He Traveled the World and the Seven Seas: Dave Stewart at 70
Looking back on the career of the legendary Eurythmics guitarist
First impressions. Mine – and probably yours – vis-à-vis Eurythmics came in 1983 and was “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”
A love song maybe, but a brooding one with an S&M undertone: “Some of them want to use you//Some of of them want to get used by you/Some of them want to abuse you/Some of them want to be abused.”
How sweet were those dreams, really?
That year, on their first tour, I was in a cab with David A. Stewart and Annie Lennox, former lovers/forever friends, en route from Boston hotel to gig at the Paradise club. Lennox sang the song; Stewart played guitar. They co-wrote it.
“‘Sweet Dreams’,” said the soft-spoken Stewart, “wasn’t even conceived as a song. What happened was Annie and I were having a row in the studio about what music we were making. So, I said, ‘I’m just gonna fiddle around, you can sulk or whatever.’ And I got this [melody] and Annie said, ‘This is really good.’ She started getting interested again and she sang it straightaway, those words, ‘sweet dreams are made of this.’ It just came. Just taped it and that was it. Since we didn’t write it down, we had to think to ourselves what it was about. Something that’s just off the top of your head, it takes you a while to realize what you’re doing.”
As we spoke, the song was on its way up the American Top 40 – at No. 5 – and the album of the same name up the charts, peaking at 15. Inconceivable just a few years prior, but MTV had come in and made its mark: American rock fans were being seduced by quirky, stylish Brit new wave bands.
VIDEO: Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
In the song, there was a bit of subversion at work. ‘Sweet Dreams’, a seductive, questioning, moody song, is stylistically representative of Eurythmics’ accessible approach to subtle pop. Or subtle approach to accessible pop. Whatever it is, the swirling guitar and synth hooks sneak up on you, the rhythms put you in a trance-and-dance haze, and Lennox’s voice acts like a Greek siren, drawing you in for the lyrical S&M kill.
“Sometimes,” Lennox told me, “I will draw people in and then cut them out.”
The video — and this duo considered video an artistic extension of their music, rather just a commercial for the song — went a few more dimensions toward surrealism. It was a Salvador Dali-esque interplay of computer, cow and corporate boardroom.
“I just wanted to do the extreme thing,” explained Stewart. “It’s an extreme computer world and you can’t get further removed than a cow, which has nothing to do with that — it’s a basic, sacred thing. And I was mixing the two up. All the things, what dreams are — gathering all this stuff, getting TVs — and suddenly you see a cow munching who has none of these aims in life. No matter what we do, the cow is still happy eating the same grass in the same field.”
About the music on that first album, Stewart went on, “We’ve never done anything really happy. We like to have something that sounds really sweet and it’ll go bitter. Or something that sounds really light and suddenly goes really dark.”
On Sept. 9, Stewart celebrates his 70th birthday.
Backstory: Annie and Dave met when he was 23 and worked in a health food shop, and she 21, a Scottish dropout of the Royal College of Music. They originally played in the excellent, but largely overlooked, new wave band the Tourists. (I was a fan, primarily because as a young rock crit I was on the CBS mailing list, popped their second album on the turntable and immediately dug it.) But that was Pete Coombes’s baby – he was the main voice and songwriter. (Coombes died in 1997, killed by booze.)
Lennox and Stewart were band members, not focal points. They were also romantic partners. As it turned out, Eurythmics beginning also turned out to be the end of Annie and Dave’s relationship.
“The first day I met Annie,” recalled Stewart, “we moved in together. After about two hours we were sort of living together. We didn’t say anything about it, we just naturally assumed that’s the way it was. We were writing songs ’til four in the morning, tape recording things. But when two people are together all the time in an obsessive way with one particular subject, you start getting closed off from other people and getting into your own little world. It was getting more and more claustrophobic. It’s much better now; we can come to each other with fresh ideas.”
The romance ended, the band took off, and in 1983 Eurythmics became one of the first of the MTV-aided video sensations. People wondered: Sure, they look great, but could they actually play?
“We were born in the video generation,” Stewart told me. “And when we arrived everybody already knew who we were. Everybody was confused about the video age: Does it mean no one is singing or playing
anymore? Fortunately, we were good. When they came to see us live, they ended up loving it. When Annie started singing . . . ”
Three years later, a bit of a shift. Their trajectory continued on an upward swing. Eurythmics, on a tour of America’s summer sheds, had released the Revenge album, which was their most uplifting, most-straight ahead and guitar-driven effort to date. It verged on good time rock ‘n’ roll. I tossed that assessment Stewart’s way when we spoke ahead of the band’s Massachusetts gig.
“It is, eh, musically more confident,” Stewart allowed. “Lyrically, it is still very moody in a way. We’re experimentalists and individualists. Each record, people will never know what it’s going to be until they hear it. Neither do we.”
“Annie was having a year off and she was feeling really positive,” he continued, “because she’d had a year-and-a-while trying to get her voice back together.” She’d had nodes on her vocal cords. “At the end of 1985 she was just dying to sing and it was really just a positive kind of feeling. I think you can hear it on the records; it’s very up.”
Eurythmics broke up in 1989. Solo careers for both Annie and David. The former’s was clearly more successful, but the latter’s more behind the scenes was productive too. Four solo albums, collaborations with Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Daryl Hall, Aretha Franklin. (More to come post- reunion: Katy Perry, Sinead O’Connor, Bryan Ferry, Stevie Nicks, Nina Hagen, Ringo and many others.)
They got back together again in 1998. I met with Annie and David in a New York hotel room the following year.
How’d the reunion come about?
“It was for John Preston, a guy who was head of RCA in England when we were sort of successful,” said Stewart. “He was a really lovely guy from Scotland, really young, and all the people in the industry loved him. We did this as a surprise for him. There were all these people there in this tiny place with curtains across the stage. Everybody was having a nice time, and all of a sudden somebody stood up, gave a speech, and then said, `Anyway, for John, Eurythmics’ and the curtain opened. We played 10 songs, acoustic, and he was crying his eyes out.”
VIDEO: Eurythmics “I Saved The World Today”
One thing led to another. They did a breast cancer benefit, performed on the Brit Awards, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award. They started working on tunes again at the Church, a London studio they co-own.
“It just started happening,” said Stewart. “We would sit down, have a glass of wine, and start writing a song. We realized we had written about eight or nine songs and that made an album.”
Lennox answered the question about motivation.
“Well, just to do it,” says Lennox. “To have a dream and a burning desire to achieve it. Just getting the opportunity to do it, to make it, create it.”
As to ambition, Stewart laughed and said, “I have been plagued by it. It is nonstop. I was just showing my girlfriend the other day, some early stuff, a video, and I realized that in looking at myself, I was fulfilling a dream.”
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