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

I can remember where I was when I read that Eurythmics were preceding their brand new album, Savage, with a single called, bizarrely, Beethoven (I Love To Listen To). I was flicking through Record Mirror at the Bletchley branch of WHSmith newsagents: “What a clumsily worded, odd title for a song”, I thought. Even though I was a great admirer of the band’s work, when I read the little news nugget my expectations were not exactly high.

Coming just a few months after the previous 45, Missionary Man, at the tail end of the duo’s Revenge album, I was expecting Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox to continue travelling along that 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 and soul (cf There Must Be An Angel, Thorn In My Side and the Stax-lite Would I Lie To You?) 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 what a magnificent that quartet of long players they were. 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, the follow up from later the same year, 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 David BowieDuran Duran, Wham! and, most importantly in this context, Culture Club led by the gender-bending boy-girl-rag-doll, Boy George.

Smash Hits session, 1983: can someone tell the girl on the left to stop bloody pouting?

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 on keyboards and synths was the blend-into-the-background professor persona of her musical colleague and erstwhile love interest, the glacial production mastermind that is Dave Stewart. Cold, tired fingers tapping out the future with Teutonic precision.

Nearly four decades later, the daring Love Is A Stranger, with its impressively insistent Roland 606 beat, sounds as fresh and provocative as ever. Tempting you to jump into that open car and perform unspeakable acts on the leather seats with that bewigged ‘lady’ of the night, could this “pervy synth duo” (copyright, future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, writing in Smash Hits) 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 issued by 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. Hopefully one day that can be addressed as 1984 more than deserves its place as the great lost gem of the Eurythmics catalogue.

Fittingly, I purloined my slice of Sexcrime directly from a Virgin in Central Milton Keynes at the tail end of ’84. Virgin wasn’t just a label, it was the much cooler alternative record store to HMV, and very much MK’s music mecca in the Eighties, 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.

Released on November 9 1987, about three months after I bought my first compact disc player, I bought the Savage album on CD at the same emporium, and by then my next door neighbour was happily ensconced 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. I was newly adult and, I must confess, newly enamoured by a much more current, if less pervy synth duo, who go by the acronym PSB.

It’s a fair assumption that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, by now in the Pet Shop Boys’ imperial phase, lamented that by matching up the Euro trills and thrills of arpeggiated Moroder-like synths with Gainsbourg-like string parts, D’n’A had beaten them to the punch and were already on to less innovative, less electronic endeavours. So come 1987, when horrendous stadium rock was very much the mainstream order of the day (even David Bowie got in on the act, to his eternal embarrassment), I expected little more from Dave and Annie than some dreary orchestral ballad about how wonderful Ludwig Van was.

Instead, the paranoia electronica of Beethoven (I Love To Listen To) came as something of a shock to just about everyone. An extraordinarily bold and eccentric piece of work, it was just about the most unlikely first single from a top drawer platinum-selling act ever. Hell, it was the most unlikely first single by anyone. Period.

Constructed from pounding drum loops, a shuddering synth line and stabbing synthetic strings, the track captures the listener’s attention and imagination from the start, with a gradually building crescendo leading you to the curiously transposed lyrics of the title: “Listen to. I love to.” I literally couldn’t believe my ears the first time I heard it. What on earth was that? Helpfully, Lennox went on to discuss the nature of the lyrics in Record Mirror magazine the following year.

“The whole thing is very symbolic. That line ‘I love to listen to Beethoven’ was just something I wrote down one day, and for me it’s a symbol for when people feel bad they listen to classical music. They shut the windows, shut the door and listen to Wagner or something, and it’s symbolising feeling very bad. There is a meaning behind it for me: I feel very bad – I listen to Beethoven. The song itself is like going into this person’s head and seeing all these fractured thoughts and emotions and everything been torn apart. The song is about crisis, it’s cynical and nasty and it’s like an abstract painting. I always see songs in visual terms.”

A recently discovered early production cassette reveals the song title went through various permutations

While Beethoven’s chaotic chorus may have name-checked a celebrated German composer, the verses saw Annie inside a demented mind twisted by the confusion of a stifling relationship. She adopts a cruel, teasing, cut-glass English accent (very 1950s BBC RP) and muses 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”.

Most cutting 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.

The multiple layers of voice and sound are persistent and increase in complexity throughout the song. Dave puts down his favoured guitar to toy with a slightly demonic keyboard solo over the relentless, bruising beats. Towards the end, Lennox’s fake, breathy laugh is sampled over dramatic synth power chords, which are warped backwards to produce a chilly and uneasy impression.

Beethoven is still is one of the duo’s most bizarre, most bonkers tracks (“I’m not sure how much of a song it is,” Annie said later on, somewhat dismissively) but somehow the deliciously disturbing promo film managed to go one better: a five and a half minute intrusion into a day in the life of the terrifying “tranny Annie” – a schizophrenic, hallucinogenic housewife-turned Monroe-styled vamp, on a monstrously manic romp through the confines of her homely existence somewhere in the American midwest.

The seething deviancy 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 was Going Live!, and 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.

Dave Stewart, meanwhile, was more than happy to play up the outré nature of the single: “I think we wanted to remind people of our roots and where we came from really, Annie with her classical background, and the perception that we were odd! We get associated with all the weird stuff we’ve done, and to some extent with the video, it’s a piece of performance art.”

Of course, Beethoven could have been a red herring, an anomaly in an already queer 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 very possibly one of the greatest records ever made – the Low of their catalogue, with many thematic and sonic similarities to the David Bowie album of ten years previously: “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 the duo’s working relationship. For the first time, Stewart recorded the music – with the assistance of 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 in the midst of a particularly dark period in her personal life, and was initially apprehensive about the musical creations he’d created. The unfussy, economical production is marked by a distinctive Synclavier-dominated mix – heavy on the bass drum and clattering patterns-a-plenty – that sounded as if Dave had spent the previous year subsisting on a diet of Art Of Noise records.

Music history is littered with examples of powerful work arising from personal struggle and tumult, and the album that emerged from these tense sessions certainly fits that definition. At a low ebb after the conclusion of the band’s biggest world tour to date, Annie drew on her inner turmoil and responded with some of her most daring, devastating wordplay to date, casting herself in a brazenly and alluringly sexual light. Failed and failing relationships are the recurring motifs on Savage, and whereas four years earlier Annie assured her lover that “When depression starts to win I want to be right by your side,” the vicious and twisted chanteuse of Savage sounds as if she couldn’t give a damn if he was ever there in the first place. Needless to say, Savage is arguably the finest album of Annie Lennox’s career.

More or less a concept piece in two discrete parts, Savage is a series of sometimes harrowing portraits that represent an abrupt shift from Eurythmics’ equally intense but more user-friendly recent work. Side One goes inside a mind twisted by the confusion of a stifling relationship, and it feels like you’re mentally trespassing into the world of domestically induced insanity. 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. The heartbroken bitterness of the narration seems to sum up the album as a whole: “Everything is fiction. All cynic to the bone. So don’t ask me to stay with you. Don’t ask to see me home. Savage. Savage. You savage.”

Savage is Dave’s favourite track on the album: “I think the track I like most is the title track itself, Savage, it’s a brilliant song. I think we only performed that two or or times. It’s a dark song, Annie’s lyrics weave and melt into the music and leaves you feeling quite emotional.” Indeed, Lennox does sound mentally exhausted, so all the better to capture the ‘over it’ sensibility of the embittered character she’s portraying. 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, heaping derision on fool’s gold lifestyles built on artifice and hero worship. Actually she goes further than that, denouncing all popular culture for lacking any emotional centre and its superficial, anaesthetising effect. She declares “shame – on the TV and the media”, blasting even those sacred Sixties 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”. Of course, it was far too close for comfort for the pop charts, and Shame would turn out to be one of only two Eurythmics singles that narrowly missed the Top 40 since Sweet Dreams, the other being the majestic, wistful Julia, from the aforementioned 1984 soundtrack.

You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart is a frenetic recitation of the damage caused by love ripped apart. It churns from icy cynicism to vulnerability to surging defiance drawn from a secret reserve of inner strength. There’s nothing fake here, nothing pretend. In magnificent vocal form throughout, Lennox is willing to cast off whatever protective sheath her heart may possess to articulate the profound devastation of heartbreak at its most brutal, but she is also able to reaffirm the unyielding steel at her center. Once again, she is able to express remarkable nuance and the human capacity for rapidly shifting emotions all within the span of one song. “Cause I’m much too tall to feel that small… yeah!” Hell yeah, she is. She always has been.

On the whole, the second act is more of a musical muddle than the mesmerising first, but at least Annie’s split personality gets its acts together. On the raucous audacious showstopper I Need a Man, Savage’s third single in Britain, she’s a female Mick Jagger: all steely resolve and drawling, snarling cock-tease lines over Dave’s Keith Richards-like guitar.

Lennox lashes out with an exaggerated, fiery throat-shredding as her character is consumed by feral sexual compulsion – the sating of which she thinks will make her whole or, perhaps more appropriately, give her satisfaction. The listener has no reason to believe that’s the case, which is surely the point as we glimpse an uncomfortable moment of debasement. Everybody, still, is looking for something, and sometimes the naked truth of our most primal and savage impulses ain’t so pretty no matter how glamorously painted.

On the unbelievably raw I Need You, Annie 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.

The flyweight pairing of Put the Blame on Me and the semi-instrumental Heaven (the ‘lyrics’ of the latter made up of soundbites and left-overs from several of Savage’s other tracks) are dancier, with Lennox inhabiting the role of a cooing disco diva, while Wild-Eyed Girl is a little bit of history repeating, with Annie watching a younger version of herself fall into the same snares she has endured.

The ending, though, brings the possibility of hope, the light creeping through the darkness and peeking over the trees. On an album this dark and fractured some measure of relief for the grand finalé is most welcome, and if the it-was-all-a-dream resolution of Brand New Day seems a trifle trite, to these ears it’s just the right tonic. The gospel-tinged track shares its name with a little seen film of the band’s 1986 tour of Japan, and is purely a cappella until the 1:38 point when sprightly keyboards cascade over the soulful, multilayered vocal showcase, heralding at least some degree of inner peace and optimism. The heroine walks out, head held high.

The unsettling subject matter of Savage pierces the human heart and reflects the primitive within, the ugliness that we often pretend doesn’t exist, the perpetual need for something (anything!) to fill our souls, but also the fragile hope that sometimes, occasionally, blooms on the horizon.

As a commercial consideration, the bold, bleak artpop of Savage meant the duo’s seventh set naturally flopped; entering at No.7, appropriately enough, then plummeting down the charts at an alarming pace. In America it didn’t even make the Top 40. The LP yielded just one proper hit in the incongruous shape of Chill in the summer of 1988, a good nine months after the album’s release. But, alas, 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 and complete creative triumphs.

The album did however leave one more unique and eccentric artefact behind it: the Savage ‘video album’ VHS and laserdisc from 1988 expanded the thematic concept, comprising loosely connected film clips for each track on the record. In director 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 and 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.

The videos for Savage include some of Annie Lennox’s most commanding screen moments as she completely inhabits each aspect of her character’s heartbroken and soul-riven personas. Yet here we are 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 these days.

Even Dave Stewart agrees where the blame should lie: “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.”

As an album, Savage is a series of discomfiting, 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.

Wired on the 4th of July

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