In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This),” the sole #1 hit from the UK duo Eurythmics, doesn’t really have a chorus. That’s because it’s all chorus, all hook. Annie Lennox, cold and commanding, tells you all the different ways the world will fuck you over, all the urges and motives that you’ll face in all the people you meet. She boils this hard, bleak worldview into a few phrases, and then she repeats those phrases again and again. Those lines become a mantra, an incantation. Naturally, they make for an absolute dancefloor banger. That’s what the best new wave did: It made you dance to dark truths and strident philosophical positions.
“Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” throbs and pulses with its own kind of stripped-down evilness. Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart taped the song on an eight-track recorder, but they made it sounds like a hostile alien spacecraft hovering just outside your window. As far as new wave goes, that icy and apocalyptic techno-synthpop is my absolute favorite type of shit. In their day, Yaz and Soft Cell and Visage and all the rest found ways to squirm and thump at the same time. The best of these songs still sound futuristic decades later. And Eurythmics, like the Human League before them, were able to harness the power of MTV and briefly capture the American mass-cultural imagination with that approach. This stuff is the best. I fucking love it.
Eurythmics had to struggle before they could cross over. Annie Lennox, a working-class Scottish girl, had gone to London to study flute and harpsichord at the Royal Academy Of Music. One night in 1975, when Lennox was waiting tables, she met Dave Stewart, a young musician who’d been a member of Longdancer, a hitless folk-rock band who’d been on Elton John’s Rocket Record Company. The moment he met Lennox, Stewart proposed marriage. That was his pickup line.
Lennox and Stewart became a couple, and they also teamed up with Stewart’s friend Peet Coombes to form a band called the Catch. The Catch released one single in 1976 before adding a couple of members, adapting a new wave sound, and changing their name to the Tourists. The Tourists stuck around for a few years, recorded three albums, and scored a couple of top-10 UK hits, including a cover of Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To Be With You.” (In one of those freaky pop-music convergences, the Dusty Springfield, Bay City Rollers, and Tourists versions of “I Only Want To Be With You” all peaked at #4 in the UK. If you ever want to make it exactly to #4 on the UK charts, record a version of “I Only Want To Be With You”; your chances, historically, are pretty good.)
Eventually, Lennox and Stewart both got sick of being in the Tourists, where they didn’t get to write many songs. Stewart’s first instrument was guitar, but he’d bought a cheap mini-keyboard, and he was playing around with it on tour. One night in a hotel in Wagga Wagga, Australia, Lennox and Stewart decided to quit the Tourists and start their own duo. They broke up as a couple while on the flight back home from Australia, but they continued on as Eurythmics anyway.
Eurythmics took out a bank loan to buy synths, and they moved to Cologne to make their first album, 1981’s In The Garden. They intentionally made their sound sparse and intense, and they brought in Blondie’s Clem Burke and a couple of members of Can as collaborators. The album didn’t sell. Lennox and Stewart were stressed and broke. Lennox had a nervous breakdown. Stewart suffered a collapsed lung.
The duo were on the verge of ending, and they’d just had a terrible fight, when Lennox heard Stewart playing a beat and a riff on one synth. When she jumped up and asked what it was, Stewart played the same thing on a different synth, and the push-pull of those two different keyboards became the stark, squiggling “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” groove. Lennox improvised the arch, intense lyrics on the spot. Lennox’s words had been informed by music-business depravity and her own nihilism, and they were so bleak that Stewart suggested the “Hold your head up/ Keep your head up” bit just to add a tiny glimmer of positivity, balancing the track out a bit.
The “hold your head up” part is great — a sudden and jarring burst of gospel spirit in the midst of the track’s spartan-electronic ice-landscape. Lennox can really sing, and you can hear bits of soul and disco in her ad-libbed backing vocals. But she keeps the song’s central melody mean and unemotional, giving it as much monotone as she can. All the Dave Stewart synth bits around her — the mocking dance of the main riff, the ceaseless thud of the drum machine, the shimmers of fake strings — work as weaponized hook-delivery systems. Every last choice in the minimal track, like the odd little cowbell dings underneath “hold your head up,” stands out and sticks in your head. In its clinical focus on the beat and its total disregard for pop-song structure, “Sweet Dreams” anticipates the house music that would soon come out of Detroit and Chicago.
The art-school bugout of a video mattered, of course. Music this strange needed MTV to cross over in America, and the influx of art-school weirdos in early-’80s pop is one of the channel’s great legacies. In the “Sweet Dreams” clip, Annie Lennox works as a sort of androgynous inverse of Boy George, another UK new-wave quasi-soul singer who will soon appear in this column. Lennox has her hair cropped short, and she rocks a dark power suit, looking as intense and commanding as she sounds. In The Guardian a few years ago, Stewart said that he wanted the video to be “a bit performance art — weird and dreamlike.”
The main set is a fake version of a record-label office, but there’s a cow wandering through, “to represent reality.” Stewart: “There we were: Annie and I laid flat on a table, and this cow, which was peeing everywhere.” Those surrealist antics just look silly now, but Lennox remains a powerful sight. She looks a bit like a supervillain, bored but darkly amused that you might still think your stupid dreams matter. She leaves an impression. But even without the video, “Sweet Dreams” is the sort of thing that pulls you in and spins you around. There’s a sense of mystery to it. Eurythmics weren’t playing a pop-music game that anyone else recognized, but they had the confidence to make their alien version of it resonate.
Eurythmics never returned to #1 after “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This).” But they had a pretty great run. In the US, the band scored two more top-10 hits. (1984’s “Here Comes The Rain Again” peaked at #4; it’s an 8. 1985’s “Would I Lie To You?” peaked at #5; it’s a 7.) The duo soundtracked the 1984 film adaptation of 1984, the last movie that Richard Burton appeared in before he died. They pivoted to smoothed-out yuppie R&B, and they proved to be pretty good at it. They recorded with Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. Finally, in 1990, they went their separate ways.
As a solo artist, Annie Lennox has only had one top-10 single in America: A 1989 cover of Jackie DeShannon’s “Put A Little Love In Your Heart,” recorded as a duet with previous Number Ones artist Al Green for the movie Scrooged. (The Lennox/Green cover peaked at #9; it’s a 6. DeShannon’s 1969 original peaked at #4; it’s a 9.) But Lennox still had a huge solo career. Her first two solo albums, 1992’s Diva and 1995’s Medusa, sold in ridiculous numbers. In 2004, she won an Oscar for co-writing “Into The West,” the song that she sang on the soundtrack of the first Lord Of The Rings.
Before Eurythmics broke up, Dave Stewart had already kicked off a big career as a producer. He co-produced a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ 1985 album Southern Accents and played sitar on a mushroom in the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” video. (“Don’t Come Around Here No More,” from 1985, peaked at #13.) Stewart worked with Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger and Aretha Franklin and Katy Perry. He spent nine years married to Bananarama’s Siobhan Fahey, and he co-wrote “Stay,” the big 1992 hit from Fahey’s post-Bananarama group Shakespeare’s Sister. (“Stay” peaked at #4. It’s an 8. Bananarama will eventually appear in this column.) Stewart also put out some solo records, and while he never had a top-10 single in the US, he came surprisingly close; “Lily Was Here,” a 1989 instrumental collaboration with the Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer, peaked at #11.
Eurythmics have reunited a bunch of times over the years. They came back together to release an album called Peace in 1999, and they recorded a couple of new tracks for a greatest-hits album in 2005. This past December, they played a few songs at a New York benefit show that their circa-1983 chart peer Sting had set up. Together and separately, Eurythmics haven’t done anything as elementally powerful as “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This). But they’ve kept their heads up, and they’ve moved on.
BONUS BEATS: Marilyn Manson essentially became a star in 1995, when his trudge-wallow goth-rock cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” was all over alt-rock radio. Here’s his video for his version:
(For reasons presumably related to the ’90s-era weirdness of Billboard‘s charts, Marilyn Manson has never appeared on the Hot 100.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Nas interpolated “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” on his 1996 single “Street Dreams.” Here’s the extremely memorable video, where Nas wears a pink suit and gets murdered by Frank Vincent:
(“Street Dreams” peaked at #22. Nas’ highest-charting single, 2003’s “I Can,” peaked at #12.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Britney Spears singing over producer JR Rotem’s “Sweet Dreams” sample on her 2007 track “Everybody”:
(Britney Spears will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Petey Pablo rapping over a “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” sample on “Get Me Out Of Jail,” a little-heard one-off 2007 track that I’ve always really liked:
(Petey Pablo’s highest-charting single, 2003’s “Freek-A-Leek,” peaked at #7. It’s a 6. As a guest-rapper, Petey Pablo will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the 2016 movie X-Men: Apocalypse — a redux of a previous scene that featured Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle” — where Quicksilver runs around an extreme slow-motion explosion while saving various baby X-Men and listening to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”: