The story of Eurythmics—the British musical duo of Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox—is a rarity in pop music when it comes to personal relationships. Having been in the band the Tourists during the late 1970s, Stewart and Lennox had been a romantic couple but then split up as Eurythmics were emerging. Yet rather than going in opposite directions, they continued to work on music together–a professional partnership that resulted in hit albums and singles and memorable live performances.
“I suppose Sonny and Cher did it in reverse: they became really famous and then broke up,” says Stewart, 70, recently. “Well, Annie and I were a couple who lived together, broke up and then became strapped to a rocket. And we remained very respectful. Most couples who break up would find it hard working together. I'm not saying that all of it was easy. One thing that's amazing about Annie and I is that we never fought through 45 years. We never argued. We've had disagreements: one person wants to do this one thing, and the other person doesn't want to do it. When you imagine couples or people suddenly having screaming arguments or sniping matches–we've never had that. We just agree to disagree.”
A byproduct of the duo’s friendship and undeniable musical chemistry is Eurythmics' second studio album, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). Originally released 40 years ago today, the record catapulted Eurythmics to fame thanks to the iconic title track (which went to number one on Billboard) and its eye-catching music video. Both the song and the album properly kicked off a legendary career for Lennox and Stewart that earned them a place in the Rock Roll Hall of Fame in 2022.
“When somebody says ‘“Sweet Dreams” is 40 years [old],’ you go, ‘Blimey,’” Stewart recalled about the song from an earlier interview last year. “So much fun, so little time. And if I get in a car, somehow every third car ride, Eurythmics comes on the radio. Or I'm in a coffee shop or wherever, it's around all the time 40 years later. I think it has a lot to do with the person, the duo or the band, but I really do believe it's the power of the song...The song is king, really.”
Success for Eurythmics didn't happen overnight. Following the less-than-stellar showing of their 1981 debut record In the Garden, Stewart and Lennox employed a do-it-yourself approach in making the Sweet Dreams album. First, they got a bank loan to finance the project. Stewart remembers: “Annie was sort of a bit trepidatious about it: ‘I don't think the bank would take us seriously because we looked kind of odd.’ We were going to ask them for something that's quite oblique for a bank manager to understand. I was talking about, ‘We need to buy this kind of desk, this 8-track tape machine, and this synthesizer, we need this we need that.’ And he listened to it all. He was like, 'Oh, I see.'”
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When they secured the loan, the duo set up their own eight-track recording studio in a warehouse space above a picture-framing factory in London's Chalk Hill district (the sessions later moved to the Church studios in North London). In contrast to In the Garden, which featured a cast of guest players, Sweet Dreams mainly consisted of just Lennox and Stewart. “There was a chap [Adam Williams], a bass player from the band called the Selecter,” Stewart recalls. “He knew the things we needed to get and also how to put it together. So he was really helpful and he co-produced some of the tracks on there.
“Once I understood how the whole thing worked, I was like a demon,” Stewart continues. “I was up all night and I'd be on my own sometimes. It was spooky because it was above a picture framing factory...I just got so obsessed with the art of producing and recording, that I would do experiments with other people totally unknown–it could’ve been a busker or anybody. I’d be there until 2 in the morning making strange electronic sounds.”
Using what was state-of-the-art technology at the time in recording their second album, Eurythmics created synthpop music that showcased Stewart's impeccable production, Lennox's signature soulful singing, and the duo's songwriting. “It was really the beginning of the DIY in your bedroom,” Stewart once said. “You had something that could record eight tracks and drum machines were starting to become something that you could use as a tool. We thought, 'Oh, we can make everything with the two of us.’ Fortunately, Annie and I covered a lot of areas from classical music all the way through to R&B to psychedelic music. We experimented and came up with an interesting thing.”
Stewart mentions an audio effects unit called the Space Echo when talking about the recording sessions for the album. “If you listen to a lot of dub music or reggae music that's been remixed with lots of delays–I was doing that but on pop music,” he explains. “So like the song “I've Got an Angel,” the drums got delays (imitates noises), and then Annie comes, “I've got an angel…” – that really is what you're talking about: weird pop music experimental strangeness. “The Walk,” for instance, is kind of like a soul song—it has a synthesizer bass line of 'boom boom boom, boom boom boom.' It sets up something that would almost be like “I Heard It On the Grapevine,” but it's got these weird synthesizer chords. And then the chorus—we had real brass players—jumbled up with synthesizers. So it was a mixture of organic sounds and technology.”
Also out of that experimentation came the classic title track, a cynical and bittersweet song that seemed to perfectly encapsulate the mindset of the 1980s. Stewart recalls the creation of “Sweet Dreams” the song: “It was at a point where Annie was getting sort of exasperated, and also we had broken up as a couple. So there was a melancholy kind of mood. Annie was lying down on the floor [in the studio], and I was messing with this weird drum computer [MkI Movement Systems MCS]. Adam and I had been on the floor [at the place of the guy] who was building it. It wasn't like any drum computer at the time. And I got that thing going on, that sort of drum beat–boom!
“And where I got the drum on the first beat, it was like a tom-tom that I tuned all the way down to almost the point of the bass drum but still got that tone in it. Then I was playing this other little thing called an SH-01, a monophonic synthesizer. It would make this weird amazing sound that was very loud—Annie sort of leapt up and started playing another synthesizer and just switched it on. We were both going, ‘Bloody hell, this sounds amazing!’ It was only on three tracks.
“Then Annie started to sing ‘Sweet dreams are made of this…,’” he continues. “Fifteen minutes later it was done, apart from there wasn't a middle. It was going round and round and that's when I said, 'Hang on, there should be a section.' It's kind of a dystopian song, and [I said], 'Why don’t you sing 'Hold your head up, keep your head up'— like a not-the-end-of-the-world kind of thing?'”
Other highlights from the Sweet Dreams recording sessions included an electropop cover of Sam and Dave's classic “Wrap It Up,” the haunting-sounding “Jennifer,” and the hypnotic “Love Is a Stranger,” which, like “Sweet Dreams,” became another hit in Eurythmics’ song catalog. “That was released before “Sweet Dreams” in Britain,” Stewart says of that track. ““Love Is a Stranger” is a very weird mixture of sounds because it sounds like synthesizers but a lot of it was me on the guitar going through very strange pedals. One was called a tremodillo—it's a bit like a tremolo but weirder.”
The Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) album came out on January 4, 1983, via RCA Records; its first three singles—“This Is the House,” “The Walk” and “Love Is a Stranger”—didn't burn up the U.K. chart. But it was the release of the title track as the fourth single that opened, in Stewart's words, “the floodgates.”
“England was different from America. Sometimes the tracks got released at different times. We had tracks like “This Is the House” and “Love Is a Stranger” and that was all being put out in Britain and building up to “Sweet Dreams.” Whereas in America, “Sweet Dreams,” because some radio DJ was playing it, it suddenly was blowing up without us even knowing.”
The popularity of Eurythmics and the “Sweet Dreams” single was further cemented by the song’s famous music video that showed Lennox sporting a memorable androgynous look and Stewart playing on a keyboard surrounded by a cow. '''What's going on? These are very weird people,’” Stewart conjectures today about what viewers probably thought when they first saw the clip in 1983. “We knew what we were doing in interpreting stuff visually as well as musically. I think that caught the attention of a lot of people—that we weren't just, ‘Here's our song, so we'll be filmed playing it for a video.’ We were like, 'Alright, how do we interpret this not literally but in a very surrealistic kind of way?'”
“And then MTV came along and put “Sweet Dreams” on their playlist,” he also says. “All of a sudden, it was everywhere. So when we arrived to tour in America—I think it was the Touch tour—it was just everywhere that we went—they were just blasting “Sweet Dreams.””
The emergence of Eurythmics and “Sweet Dreams” coincided with the British synthpop explosion that would briefly overtake America and resulted in a productive period for the duo before they disbanded in the early 1990s. “After the Sweet Dreams album, all the songs just came tumbling out: “Here Comes the Rain Again,” “Would I Lie to You,” “Missionary Man,” “Thorn in My Side”—it was like one after the other. At the time, you're going so fast in making records in three weeks or whatever, then you go on tour, and then you do this and you do that.”
In November of last year, a reunited Eurythmics were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; at the induction ceremony in Los Angeles, Lennox and Stewart performed a medley of “Would I Lie to You,” “Missionary Man” and “Sweet Dreams.” “It was amazing,” Stewart says of that experience. “At first, Annie and I didn't understand—Annie being Scottish and me being from the northeast of [the U.K.]—how mega it was going to be. It was like a giant festival backstage. Everyone was getting on really great. Annie and I had a great time. [The rehearsals and performance] all went without any hitches. Annie was a load of energy and she performed great and the band was great. And Annie and I were charged up—we have this kind of electricity between us anyway. It was just one of those nights and everyone was getting on fantastic...When you get your peers that you respect inducting you and talking about you, and you've known them for years so they know everything you've been through, it's great.”
Outside of Eurythmics, Stewart has been busy with his solo project, Ebony McQueen, which was released as an album last year. A conceptual work that draws from his upbringing in Sunderland, England, and love for music during that period, Stewart is planning to bring Ebony McQueen to life as a movie musical and has already started preparations for the production. “When I started it and launched [Ebony McQueen], we were still in the middle of a pandemic lockdown. For three years, there was nothing you could really do and just talk to people on Zoom. But [in 2022], I was able to travel and meet people and then go to Sunderland and meet people there.”
At the time of the interview with Stewart, the film version of Ebony McQueen was in pre-production. “We want to cast a lot of people from Sunderland,” he says, “hopefully the local boy who plays me [as the main character]. Sunderland has been going through this incredible transition. There are going to be giant film studios where they used to build the ships. Shipbuilding in Sunderland was at one time the first or second biggest shipbuilding place in the world. They closed all the shipping yards. Now it's the perfect place to have these film studios. There are a lot of artists, there's lots of stuff happening there, new exciting developments as well.”