Mention Eurythmics to most people and the general perception might be – mainstream 80’s pop, safe radio-friendly AOR, Annie Lennox- darling of the establishment with endless Brits nominations throughout the 90s for seemingly doing nothing at all. Well, scrap all those preconceptions because pre-success there was a largely ignored debut album that displayed experimental art-rock leanings a million miles away from the stadium-filling act they would turn into. Discordant and unsettling, tuneless at times, but with an ethereal production courtesy of Conny Plank, it is more Cocteau Twins than Thompson Twins. (Actually they also started on a more avant-garde path, but I digress…..). 1981’s “In The Garden” has very little in common with the rest of their back catalogue and is all you would expect from a band named after a Pedagogical Exercise System.
By the time of recording their first album as a duo, Dave and Annie had been together for six years, although it was purely in a musical-only capacity by ’81. First band The Catch evolved into The Tourists and the 1979-80 period was an intense but fraught period producing three albums (mainly penned by chief songwriter in the group Pete Coombs). A new-wave-by-numbers take on Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Wanna Be With You” provided them with a major hit in ’79. Creative frustrations and the uncomfortable predictability of being marketed as the sexy girl up front, this did not sit well with the fiercely independent Lennox. Stewart’s latent production skills were yet to unleash themselves too, but that comes later in the story. So, they decided to go it alone, together. In the 80s the musical duos would rule.
Conny Plank was a legendary producer at the forefront of the ‘Krautrock’ scene of the 70s, including credits for Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. The John Foxx fronted (pre-Midge Ure) line-up of Ultravox had the sense to hire his services for the “Systems Of Romance” album and Plank became the natural choice for the acts of the time who wanted to cultivate a little freakiness in their sound. Nothing demonstrated this more than the B-Side of second single “Belinda”. The A-Side is a lovely, relatively commercial affair, but the flipside is, well, just nuts….
In May 1981, five months ahead of the album release, the first Eurythmics single, “Never Gonna Cry Again” reached the dizzying heights of no. 63 in the UK. The flute solo is actually performed by Lennox on the track, as she had studied the instrument at the Royal College of Music in the 70s. On a whimsical note though; very nice Bowie-esque hair-do Annie, shame it made way for the crop. Here’s the very rarely seen accompanying video and it is bizarre….
The album featured Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebeziet of Can and also Clem Burke of Blondie on drums (who would five years later return to the Eurythmics stable as part of the “Revenge” album and tour- by then a very different band). I love most of the Eurythmics’ cannon, including the pure mainstream pop of the hits, but this debut shows a completely apposite side to them – a sign of how things could have gone. It’s coming from the same non-conformist stance as other contemporaries The Associates- bonkers but brilliant. (A feature on the genius of Billy Mackenzie will be coming here soon). It’s the sound of two very creative people trying to find their feet and not quite hitting the mark in terms of public acceptance. But who want’s that when the alternative is so much more interesting?
After a small scale, duo-only tour in support of the album, 1982 was spent downsizing to an 8-Track studio in Chalk Farm to record a much more stripped-back approach using electronics only. Three singles were flops (including the first release of “Love Is A Stranger), until early 1983 and “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This” changed everything. The pop years followed and over the next seven years, the sparse electro-pop made way for big stadium soul/rock/AOR. There were still traces on experimentation though on the otherwise lush “Be Yourself Tonight” from ’85. The following year’s “Revenge” took the AOR mould a little too far though in my opinion and has dated the worst. Those massive 80’s reverberant snare sounds get a little wearing after a while.
But then in 1987, they “made a turn sharp left” as Stewart put it. A return to the arch/art approach of the early days they dispensed with the full band and produced an album centred around drum loops and samples (care of the Synclaviar keyboard); they were a duo once again (save for the only other musician present- drummer Olle Romo) The feeling is more overtly European than the Amerciana of the previous two albums. Lennox is a great white soul singer with a clear passion for the genre (that duet with Aretha) but here those influences are supressed, or find a perfect marriage of soul and electronics, such as on “You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart” (contrarily performed live and unplugged on Top Of The Pops), or the sampled vocals and drums of closer “Brand New Day”. Unsurprisingly, “Savage” didn’t perform as well in the states.
The decision was made too to release a sister ‘video album’, all twelve tracks set in a loose narrative, directed by Sophie Muller. The album opener was also the lead single in the UK and proved a little too weird for pop tastes, stalling at No. 25. The video features Annie as demure but demented housewife, transforming into blonde trashy vamp.
In the long-form video, this then leads into the newly liberated character belting out “I Want A Man” like a wanton drag Queen. (No disrespect to Ms Lennox, beautiful though she is). The video album needs a DVD release and track it down on VHS if you can.
So, this has been a look at the more experimental side of a band you thought you knew. Before the split in 1990 came one final album, “We Two Are One”, but that displayed the safer side to Eurthymics that continued into their late 90s reunion. At various times in the 80s though, Annie and Dave displayed a compelling mix of the avant-garde and commerciality – which for me sums up the decade in general.