Thanks to the birth and immediate ubiquity of MTV in the eighties, English duo Eurythmics — who won the VMA for Best New Artist back in 1984 — will forever be associated with their artsy, edgy videos. But, in fact, the former couple-and-collaborators Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart went on to release 20 international hits and sell 80 million albums over the course of their career. “We weren’t like an English band that didn’t cross over — we were literally number one in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Australia, Italy,” recalls Stewart. “We were flying all over the world and we could play to huge audiences and they would all know our songs.” And their legend lives on today: Not only were Eurythmics nominated for the 2018 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, they are re-releasing all eight studio albums on vinyl this year — including the haunting, dystopian soundtrack to the movie “1984” — tomorrow. On the eve of National Record Store Day, Variety sat down with the iconic artists in Los Angeles for a conversation about vinyl records, sex crimes and Taylor Swift.
What does Record Store Day mean to you?
Annie Lennox: I don’t really know. Our work that we did as Eurythmics — I’ve thought about it very rarely for a long time, does that make sense? And then all of a sudden, we’re told that we’ve been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s like déjà vu. I’m back to hanging out with Dave and talking about Eurythmics and listening to our tracks. It’s kind of a journey through a ten-year period of our lives. That represents something very intense and life-affecting. At the time that this was going on, I was just going forward. Now, it’s like looking back.
Dave Stewart: Obviously, at the age where when I was first getting into music, which was about 13 years old, there was only Record Store Day, if you know what I mean. I lived in Sunderland, a ship-building, coal-mining town town in the northeast of England with one record shop in it. And we had to queue when we knew something was coming out. EPs were like a prized possession because the shop in might only get like ten. Between the ages of 14 and 21, it was an obsession to be at the record shop virtually every day. It was a whole world. And in LA, Tower Records on Sunset wasn’t just a record store: It was a meeting place, a melding of minds among the staff and the customers. There was no dividing line — the people who worked there were as obsessed with music coming out as the customer was. Nowadays, the fact that some record stores in Britain and in America exist and are waving the flag and people are taking the time to press vinyl and try to recreate that feeling? I love it.
Are you still big fans of vinyl?
Lennox: I love vinyl, and it’s for a selfish reason: It’s because from a music/creative perspective, you get this beautiful page to put a visual concept on. It’s something you can touch and hold and read the lyrics when you open it up. It’s quite precious when you take out the inner sleeve. You don’t want to get fingerprints on the album itself. You must be careful how you place it on the record player; it’s a different ritual than just something invisible that is in the airwaves somewhere. I like all formats because they all play music quite effectively but out of them all, I would say that vinyl has the visual aspect to it. When they came out of a cassette player, the lyrics were teeny-tiny, but on vinyl, it’s like a slim book.
Your album “1984” is being released on red vinyl tomorrow. George Orwell’s book about Big Brother and the movie based on it and your soundtrack all seem eerily relevant now. And then the film’s director, Michael Radford, refused to use any of your music in the film.
Stewart: America is like an Orwellian state now. That whole album is like a soundtrack to today — a dark, scary soundtrack that doesn’t relent. Even the stunning, beautiful “Julia,” which is just strange sounds and Annie’s voice, is so desolate. It really is [about] that longing for the world that had some sanity when nature was something that you cherished. We’re not far away from that point. There are parts of our album where we are trying to point out that the state is trying to outlaw love. I don’t want to sound like: “Hey people, go buy the red vinyl of 1984, drink a bottle of gin and get depressed.” But it’s a very honest, raw, truthful album that Annie and I both love.
Lennox: It’s a great feeling to listen to the music that you made many decades ago and it sounds totally fresh, you know? When we made it, I thought: What will this sound like in the future? Because obviously Orwell was looking ahead to the oblivion of the dark system that is totally affecting our population. But we interpreted “1984” for us, and the director of the film interpreted the book for him, and he was at odds with us. We were never told that he had a whole other soundtrack that he wanted to be in his film. If we had been told, we never would have written “1984.”
Can you elaborate on what happened?
Lennox: We had a few phone calls and they said, “Please write this music,” and off we went. And we were so proud of it: We recorded it in three weeks and we went: “Wow, this is fantastic.” We thought it was one of the best things we’d done. We were waiting for their response and there was just silence. The next thing we hear is that the director has had a press conference and he has denounced Eurythmics, “this terrible group,” for foisting this music on his beautifully crafted film. We were completely flabbergasted.
The film’s producer, Richard Branson, personally asked you to record the “1984” soundtrack, correct?
Lennox: Yes! But Richard put us in this situation where we were the scapegoats. We were used and the blame was laid by the director unfairly and squarely on us. In retrospect, we understood what had gone on: Richard thought the director’s composer’s music wasn’t going to put people in seats, so he reached out to us because at that time, we were totally cutting edge and exploding. I went to a party years and years later and this stranger comes up and says: “Hello, I’m Michael Radford. And I’m the director of the film ‘1984’ and I need to apologize to you.” And I said, yes, you really do. But it’s OK, and thank you so much. Because this caused us, me and Dave, a lot of pain. We were completely innocent of what we were accused of.
Is sexual harassment something that you experienced as a young artist, Annie?
Lennox: I’m going to say this to you: The world of misogyny is not unknown to me. OK? But I would like to take us further than the music industry because to be honest I feel like what I have to say about that pales in comparison to what I know about misogyny as it plays out beyond the Western World. It’s actually a tiny bubble compared to what goes on in developing countries where women have absolutely zero control over what happens to them in terms of misogynistic behavior from men. I want to be a mouthpiece for the larger picture.
Also about gender, it’s worth noting that Annie was a pioneer in terms of images that challenged the way many people think about societal norms.
Stewart: All of these discussions about gender [are happening now] even though in 1984 we were coming on the Grammys with Annie with side burns like Elvis and watching the audience just about have a panic attack as we did “Sweet Dreams.” We were sort of playing with all that back then.
Lennox: It was clear to us that we could use our bodies and our clothing to convey subliminal messaging. And at that time, as an artist, when we were creating “Sweet Dreams,” and Dave had the concept for the video, and that was our calling card to the world — “Sweet Dreams” did really explode globally. And that image [in the video] of this shorn-headed, gender ambiguous, androgynous persona — I think it was obvious to everybody that I was a female but some people questioned that at the time — was really about something to do with equality. That a woman could be equal to a man. I’m wearing the suit like Dave. I have the power that is equal to the man. But it went beyond that. We’re talking a lot about gender right now because we must — it’s the time for that conversation so that we can change the landscape.
Of course, we are also talking a lot about race. For instance, Taylor Swift has come under fire for covering Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September”; some critics are saying it’s cultural appropriation.
Stewart: Are they talking about it just because she doesn’t sing like a soul singer? I haven’t heard Taylor’s version, but unless you do [a song] completely different like Devo doing “Satisfaction” [by the Rolling Stones] … I would not try to tackle singing an Al Green song in the same style as Al Green no matter if I was white, black or whatever. I just don’t think it’s a good idea. Annie singing “I Put a Spell on You” is fine because Annie is an amazing soul singer and she can sing it in an old style or a new style, whatever she wants. It’s still going to sound like a powerful vocal. We had a lot of that in the eighties, too, with sugary kind of white English bands trying to make soulful songs. But then if you go back, you had Dusty Springfield who was a white girl and an amazing singer signed to Motown. Right now we’re stuck in a pop bubble and it’s a bit repetitive for someone like myself.
Lennox: The conversation about Taylor Swift is a micro conversation about a macro situation. Now people are looking at skin color and we’re saying: Is it right that a person with white skin sings a song that has been written and performed by people [of color]? But I think it’s very relevant that we’re talking like this because we haven’t yet arrived at a fair place. And I think now that African-American artists are owning the [music] business more and more, we’ve got to see it in terms of: Remember when civil rights were coming in the sixties and people of color were disbarred from using restrooms, restaurants, hotels. It’s not that long ago. If you are a musician with white skin, you don’t really know what racism looks like because you haven’t lived it. It’s very important for white people to grasp. I have been so brokenhearted by racism and I have always wanted to see justice. How can the music industry address this? We can only come to that place where we don’t have to talk about it when justice and equality is served for everyone: Gender, color, all of it.
In 1985 you released a collaboration with Aretha Franklin, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” and two years later you put out a song called “I Need a Man.”
Lennox: That song is ironic. I see human beings as being contradictory. On the one hand, here is the strong women aspect: Sisters are doing it for themselves. And on the other hand: I need a man. It’s like: Yeah, as a heterosexual woman, I would be in that position. I need a man. And at the same time, it’s like: I also need a man like a fish needs a bicycle. You see, the thing is, if you ask any intelligent, heterosexual woman, they will probably tell you that they can’t find a decent man. It is the common subject for women over the age of 30; they’re looking for a decent partner and they are not to be found. And this is a big problem, a big issue for heterosexual women.
I read that Aretha was worried that “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” was a gay anthem. Is that true?
Lennox: Aretha was worried that it was a song about masturbation. I don’t blame her for asking, because as a singer, you need to understand. She had not written the song, so she wanted to understand better where the hell are we coming from. Honestly, it was not about that, so we just reassured her that there was no eroticism. It’s about sounding out their message, basically.
Your creative partnership has lasted longer than most marriages. What’s your secret?
Stewart: I think our secret was we did the marriage bit — well, we didn’t get married but we lived together for about four years. Then we broke up as a couple, and we decided to be a duo. It sounds mad but that worked out pretty well, because we’d been through the worst. We were dead serious. We were like: We’re going to do this.