Eurythmics: The genre-fluid music ahead of its time

Eurythmics: The genre-fluid music ahead of its time

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Eurythmics ‘made not fitting in feel triumphant’, writes Arwa Haider, remembering how the duo’s music soundtracked her teenage years.

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When you’re a child of the suburbs, you drink in pop music like it’s a magic elixir: something to conjure a life less ordinary. I was raised across various suburbs in England, Scotland and Wales, mostly getting along without ever really fitting in: a perennial new girl who wasn’t girly enough; vaguely foreign; irregular; too moody; too showy. Pop music transported me beyond small towns and city fringes, and one particular act never left me: British duo Eurythmics, aka Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart.

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The first time I heard Eurythmics, it felt like a thrilling shock to the system, and somehow a glorious sanctuary. I was seven years old, watching Top of the Pops in the lounge of our Kirkcaldy bungalow, and I was instantly seized by the synth riffs and Lennox’s steely soulful vocals on their 1983 breakthrough hit Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). My family had recently upgraded to a colour TV, and this seemed to heighten Eurythmics’ electricity; in the song’s video, Lennox is a commandingly chic presence with orange cropped hair and piercing eyes, beside enigmatic bearded partner Stewart. I’d never heard anything quite so ominous and alluring before; decades later, the track still entrances me, like some sacred disco inferno. Lennox would describe Sweet Dreams… as a “nihilistic” song in a 2017 Guardian interview, adding: “It’s about surviving the world”.

According to Lennox, 'I felt like we were in a dream world, that whatever we were chasing was never going to happen' (Credit: Getty Images)

According to Lennox, ‘I felt like we were in a dream world, that whatever we were chasing was never going to happen’ (Credit: Getty Images)

I would navigate my own little world, soundtracked by Eurythmics at every stage. Pop culture in the ’80s boasted a whirl of androgynous superstars such as Prince, Boy George and Bowie – but the mainstream media remained conservative, and Eurythmics’ gender-and-genre-fluid visions still seemed exceptionally bold. They were expressive; undaunted (DIY-driven until commercial success allowed for big budgets); sleekly glamorous by their own design.

I was fascinated by how Lennox transformed through different personas: playing both a hyper-feminine temptress and a male alter-ego for songs such as Love Is a Stranger (1982/3) and Who’s That Girl? (1983); in the latter video, her female and male guises steal a kiss, while Stewart’s various party dates include Bananarama (featuring his real-life future wife, Siobhan Fahey) and Blitz boy Marilyn. A rare chemistry endures between Lennox and Stewart (who were formerly a romantic couple): contrasting tensions and tenderness, never eclipsing one another; aptly, they titled their penultimate album We Too Are One (1989). For an impressionable young pop fan in rootless suburbs, Eurythmics projected a shape-shifting beauty; they made not fitting in feel triumphant.

The duo's chemistry encompassed 'contrasting tensions and tenderness' (Credit: Getty Images)

The duo’s chemistry encompassed ‘contrasting tensions and tenderness’ (Credit: Getty Images)

By the time I was 10, I’d spend most of my pocket money in pursuit of pop. A “50p” discount store in Liverpool sold ex-jukebox vinyl, allowing me to collect Eurythmics’ singles such as 1985’s It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back), a brassy synth serenade with dazzling visuals (at the end of its video, Lennox and Stewart’s bodies dissolve into abstract Memphis-style graphics). Aged 11 at Ormskirk market, I bought my first “serious” album: a cassette of Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams… LP, and played it repeatedly over the following year. An adult world seemed to emerge through its electronic tracks: murky, but irresistibly approaching, like the underground rhythm of its final track: This City Never Sleeps.

Musical escape

My Iraqi parents’ work as doctors would soon move the family to South London, and then – in a surreal twist for my mother, my little sister, and 13-year-old me – to Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Being female suddenly meant zero freedom of movement; being a pop fan meant I could secretly escape through music. Bargain-priced bootleg cassette shops were prolific in late-’80s Al-Khobar, despite the official Saudi line that music was “haram” (forbidden by Islamic law). My first purchase there was a 10-riyal tape of Eurythmics’ 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother) album: their underrated music for the film adaptation of Orwell’s novel (which was also my favourite book). I was startled by the strangeness of Eurythmics’ soundtrack (as was the film’s director, apparently), but it proved a perfectly warped pop response to my stifling surrounds: the defiantly catchy Sexcrime; the spiralling doom of Room 101. I still love this album, along with the other Eurythmics’ tapes I bought in Al-Khobar: their breezily experimental 1981 debut In the Garden (featuring members of Can, DAF and Blondie), and the rockier anthems of 1986’s Revenge (although on my copy, a Saudi censor had hand-drawn a dress to conceal Lennox’s bare shoulders).

Lennox told The Guardian: 'I was trying to be the opposite of the cliche of the female singer. I wanted to be as strong as a man' (Credit: Getty Images)

Lennox told The Guardian: ‘I was trying to be the opposite of the cliche of the female singer. I wanted to be as strong as a man’ (Credit: Getty Images)

As I’ve grown up, certain aspects of Eurythmics’ music intensify – the elegance and eloquence of the delivery; the subversive humour; the feminist force; the powerful vulnerability. All of these elements blaze brilliantly on their 1987 opus Savage; the accompanying video album (mostly directed by rising visionary Sophie Muller) portrays Lennox in contrasting roles: a hyper-tense housewife; a platinum vamp snarling I Need a Man. Eurythmics have long sealed their commercial stardom and cross-genre influence, earning numerous awards; they’ve also been contrary, unpredictable, resolutely anti-cool – they’re pivotal, and also timeless.

In an archive Eurythmics feature (in US magazine SPIN, August 1985), Lennox displayed impressive candour about mental health, at a time when the topic was a showbiz taboo. “It’s like an adolescent depression that you get when you’re about 15, and it never quite leaves you,” she explained. “It’s always there and it’s also been the source of my creativity as well to a degree… this awful sort of angst and greyness about existence. Part of the reason why I’ve ever written songs was to deal with that.”

Shape shifters

As a music journalist and fangirl, I’ve been lucky to interview the respective halves of Eurythmics. Stewart was charismatic, easy-going, fragrant with fancy cologne, given to epic ad-hoc excursions (including stage musicals, and a “supergroup” with Mick Jagger, AR Rahman, Joss Stone and Damian Marley). Lennox was more starkly reflective. “A lot of the time, I came across as quite defensive and chilly,” she told me, in 2013. “I was provocative and I wanted to make people think about gender issues. But it was actually tough being called a ‘gender bender’ because the press often used the term like an undermining insult.

Lennox played with gender in the different personas she adopted (Credit: Getty Images)

“The orientation of my sexuality was constantly up for grabs. My statement was actually about the lack of power of women. I stood next to my partner in Eurythmics as an equal. Dave and I complemented each other – we felt like two parts of a jigsaw puzzle.”

I’ve never caught Lennox and Stewart onstage together, yet their shared legacy always casts a spell. I’ll never forget Lennox’s heart-stirring rendition of Here Comes the Rain Again (an intimate solo date with the BBC Concert Orchestra, 2007). In 2019, I reviewed a starry celebration of Eurythmics’ songbook, as part of Nile Rodgers’ Meltdown Festival; Lennox was undeniably missed, but Stewart was on splendid form, quipping: “Annie and I tricked people into thinking we were all sorts”.

Perhaps pop is an elaborate illusion, but I still hear my life in Eurythmics’ pulse: it’s an exhilarating escape; a place to be yourself tonight; a kind of extraordinary homecoming.

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