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Eurythmics: Sweet Dreams Come True

Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart talk about their 1983 breakthrough

EURYTHMICS

EURYTHMICS. Circa 1980.

Ian Dickson/Redferns/Getty

Annie Lennox began her life as a man two years ago at a London discotheque called Heaven. She was onstage with Eurythmics, singing away, her ladylike frock and long black hair caught in the bursting glare of a battery of strobe lights, when a curious spectator, thinking she looked familiar, reached up and ripped off what turned out to be a wig. Suddenly, in strobe-lit slow motion, a strange new head was revealed. This one — which Annie hadn’t counted on unveiling quite so soon — was anything but ladylike. The startling, carrot-colored hair was cut cell-block short on the sides and greased straight back on top, and the crowd’s collective jaw hit the floor.

“No one knew who Eurythmics were at the time,” says Dave Stewart, Annie’s partner onstage, in the studio and, for four years, in life and love. “So the whole audience must have thought, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ And ever since then, people have been sayin’, ‘Is Annie really a man?’ “

Annie’s response to these speculations was to start dressing like one: suit, tie, suspenders, the whole androgynous number. She had already tried being a proper blond songstress with the Tourists, the ill-fated pop group in which she and Stewart had previously toiled (and whose lack of critical esteem led to her subsequent bewigged anonymity). The response had been the usual catcalls and leers, plus occasional belittling comparisons to Blondie. Who needed that?

“This is a more androgynous visual portrayal, but it isn’t meant to be butch,” Annie explains. “No way. It is very useful in transcending the bum-and-tits thing, though. That’s a very vulgar thing to say, but I have received that kind of abuse onstage, and one has to find a way around it.

“Of course, you’ll never find a way around it,” she adds. “But this helps.”

How successfully Annie Lennox has transcended the eternal chick-singer syndrome was apparent one night last June when Eurythmics — no the, please — played the Margate Winter Gardens, a beachfront ballroom in a Kentish coastal resort just north of Canterbury and some seventy miles east of London. The second Eurythmics album, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), had topped the British charts; its internationally ubiquitous title song had hit Number Two, and their latest single, “Who’s That Girl,” was proving similarly seductive. Generally, an act of such commercial heft confines itself to headlining hip metropolitan venues and established tour circuits. But Eurythmics were warming up for their first U.S. tour, two weeks hence, with a brief blitz of small seaside dates, and inside the sprawling Winter Gardens, beneath bulging Victorian balconies, glittering chandeliers and gaudy ormolu moldings, some 1500 kids had crowded onto the vast dance floor to bear celebrity-starved witness.

They were not disappointed: the show was seamlessly impressive. Except for three female backup singers bumping smartly in place, the band was simple: a bassist, a drummer and a keyboardist, all in black, and at stage left, Dave Stewart, a bearded, puff-haired gnome in dark glasses and a white suit who intermittently leaned out over his guitar to fiddle with a modest stack of machinery at his side. The crowd was with them from the start, when the lights went down and a chattering synthesizer riff rose from the stage on a wave of wild cheering. As the rich electronic sound built into a brassy riff, Annie, a striking figure in her mannish gray suit, marched out and snapped up a microphone. Her head was hidden by a grinning plastic mask and a white boating cap, her hands by blood-red gloves. But her voice, only slightly muffled by the mask, resounded around the packed auditorium: “This is the house….”

A squall of applause greeted the familiar lyric from the Sweet Dreams album, and as the band leaned into the riff, Annie tore away the mask and hat, exposing her improbably handsome face, the crimson lips smiling, the stubbly hair flaming in the spotlight. “This is the story…,” she sang. “Everything changes.”

Twisting and kicking across the stage, raking the crowd with her remarkable blue eyes, Annie created an instant sense of intimacy, working the house like some hitherto inconceivable amalgam of David Bowie and Judy Garland, her extraordinary voice soaring above the dense electronic textures of the music.

Soulful is the word. Although Eurythmics’ music makes no pretensions to black style (and bears no resemblance to the lightweight “funk” currently so fashionable in England), this was an undeniably soulful performance — most pointedly in the Sweet Dreams cover of Sam and Dave’s raunchy “Wrap It Up.” As Stewart later observed, “Sam and Dave were really underrated over here. They still are. Over here it’s all Marvin Gaye and that sort of smooth soul. Sam and Dave were rough, and it’s their roughness I love. We want to put that roughness back in — to have a soul feeling with that English power.”

It’s a most attractive musical synthesis, and in Margate, all sexual speculation suddenly seemed irrelevant in the presence of such triumphant talent. At the end of the hour-long performance, with the houselights up and the crowd still howling, the popular appraisal was clear: good band, great tunes, and the singer — well, the singer, whether man, woman or none of the above, was a star.

With her long legs splayed out on the barroom banquette in the quaint Margate inn where Eurythmics were spending the night, Annie Lennox, still glowing from the show, had to laugh. A star? Eurythmics is the star, and that means Annie and Dave Stewart, who, in his customary all-black street gear, had just wandered in and pulled up a chair at her table. Dave and Annie, alone, are Eurythmics; the particular band with which they’re now traveling, good as it is, is only their latest performance medium.

“I look at our relationship with outside musicians as an ongoing thing,” said Annie, taking a sip from a bottle of port the crew smuggled in after the inn’s prim proprietress refused to bend the eleven p.m. pub curfew. “Whether they’re with us forever or for two weeks is irrelevant, you know? If somebody is interested in working with us, and we want to work with them, then we will. It’s different from a session-musician situation, where some anonymous, highly paid guy just walks in and does his thing and walks out again. This is a bit more involved.”

On record, Dave and Annie play virtually everything themselves, and as Eurythmics, they have never toured with the same group twice. One early ensemble included Blondie drummer Clem Burke, keyboardist Mickey Gallagher from Ian Dury’s Blockheads and Eddi Reader of the Gang of Four on backup vocals. Recently, Eurythmics appeared on the venerable Old Grey Whistle Test TV show with a grand piano and a black gospel choir in tow; their current lineup is a typically mixed bag: two members are veterans of the progressive band Random Hold, and one of them, drummer Pete Phipps, used to work with Seventies whomp-king Gary Glitter. Not the most fashionable credentials to have in hip-conscious London, but then fashion isn’t something that Dave and Annie spend a lot of time noodling about.

“We’re not really part of the London scene,” said Annie, crooking a knee and tipping back her boating cap. “I won’t say I despise the London scene, but I’m a little wary of it. I have a raised eyebrow toward all scenes.”

Dave and Annie’s only ties are to each other, and to a mutual vision of popular music that is singular in its obsession with cultural flux and emotional ambivalence. Nothing is clear here: even the name Eurythmics was selected for its nebulousness (it’s a Greek word that means moving in rhythm). And while Sweet Dreams does seem to fit a superficial definition of synth pop, the record is something more: the riffs really crunch, the melodies wander off on weird tangents, and — the crowning irony — Stewart plays standard, Sixties-style blues slide guitar all over the place. Ambiguities abound: Annie is a straight woman who, for strategic reasons, dresses like a man. She and Dave are former lovers whose creative relationship deepened even as their romance dwindled. They write dance songs about love, but the lyrics (“It’s jealous by nature, false and unkind”) don’t make love sound like anything worth dancing about. Yet both say they’ve never been happier than they are now. Obviously, there is more going on here than initially meets the ear.

Their story is as muddled as the romantic attitudes embodied in their songs. Annie Lennox, who’ll be twenty-nine this Christmas, was born in Scotland and raised in the North Sea port of Aberdeen, a provincial fishing town noted, in pre-oil-strike days, for its high-quality granite, much of which found its way, like Lennox herself years later, to the pavements of London. The paternal side of her family was musical — her father even played bagpipes — and as a child, Annie took up piano, and later, the flute, and dreamed of becoming a classical musician. At seventeen, after attending Aberdeen High School for Girls, she went down to London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she enrolled in a performer’s course focusing primarily on flute, with subsidiary studies in piano and harpsichord. But a career regurgitating the classical repertoire quickly came to seem a pointless pursuit, and she grew increasingly restless at the academy. In fact, she said, “I hated it. I spent three dreadful years there trying to figure a way out.”

Finally, she just left. After kicking around London for two years, writing songs and singing with various anonymous groups, she encountered Dave Stewart. At first, she was appalled: “He looked like he’d been dragged through a hedge backward. But he’s a very special person, I soon recognized that.”

Stewart, a diminutive Englishman, was two years older than Annie, and although he claims familial descent from the Duke of Northumberland, his musical roots were strictly popular. Still, there was a soothing lilt to his voice (he’d grown up in Sunderland, not far from the Scottish border), and he was at least an engaging eccentric. Stewart’s mother was a practicing child psychologist with a special interest in the relation of color to taste (“I was quite used to blue porridge and green potatoes by the time I was about seven”), and his father was an accountant. Thus, the family was, unfortunately, well off. “I always used to want to play with the working-class kids,” Stewart recalled, “but they’d always call me ‘richie’ and whack me on the head with cricket bats and things.”

His early passion for sports ended with a broken knee in a soccer match at age twelve — a fortuitous event, as it turned out. “Somebody brought me a guitar in the hospital,” he said, “and as I couldn’t walk, I started learnin’ it. Then somebody else brought me a leather jacket, and I hung it up at the bottom of me bed. I used to look at this leather jacket and play the guitar, and wish I could get out of the hospital.”

He saw his first rock concert two years later, in 1966. “It was this group, the Amazing Blondel, and the excitement — I’d never seen anything live, with a PA and everything. So after the gig, I just climbed in the back of their van while they were loading and hid there. And when we got to Scunthorpe, where they lived, at four o’clock in the morning, I jumped out and asked them if they’d teach me about bein’ in a group.”

The Amazing Blondel called the police and summoned Stewart’s parents. But they also agreed to let him come back for holiday visits, during which he’d accompany the group on concert excursions. Soon he’d talked himself into opening-act status, sitting on a stool and performing his own songs on the guitar, and before long he was appearing on radio and TV shows in the north of England and opening shows for such major folkies as Ralph McTell. At one point, a representative of Bell Records wanted to turn Stewart into the next David Cassidy (“I looked about ten,” he explained), but a school counselor wisely advised him to forget it.

Stewart’s subsequent musical career was motley, to say the least — he played everything from folk and blues to rock & roll and beyond. Finally, in 1969, he joined a group called Longdancer, which became one of the first bands signed to Elton John’s Rocket Records in the early Seventies. But Longdancer crumpled under the influx of a sizable cash advance (more than $100,000), which the members blew in six months. In Stewart’s case, a considerable outlay went to finance his new enthusiasm for cocaine and speed. After Longdancer’s demise, Stewart went on to play with theater groups, with “half of Osibisa for six months” and with an all-girl outfit called the Sadista Sisters. In his spare time, he got deeply into drugs.

“I once took acid for a whole year,” he said with a bemused chuckle. “Every day. It turned into a kind of holiday.”

He remembers most vividly the time he scored eight hits of California Sunshine from some Grateful Dead roadies who were passing through London. “Try these and come back in a week,” they told him. Not realizing that each capsule was good for about eight people, he took a bus back home to Sunderland and, with his wife (from whom he’s now divorced) and six friends, consumed the whole cache. “Six of these people had never even smoked marijuana,” he said. “About ten minutes into the trip, one guy started reading a newspaper—which was actually the carpet — and another was going like this with his head” — Stewart bobbled his noggin distractedly — “sorting out the filing cabinets of his mind, so to speak.”

Stewart and his wife wound up knocking on a stranger’s door in search of help. “I said, ‘Excuse me, we’ve taken a very strong hallucinogenic drug, and we’d like you to ring a hospital.’ But the thing was, I was talkin’ to this guy who was like a northeastern miner or something, and he said, ‘Come in and have a cup of tea.’ So we went in and sat down, and there’s this woman doin’ the ironing in the corner. And she says, ‘LSD? I’ve heard about that — destroys the brain, doesn’t it?’ And my wife goes white. Then this guy comes out with the tea, and I’m tryin’ to tell him, ‘No, listen, it’s this strong drug, we took it by mistake.’ And I turn around and my wife is pouring the tea on his carpet and rubbin’ it around and makin’ these patterns, right? It was the most horrible feelin’ I’ve ever had in my life.”

Stewart and his wife finally made their escape, but the awful memory still lingers. “I still have feelings from acid,” he said, “and this was eight years ago. I mean, I can’t remember what it was like before I hallucinated. I never take anything now — I don’t need it. I took so much, I think it’ll last me for the rest of me life.”

A year or so later, Stewart was working with a similarly penniless songwriter named Peet Coombes in the north of London. They were getting nowhere. Then a friend who ran a record store mentioned that he’d met a girl who had an incredible voice — “one of those singers that you hear now and again and you get, like, goose bumps.” She was scraping by as a waitress in a restaurant, and Stewart and the mutual friend went to see her. After work that night, they went back to her one-room apartment and listened, spellbound, as Annie Lennox played “these amazing, really complicated songs” on an enormous harmonium she’d somehow squeezed into her flat.

“She sat there like the Phantom of the Opera,” said Stewart. “She was straight from classical. She didn’t know anything about pop groups. But we heard her sing and we started celebrating; then we went out to this club, and from that moment on, Annie and I lived together, and made music together, for about four years.”

For the next year or so, Dave and Annie and Peet Coombes starved and schemed and dreamed of stardom — of somehow selling their songs. Then another friend, an Australian singer called Creepy John Thomas, contacted them from Germany with the news that he had scored some free studio time with Eurorock producer Conny Plank, renowned for his work with Kraftwerk, Can, DAF and, later, England’s own Ultravox. Stewart, Lennox and Coombes were invited to come over and work on the singer’s demos, and they agreed. It was a decision that changed all of their lives. “That was when we realized what we wanted,” said Annie. “‘Cause at Conny’s studio, there was a drummer and a few electric guitars around, and we went, ‘Ah! It’s a group — that’s what we want to be, a group!'”

The group they wound up putting together back in London in 1978 was a Byrds-influenced ensemble called the Tourists. Over the next couple of years, with Coombes writing most of the songs, they recorded three albums and toured the world, but still found themselves penniless — a situation Dave and Annie blame on a bad record contract and ugly business manipulations. (“Some of them want to use you…,” she sings on Sweet Dreams. “Some of them want to abuse you.”)

The Tourists had a hit in 1979 with the Dusty Springfield nugget “I Only Want to Be with You,” but British critics mistook it for a crass oldies move, rather than the tongue-in-cheek tribute the band had intended. Their credibility ruined, the band broke up in 1980.

“We were gettin’ really frustrated anyway,” said Stewart. “Durin’ the punk movement, Annie and I bought a synthesizer, and we were doin’ the opposite thing to the punks; we were gettin’ more into sequencers and the mixture of soul feeling with electronics. We’d sit in hotel rooms, and Annie would sing and I’d play the synthesizer, and we started comin’ up with the whole Sweet Dreams concept.”

With the Tourists defunct, Dave and Annie actually drew up a “manifesto” outlining their future goals, the essence of which, according to Stewart, was “We were never gonna do anything again that we didn’t like doing. We said, there’s two of us and we always want to keep it fresh, and never have this thing where you’re just touring round and round with the same people in a band, so that every night you have to pretend you’re really into it.”

More input came from Conny Plank, with whom Annie continued to work as an arranger and session singer (most notably on an album called Latin Lover, by the extraordinary Italian singer Gianna Nannini). “Conny thought we ought to try to control everything and do everything in a smaller way,” Annie said. “That’s the basic philosophy behind Eurythmics.”

They recorded the first Eurythmics album at Plank’s country studio outside Cologne, with an eccentric assortment of musicians that included Clem Burke, whom Annie had chatted up in a London club; multi-instrumentalist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of Can; DAF’s Robert Görl on drums and Marcus Stockhausen (son of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, with whom Czukay had studied) on trumpet. The LP, called In the Garden, was never released in this country, but it is a minor masterpiece of pop songwriting. Brilliantly produced, performed and arranged, it seems filled with nothing but hits — some folk-rockish (“English Summer”), some almost punkish (the pummeling “Belinda”) and some, such as “Never Gonna Cry Again” and the haunting “Revenge,” pointing toward the more electronically conceived material to come on Sweet Dreams about two years later.

“It’s a funny mixture,” said Stewart. “We were really just experimentin’, messin’ around. Then we played the tapes for RCA and they really liked them, so they put them out.”

In the Garden sank without much of a trace, unfortunately. Stewart, who’d been in a serious car crash years earlier, was plagued by collapsing lungs and had to have corrective surgery just as the LP was being released. Laid up for eight months, he was unavailable to help promote the record. By this time, too, Dave and Annie had given up living together.

“So many changes had happened at once,” said Stewart. “The Tourists split up, I had this major operation, we had this new idea of Eurythmics. We were becoming very much a folie à deux — you know, the madness of two people who are just constantly together. The only way to survive was to live apart, so we split up as a couple.”

Nowadays, in what little time there is for such things, they see other people on an irregular basis. “It’s more like friendship, though,” said Stewart. “I’m not the sort of person who would just sleep with anybody for the night. And I think Annie just hides, most of the time.”

Although she went through a protracted period of depression, Annie said she’s snapped back and is in better spirits now than ever. “Dave and I still draw a lot of strength from each other, and when it really comes down to it, we are very, very close. We’ve ridden through the changes in our personal lives, and we value our relationship enormously.”

With the decks of their personal lives cleared for action, Dave and Annie set about planning a serious commercial breakthrough. Despite their experimental inclinations (most noticeable on the nonalbum B sides of their British singles), commerciality is something they generally applaud. Said Dave: “I haven’t met one avant-garde performer who hasn’t loved, say, Abba and Holger Czukay, or the Velvet Underground and ‘Chirpee, Chirpee, Cheep, Cheep,’ you know? Because there’s something great in the crassness of things, and there’s something great in perfection, too.

“Annie and I love that sort of duality. It’s the subject of nearly every song we’ve ever written — the duality of everything: the tramp lying on the street while somebody walks by with a furcoat on; the feeling of love mixed up with terrible feelings of guilt and remorse. The whole of life is that sort of constant turmoil. It’s great, it’s terrible — it’s the way life is.”

With their concept securely in mind, and with detailed technical advice from Plank and Czukay over the telephone, Eurythmics set up a low-budget, eight-track studio in a warehouse in the Chalk Farm district of London. There, working essentially on their own, they recorded a series of demos that RCA again decided to release as an album — thus was Sweet Dreams made.

“RCA said, ‘Bloody hell, it doesn’t sound like eight-track,'” Stewart recalled. “But that’s how you should record — simply. They’re always designing things to make you think you couldn’t possibly do it yourself. This is more fun. We just have bits of stuff on tapes, like Annie playing a funny little instrument in Bangkok, and some words from over here somewhere, and a tape of a rhythm we thought out in Scotland, and we sort of pull it out and put it all together. ‘Cause the music’s timeless, you see. That’s why we don’t say we’re part of this new English pop invasion. We just say we’re in a continuum of what we have been doin’ for ages. That’s why on the Whistle Test, for instance, they couldn’t really call us a synth-pop duo, when we’re standin’ there with eight gospel singers, a grand piano and an acoustic guitar. That could have been in 1971 — or it could be 1986.”

Sweet Dreams turned the international trick for Dave and Annie that the Tourists never could, cracking the U.S. Top Twenty and producing a hit (the title song) that butted heads with the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” at the top of the U.S. singles charts. “Love Is a Stranger,” their follow-up, looks likely to repeat that success. So, what next? Dave and Annie have leased a big stone church in north London, and they’ve installed a twenty-four-track studio; when they’re not busy with their own projects, they record their friends — most recently, good pals Chris and Cosey, formerly of Throbbing Gristle, and a “very androgynous” street duo called Flex. There’s a dance workshop on the premises, too, and there are always video and animation projects under way; Dave and Annie have taken separate flats nearby to be close to their nonstop work. It’s been a long and sometimes painful trip for them, but they have no real regrets.

“I actually embrace the idea of being happy now,” Annie said with a nonironic smile. “I’ve had my share of pain, and I probably will in the future, too. But I’ve gotta say, it’s sculpted me into the person I am now. There was a time when I looked to other people for recognition, because I didn’t have enough confidence to trust my own judgment. Now I’m not looking for reassurance, because I realize how fickle people are.

“My own strength,” she said very evenly, “is the best strength I can have.”

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