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Arts + CultureMusicSweet Dreams live: Dave Stewart brings 'Eurythmics Songbook'...

Sweet Dreams live: Dave Stewart brings ‘Eurythmics Songbook’ to the stage

The iconic guitarist is having a ball reviving his synth-pop-rock duo's beloved catalogue and fiery energy.

It’s hard to believe such a sweet record could start on such a sour note. But such is the story of Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).

British multi-instrumentalist and producer Dave Stewart and Scottish singer-songwriter Annie Lennox (who dated for three years before breaking up and forming The Tourists and then Eurythmics) were in different geographic and emotional spaces when they set to work on their synth-driven sophomore LP in 1982.

After the New Wave act’s 1981 debut, In the Garden, failed commercially, Lennox suffered a nervous breakdown, put her music career behind her, and returned to her native Scotland. Meanwhile, Stewart, who was recovering from a car accident and a collapsed lung, got a new lease on life after surviving his near-death experience. He started writing new material and played it to Lennox over the phone, convincing her to give the down-on-their-luck duo another go.

Cloistering themselves in a small eight-track studio above a picture-framing factory in London’s Chalk Farm and then a tiny cloakroom in the city’s Church Studios, the broke, struggling pair attempted to put their collective and personal struggles aside to record a new album with only a rudimentary electronic equipment setup, some pads and pens, and the occasional guest musician and engineer. 

They poured their pain into the music. In songs like the dizzying “Love Is a Stranger,” plaintive “I Could Give You (a Mirror),” and seething “Somebody Told Me,” affection is alternately a “dangerous drug,” cold and disappointing, and a blow that leaves one reeling. In hypnotic number “The Walk,” infatuation leads to downfall.

Upon initial release, the 1983 LP’s first three singles—the funky, horn-inflected “This Is the House,” “The Walk,” and “Love Is a Stranger”—went down in flames. But the fourth proved the charm after “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” disparaged by RCA Records, was discovered by a Cleveland DJ and played on repeat. It generated a favorable response, gained a crucial foothold with Black and downtown audiences, convincing the label to throw its weight behind the titular track, which propelled it to No. 1 stateside.

With the successful rerelease of “Love Is a Stranger” and the duo’s eye-catching Gilbert & George-inspired suited looks (highlighted by Lennox’s cropped orange hair) and surreal videos on then-nascent MTV, the record rocketed to No. 15 in the US, paving the way for six subsequent studio albums over the next two decades and the duo’s recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame inductions. 

To celebrate the career-making record’s 40th anniversary, Stewart is performing selections from Eurythmics’ songbook (sans Lennox) as part of ‘80s crooner Bryan Adams’ “So Happy It Hurts” tour, hitting San Jose this week (SAP Center; Fri/26). Vocal duties for the shows will be shared by singers Vanessa Amorosi, Judith Hill, and Stevvi Alexander. 

I spoke to the groundbreaking multi-instrumentalist in advance of the 31-date tour about the making of the Sweet Dreams album, the first thing he and Lennox did when they hit pay dirt, and whether both Eurythmics members will ever tour together again.

48 HILLS What were your mindsets when you began work on the Sweet Dreams record?

DAVE STEWART Before this album started, Annie had returned to Aberdeen to visit her parents, and she’d almost given up everything. But after my operation, I had an epiphany about life. I returned to my tiny flat and bought a bit of electronic equipment. I put down my guitar and thought, “I’m going to try doing this alone.” 

“The Walk” was recorded in my bedsit-type flat. I played it to Annie on the phone, and she was excited about it. She returned to London, and that’s when we started experimenting in this tiny attic above a picture-framing factory. We had to bend down because the roof [wings] met in the middle. 

48 HILLS What was your collaboration style on Sweet Dreams?

DAVE STEWART I was determined to produce this, so I learned the mastery of arranging, recording, and mixing to get what I wanted on the tape.  

I realized I could use a synthesizer to make a pure sound that doesn’t take up room in the aural landscape so that I could place Annie’s voice front and center, so you didn’t have to strain to hear what she was singing. It meant the songwriting had to be highly streamlined. 

It was truly an adventure, but sometimes, the most enjoyable times of creativity are when you’re up against adversity with only a piece of string and a pencil.

But having time to play with the eight-track tape recorder, I experimented with the music while Annie wrote in a journal about her feelings. She was very down and lonely, so I’d always say, “Annie, avoid the void.” It’s easy, if you’re a person who has depression or anxiety, to slip down that slippery slope. Then, she would let me see her journal, and I’d say, “Amongst this page, these two lines resonate and are very powerful.” Sometimes, she used to jump up and sing a line. Sweet Dreams was getting down to the core of Annie and me. The weird thing is that even though we separated as a couple, we were together daily—and that album reflects that. 

48 HILLS Some have described the LP as joyful, but I’ve always found the songs despairing. What did you want to communicate with this record?

DAVE STEWART You said it—despair. It’s life’s reality. People’s natural being is having to deal with stuff that’s happening to them and stuff that’s happening externally. 

The Sweet Dreams album is foreboding. A lot of it talks about foreseeing stuff in the future that has been happening throughout civilization.

The song “Sweet Dreams,” which people dance to at parties, is every two lines summing up the complete dichotomy of somebody wanting to use you or be used by you. It’s asking if what we’re building is what our dreams are made of—or if we are creating a terrible mess. It is what the French philosophers and surrealist filmmakers I encountered were examining. We wanted to translate it into something listenable. 

48 HILLS Amid all the adversity, did you enjoy making this album?

DAVE STEWART 100 percent. We kept forgetting that we weren’t together as a couple until we said good night and went to different places. 

Partly, we were successful songwriting-wise because the songs are so full of emotion. Even though the subject matter is tricky, you can tell that whoever’s making this is not a straightforward band. So it didn’t die.

48 HILLS How surprised were you when “Sweet Dreams” and “Love Is a Stranger” became hits in the US?

DAVE STEWART When “Sweet Dreams” and “Love Is a Stranger” became hits, America turned out our future. A certain scene in Paris also loved our music, so we’d go on Paris radio stations and get great buzz there. That’s why when we got any money, Annie and I each bought a tiny apartment in Paris, around the corner from each other. 

48 HILLS Why do you think “Sweet Dreams” became a megahit?

DAVE STEWART Before the singing starts, the sound that I made, that bass drum, and that it was two drums mixed to create that boom on the first beat. It was so unusual compared to other records and gave you a jolt.

Then, that riff played between Annie and me on two different synthesizers. Whenever it comes on the radio anywhere, it creates an instant visceral reaction. 

Then, when Annie’s voice comes in, the lyrics are so simple and nursery rhyme-like. But it’s deep at the same time. Her voice is purposely left low, so it sounds dramatic—like she’s making a statement. 

48 HILLS What role did image play in Eurythmics’ success? 

DAVE STEWART With the “Sweet Dreams” and “Love Is a Stranger” videos and the promo photos, we announced ourselves to the world, and everybody forgot or didn’t even know about anything else we’d done before. It was like, “Oh, this quirky couple has arrived.” 

48 HILLS There were reports around your Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction that you and Annie might tour together again. Could that happen? 

DAVE STEWART We’ve been offered just about everything on a plate, but Annie always said no. 

Touring and singing for two hours fills her with dread, and she doesn’t like all the traveling. I had to accept that, even though I love touring and playing live and would have done it every year for the last 30 years. 

That’s why after Nile Rodgers asked me to perform all Eurythmics songs at the closing of the 2019 Meltdown Festival in London, and I had a great time doing it, I said, “Honey, if you’re never going to tour, I love these songs, produced all of them, and wrote them all with you—so I want to play them.” She understands and is fine with it. 

On the other hand, Annie always says, “Never say never.” But I think that’s just dodging the answer.

BRYAN ADAMS: SO HAPPY IT HURTS W/ EURYTHMICS SONGBOOK FT. DAVE STEWART  1/26, SAP Center, San Jose. $31-$125. Tickets and more info here.

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

Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter is a contributing writer for 48 Hills. He’s also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and CNET.

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