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Arts + CultureMusic40 years ago, Eurythmics conquered the world with 'Sweet...

40 years ago, Eurythmics conquered the world with ‘Sweet Dreams’

A slyly complex anthem that laid the template for '80s cool while blaring from pickup game boomboxes and roller rinks

It’s as simple-yet-complex as a DNA chain and immediately evocative of a neophyte American cable channel committed to showing music videos 24 hours a day: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the unforgettable single from the British duo Eurythmics, was released on January 21, 1983. That’s 40 years ago this past weekend, if New Wavers can believe it, but the tune and its visuals remain as fresh as the day Annie Lennox cropped her flaming red hair and beat down the world’s door with a riding crop and a leather-gloved fist.

Lennox and Dave Stewart launched Eurythmics (the Greek word for moving in rhythm) in a Wagga Wagga, Australia, hotel room, among the ruins of both their previous band The Tourists and their own romantic relationship. Hearing new pathways in the groundswell of synth-driven musical artists rising to prominence, the down-on-their-luck duo transformed into once-in-a-generation pop composers who weren’t afraid to follow their more experimental bents.

Releasing weird electronic music proved to be, I dunno, less bleak.

“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” would go on to become a Number One hit in the United States, a much higher honor than anything from their previous band. But that hypnotic, heady, complex anthem would not only become their Big ’80s Signature Choon; it would propel the stylish dyad into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ranked number 353 on Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Songs of all Time, it’s sandwiched between MJ’s “Rock With You” and Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day,” proving by real estate proximity alone that it stands as a culture-breaker of the utmost tier.

Why?

Sometimes it can take a couple of years for a new decade to settle in and make everything feel vastly altered. Not wrongly, but in a sense, the deck has been reshuffled. Eurythmics’ ode to seeking utopia while existing in a crushing world, “Sweet Dreams” thrusts listeners into that new era of synthy vamps with a sizzling Roland SH-101 bassline. It wasn’t necessarily the necessarily the cold-pressed funk of Gary Numan (Lennox’s voice was too full of silky soul for that) or the glowing proto-techno of Kraftwerk, “Sweet Dreams” is comprised of all hooks—a mantra, actually—and no chorus. A composition built and arranged for today’s idea of the earworm.

There was a New Romantic component to the arrangement that back in the ’80s got the track airplay on Black radio stations, previous to pop stations picking it up. I grew up listening to Frankie Crocker, DJ and program director of New York’s WBLS, the most prominent Black station in the country, who introduced the anomaly with his quiet storm vocal silkiness. 

This bizarre pop treasure loved and adored by so many, poles apart, was an integral part of my processing of how things move into a monoculture. It gave me insight into modern British pop music—finally indelible songwriting from someone other than The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Who, Kinks, etcetera. And insight into how Prince was influenced in making keyboard-driven soul that packed otherness. These strokes taught me firsthand how New Wave became the “respectable” version of punk rock that record labels equally adored and profited from. 

“Sweet Dreams” had this contrast of sensibilities. 

Hearing this different music played at suburban junior high school dances, blaring from boomboxes on the pickup basketball playgrounds in Brooklyn—where the no-blood-no-foul rule was always in full effect—and indoor rollerskating parties, where aggressive teens strived to shoot the duck. Some did not fare that well in their execution. Realized this odd bird of a jam was on blast in various spaces. Especially that meaty sidewinding aria in the middle, with one foot in a goth club and the other at a Sunday morning Baptist church testimony. It would bizarrely dominate a generation and be a forever tab when needle-dropping the ’80s in retrospect.

“From that first line, it’s not a happy song. It’s dark. ‘Sweet dreams are made of this’ is basically me saying: “Look at the state of us. How can it get worse?” Lennox told  The Guardian in 2017. “I was feeling very vulnerable. The song was an expression of how I felt: hopeless and nihilistic.

“I traveled the world and the seven seas, everybody’s looking for something” was about how we’re all in this perpetual state of seeking. It’s about surviving the world. It’s not a normal song so much as a weird mantra that goes round and round, but somehow it became our theme song.”

An unofficial anthem for so much more.

From a fledgling music video channel that used Lennox’s bravado and Stewart’s bedroom pop synths to sell a new generation on video culture, to becoming walk-on music for Reagan’s blatant fumble of both the crack and AIDS epidemic where so many disenfranchised people died without empathy from the government, during his eight-year presidency.

That organ vamp arrives before the 1984 box-office smash, Amadeus. Lennox, with her androgynous red hair buzz cut, doubled down on the band’s desire to create new visual archetypes by making herself the hero of her story rather than a defeated woman. Although the haircut flex comes a few years after Grace Jones ingrained the androgynous look so deeply into the culture that she made the Hi-Top fade a five-borough staple in Black Men’s barber shops throughout New York City (only the Jheri Kherl competed with its popularity).

Years before Sinéad O’Connor shaved her do. Lennox reclaimed hair power.

“We wanted our visual statements to be strong and powerful because we knew they’d be there forever,” Lennox told The Guardian. “I wore a suit in the video with my cropped hair. I was trying to be the opposite of the cliche of the female singer. I wanted to be as strong as a man, equal to Dave, and perceived that way. Wearing wigs and taking them off again was about the affectations that women create to become acceptable or beautiful to men, about removing masks and how none of it is real.”

In an interview with Kurt Loder for Rolling Stone in 1983, she was a little more blunt.

“This is a more androgynous visual portrayal, but it isn’t meant to be butch,” Annie explains. “No way. It is very useful in transcending the bum-and-tits thing, though. That’s a very vulgar thing to say, but I have received that kind of abuse onstage, and one has to find a way around it.

“Of course, you’ll never find a way around it,” she adds. “But this helps.”

Her choices impacted the future.

“It stopped me dead in my tracks,” Cyndi Lauper told Pitchfork in June of 2022. “Specifically that close-up of Annie Lennox looking into the camera, and the color of her hair. Annie’s voice and her image—it became a whole different ball game for me.”

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

John-Paul Shiverhttps://www.clippings.me/channelsubtext
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.

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