“I don’t think anybody in the public has a clue who Annie is, really”, Dave Stewart once said of his musical soulmate. As our first Londnr Artist of the Month, we look back over her four decades in the recording business, skimming through her gallery of striking on-stage personae and looking at the progression of her musical styles, as we celebrate the elusive, astonishing, audacious, one and only Annie Lennox.
Early steps in music began at London’s Royal Academy of Music, studying flute as a performer and piano as a second instrument. She found it stultifying and uncomfortable, rejecting the competitive element of musicianship. Describing Stewart’s arrival in her life as “a bomb going off”, they formed little-remembered punk band The Catch, which evolved into the new wave band, The Tourists. Despite releasing three albums in two years, The Tourists had little chart success minus a Dusty Springfield cover, ‘I Only Want to Be with You’. Worse still, the UK music press trashed them.
Ironically, touring took its toll and The Tourists disbanded in late 1980, with Lennox and Stewart’s romantic relationship ending shortly after. Remarkably, the couple’s musical partnership remained not only intact, but found added drive to create a new sound. Something experimental. Something avant-garde. Something revolutionary.
After an album In The Garden (1981) that musically feels like a bridge between what had been and what would be, Lennox and Stewart as the Eurythmics found that synthpop sound with their quintessential electronic album, Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) (1983). It was a thrilling juxtaposition; a warm, traditional American R’n’B vibe laid over a modern chilly European synthesiser soundscape. The distinctive sound was married with striking, unnerving visuals. Their breakthrough single, ‘Sweet Dreams’ sees Lennox in a boardroom, with a vivid orange crew cut and masculine suit. As she taps a cane into her gloved hand, her stated intent is nothing short of unflinching world (and sexual) domination. The commercial success they craved kicked-off with this classic single reaching #2.
Although Bowie’s ever-changing images of The Seventies were the blueprint, Annie Lennox was undoubtedly the first woman in mainstream pop continuously to blur gender roles. Changing character, costume and coiffure drastically in videos, Lennox would portray extremes of masculinity and femininity. In the promo video for the single ‘Who’s That Girl?’ (1983), Lennox plays two characters: a pretty nightclub singer in a sixties blonde wig and a rough-looking male Lothario complete with dark sideburns. At the end of the video, male and female Lennox figures are joined in a kiss.
Lennox further pushes the gender boundaries with her controversial 1984 American Grammy Awards performances as her Presley-style male alter ego, Earl. Throughout the Eurythmics’ career, and while launching her solo career with the album Diva (1992), Annie returned with an array of striking characterisations, reflecting androgyny or drag. The Madonna-whore complex is explored in the psychodrama of the Savage video (1988) where Lennox plays dual roles as a repressed, bourgeois, dark-haired housewife and an overtly sexual blonde siren.
Assuming characters like a cloak and working with alter-egos served to keep audiences interested, but it also stopped her being objectified or sexualised in the manner record companies often expect of female singers. However, this myriad of roles made it hard for the public to get a sense of the “real” Lennox. Whilst talented contemporary Alison Moyet was warmly embraced as down-to-earth and likeable, and Kate Bush was critically canonised for her musical unworldliness, Lennox’s images served to keep audiences at arms-length in their affections; always admired, rather than loved. From her Medusa album (1995) onwards, with Lennox now in her forties, there is a noticeable shift in presentation. The characterisations become more natural. By Annie’s American Songbook covers album Nostalgia (2014), the buffer of her constructed characters is gone.
After legal wrangling and underwhelming sales of 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother) (1984), the Eurythmics’ predominantly avant-garde soundtrack album, the band headed in a more conventional direction. Be Yourself Tonight (1985) was a work heavy in three Gs: guitars, gospel choirs and guests. With an eye on the American market and influenced by the band’s extensive touring, a rock sound dominated. Though Lennox’s bell-like purity of voice is evident on some tracks, nowhere more than the blissful introduction to ‘There Must Be An Angel (Playing with My Heart)’, she also finds a more bombastic soulful vocal style on songs like ‘Would I Lie to You?’ and ‘Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves’, duetting with the legendary Aretha Franklin.
In 1987, the Eurythmics left the stadium rock behind and returned to more imaginative, unconventional, electronic material with the part-masterpiece, part-filler album, Savage. Although it stalled commercially, it remains a fascinating, unsettling quasi-concept album. Whilst marvelling at their productivity, which sold 75 million records and produced eight studio albums, one soundtrack and one remix album in ten years, with the exception of Savage, there’s little doubt that diminishing returns seem to have limited their musical ambitions.
The promise of Lennox’s extraordinarily creative, confident debut solo work, Diva (1992), an album that features that glorious melancholic anthem ‘Why’, the pop empowerment stomper ‘Little Bird’ and the heart-breaking strength-through-breakup ballad ‘The Gift’, was not realised by the subsequent albums as Lennox’s focus increasingly grew on her humanitarian activist work. “Motherhood changed me hugely” She acknowledged in 2013. Appearing on Woman’s Hour in 2015, Lennox elaborated that she enjoyed performing much less: “When I was a younger musician, in my twenties, thirties or even my forties, I had such a passion for music. I ate, lived and breathed music. And the change came when I was fortunate enough to have two healthy babies.”
The major catalyst to becoming heavily involved in charity work and political activism came in 2003, when she travelled to South Africa to be part of the concert in Cape Town to launch Nelson Mandela’s 46664 HIV/Aids charity. Lennox cites being taken to townships to witness the pandemic in the face as a turning point. “I saw how women and children were being so badly affected” Lennox told a US interviewer. “And as a mother myself, I wanted to make my contribution as a woman”.
An outspoken advocate of women’s rights and the writer of ‘Sisters (Are Doing It For Themselves’ which she describes as an anthem for women, Lennox made the surprising admission in conversation at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery talk in 2013: “It took me a long time for me to own the label of feminism because I never felt I was hard core enough”. She hit the headlines when she described Beyoncé as “Feminist-Lite” adding in a subsequent interview, “Twerking is not feminism. It’s a sexual thing you’re doing on a stage; it doesn’t empower you.”
Returning to music with the somewhat-overlooked “Nostalgia” (2014), we discover a mature artist that might be the real Annie Lennox. Her image or commerciality no longer a focus, she lets down her guard and performs most of these songs from the American Songbook with a candour and a sentimentality that is disarmingly affecting. Annie Lennox is one of Britain’s living legends, an icon and a pioneer – but she has also been the queen of smoke and mirrors. Now that she’s finally dropped the act, we can see that underneath it all she’s still pure magic.
SWEET DREAMS (ARE MADE OF THIS) – 1983
A timeless collection of commercial and avant-garde pop – mordant cynicism, sentimentality banished, pristine vocals and icy synths conjure a fearsome, unflinching vision of the world. (Buy Album)
TOUCH – 1983
The sheer confidence of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart’s creative partnership roots itself into every song of this shimmering, fierce collection of electronica. (Buy Album)
SAVAGE – 1987
Fierce unflinching psycho-melodrama played out across eleven songs. An uncomfortable voyage into dysfunction that never neglects to be melodic. (Buy Album)
DIVA – 1992
“When I write songs, it affirms who I am”. Annie’s debut album reflects on her place in the world with an album of striking, poignant pop. (Buy Album)
NOSTALGIA – 2014
The mask drops. A simple joy to hear Annie Lennox, direct, engaged and immersed, plunging into songs of beauty and pain. (Buy Album)
The highlights of our Artist of the Month have been curated in a playlist on our Spotify channel. Explore the range of Annie Lennox: