One of the consequences of the development of comparatively cheap synthesizers is the ability for more music to be produced by fewer people. Bands no longer need to consist of four, five or more members as per a traditional rock act. Instead they can consist of one or two people, a box of electronics and, as long as the song is halfway decent, away we go. Obviously two-pieces aren’t a unique development of the 80’s – hello Sparks! – but synths made it substantially easier for them to exist. There’s dozens of 80’s acts who fall into this category – to take a random selection let’s say Tears For Fears, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Yazoo and, of course, Eurythmics.
No need for a bass player who can’t get out of bed in time, a drunk drummer flinging his sticks at a recalcitrant audience, a guitarist showboating and making a complete tit of himself. No, what you need is a strong melody, a good voice (something else all those acts have in common) and the ability to work the tech. The end results aren’t always perfect – and we’ll have a doozy of an example of how this works or doesn’t come 1988 – but with recording costs constrained by fewer instruments and fewer actual band members it’s also less of a disaster for a label if they sign someone and it doesn’t work out because there’s less of a financial investment.
As we’ve previously discussed, disco records were expensive – synth-pop, whose artificial nature clearly owes at least some debt to disco, was massively less costly to produce. This does, if not wholly then at least in part, help to explain the huge explosion in synth-pop artists in the early 80’s. The technology became more affordable, the recording costs came down and people who were not necessarily “musicians” in the traditional slap-on-a-guitar-and-strike-a-pose sense were able to start producing music of a standard that could be compared to their more standard-instrument brethren. Both Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart had been in a band together before Eurythmics, and indeed Dave Stewart had been their guitarist. That band – The Tourists – was however far more traditional, with a guitar-bass-keyboard-drummer set-up, and a sound that was, it would be fair to say, a lot less experimental than anything Eurythmics came up with. Eurythmics’ first album – produced by Ultravox saviour Conny Plank – is fine as far as it goes, and quite the contrast to anything The Tourists turned out. But it’s not a patch on what came next.
And maybe that should have been “Love Is A Stranger”. That was the lead single off Eurythmics’ second album and, if we are being strictly honest here, it’s a better song than “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”. Blasphemy, maybe, but it’s true. It’s a better showcase of Annie Lennox’s astoundingly good voice, it gives a better indication of Dave Stewart’s skill at writing and playing, it’s deeply atmospheric and engrossing, and it envelops the listener in a sustained mood (not entirely unlike our last entry) of late nights and powerful emotions. But it took a bit of effort to get “Love Is A Stranger” recognised. When it was originally release in 1982, “Love Is A Stranger” scraped its way into the charts at a measly 54 and even a re-release in the wake of the success of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” only got it to Number 6. A third re-release in the early 90’s to promote a greatest hits package saw it just barely scrape into the Top 50. That’s quite a pity for such an excellent song, but “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” never had that problem. It became Eurythmics’ defining song, it’s had legs way, way past the 80’s synth-pop and gender-bending ghetto, and has become a bona-fide global phenomenon. It’s not just their best-known song it’s practically one of the best-known songs there is. It is, to be fair, hard to imagine “Love Is A Stranger” achieving quite that level of success.
After all, nobody in their right mind would argue that “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” isn’t a great song, because it so demonstrably is. It’s built round two major hooks, the opening synth line, and the “strings” over the instrumental and “hold your head up” sections. Floating on top of all that are the various voices of Annie Lennox. And Annie Lennox has one of the most amazing voices in popular music, when all is said and done. If “Love Is A Stranger” shows it off better than “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” that is not to suggest that she isn’t still absolutely at the top of her game here. Her lead vocal – distant, cool and controlled, matching the synth line perfectly – is distinctive and powerful, but it’s on the backing vocals that we get to see the true power of her voice.
She’s all over the song, wordlessly adding a third and fourth layer of hooks and melodies over the principal two, with power and real strength. It’s a blisteringly good performance and one of the key reasons “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” has such resonance. Her lead vocal, though, is also slightly counter-intuitive. The lyric she’s singing is full off innuendo and suggestion – “Some of them want to abuse you / some of them want to be abused” and so forth – but this angle isn’t played up. Lennox keeps it cool.
Compare and contrast, then, with the Marilyn Manson cover of the song, where he goes full-tilt into the obvious sexual implication of those lines (though Lennox denies that’s what they were originally about) and indeed of the whole song. Manson’s version is good but it’s also a touch… obvious. The opening riff slithers out on guitar in his signature style, but the screaming and sexualisation of it undercuts rather than amplifies the power of the original. There’s no ambiguity in Manson’s version, and certainly no room for interpretation. It is exactly because Lennox is restrained with her lead vocal that it carries such power – the power comes from control. Help yourself to the implications of that.
And then of course there’s the video. It will become increasingly hard – indeed it’s already hard – to talk about any 80’s singles without referring to their video because it’s just such an important part of what bands did, but we absolutely should not underestimate the importance of it to Eurythmics because one of the reasons they stand out so much is because of how Annie Lennox looks. And “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” is the defining statement on that. There is a full embracing of the gender-bending trends of the 80’s as Lennox appears with vivid orange hair, dressed in a business suit, wearing leather gloves and carrying a swagger stick. In fact she takes on a few different looks in the video but that’s the one that tends to stick in people’s mind, and with some reason. She looks stunning, like nothing else on planet Earth in 1983. Dave Stewart can wear a tux and “play” cello in a field all he likes, that’s not what’s pulling focus.
And, importantly, it’s strikingly unusual for gender-bending to work this way round – traditionally gender-bending is men subverting traditional gender roles rather than women. Think of David Bowie in a dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World or any number of effeminate-looking glam stars (Marc Bolan, most obviously). Boy George is often the very first person to come to mind when mentioning gender-bending of any era, and the likes of Brian Molko and Brett Anderson will pick up and run with this in 90’s. But they’re all men. The only real exception, other than Lennox, is Grace Jones, but even with the kindest of heads and the most generous of hearts Grace Jones is no talent like Annie Lennox. Lennox fully embraces the freedom of gender-bending in the video – strutting around a boardroom, in complete control – and the success of the video helped, naturally, the success of the song.
Lennox became a talking point. She appeared in print, and not just in the music press. Pictures of her were all over television, and all over bedroom walls. It would all be hollow imagery if the music wasn’t so amazing but the two come together perfectly on this single. By controlling, and by having complete control, over her image she was able to leverage it into helping Eurythmics become a sensation. And that’s what “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” is. It is sensational, a genius slice of 80’s synth-pop that to this day still resonates and works, which never sounds dated or of its era, and which is arguably the crowning glory of the entire synth-pop movement, led by an astoundingly talented woman who few if any can come close to matching in terms of voice. And it’s not even their best song. That’s an astonishing achievement.
Oh, also there are cows.
What Else Happened In 1983?
Just as when we began the series the 78 record was phased out to make way for the new-timey 33rpm LP’s, so their time has now come too – the CD goes on sale for the first time in America. Thriller gets to Number 1 in the States and begins a frankly staggering thirty-seven weeks there (not all at once though) and of course goes on to be the biggest selling album ever. R.E.M. release their first full-length album, Murmur, and Quiet Riot’s Metal Health becomes the first heavy-metal album to top the U.S. charts. Both Weird Al and Billy Bragg release their debuts – no connection there – while Wham! are Fantastic (it says here) and U2 are at War. The biggest song of the year is Culture Club’s inescapable “Karma Chameleon” which means it outsold Michael Jackson, who takes the Number 2 slot with “Billie Jean”. Nina has “99 Red Balloons” – quite the anti-war song, that – and David Bowie has his most successful album ever with Let’s Dance. Amy Winehouse is born, and Karen Carpenter dies from a heart attack brought on by anorexia. Bon Jovi, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, The Style Council and Bronski Beat are all formed, and Simon & Garfunkel call it quits (again).
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
After beings spoiled for choice last time out, 1983 proves to be at the other end of the scale with a very limited selection. Eddy Grant shuffles into one-hit-wonder territory with “Electric Avenue”, which is a genuinely terrific song, and Madness’s “Wings Of A Dove” is, similarly, really rather great despite it not exactly being their best-known number. Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson as a duo qualify twice – “The Girls Is Mine” peaked at Number 2 in the US and “Say Say Say” peaked at Number 2 in the UK, though the only really interesting thing about either song is how two titans of music can produce two such studiously unremarkable singles. Not bad, you know, just kinda… there. Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” got to Number 2 in America – held off the top spot by “Billy Jean” – but the sad truth is that, image and tabloid gossip aside, Culture Club just aren’t all that interesting a band.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Ultravox – “Vienna”
7. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
8. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
9. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
10. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
11. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
12. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
13. Queen, “Killer Queen”
14. Blondie, “Denis”
15. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
16. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
17. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
18. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
19. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
20. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
21. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
22. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
23. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
24. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”