you make yourself look ridiculous. I mean. Captain Beefheart and Sun Ra have been making real new music for decades!
“Besides, we knew we’d get lumped on some panel with like Ultravox and all those people. And really we’re nothing like that – we come from all sorts of areas. It’s just that we made one album which happened to be right on that pulse. OK, we used drum computers and synthesisers, but we were also usin’ Mickey Mouse toy pianos, slide guitar, and real blues and soul elements.
“It’s funny, you know, because throughout music composers have put work together from what was available… what was invented, in fact. I remember Conny once tellin’ me that much more weird than any sort of composition was when they first introduced brass; that people literally ran screaming out of theatres because it was like distortion to them. They considered it horrific and shocking, as if it were some sort of punk movement.
“Well,” says Dave, sipping his tea, “when you first hear a section, it is a very sort of RUDE sound, you know.”
Annie appears tucking her wig in a pocket and claiming her tea; we retreat back into the office. This time we chat – as Dave and I did earlier – about the Tourists. In particular, I mention a certain very English spirit which has still continued to filter into the different dynamic of Eurythmics’ much more successful work.
“I don’t own one Tourists record,” says Annie. “You know, I never did; we just wrote those songs and played them. But the other night we were in this restaurant and an old Tourists song came on. And when I heard this particular one, it struck me as quite advanced.
“I mean, it wasn’t the realisation of my musical ideas – but it wasn’t rubbish, it wasn’t stupid, it was something I ought to have been able to be proud of. Yet I hadn’t – it was something I’d been hurt by and confused about. And now, I just feel it was a damn disgrace… that someone who wrote as much as Peet (Coombes, the original co-founder and writer in the Tourists) just got nothing in the end. Not that he’d give a toss, it’s just that… I find it very odd. The music press believed so completely in their original damnation of us.
“But then,” she settles back, “that was also the context of the time – there was so much inverse snobbery going on. And people really are like sheep. They followed that punk thing SO religiously and now all the old punks surface in the guise of Latin lovers. They all want to seduce beautiful women on videotape! It’ll always be that way with pop music – because it exploits people’s insecurities. Whether it’s the insecure kid on the street or the insecure critic or the insecure singer who needs an identity.
“Once you have a hit, you know, “says Annie, “everything you do is taken to have a motive – people can’t conceive you don’t do EVERYTHING to have another hit. And a sense of humour doesn’t count as a motive! We found that out with ‘Who’s That Girl’.”
But it doesn’t seem to be getting you down – the fact that you’ve gone from the popsy Annie Lennox cliché to the is-she-a-man cliché. The new vocals I heard simply transcend gender; but you also seem personally much more relaxed, about everything.
“Well, I’m feeling very positive at the moment,” says Ann. “Yet… people have seen a lot of high profile in me, but they really don’t know what kind of person I am. For years, I’ve been a bad manic-depressive, but people don’t see that in me so much because I can only do what I do when I’m feeling pretty up. If I’m down, I’m under the bedclothes, I can’t see anybody – I just don’t emerge.
“And I lived like that for years, sort of verging on suicide. I certainly don’t mean I’d ever do away with myself, but it’s as if I did toy with the idea for a long time. And now, I feel I’m coming out of it.
“But I say that – I’m talking to you about it at all – because one knows how vulnerable one is, how vulnerable everyone is. And I’m sure there are millions of people like me, who’ve been down so much that – well, that anyone who reads this and who is struggling with it and can’t understand it, will know what I’m talking about.
“No matter how much you want to get out of that sort of thing, or how much help you get,” says Annie, “it’s a very hard thing to crack. And, in the end, it has to come entirely from within yourself.”
She uncurls to lean forward. “But, although these bad experiences can be horrific, with a bit of luck and a LOT of grit, you can also turn them into something creative. I do believe in self-improvement and I don’t think one is always a victim, not at all.
“All I’m saying about music is this: here’s pop today, millions of different people doing their thing whether they’re motivated by money, glory, art, politics, or pulling new girlfriends. And in the maelstrom of all that, occasionally somebody makes something which really touches you, it moves you.
“It really lifts you up – it seems so personal. Or, it just makes you want to dance. And actually, no matter how sick the industry or how ugly the hard sell, that whole sprawling marketplace is still something which represents a freedom of spirit.” Annie shakes her head. “I really don’t think there’s anything that quite compares with it; it fascinates me.”
Annie’s wig is back in the front office, curled like a placid, exotic cat on top of the ‘Out’ tray. Annie and producer Dave and Dick are back upstairs, adding the brass to ‘Regrets’… waiting for bassist Dean Garcia and Michael Kayman. Kayman worked with Sam and Dave and he’s going to arrange strings for this LP because he liked Annie and Dave’s ‘Wrap It Up’.
Downstairs, there’s a bluster of chain sawing, as workmen fit the sprung floor Dave bought from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; a friend named Sandra is going to give dance classes on it and it will see some gospel singing too.
On my way out, I find the sample Eurythmics Fan Club card Dave showed me on the floor and I inspect it once again. Annie designed it: a neat grey card with D&A engraved on the cover. Inside are goofy, school kid pictures of Dave and Annie. In the middle is an empty square – that will belong to whoever wants to join in.
Sweet, I think, are the dreams which are made of this.
© Cynthia Rose, 1983