It Was 30 Years Ago Today: the dark, twisted genius of Eurythmics’ Savage

I remember where I was when I read that Eurythmics were preceding their new album, Savage, with a single entitled Beethoven (I Love To Listen To). I was flicking through Record Mirror at the Bletchley branch of WHSmith newsagents. “What a clumsily worded, silly title for a song”, I thought. It gets better though.

Coming just a few months after the previous 45, Missionary Man, and the tail end of the duo’s Revenge album, I was expecting Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox to continue travelling along the same middle of the road they’d been journeying down the past couple of years. In other words, more of the same conditioned soft rock  Stax and soul (cf Would I Lie To You?, There Must Be An Angel, Thorn In My Side) that won them new audiences around the globe but blunted that iceberg-like electronic, experimental edge they’d displayed on their first four albums.

WH Smith in Bletchley’s Brunel Centre. Isn’t it lovely?

And how magnificent that quartet of long players had been. After a slow start, Eurythmics broke big in 1983 with Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) giving them their first hit single and album. If In The Garden, D&A’s Conny Plank-helmed debut, sounds like they were testing the water that’s because they were. Sweet Dreams and Touch (also ’83) are where the story really takes shape. And what timing. 1983 was the year of the second British Invasion in the American Billboard charts, spearheaded by Duran Duran, Wham! and, most importantly in this context, Culture Club led by the gender-bending boy-girl-rag-doll, Boy George.

Annie Lennox came over like the slinky secret lovechild of Grace Jones and Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust alter-ego; an androgynous feline chameleon in a men’s business suit and shorn shock of a bright orange buzz-cut, singing and looking like she’d been beamed down from Mars. Then there was the blend-into-the-background professor persona of glacial production mastermind Dave Stewart; cold, tired fingers tapping out the future with Teutonic precision.

Nearly four decades later, the daring Love Is A Stranger, with its daring, insistent Roland 606 beat, sounds as fresh and provocative as ever. Could this “pervy synth duo” (copyright, future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, writing in Smash Hits) – tempting you to jump into that open car and perform unspeakable acts on the leather seatswith that bewigged ‘lady’ of the night – really have risen from the ashes of the critically-derided Tourists? The same flouncy Sixties pastichists known for covering Dusty Springfield songs to get a hit? Oh yes. And how.

The first Eurythmics record I bought was the 12” single of Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four), a stuttering sample-heavy trailer for the mainly instrumental album 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother). Due to it’s designation as a soundtrack, and on Virgin rather than their usual label, RCA, the album has never formed part of any reissue series, despite Dave Stewart claiming its “extended weirdness” makes it one of his personal favourites. 1984 more than deserves its place as the great lost gem of the Eurythmics catalogue.

Fittingly, I purloined my slice of Sexcrime from Virgin (the record shop) in Central Milton Keynes at the tail end of ’84. Virgin was very much MK’s music mecca, until Richard Branson sold out to the generic, soulless Our Price. Having said that, I asked the assistant if I could try before I buy: I wanted to listen to the extended version, as I was steadfastly refusing to play this newfangled remix game if they deviated too much from the original track. How times did change.

I bought Savage at the same emporium, though by 1987 my next door neighbour was happily behind the counter and managed to wangle me a tidy discount. Oh, and I’m more than happy to admit I was completely wrong about Beethoven, Savage’s first single. There was I, newly adult and newly enamoured by a much more current, if less pervy synth duo, and it’s a fair assumption that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, by now in the Pet Shop Boys’ imperial phase, lamented that D’n’A beat them to the punch of matching up the Euro trills and thrills of arpeggiated Moroder-like synths with Gainsbourg-like string parts. So from Dave and Annie at that time I expected nothing more than some dreary orchestral ballad about how wonderful Ludwig Van was. Instead, Beethoven (I Love To Listen To) was the most unlikely first single it from platinum-selling act ever. Hell, it was the most unlikely first single by anyone. Period.

Beethoven came as something of a shock to just about everyone, myself gratefully included. Constructed from bruising drum loops, a shuddering synth line and stabbing strings, the verses saw Lennox inside a mind twisted by the confusion of a stifling relationship, adopting a cruel, teasing, cut-glass English accent (very 1950s RP on the BBC) and muse aloud semi-spoken lines like “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”.

Best of all, “I was dreaming like a Texan girl. A girl who thinks she’s got the right to everything. A girl who thinks she should have something extreme.” satirised the rich bitches and oil barons of television’s Texas soap, Dallas. Extreme incredulity was most certainly the reaction to Bobby Ewing’s shower shocker when it was discovered Pam had ‘dreamt’ her on-screen hubby’s death – and therefore the entire ’85/’86 season – rendering an entire bunch of episodes of the increasingly nonsensical TV drama meaningless. Beethoven is still is one of the duo’s most bizarre songs, and the deliciously disturbing promo – not so much a pop video as outré performance art – was a monstrously manic romp through a day in the life of terrifying “tranny Annie”, a schizophrenic, hallucinogenic housewife-turned Monroe-styled vamp trapped in a grisly home somewhere in the American midwest.

The sheer seething weirdness at work was perhaps best encapsulated by a showing of the video on a Saturday morning children’s show in Britain at the time (I think it as Going Live!). When the time came for the obligatory phone in, Annie asked young viewers to say what they thought the song was about. Given that experts on art and feminism like Camille Paglia would have had trouble deciphering its soup of rage, theatricality, suicide and labyrinthine sexual politics, the kids 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 Savage proved that it wasn’t. Released 30 years ago today, 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’s dark, and I like the sharpness of its blade,” Lennox said of the album upon its release, in a rare case of an artist truly understanding what makes their work special.

Certainly the most underrated work in the Annie & Dave discography, Savage was their only disque wholly recorded in France, during a particularly strained point in their working relationship. For the first time, Stewart recorded the music – with drummer Olle Romo at the cavernous Château Dangu in Eure, Normandy – and forwarded the tapes to Lennox to craft the lyrics in Paris. The singer was battling depression, as is evidenced by the bleak, twisted cynicism of the words.

The unfussy production is marked by economical and clattering Synclavier-dominated mix, heavy on the bass drum and patterns-a-plenty, that sounded as if Dave Stewart had spent the previous year subsisting on a diet of the Art Of Noise records. Annie responded with some of her most daring wordplay to date, casting herself in a brazenly and alluringly sexual light. The album’s centrepiece is the biting balladry of the title track, cut through with an air of danger via Stewart’s treated guitar stabs and the breathy croon that Lennox employs.

She sounds exhausted here, all the better to capture the ‘over it’ sensibility of the embittered character she’s portraying in the song. She’s like a Norma Desmond-style fading ’50s movie star, taking her regular seat at the end of a bar, drinking from the usual cocktail of spite and bile, spouting lines to a handsome bloke nearby through a cloud of cigarette smoke. She’s well aware that she could easily seduce him, but she’s not sure if it’s worth the trouble. Lennox’s characterisations are often chilling, bursting with bruised passivity. Especially as she chirps the title line of the sweetly acidic Do You Want To Break-Up? with all the innocence of a love-struck teen asking someone to go steady, while Stewart plays appropriately light, spare hypnotic pop.

Shame, the album’s second single, is as eminently beautiful as anything the band ever created, moving gracefully from chiming bells through crystalline vocals to a swooning coda. Lyrically, however, Lennox is on furious form, denouncing all popular culture and its cheap, anaesthetising effect. She declares “shame – on the TV and the media”, blasting even those sacred cows “The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.” It sounds years ahead of its time in its sweeping contempt for cheap, debasing fame and the vacuous celebrity culture that goes with it: “Everybody wants it but it don’t exist”.

I Need a Man, the third single, sees Annie as a female Mick Jagger, all steely resolve, drawling cock-tease lines over Dave’s Keith Richard-like guitar. On the unbelievably raw I Need You, she becomes an acoustic singer-songwriter longing for emotional abuse: ”I need someone to pin me down so I can live in torment”. The stripped down 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 ecstasy I’m faking.” Even PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me, perhaps the most extreme and honest album on female sexual distress ever made, might have flinched from these words.

Being bold and bleak, the duo’s seventh album naturally flopped, entering at No.7, appropriately enough, then plummeting down the charts at an alarming pace. It yielded just one proper hit – the icily brilliant You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart, featuring one of Lennox’s most magnificent vocals – but it has earned its place alongside records like Kate Bush’s The Dreaming or Prince’s Around The World In A Day as relative commercial failures but total creative triumphs.

The album did however leave one more unique and eccentric artefact behind it: the Savage “video album” VHS and laserdisc from 1988. In Sophie Muller, Lennox had found a visual collaborator almost as fruitful as Dave Stewart was as a musical partner. The creativity they unleashed between them was far too abundant to be confined to one video and instead they developed a mini melodrama for every song. What could easily have been a folly, a monument to eighties excess, is in fact a masterpiece in its own right, a series of roleplays and melodramas which perfectly complement the music, from the hilarious Julie-Andrews-on-LSD-romp of Do You Want To Break Up? to the stained, sullied slo-mo of the title track.

Three decades later and there’s still no sign of the film ever being made available in more contemporary formats by RCA, BMG, Sony or whatever they want to call themselves. Dave Stewart: “I know. So many people complain about that on the Eurythmics Facebook page. It’s all to do with the not caring, or understanding of the record label. We made video albums like We Too Are One, Savage… yeah, should be on blu-ray, should be on Netflix. It should be wherever you want it to be. They could be making income from it. I don’t know. They don’t care, really. Weird.”

Wired on the 4th of July

As an album, Savage is a series of unsettling, sometimes harrowing portraits that represented an astoundingly abrupt shift in the strange sonic tapestry of Eurythmics. Never again were they this electronic, this disturbing and this sharp-witted. Go listen to some early Moloko (oh, you know, I Can’t Help Myself) or Goldfrapp and the presence of D&A in their DNA is undeniable.

“Savage” is still out there, 30 years later, lurking on the sidelines of 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 Britain’s greatest, most under-rated and most misunderstood groups.

Steve Pafford, France, 9 November 2017

Annie Lennox: An Evening of Music and Conversation is at London’s Sadlers Wells on March 4, 2018