Annie Lennox at 65: an affectionate appreciation

Born in the grey granite city of Aberdeen on Christmas Day 1954, Scottish singer-songwriter, activist and iconoclast, Annie Lennox is undoubtedly one of the most formidable female figures in popular music. She also turns 65 today, so here’s a little bit of a recap.

As the song says, cooler than ice cream and warmer than the sun. Utterly unique, striking, spectacular, in the 1980s Annie Lennox gave androgyny a whole new meaning. How could she be so feminine, so beautiful in such ‘boys’ wear like that sharp-cut business suit she wore for Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), the Eurythmics breakthrough record in 1983? That she was quoted as saying “I love to be individual. To step beyond gender.” sums up her entire oeuvre

And what timing. 1983 was the year of the second British Invasion in the American Billboard charts, spearheaded by David BowieDuran Duran, Wham! and, most importantly in this context, Culture Club led by the gender-bending boy-girl-rag-doll, Boy George. Still in their first year of success, it’s easy to forget how deliciously deviant Annie appeared, coming over like the slinky secret lovechild of Grace Jones and Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust alter-ego; an androgynous feline chameleon with a shorn shock of a bright orange buzz-cut, singing and looking like she’d been beamed down from Mars.

The Sweet Dreams album rose to third spot in Britain, and when the deliciously daring Love Is A Stranger – for me the much more impressive single –  was re-promoted and hit the top ten the duo’s place in British music history was assured. With its impressively insistent Roland 606 beat, the song sounds as fresh and provocative as ever. After seeing the video to Love Is a Stranger, one aghast US critic branded Lennox “a youth-corrupting transvestite”. I know, right.

Could this “pervy synth duo” (copyright, future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, writing in Smash Hits) – tempting you to jump into that open car and perform unspeakable acts on the leather seats with that bewigged ‘lady’ of the night – really have risen from the ashes of the critically-derided Tourists? The same flouncy Sixties pastichists known for covering Dusty Springfield songs to get a hit? Oh yes. And how.

Aberdeen native, Ann Lennox had met David Stewart when she was working as a waitress in, not a cocktail bar but Pippins, a health food restaurant in Hampstead, north London. According to legend, the eccentric Sunderland-born Stewart walked into the eatery wearing a fur coat, and carrying two plastic carrier bags, spotted Annie and asked her to marry him. The fact that he was already married to someone, a bride union with a nurse, was a minor detail. The pair started an intense affair and formed a band, The Catch, releasing their only single, Borderline, in 1977.

The Catch evolved into The Tourists, gaining a hit in 1979 with I Only Want To Be With You but the group broke up acrimoniously during an Australian tour the following year. In something of a debt-ridden depression, her four-year relationship with Stewart fell victim to her breakdown and the pressures of working together. Nonetheless, they resumed their professional relationship and went on to form Eurythmics, releasing their debut album In The Garden in 1981.

By the time of the duo’s third long-player, Touch, they were unstoppable. Featuring three memorable Top 10 hits in the UK: the calypso disco Right By Your Side, the haunting Here Comes The Rain Again, and the wonderful Who’s That Girl. The video for the latter took the gender fluidity to another level, introducing the character of Earl, a slick-backed rocker more than a little bit inspired by the clad-in-black Elvis Presley of the ’68 Comeback Special. At the 26th Grammys in 1984 Annie stole the show, giving an utterly inflammatory performance that’s still talked about almost 35 years later.

An often misunderstood duo, Eurythmics released eight great albums between 1981’s experimental In The Garden and 1989’s ironically titled We Two Are One, plus one lacklustre reunion, 1999’s Peace. Yet despite their co-writing credits, it was her collaborator and producer Dave Stewart who was frequently cast as the musical genius, much to her chagrin. I wonder if he knew how she felt?

The seven-million-selling success of Lennox’s entirely self-written solo debut, Diva, in 1992, confirmed her creative independence and her international superstar status. The set is home to her first go-it-alone single, Why, an astonishingly brutal ballad of existentialism and surely one of the most perfectly formed songs ever written. Interestingly, Diva is probably Annie’s most ‘feminine’ record, rivalled only by the dark and chilly masterpiece that is Savage Eurythmics, which just happens to be my favourite album by anyone, ever. Yup, it’s that clever.

Famously one of the greatest untrained voices of all time, Annie’s incredible vocal prowess is strong and ballsy but is so chock-full of emotiveness it could reduce you to tears too. Musically, the Lennox songbook is awash with glorious melodies, seductive harmony and shiny, sophisticated arrangements. It’s intelligent pop music for grown-ups, a work of wisdom and integrity to compare with the very best of other such mature populists Sting, Pet Shop Boys and the dearly departed George Michael.

Although a much admired figure on the streets and in the industry (she holds the record for the female feted with the most Brit awards ever, and second overall to one Robbie Williams), her solo career has been sporadic and never really came close to topping the all-conquering Diva. Her last album of original material was 2007’s Songs of Mass Destruction, featuring the single, Sing (above) that featured a female cast of plenty, including Celine Dion, Gladys Knight and that rebel tart, Madonna.

No matter. Lennox’s place in history is assured. As well as a singer songwriter, she’s a wife (her third husband is a gynaecologist, handily), mum of two, blogger, campaigner and humanitarian. Annie’s widely considered a gay icon for her LGBT, HIV and feminist activism, something she continues to this day making bold statements as she challenges the depictions of women in modern pop culture.

As she told Jo Wiley at her impressive Evening Of Music & Conversation one-off at Sadler’s Wells in London last year, Annie Lennox thinks everyone should be a feminist, male and female. But while her activism and philanthropy is stronger than ever, Lennox’s songwriting has slowed to pace even a snail would run rings round: in the last 25 years she’s released just six albums (five solo plus 1999’s Eurythmics reunion, Peace) and three of them are actually covers-based projects.

The elusive La Lennox isn’t known for her love of treading the boards either, with her live appearances coming along less often than a change of government. Due to a three-pronged retreat (motherhood, non-love of the limelight and a bad back) she’s only toured three times since the 1980s, most recently in 2007. So it’s slightly galling to admit I’ve never actually attended a full length Annie solo concert.** And the one-off appearance at the posh performing arts and dance venue in Clerkenwell was no such thing either.

Billed as An Evening of Music and Conversation, all proceeds from the event went to The Circle, the NGO charity the ever altruistic Lennox founded to boost women’s rights across the globe. It drew a starry crowd, 1,500-strong and appropriately dressed up – apart from the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who took the view that an old raincoat won’t let you down.

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In May of this year, Annie trod the boards in similar fashion, launching her mysterious new art installation, Now I Let You Go, with an exclusive one-woman solo concert and talk at the MASS MoCA, similar in format to her Sadler’s Wells show, but this time the venue was America’s largest contemporary art museum, situated close to the tri-state border of Massachusetts, Vermont and New York.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have worked with or interviewed the majority of my teen idols, but except for a brief chat about Bowie at the Brits (the year he won the Outstanding Contribution to Music gong but got totally upstaged by Jarvis Cocker stage invading Michael Jackson), the former Eurythmic always eluded me. However, at the post-show meet and greet she said something to me that has got me buzzing, though I tried to not get too excited with my dodgy ticker.

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In a 2018 issue of Classic Pop magazine, Annie mentioned how she’d read a feature on the Eurythmics Savage album and that “One journalist wrote this wonderful piece about it, how it’s a masterpiece and how people never recognised it as the most extraordinary piece of music of its time.”

She didn’t mention the journalist by name but I felt almost certain she was referring to my blog article, as I was the only one to pen something substantial for the album’s 30th anniversary a few months earlier.

Well, tonight Matthew, I got the confirmation I was looking for.

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“Was that you? Steve? Wow. I loved it! You are a wonderful writer. There’s a real art to your use of words, it was like reading poetry. Thank you for writing it.”

Of course, I was delighted beyond words. I cannot tell you how beautiful it was to hear such compliments from such a formidable singer songwriter.

Still full of surprises, Annie closed 2019 by teaming up with Dave Stewart in New York for a three-song Eurythmics live set at a Sting & Friends We’ll Be Together the Concert for the Rainforest Fund. It’s a bit special.

What a woman. What a role model. What an inspiration.

Happy birthday Annie, and Sweet dreams everyone!

Steve Pafford

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