In 1983, a new, almost entirely electronic sound, dominated the charts as Annie Lennox and David Steward’s Eurythmics broke into mainstream success with their experimental, and now iconic, hit track “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These).” With a never-ending hook, and their experiments with the emerging availability of home-recording equipment, they proved that it didn’t have to take a lot of money or complication to make an unforgettable hit record.
The Eurythmics formed in 1980 at a hotel in Wagga Wagga, Australia, after the collapse of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart’s band the Tourists. The Tourists had experienced some chart success with two Top Ten UK Hits – a cover of Dusty Springfields “I Only Want to Be With You” in 1979 and “So Good to Be Back Home Again” in 1980, but personal and creative frustrations within the band, left them broken in the midst of a tour of Australia. In the wake of the Tourist’s collapse, Lennox and Stewart began playing around with an EDP Wasp synthesizer in their hotel room. Stewart explained: “I could actually get something interesting things happening. Y’know, like sequenced little sort of random hold patterns that sounded very exciting to us, even though it was just coming out of the plastic speaker in a crappy hotel room in Wagga Wagga. We weren’t even writing songs, I was just messing about on it.”
But that messing about was enough. Exhausted from the breakup of their band and their own personal tensions, but still excited about the potential of music making together, the pair realized that they could join forces as a duo creatively while ending their romantic partnership. On the flight home, Lennox suggested they stop living together. Stewart later recalled:“I remember our conversation. It wasn’t even a long one, ‘cause we were so exhausted. She goes, ‘Y’know what? We should probably try living separately for a second or whatever? And we both went, ‘God yea, we should,’ and then we fell asleep. We went back to our flat and then Annie moved upstairs, just literally one room above. So we still saw each other all the time.”
The early months of their new collaboration was a time of fruitful experimentation. Stewart spent a lot of time exploring pairings of the Wasp with the EDP proto-sequencers the Spider and a TEAC 144 Porta studio. Their first album, In the Garden, was released by RCA in October of 1981 showcases some of these new experimental sounds. Two more singles led the duo’s movement toward an almost fully electronic sound – “This Is the House” and “The Walk” – both released in 1982. Both songs would appear on their 1983 album Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), but it was the title track from this album that truly propelled the Eurythmics into the spotlight, and continues to live on as a staple of dance club music.
Sweet Dreams is a remarkable track for many reasons, not the least of which is the structure. It is basically one big, repeating chorus, with two other smaller interludes…we can call them a pre chorus and a bridge. There are no complex verses to bring out lyrical meaning and contrast the hookiness of the chorus – the entire song is complete hook.
The chorus itself is interesting for its dark, deceptive meaning. We hear supposedly positive lines like “Sweet Dreams are made of this” juxtaposed against a minor mode, haunting musical setting. It appears then, that these initial lyrics are not what they seem, and instead offer a disillusioned view of the world. This juxtaposition actually mirrors the song’s composition in which Lennox was struggling with depression while Stewart was energized by the discoveries he was making on new equipment they had just received. Steward recalled: “She [Lennox] was curled up on the floor in the fetal position when I managed to produce this beat and riff. She suddenly went: ‘What the hell is that?’ and leapt up and started playing the other synthesiser. Between the two duelling synths we had the beginnings of ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).’”
The sound which had inspired Lennox was that of a MkI Movement Systems MCS Percussion Computer, which the pair had purchased second hand. Steward turned a tom-tom sound down low to sound like a huge bass drum – which he liked for its “thud” quality without having too much of a “boomy” effect. It was purely an accidental discovery, but when Lennox heard the sounds Stewart was creating with it, alongside the synthesizer riff he was still working out, she jumped onto a Oberheim OB-X and began adding a string sound. Stewart explained: “The drum computer was triggering a sequence into the Roland SH‑101 that sounded powerful, and the Oberheim was more of a soft string sound that we managed to cut off so it made it more attacking. I think it was actually a preset, I don’t think we made the sound. The Roland is playing the original sequence and then Annie was playing in between it. ‘Sweet Dreams’ always confuses keyboard players when they try and play it, because they don’t realise it’s actually two keyboard parts that are playing completely different things.”
The lyrics came quickly, and while they are repetitive, are also quite powerful. In addition to the song’s disillusioned chorus, the pre-chorus highlights the darker undertones of human motivations.
Some of them want to use you
Some of them want to get used by you
Some of them want to abuse you
Some of them want to be abused
Lennox explained: “The song ‘Sweet Dreams’ is a personal statement about people’s motivations, in their lives, their own dreams. I replaced the word ‘motivations’ with the word ‘dreams’. I’m saying these are motivations as human beings, and there’s no way, whether I disagree, that I want to change anything about that. And everywhere I look (‘I travelled the world, and the seven seas’), all I see is that every person on the earth is looking for that kind of fulfillment. So you have the extremes from the people who want to use and be used, the whole spectrum.”
The bridge section contrasts the darkness of these other two pieces by offering some words of encouragement:
“Hold Your Head Up”
“Keep Your Head Up”
Stewart explains that while the song captured so much of what Lennox was feeling at the time, they added in the bridge section to bring some positivity to the song. The repetitive upward motion of the chord progression, emphasizes this resilient attitude.
The recording of “Sweet Dreams” began with their home equipment and an eight-track tape machine in a studio space above a picture framing shop in London’s Chalk Farm, but in the midst of production, they lost use of the space and had to transfer to another non-traditional recording venue. Although it would later become The Church Studios, when Lennon and Steward were working on Sweet Dreams, it was just a small room in a church in Crouch End, owned and being used by animators Bob Bura and John Hardwick. The pair are known especially for their work on Captain Pugwash and Trumpton. Stewart explained their good fortune: “They’d actually bought that church ‘cause they needed a big space so they could make big wide shots,” says Stewart. “The floor had to be very sort of solid to use all the tracking things they were using. I went back to Annie and I said, ‘Well, you’re not gonna believe this, but I think I’ve got a place where we can finish recording.’ It was pretty hard to believe because they didn’t even want to charge us any rent. But they actually enjoyed us being there and making this music.”
The pair crammed into a little room with the equipment they had purchased with a £5,000 loan: a Soundcraft desk, a Tascam eight-track, the MCS and a collection of synthesizers. Stewart recalled only having one Beyer stick microphone, intended for use on hi-hats, but which they employed for recording Annie’s vocals. The entire project was one of experimentation and creativity. They even played milk-bottles on the track, using trial and error to figure out the right pitches and how to get the exact percussive sound they wanted.
The song was released on January 21, 1983, as the fourth and final release from their album of the same name, which had been released a few weeks earlier. Steward has explained that the label didn’t quite understand the song: “To us it was a major breakthrough, but I remember later some quite famous publishers coming to hear it and they didn’t get it at all. They just kept saying, “I don’t understand this song. It doesn’t have a chorus.” But the thing is, it just goes from beginning to end and the whole song is a chorus, there is not one note that is not a hook.” So while the label was hesitant to release it, once audiences picked up on it, it proved to be not only a massive hit of its own time, but an iconic song, filling dance halls for decades to come.
In its initial release, it hit the top 10 throughout Europe and North America, including the number one spot in the US, Canada and France. It hit number two in the UK, blocked from the top spot by Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” To this day, it remains a staple of dance halls and even radio play…an iconic track which seems to continually capture the attention of new generations of listeners. The song also inspired the use of home studio recording, as other aspiring musicians learned just what was possible with the new technology that was becoming increasingly available to them.
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video below to learn more about Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams!