Three decades ago this week, in Billboard Magazine’s September 3, 1983 edition, Eurythmics spent their one and only week at #1 on the Hot 100 singles chart with the title track from their second album “Sweet Dreams (are made of this).” Eurythmics were by no means an overnight success story, although it may have seemed that way to American fans introduced to their dazzling visuals and remarkable sound by MTV. Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart already had an extensive musical history together by the time of their only American number one. Six years earlier, they released first single “Borderline” as part of a trio called The Catch, which also included guitarist Pete Coombs. Their collaboration with Coombs would continue as they formed The Tourists, a power-pop five-piece that scored a handful of UK chart singles in the late ‘70s. Their most notable hits were “So Good To Be Back Home Again” and a cover of Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To Be With You,” both from their 1979 album “Reality Effect.” Their third and final album, 1980’s “Luminous Basement,” fizzled, and the group split. Dave and Annie were also ending a romantic relationship, but they realized their musical chemistry was so strong they should continue to collaborate. They struck out on their own as Eurythmics, intent on exploring a more experimental and electronic sound than the guitar-based rock they had created with The Tourists.
Eurythmics signed to RCA Records and their debut album, “In The Garden,” was released in 1981. “In The Garden” is an enigmatic collection of songs that mixes electronic elements with a somewhat psychedelic pop/rock sound. It was largely ignored at the time of its release. First single “Never Gonna Cry Again” peaked at a lowly #63 in the UK and follow-up “Belinda” missed the charts entirely. RCA didn’t invest in the duo’s planned second album, and they were forced to take out a loan to finance the recording. Operating on a shoestring budget in a very basic 8-track studio, Dave and Annie used their limited resources to create what would become one of the most important albums of the decade -- “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)”.
For their second album Eurythmics went for a much sparser, electronic sound (largely out of necessity -- they simply didn’t have the budget to bring in more than a few additional musicians). “In the Garden” has the feel of a band album, with layers of guitars and keyboards and often heavy drums. “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)” is stripped down and far more reliant on synthesizers, while Annie Lennox’s vocals are much bolder and higher in the mix than in any of her prior recorded work. “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)” isn’t a collection of radio-friendly pop songs; it’s edgy, dark, and, perhaps reflective of their personal state at the time, it has an aura of exploration of the more sinister recesses of the human psyche. Dave and Annie experimented freely with the early synthesizers and drum machines of the era, creating often melancholy but arresting soundscapes, and then layering them with Lennox’s soulful vocal theatrics. Lennox can veer from icy cool aloofness to fiery passion -- sometimes within the span of one song (“Love is a Stranger” comes to mind.) Every track is a winner and there is no wasted space. It’s an album that remains extraordinarily compelling 30 years after its release.
RCA decided to issue “This is The House” as the first single from the sessions. It appeared in early 1982, well in advance of the still unfinished album. Like their two prior singles, it flopped. Two more singles -- the tense, slow-building masterpiece “The Walk”, which features a frenetic trumpet solo by Dick Cuthell, and the dramatic “Love is a Stranger” -- also tanked (although “Love is a Stranger” would later be re-released in the wake of the title-song’s success and would become a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.)
The “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)” album was finally released in January, 1983, along with the title-track as a single (in the US the single wouldn’t be released until May). A striking video, conceived by Dave Stewart as juxtaposing the natural world (in the form randomly wandering cattle) with the modern world, ended up in heavy rotation on MTV and the single began a slow ascent up the Billboard Hot 100. The iconic image of Annie Lennox, in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top, became one of the visuals that helped define the early MTV era. Her presence and sense of drama were remarkable even then. The video is replete with arresting imagery, like the fist pounding on a boardroom table in time to the opening boom of the track. Lennox, brandishing a pointer like an object of power, looks part dominatrix, part CEO. At the 1:56 point, she offers a sly half-smile to the viewer as she sings “some of them want to abuse you”, and in a memorable moment at the 2:15 point she pounds her fist on a table just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Dave Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on what appears to be a primitive computer or perhaps an early gaming console, but is actually the rather rare early ‘80s drum machine which was used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1.
The song itself is a rather simple but profound statement about the human condition: “Everybody’s looking for something.” The search for meaning and fulfillment, the “this” of which sweet dreams are made -- and one gets the sense that the “this” is often not what one would like to imagine. The lyrics are enigmatic enough to be open to interpretation, and have a slightly sinister quality. Lennox has often referred in interviews to the song as a mantra, and indeed that is an apt description. The lyrics, which were improvised on the spot, are rather sparse. She repeats three sections over the course of the song. The first verse is a single vocal track, but starting with “some of them want to use you” at the 0:24 point the vocals are double-tracked, and they grow increasingly layered as the song builds in intensity until a masterful finale which combines all the songs' elements and then fades to black.
The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo section at the 1:31 point were played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to the drum machine part that Stewart had been programming), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. It’s a combination of two separately recorded parts, each panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a unique and richly resonant effect. “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)” sounds like nothing else -- it’s a powerhouse wall of sound that sweeps out of the speakers in massive waves. Not all of the sounds were the product of synthesizers. During the remarkable “hold your head up, keep your head up” bridge at the 1:25 point, the high-pitched percussive tings are actually Stewart pinging glasses filled with varying levels of water. It’s remarkably effective as the tension builds, and then releases with that epic synth solo. They smartly resist the urge to clutter the track, and as a result the vocal melody and the synthesizer riff on which the song is built stand out starkly. Every sound fits -- every adlib of Lennox’s remarkable voice -- so taut and restrained during the initial verse, so full of passion as the main mantra repeats towards the end, gaining intensity with each repetition. When you combine one of the most cunning pop singles ever created with an eye-catching video, you end up with a #1 hit for the ages.
“Sweet Dreams (are made of this)” knocked The Police's "Every Breath You Take" off the throne, where it had reigned for seven long weeks. Eurythmics had their lone week at the apex before being toppled by Michael Sembello's "Maniac" from the film Flashdance. Eurythmics were never again able to ascend to the top -- the closest they could get was #4 with "Here Comes the Rain Again" in 1984 and #5 with "Would I Lie To You?" in 1985 (although they did reach the summit in the UK with "There Must Be an Angel (Playing With My Heart)". Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart would go on to record a string of successful and acclaimed albums as Eurythmics, and each continues to enjoy successful solo careers. Annie Lennox is an icon in pop music. She has released multiple acclaimed solo albums and is a humanitarian of extraordinary passion and devotion, especially in her efforts to raise awareness and funds for HIV/AIDS in Africa and elsewhere. Stewart has also done humanitarian work, and has been massively successful producing and writing for other artists. He’s released several underrated but outstanding solo projects, and his new album, “Lucky Numbers,” is due on September 27. But both of them will probably always be best remembered for this odd but powerful little track from 1983 -- a strange alchemy of sounds and ideas that is completely unique in pop music history.