The third in a series where Pop Lifer tests music, film, television etc by the rules laid down in Lupe Fiasco’s “Superstar”: “Did you improve on the design?/ Did you do something new?”. If the answer to either of those questions is yes, you qualify for the Lupe Fiasco Award for Services to Pop Culture. Nominee 3: Eurythmics’ experimental, emotionally lacerating “Savage”, which answers both questions with a resounding yes.
The popular imagination is a strange and stupid beast, particularly when it comes to pop culture. It reduces whole complex decades into montages from kiddie cartoons. The sixties becomes one parade of beat combos in black and white, hippies free loving through San Francisco and the Beatles serenading the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with “All We Need Is Love”. The seventies is rendered as glam rock and Marc Bolan wiping glitter from his brow, slowly morphing into Village People disco and Sex Pistols punk. And the eighties is a day glo blur of gender benders, hairspray abuse and extravagantly overproduced pop, from “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.
It’s this version of the eighties which is captured in awful compilations with Rubik’s Cubes on the covers, immortalised in the disturbing, kitschy success of the School Disco nightclubs and relived every time a drunken aunt drags you onto a wedding dancefloor to jig along to “Come On Eileen”. It’s an insulting caricature of a decade which was actually the strangest, darkest and most experimental pop has ever known.
The synthesiser, only recently popularised by pioneers like Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and Gary Numan, was fast becoming the weapon of choice for a new wave of pop terrorists like Human League and Soft Cell, intent on breaking pop out of its guitar-bound, four-man straitjacket. When David Bowie went to number 1 in August 1980 with the askew, astounding synth-driven “Ashes To Ashes” he sealed this new movement with rock royal approval.
One band illustrates the weird 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 UK number one, the infuriatingly catchy, lavish sugar rush of “There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)”. Others may remember solemn AOR balladry like “The Miracle Of Love” (an obvious career low) 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 peculiar journey. Their debut, “In The Garden”, was a deeply odd and adventurous record, rippling with weird angles and strange textures. There were no hits. The follow up did birth hits, but what peculiar ones they were: the brutally minimal “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”, with its eternally snaking synth and dark intonations on emotional and sexual abuse, and the subtler, more insidious “Love Is A Stranger”, as lyrically cynical as it was sonically seductive. These two songs forged Annie Lennox, sharp-suited and flame-cropped, into an icon of androgyny 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 the breezy “Right By Your Side”. This aspect of the band slowly gained primacy in the coming years, culminating in the overblown AOR that bloated 1986’s “Revenge”. The band continued to sell vast numbers of records 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. You think you know just what you want…
The duo’s 1987 single “Beethoven (I Love To Listen To)” must have come as something of a shock for U2 fans seduced by upbeat anthems like “When Tomorrow Comes” or catchy-chorused FM rock like “Thorn In My Side”. Christ, “Beethoven” must have come as a shock for people who had spent their entire lives listening to Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees and early Cure records. Constructed from bruising drum loops, a shuddering synth line and stabbing strings, the verses saw Lennox adopt a cruel, teasing, cut-glass English accent and muse aloud 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”.
“Beethoven” was promoted with an extraordinary video by the unknown Sophie Muller (now famed for her work with Blur, Radiohead, Coldplay and Brandon Flowers). Not so much a pop video as outre performance art, it stars Lennox as a seething housewife trapped in a grisly American Mid-West Home. She knits with red-eyed fury and wages 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 curls. The spectre of Guy Bourdin, the unsettling seventies fashion photographer, hovered over the video, and helped create one of the strangest and most emotionally disturbing concoctions ever released by a monstrously famous pop act.
The sheer weirdness at work was perhaps 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, art and sexuality like Camille Paglia would have had trouble deciphering its soup of rage, theatricality, suicide and labyrynthine 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’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.
Being bold and bleak it naturally flopped, yielding 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 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 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 pronounces “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 lifestyle that goes with it: “everybody wants it but it don’t exist”.
Similarly slippery is the bass-driven, feathery near-instrumental “Heaven”, where Lennox’s Monroe-esque coos and sighs disturb as much as reassure. Or there’s the funny and ferocious “Do You Want To Break Up?”, which moves from lovesick verses into a chorus of acidic, mocking chirpiness. In one masterstroke it seems to satirise all pop music 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 obviously 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 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 and honest 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 album spot. Creatively, however, it found the band apparently beginning to run 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”.
The album did however leave one more unique and eccentric artifact behind it: the Savage “video album”. In Muller, Lennox had found a visual collaborator almost as fruitful as Dave Stewart was as a musical collaborator. 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 acidically hilarious Julie-Andrews-goes-psycho romp of “Do You Want To Break Up?” to the stained, sullied slo-mo of “Savage”.
Neither Lennox nor Stewart would ever again release a record as strange, unsettling and consistently brilliant as “Savage”, though Lennox’s own “Diva” remains the closest. The album was soon largely forgotten by that lumbering, forgetful creature, the public imagination. On the band’s “Greatest Hits” collection (one of the best selling of all time) “Savage” barely features, with only “You Have Placed A Chill” earning a place.
The relative obscurity doesn’t matter. “Savage” is still out there, 25 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 Britains’ greatest, most under-rated and most misunderstood bands.