[REVIEW] Savage, the video album
Last Monday evening, just as I was finishing this post, I got a call from talktooloose inviting me over to his place to watch the Eurythmics’ long-form video for their 1987 album Savage. That one item was the only significant Eurythmics item out of all of their videos and songs that I’ve managed to miss, excluding the minor and instrumental B-side “Dub Angel.” I’ve got all of their albums, all of their B-sides save the aforementioned “Dub Angel,” and their Greatest Hits video compilation back on PEI on VHS. The Savage video album is legendary, unique as a sustained effort to develop a single storyline over an entire album’s worth of videos.
I watched the first five songs on the video album with talktooloose and Snake. Supper intervened, an excellent chicken dish made by Snake. The last seven songs followed. A subsequent game of National Geographic On Assignment followed, demonstrating (among other things) that I shouldn’t go to Kensington Market to haggle over groceries, since odds are that if I was ever sent out to buy a watermelon I’d come back with the fruit and boasting about the great installment plan I was given. The entire evening was a welcome break from the norm, and fun: It was good to see Snake and Tutu for the first time since May, quite enjoyable to spend time with talktooloose and Gougou, and the food and drink were excellent.
I don’t think that it would be rude, though, to say that the video took center stage, at least for the purposes of this posting.
I’m bad at finding patterns in my personal life. At least, that’s what I like to tell myself, since I find it somewhat scary to imagine that persistent confusion and lapses of insight about oneself is common. I say this by way of explaining how surprised I was when I realized, Monday night after I left talktooloose at his home, that my past decade of strong interest in Annie Lennox could readily be assimilated to the gay/bisexual male tradition of strong interest in female divas. Consider that I own all of the albums of the Eurythmics and Annie Lennox, that I have on mp3 Annie’s B-sides and rare tracks and most of the Eurythmics’ B-sides and rare tracks, that I have a frightening command for the details of the biography and discography of Annie Lennox. Oh, and that I have forty different remixes of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” stored on my desktop.
Let’s work from this paradigm. The available literature suggests that interest in the diva is sustained largely by her image; in music, as evidenced by Jennifer Lopez the diva hardly even needs to have any identifiable musical voice. What is there in the image of Annie Lennox? She’s famed for an androgyny which was at its most severe in the first part of the 1980s but which is present even now. She also possesses a certain sense of distance and reserve. Unlike Boy George–her companion on the cover of a 1984 issue of Newsweek on the new British invasion–she never seemed approachable. This image of hers can provide a useful framework for the study of her only long-form video album. What images does she sustain over the course of this video? Are they attractive? Why are they attractive?
The biographical details I draw upon in this posting and the citations that I use can all be found in Bryony Sutherland and Lucy Ellis’ Annie Lennox: The Biography. The book badly needed an editor to clean up the bad writing, but it’s an excellent source of information.
Savage was the seventh Eurythmics album, written, produced, and marketed in 1987. By 1987, the Eurythmics had managed to secure a fairly prominent position in the British popular music community. They’d first come to prominence with their 1982 single “Sweet Dreams,” but the strength of their music and the innovativeness of their videos had managed to make them global stars. With each new release–1983’s Touch, 1984’s soundtrack album for the movie version of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1985’s Be Yourself Tonight–the Eurythmics gained more and more popularity, with Be Yourself Tonight featuring collaborations with Aretha Franklin (“Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves“) and Elvis Costello (“Adrian“).
Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart thought of their 1986 album Revenge as the album that would break them in the United States, where they hadn’t managed to break beyond their original niche of British New Wave singles artist. The album did sell massively in the United States and in Europe, and it did produce a major transatlantic hit in the single “Missionary Man.” However, Revenge as a whole was widely criticized as soulless, as a bland imitation of American middle-of-the-road rock music. The long and grueling worldwide tour following the release of Revenge wore at the morale of the two, particularly at the more private Annie. To top it off, the mutual alienation and resentment which ended up precipitating the Eurythmics’ breakup in 1990 started to build up, coincidentally at the same time that the two former romantic partners got married and began planning families (Annie to Israeli filmmaker Uri Fruchtmann, Dave to British pop star Siobhan Fahey).
Savage has been presented as the precursor to Annie Lennox’s later solo career, drawing upon the same themes of romantic breakdown and personal isolation present in her three solo albums (1992’s Diva, 1995’s Medusa , and 2003’s Bare). This is true to a certain extent, but Savage is still very much a Eurythmics album, not least since Dave Stewart wrote all of the music and produced the album. Most accounts–for instance, Sutherland and Ellis’–suggest that Annie and Dave wrote the album as individuals:
“The thing was, I recorded the whole album without Annie being there,” Dave [. . .] announced in Vox. “Annie came in twice in three months because she was so fucked up. She’d just split up with somebody. I made the whole album virtually on my own. Then I met Annie in Paris and we were great friends again, and she did the vocals in a week, just poured it out” (287).
The resulting album has been widely acclaimed by Eurythmics fans as their most lyrically and musically inventive album. Unfortunately, this acclaim didn’t translate into big sales. Largely electronic after several years of increasing reliance on more traditional guitar-driven forms of popular music, it didn’t resonate with the buyers of Revenge. It didn’t help matters that Dave and Annie, exhausted by their previous tour and reluctant to damage their fragile new equilibrium, refused to tour. Instead, they released a video album, recording a different music video for each of Savage‘s 12 songs. The 12 videos were produced by Oil Factory Films, a music video company founded with Dave’s help in 1985, with Sophie Muller directing the songs in close cooperation with Annie.
The video wasn’t a big seller. It, like its album, has nonetheless managed to acquire an exalted reputation.
Savage Album Track Listing
1. Beethoven (I Love To Listen To)
2. I’ve Got A Lover (Back In Japan)
3. Do You Want To Break Up?
4. You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart
7. I Need A Man
8. Put The Blame On Me
10. Wide Eyed Girl
11. I Need You
12. Brand New Day
Savage Video Track Listing
1. Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)
2. I Need a Man
5. Wide Eyed Girl
6. Do You Want to Break Up?
7. I’ve Got a Lover (Back in Japan)
8. Put the Blame on Me
10. You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart
11. I Need You
12. Brand New Day
Savage is an album and a video organized around three themes: a voyeuristic interest in fame and the artifice of the stage; an examination of the damage done to human relations by fame; and, a rejection of celebrity and its discontents for a more honest and profound romantic love. The lyrics of “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” and “Shame” illustrate this tension most clearly. The first song is marked by a desire for the complete revelation of the most intimate details of life.
Take a girl like that
And put her in a natural setting
Like a cafe for example.
Along comes the boy
And he’s looking for trouble
With a girl like that
With a girl like that.
Who knows what they’ll decide to do.
Who knows what they’ll get up to.
I’d love to know.
“Shame,” though, begins on a different note entirely.
Now there’s a lifestyle
With painted lips
Now there’s a lifestyle
Everybody wants it
But it don’t exist
And I said shame…
In the dancehalls and the cinema
On the TV and the media
We loved you
In a somewhat disorganized fashion, Savage the album seems to make a case for the triumph of romantic love. Savage the video album does a better job, largely because the sequence of songs on the Savage video differs substantially from the sequence on the album proper, forming something that almost qualifies as a coherent narrative beginning with the first song and video.
“Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)“. The song’s title ironically references the holistic power frequently ascribed to classical music:
“It was like an abstract painting,” Annie attempted to explain. The whole thing is very symbolic, using that line ‘I love to listen to Beethoven’ was just something I wrote down one day, and for me it’s a symbol for when people feel really bad and they listen to classical music . . . They shut the windows, shut the door and listen to Wagner or something and it’s symbolising feeling bad. The song itself is like going into a person’s head and seeing all these fractured thoughts and emotions and everything being torn apart” (286).
“Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” and the Savage video begins with a shot of Annie Lennox, dressed as a dowdy housewife wearing a shoulder-length brown wig and a flowered print dress, sitting on a cough in her Seventies-style apartment, reciting the voyeuristic first lines of the song. The video then cuts to a shot of the bottom of a staircase, spiraling upwards as the beats in the first half-minute of the song reach a crescendo, finally breaking into the song proper and the apartment both. Annie’s housewife character busies herself with household chores in the presence of her young blonde daughter, who promptly sets to dancing around the room, knocking things off of shelves, and messing the room.
The housewife tries to cope, inexpertly chopping up vegetables while her daughter scrawls crayon on the white cupboard boards, cleaning up the dust that her offspring has poured over the furniture as bald drag queens dressed in leotards stand in the way. The reality of the housewife’s mundane world has begun to give away at the seams. Finally it tears: She flees the kitchen, goes to her vanity in her bedroom, and changes her appearance completely, replacing her brown wig with a curly platinum blonde one, putting on makeup, and choosing a tight-fitting white dress that liberally shows her cleavage. She then wrecks her apartment, finally destroying the order she once sought to preserve, and flees. The video’s final shot shows her striding confidently down the grim concrete streets of her neighbourhood, head and shoulders thrown back.
It?s fun. It works.
“I Need A Man“. When released as Savage third single, this song was presented as a feminist anthem, as a straightforward presentation of a woman’s need for sexual release. (It was secondarily presented as a potential gay anthem.) In the video, the blonde bombshell appears on stage, somewhat disoriented and questioning. This quickly passes as she grabs the microphone and begins singing the song. The director focuses entirely on the blonde bombshell as she gyrates, cutting away only when she finishes the song and throws the microphone. The video is then followed by an outro, following the bombshell as she staggers drunkenly down a corridor, slamming into doors.
“Heaven“. This largely electronic and instrumental track is marked by very simple lyrics, describing a generic endpoint:
Just what you need
I love to
Takes a little time
The video goes into considerably more detail. The blonde bombshell of “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” and “I Need a Man” has apparently become a star, residing in high-rise hotel rooms and being chauffeured around Hollywood (by Dave Stewart). She is, though, profoundly bored, utterly disenchanted with life. Once, I read a Japanese writer who observed that when he was told about the Christian concept of heaven, he was left utterly thrown: Why would anyone want to go to such a deadly dull place, freed from the casual sinful pleasures which make human life so enjoyable? The traditional Christian response would be that humans have fallen from their initial state of grace and cannot appreciate the profounder pleasures of heaven. The blonde bombshell has managed to get to her heaven, but whether eating hotel sushi, lying in the back of a convertible, or simply sitting, she finds it lacking. Whether it’s because of her own deficiencies or her heaven’s is left to the viewer to decide.
“Shame“. This video is the first one not directed by Sophie Muller. Largely animated with the exception of the images of Annie and Dave, she leaning her head back against his shoulder, it’s an effective series of collages showing icons of material wealth as Annie trills.
Now there’s a lifestyle with fashion chic
Now there’s a lifestyle
Everybody in it wants to be elite
and I said:
You with your brand-new shoes
and you with your greasy hair and
You with your mothers pride
don’t you want to feel the –
“Shame” looks vaguely like the previous year’s “Sledgehammer” video by Peter Gabriel, in that it combines live action with animation for a single synergistic effect. Unlike many of the other videos influenced by “Sledgehammer,” I’d argue that the passionate music and the innovative images combine here to make a video that works quite nicely.
“Wide Eyed Girl“. The video for this song begins with an interesting introductory clip about a half-minute in length, as Annie is dressed like a schoolgirl from the 1960s with long blonde hair, heavily spraying her hair as this faux girl-group song plays in the background, with lyrics something like those below:
Oh baby baby, won’t you take a chance,
Won’t you fall in love with me?
It’s time for a new romance,
Oh baby baby baby with me
My head is pounding, my heart is weak
It’s gonna sweep me off my feet
My heart is pounding, my legs are so–
Ooh! I love you so
She meets her beau, a young man dressed like an outlaw in leather, and they kiss. They meet again, and she presents to him her pregnant belly. After some hurried tearful discussion, they get married and the child is born. An effective montage follows the child as she grows into a teenager “with teased up hair,” a “wide eyed girl/Of a tender age./Just moving out of her sensitive phase.” She brings her boyfriends–young men who look like her father when he was their age, and a bit like Dave Stewart–over to her bedroom, decorated with music and travel posters on its walls. Her mother, played by an Annie who looks like a cross between the housewife and the blonde, is predictably hostile. In the end, it’s an Italian boyfriend, brought back from a trip to Rome, who causes the final breakdown of the mother-daughter relationship, when a nasty three-way pillow fight between the mother, the daughter, and the boyfriend ends in the daughter packing her bags and leaving home over her mother’s tearful protests. The wide-eyed girl, in rejecting her mother, ended by imitating her mother’s actions. This video easily ranks as one of the strongest on the video album. It’s a minor mystery why this rousing song wasn’t issued as a single.
“Do You Want to Break Up?“. This bizarre video cuts between two sequences. The first, filmed in monochrome, shows Annie as she’s writhing in bed, about to wake up. The second, filmed in colour, shows Annie as the housewife at the beginning, dancing and dodging thrown plates in front of a painted simulacra of a Swiss Alpine landscape, interspersed with shots of Swiss men drinking and betting. What, if anything, this video is trying to communicate–perhaps a shot at her Hare Krishna ex-husband, who owned a Swiss cottage with her?–is beyond me.
“I’ve Got a Lover (Back in Japan)“. Though this, the second video not directed by Sophie Muller, isn’t as effective as “Shame,” it’s not half bad. The video begins with a shot of Annie recognizable as herself in the back seat of a limousine, tracing a picture of the Swiss Alps that she then tears up and throws out the window. The remainder of the video comprises concert footage intermingled with more images of Annie. “Poignantly filmed looking out of a high-rise window over a vast city, Annie is permitted to observe everything yet is stiflingly trapped and unable to join in” (295).
“Put the Blame on Me“. This is another animated video. The song’s lyrics are dominated by confusion, by Annie’s masochistic desire to impose the blame for a relationship’s breakdown on herself. The video is fairly simple, directionless and somewhat confusing in its own right, with paint swirling over blurred film images of Annie. The video produces an interesting effect.
“Savage“. Here, the blonde bombshell from the earlier videos makes a reappearance, as the subject of relentless attention from the paparazzi. Listless and despairing, she allows them to photograph her relentlessly. The idea behind the video is interesting, but “Savage” tends to drag on.
“You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart“. “You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart” was one of the biggest hits on Savage. In the 1990s, Annie frequently cited it as one of her favourite songs from the Eurythmics era and performed it live as a solo artist. It’s a well-constructed 80s pop song, with sophisticated lyrics and good synthesized music. It deserves to be better known.
The video begins with sweeping shots of Annie walking barefoot in a long black coast across a windswept desert. As she stops, she sings the first lyrics:
Take me to the desert
Where there’s got to be
A whole heap of nothing for you and me
Take me to the desert
Take me to the sand
Show me the colour of your right hand.
With the final line, she presents her hand to the camera to reveal a neon dollar sign flashing intermittently above a heart. In an emotional wasteland where money outranks loves, a dejected Annie is left with nowhere to go. The video then cuts to the housewife from “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” as she shops for groceries, but the housewife soon tires. Annie then stands between the housewife and the starlet who are arguing the pros and cons of their respective lifestyles–a life bound by duty on the one hand, a life excluding authentic human relationships on the other. She dismisses them both, and then enters a “Live Girls Show.” The video then returns to her emotional wasteland, where Annie walks into an embraced from a faceless man played by her husband. The video ends with the world spinning around her as she laughs ecstatically, having found “someone to hold.” She has been redeemed.
“I Need You“. “I Need You” is a simply constructed song dominated by Annie’s voice and Dave’s acoustic guitar, a fairly desperate plea begging a lover to stay. The video was filmed in black and white, showing the Eurythmics in recognizable form at the back of a room in which there’s a bustling party. Annie sings, looking glum, as people pass in front of her, while Dave is intent on the guitar. When the song ends, hardly anyone notices.
“Brand New Day“. This, the concluding video on the Savage video album, is an interesting little drama performed on a stage. A group of young girls enters the stage one by one, performing Eurhythmics, a style of instructional dance learned by Annie as a child and later the source of her band’s title. At the end of an a cappella section, Annie bursts onto the scene as confetti falls. As the curtain closes and applause grows, Annie and the young girls step forward to take a bow.
Savage the album was treated by reviewers as Annie’s therapy album, as the forum she used not only to express the stress and alienation she suffered from her stardom, but to communicate her relief and happiness at finally finding a reliable life partner. Through the different characters–the housewife, the blonde bombshell, the mother, finally Annie herself in one recognizable persona or another–a sort of progression can be detected in Annie’s characters. All of them begin in marginal or unwanted positions, as an alienated housewife or a depressive rock star or an overprotective mother. They try, in the course of the individual videos and in the video album as a whole, to innovative within their prescribed roles (to reject an unrewarding home, to adopt the full of stardom, to keep their children from repeating their own mistakes). They invariably fail. Only when Annie, recognizably herself, decides to innovate by breaking away from her prescribed role entirely is a happy ending possible.
talktooloose commented while watching “Wide Eyed Girl” that Annie Lennox never seemed to be as free and adventurous in her solo career as she was in her Eurythmics videos. Indeed, beginning almost with her first post-Eurythmics solo single–a cover of Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” for the Red Hot and Blue album–Annie has consistently opted for relatively quiet and introspective songs over loud and outgoing songs, as well as for more-or-less sedate and conventional videos over wild ones like “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” or “Wide Eyed Girl.” In her sparse solo career, Annie has followed Laurie Brown‘s observation that if Annie had her way the Eurythmics would painstakingly prepare albums for release every two or three years. Even Eurythmics’ 1999 reunion album, Peace, was marked by Annie’s reserve, despite Dave’s more energetic presence.
Annie’s personal life seems to have been dominated by a search for personal stability. Classical success and stardom don’t seem to have been major issues for her, if anything being obstacles to her happiness and her privacy; “Legend in my Living Room“‘s refrain “Have mercy on me” nicely sums up her attitude towards stardom. Her marriage in 1987 to Uri Fruchtmann, and the two daughters produced by this marriage, seem to represent her personal fulfillment. In the end, Annie did just what Savage suggested she might do and opted almost entirely out of the conventional star system. And she managed to win a happy ending for herself, after all.
Savage the video album is a good, if uneven, work of art. In the end, it fell short of its potential thanks to the poor unity of the album’s videos. It would have helped if, for instance, the characters introduced in the first few videos–the housewife, the blonde bombshell, the mother–appeared in the later videos. If the track listing was rearranged–if, say, “Savage” appeared between “Wide Eyed Girl” and “Do You Want to Break Up?” in order to bridge the gap between romantic fervour and romantic disillusion–the video album would have gained considerably in coherence.
As a first sketch of an emergent art form, and on the strengths of many of its component videos, however, Savage the video album works very nicely indeed. It’s just a pity that so few artists seem to have followed up on the Eurythmics’ example.