33 Again: The Rejuvenation of Eurythmics on Vinyl LP
Never mind Eurythmics' era-defining singles and videos, it's time to reconnect with the new wave duo's broader artistic statements in a more intimate way.
They made some of the most iconic singles of the '80s, set a fledgling MTV alight with theatrical videos replete with androgynous imagery (and cows), and sported strange hairstyles including an orange crew cut, yet classic albums is not something we usually associate with Eurythmics. Indeed, as some music lovers revere the LP as the true measure of a band's artistic stature and relevance, it's plain to see that the British duo don't have a Queen Is Dead, a Hounds of Love or a Violator in their catalog to make them 'important' and to keep them riding high in Greatest Albums of All Time lists. We also never seem to encounter Annie Lennox or Dave Stewart on Sky Arts documentaries earnestly discussing the finer points of a sacred work over a mixing board, nor reforming to embark upon a lucrative 30th-anniversary tour in its name (so far). However, the remastered re-release of their eight RCA studio albums on vinyl, happening between April and November of this year, highlights the fact that there are key titles among them that have been overlooked and undervalued for far too long. (This is not including the Virgin studio album 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother), which had its own limited-edition rerelease on Record Store Day.) Eurythmics deserve a little more respect.
How the Eurythmics albums in question came to wallow in critical neglect in the first place, after selling 80 million copies worldwide, is the matter now before us as the basis for appreciating the duo's long-overdue rejuvenation on vinyl LP. Some explanation may be found in recounting the initial reception of the individual works -- from In the Garden (1981), Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) and Touch (1983), through to Be Yourself Tonight (1985), Revenge (1986), Savage (1987), We Too Are One (1989), and finally Peace (1999) -- in as far as it will reveal how some were more prone to dismissal than others, usually those that failed to substitute guitar, bass and drums for a trusty old Roland SH-09, a Roland Juno-6, or an Oberheim OB-X. Of deeper relevance, however, is the subsequent underperformance of the LPs at awards ceremonies throughout the '80s, their subservience to both the Greatest Hits compilation of 1991 and the changing tides of musical fashion, their digitalized transformation (or corruption) as part of the CD boxset of 2005, and their lowly placings within utterly arbitrary rock magazine lists, along with their negligence at the hands of a corporate record company seemingly uncaring about keeping them in print.
In terms of initial impact, first, Ann (soon to be Annie) and Dave got off to a low-key start in the post-punk period with the psychedelic and krautrock-informed In the Garden on vinyl and cassette (with a half-page promo in Smash Hits, no hit singles and no release in the US), instead breaking through with Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) in early 1983, again on vinyl and cassette. This they did by matching soulful vocals with a DIY approach to analog synthesizers that aligned them with an image-conscious new breed of punk- and Kraftwerk-inspired British synthpop acts including the Human League and Soft Cell, under the banner of "New Pop". In this, they effectively reserved themselves a place in the "Second British Invasion", thanks to the success of both the Human League's Dare! and Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret on the US Billboard 200 Album Chart in the summer of 1982, bolstered by the club-oriented hit singles, "Don't You Want Me" and "Tainted Love / Where Did Our Love Go", respectively.
Their sound, though, had more in common with Soft Cell's in terms of its debt to '60s American soul, while being characterized not so much by seediness and camp (witness "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye"), but layered and often ambient synths (from Stewart) and cool and anguished vocals (from Lennox). It was a sound that compelled David Fricke of Rolling Stone to state that Eurythmics went "far beyond the usual robotic disco and frothy Abba clichés to prove that transistorized white soul doesn't have to be wimpy" (23 June 1983). It further earned them a number three placing in the UK Albums Chart and a number 15 in the US Billboard 200, fortified, of course, by the transatlantic dominance of the album's title track as a single and video.
Touch won further approval through its eclectic mix of dark electronica, strings, disco, funk and Caribbean dance music with paranoid songs that were strangely melodic and well crafted, it being left to Rolling Stone's Christopher Connelly to take a pop at Soft Cell this time by deeming it "thankfully free of the blowsy, ersatz Motown touches that dominate other British technopop" (2 February 1984). It climbed to number one in the UK and ten in the US, while spawning hit singles in the form of the hugely original "Who's That Girl?" and "Here Comes the Rain Again".
Be Yourself Tonight, on the other hand, was a crowd-pleasing, band-style soul album -- the first by Eurythmics to be released on CD -- which was reactive to the now slightly passé nature of synthpop and which Melody Maker praised for "its central live feel" that "ensures the presence of flesh and blood where once there would have been only circuitry" (4 May 1985). Spearheaded by the all-guns-blazing hit single "Would I Lie to You?", it went top three in the UK and top ten in the US, boosted by a flurry of soulful seven-inch successes such as "It's Alright (Baby's Coming Back)", which either had a Dusty in Memphis vibe going on, or else featured a soul legend or two from the Atlantic or Motown roster, or both.
Still outstanding is Revenge, on which Eurythmics offered an even more conventional band sound -- more bluesy rock than soul -- that was tailor-made for arena tours. Kicking off with the raunchy, harmonica-driven "Missionary Man", the kind of song Cher might even have considered recording for her upcoming AOR comeback, it was perhaps too conventional for their own good. Mark Coleman, for one, accused the duo of "relying on formulas rather than twisting them out of shape", though the album still reached number three in the UK and 12 in the US (Rolling Stone, 11 September 1986). Savage, in stark contrast, reintroduced synthesizers in a big way, as well as intense, challenging and seemingly deeply personal songs on the theme of gender politics, enough to convince Melody Maker that its creators were no longer pushing "pedestrian" music, but rather a "gutwrencher" of a work that was "honest almost beyond belief" (14 November 1987). The result was a top ten position in the UK, and slower sales in the US, though not as slow as for the pop-oriented We Too Are One, which put an end to their impressive run of albums, as well as their all-too-obvious enthusiasm for bracketing their song titles, this time evidenced in "(My My) Baby's Gonna Cry".
In thus determining the varied levels of recognition for Eurythmics albums in the '80s, it should be noted that their future critical neglect was foreshadowed by the duo notching up award after award for anything but their long-players: their videos, their singles and Lennox's skills as a singer. They won the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist in 1984, for "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)", and the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1987, for "Missionary Man", as well as an Ivor Novello Award for Songwriters of the Year in 1987. They also garnered an Ivor for Best Contemporary Song for "It's Alright (Baby's Coming Back)" in 1987, in the absence of a Best Use of Brackets in a Song Title category. Meanwhile, Lennox dominated the Best British Female Solo Artist category at the Brit Awards by winning it four times between 1984 and 1990, even though she wasn't even a solo artist, a fact that must, surely, have irritated fellow multi-nominees from that time, Alison Moyet, Kate Bush and, erm, Tracey Ullman.
Certain that Dave and Annie's office space remained uncluttered by Best Album trophies, we are clear to discover just how Eurythmics' LPs slid off the radar after the duo's initial split as a creative partnership in 1990, starting with the inevitable release of their Greatest Hits in 1991. The compilation CD became their best-selling album worldwide, establishing itself at the top of the UK chart for ten weeks and being certified six times platinum in the UK and three times platinum in the US, its success going some way to confer upon the duo the status of "singles band". Eurythmics, indeed, found themselves in that Abba Gold-style predicament in which people think the only good songs are the chart favorites, forever inclined to comment, "If you were gonna buy one Eurythmics album, I would say Greatest Hits!" It meant being defined by the elite tunes only, therefore, which in this case had to involve "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" with its instantly recognizable synth riff, "Love is a Stranger" with its wistful melody and grunting noises, "Thorn in My Side" with its girl-group feel accentuated by an introductory talky bit and, of course, "There Must Be An Angel (Playing with My Heart)", the duo's only UK number one single, complete with brackets, vocal histrionics, verbose bridge section concerning "celestial intervention" and "heavenly connection", and a Stevie Wonder harmonica break. This is not to forget "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" with its Aretha Franklin guest spot and all-around, gospel-tinged bombast as an aspiring feminist anthem.
The Greatest Hits doubtless showcased Eurythmics' musical range and versatility in helping to define the signature tunes but, as with all such compilations, it made it all too easy to lose sight of the duo's albums, and the wider musical concepts and narratives they had to offer. The baffling order of the songs on both the European and US editions was enough to put you off the scent completely, being intermittently chronological on the former, and completely random on the latter. Moreover, the US edition featured the 12-inch versions of several songs different to the LP versions, for no apparent reason whatsoever, which for "Sweet Dreams" served mainly to add repetition and hammer home the fact that it has no real verses or chorus. The US edition also did the job of representing Savage with just one measly cut in the form of "I Need a Man", a huge disservice to that magnum opus. It further excluded anything from In the Garden, down to the small matter of it not having brought forth any great hits, this being a literally titled CD that contributed significantly to making that record one of the most neglected debut albums by a major act ever.
Moving ahead to five years after Greatest Hits, in the wake of the punk-infuzed onslaught of grunge which had rendered obsolete all things musically stylized, sophisticated or melodramatic, a much wider neglect of Eurythmics albums became evident when only Touch emerged to be spoken of as a "classic" -- in the vaguest terms possible. DJ Richard Skinner addressed the LP in the BBC Radio Classic Albums series in 1996, a show not entirely conventional in its notion of what made a classic album, which the likes of John Landau, Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus of the influential Rolling Stone had previously identified as some kind of artefact or authentic document of a critical period. Here the commercial success of an album took precedence, along with whether or not a personal account could be rendered on the recording process of all of its tracks, something Dave Stewart was only too happy to oblige with, on the understanding that each and every one is a highlight (Ian Inglis, Popular Music and Television in Britain, 2016, pp. 43-44). Thirteen years was also deemed a sufficient period for the album to have passed the all-important "test of time", while its display of supremely constructed songs now fitted nicely within the new musical climate (in Britain, at least) of Britpop, a movement, of sorts, that valued "traditional" songcraft in its elevation of such names as The Beatles and The Kinks, while, on the downside, bringing us such dismal songs as Oasis's "Roll with It".
With its focus on personal narrative and anecdotal information pertaining to such matters as Touch having been recorded in just three weeks, the most the BBC Radio show could achieve was convey a faint message that an old Eurythmics studio LP could still hold currency in the '90s. The album Annie and Dave put out as a reunited duo in 1999, Peace, similarly seemed designed to reignite interest in their '80s LPs and regain relevancy now that the world had moved on to Travis and the Corrs and Britney Spears, fueled by having won a Brit Award earlier that year for Most Outstanding Contribution to British Music. It was full of reflective, wistful and melodic songs that referenced the failed romance between them that provided much of the inspiration for their earlier works. One of its singles, "17 Again", specifically alluded to the tension that kindled their creative relationship in the making of these records: "You and all your jewelry / And my bleeding heart / Who couldn't be together / And who could not be apart".
Subsequently, the albums that accumulated any kind of cultural currency in the new millennium were Touch and to a lesser extent Sweet Dreams, but mainly amongst over-enthusiastic readers of lists and those who stayed true to the vinyl LPs. Touch achieved the honor of being included in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time roll call of 2003, there being no list, surely, with more of a guise of being definitive in existence, yet the number it achieved in all of this was a rather anticlimactic 500, below, way below, Def Leppard (Hysteria) and below, way below, Alanis Morrisette (Jagged Little Pill). This was followed by the entry of Sweet Dreams into the Observer newspaper's 100 Greatest British Albums list of 2004, storming it, this time, at number... 100. So while these inclusions had the look of being afterthoughts by the compilers, there was also Ultimate Collection to consider, a 2005 compilation to replace Greatest Hits, which succeeded in not only debunking In the Garden from the Eurythmics canon by not representing it, but also We Too Are One. It stemmed from a CD box set of the eight RCA albums titled Boxed that featured new liner notes and copious extra tracks for each title, though performing a much more generally pitiful job of restoring them to glory than the aforementioned lists, principally because only a limited number were released, all in England, and because it mucked with the shape of each album: it finished the job of obliterating the distinctions of A and B side that began with the CD release of Be Yourself Tonight, while tagging on a bunch of largely inconsequential cover versions, live renditions, instrumentals and demos. The appearance of such tracks as "You Take Some Lentils & You Take Some Rice" detracted from the LPs as distinct statements by creating a sense of too much unnecessary information, provoking one reviewer at the time to complain of "an awful lot of filler" here (Independent, 23 December 2005).
Through these troubled times of lists and CDs, artistic gravitas was assigned solely and stringently to the synth-based albums Sweet Dreams and Touch. Simon Reynolds, in his landmark 2005 work on the postpunk period, Rip it Up and Start Again, convincingly argued that the years 1978-1984 were amongst the most inventive for British pop music partly because of the synth-pop pioneers who questioned the hegemony of their guitar-wielding forerunners, thereby helping to elevate the significance of Eurythmics' second and third LPs. He noted how Annie and Dave "quickly latched on to New Pop" but how it was ultimately by being on top form with the writing and singing that really secured their lasting significance: "underneath the modish veneer of borrowed cool" their "success depended on thoroughly traditional strengths: Stewart's songcraft and the soul-power of Lennox's voice"(Simon Reynolds, Rip it Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984, Faber and Faber, 2005, p. 411).
The same factors were cited on the inclusion of Sweet Dreams within the acclaimed reference book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, specifically how it married "synthesized sounds with strong melodies and powerful vocal delivery" (Robert Finery, ed., Universe Publishing, 2005). A similar reverence carried through to Slant magazine's 100 Best Albums of the '80s list in 2012, where it featured at an unprecedented number 47. Moreover, in May 2012, Touch was featured in the second version of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, this time ranked at number 492, up a magnificent eight places! The simple reason given for the inclusion was that Dave and Annie together "made divine synth pop" on this LP (31 May 2012).
The sparse attention devoted solely to the two electronic albums of 1983 continued with a 30th-anniversary celebratory piece in The Quietus on the subject of Sweet Dreams, published in the notable absence of a 30th-anniversary deluxe reissue, following on from the notable absence of a 25th-anniversary deluxe reissue, both non-events seeming to reflect a dereliction of duty on the part of Eurythmics' record company. Stewart, aware of such a laxity of approach towards his back catalogue, voiced his displeasure towards Sony Music in 2016, now that it had taken over RCA Records with whom he and Lennox had originally sided with. He claimed that they were now "inadvertently" signed to Sony, which was a "corporate company who along the way have lost masters", adding that "they didn't care less" and that "Neither of us know anybody at Sony – they've all changed 100 times" (superdeluxeedition.com, 16 March 2016).
The unfruitful relationship was a disappointment because a deluxe-reissue treatment of Touch, particularly, would have been welcomed in view of its semi-celebrated status, a status that was to some extent built upon in June 2017 when it appeared at number 101 in an NPR Music list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women. Needless to say, Stewart didn't get a lot of credit for the LP here, the modest placement being down to Lennox's "rich contralto" teetering "a line of theatrics and overdramatics that creates a cohesion to Touch that would otherwise go unrealized" (www.npr.org, 24 July 2017).
Sony's apparently faceless and inattentive approach to Dave and Annie's music, up until now, closes this survey of the ways in which the eight Eurythmics albums have been neglected, it being abundantly clear that no catalog of LPs is more deserving of a high-quality rerelease on vinyl than these, especially in the wake of the duo's November 2017 nomination for entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which the nominating committee in Cleveland have now declined to take further, preferring Bon Jovi). The reissue program will indeed do Eurythmics immeasurable good in a world that still cherishes albums in the face of digital downloads and the instant gratification they bring, it being here that listeners make more than just a surface-level connection with a band and here where they hear unique stories that singles (and videos) simply cannot convey.
It is furthermore true, as Stewart intimated at the time the reissues were announced in November, that vinyl is the format that somehow sanctifies the album -- first of all, in terms of the sound quality. He enthused that the new records will accentuate each work's sonic qualities by reproducing the "original half-inch masters" from the archives, "not the digital remasters where the sound has been compressed". He also expressed approval that "people won't be listening to our music on a cell phone", happy that a new generation of listeners will have the opportunity to access their art as they intended it: "People will... put them on the turntable and listen to one side at a time, and hear the tracks played in the particular order that we selected" (www.Billboard.com, 21 November 2017).
With the prospect of engaging with the true artistic intention, then, it is time, at last, to reconnect with Eurythmics' RCA albums as distinct and unadulterated musical entities, and for fans to once more absorb them on their own terms, without the weight of added-on and expendable tracks and random opinions thrown out by random lists, but instead with the privilege of gloriously reproduced sleeves and durable 180-gram vinyl offering remastered sound.
Time, then, to reconsider In the Garden, still sounding remarkably fresh in its absence of the usual mid-'80s production sheen, with legendary German producer Conny Plank (of Kraftwerk's Autobahn fame) having applied motorik rhythms and given it a dark and austere European air, in unison with Lennox's unrecognizably understated vocals (no, this isn't Stereolab). Time, also, to take in the full electronic sweep of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), still astonishing as a two-sided electronic and R'n'B-infuzed exploration of urban isolation and romantic longing, with "I Could Give You (A Mirror)", "The Walk" and the epic "This City Never Sleeps" sounding every bit as mesmerizing as the album's famous hit singles.
Time, furthermore, to revisit Touch, if only to wonder at it being so consistently singled out through the years, its unifying themes of isolation and bitterness over such a surprising array of sounds and songs certainly making a strong case. We further have the opportunity to give Be Yourself Tonight a fresh listen, essential, still, as a work of pure pop/soul brilliance with the welcome new prominence of Stewart's guitar licks, even though it is missing the dark, experimental edge of yore.
But what of Revenge? Well, it still appears to be marred by dull and overlong tracks such as "Miracle of Love" and some pretty lightweight material overall, unless, of course, you consider "Missionary Man" to be a harsh critique of Western colonialism: "He's got God on his side / He's got the saints and apostles backin' up from behind". Yet, not to worry, because we are here to witness again the powerful counterblow of Savage, now becoming the firm fan favorite of the Eurythmics catalog, while building up a reputation as the duo's Revolver, or maybe Low, with an experimental sound dominated by Stewart's adopted digital synthesizer of choice, a synclavier, facilitating Lennox's excursions into concept-album territory, where the distinctive two sides of the record tell the unsettling story of a woman's descent into heartbreak, cynicism, emotional devastation and masochism. In its aftermath, the We Too Are One and Peace albums seem somewhat inessential and inconsistent, even though there are strong songs to be found here.
After all this, it's plain to see that the eight vinyl records before us form an integral part of the Eurythmics legacy, proving, after a lengthy period of abandonment, that the duo are not just about the iconic singles and the groundbreaking videos. The rereleased records, indeed, look set to keep Lennox and Stewart from critical oblivion for a time yet, while it is likely that we will soon begin to see Savage, at least, join Touch in the lower reaches of Best Albums of All Time lists. Failing that, it will certainly feature in the 500 Bleakest Synclavier-Dominated Albums About Emotional Abuse and Failed Relationships. Maybe, even, quite highly.