After the preceding run of 1985 blandness at Popular, I didn’t expect I would feel so strongly about the Eurythmics.

Eurythmics, “There Must Be an Angel (Playing With My Heart)”, 27 July 1985

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the enmity this attracted in the Popular thread comments, because Be Yourself Tonight was such a left turn from their previous synth sound, but this has always felt to me like the poppiest track on its parent album, and of all their mid-’80s hits fits best with my idea of a 1985 UK number one.

It’s one of the few songs we’ve encountered lately that has remained part of my musical landscape, off and on, since its release, because the Eurythmics were a big deal in our household. My brother bought Sweet Dreams and we were both fascinated by its icy sound, but for some reason (probably lack of cash) he never picked up Touch, which we only knew from the singles. Both albums and their singles did well on the Oz charts, with a lot of top ten and five positions. The 1984 single sounded a bit strange to me, and certainly didn’t suggest a 1940s dystopia; it was no surprise that the film’s director wasn’t keen. I probably thought that the Eurythmics’ moment had passed—although it became one of their highest-selling Australian singles, and I love it today.

They put all doubts to rest with Be Yourself Tonight, which stormed straight to the top of the Australian album charts. Our number one hit was “Would I Lie to You?”, which to me is still a huge, huge song. Its marriage of energetic rock with Lennox’s vocals chimed perfectly with where my head was at at age 17, as it did for many of my peers. The New Wave and New Romantic sounds of the previous half decade were only ever part of our chart story; Australia had always had a strong tradition of pub rock, partly because big international acts only visited us occasionally, and then only Sydney and Melbourne. There’s a good reason bands like the Saints and the Scientists came from places like Brisbane and Perth. That vibrant live scene was strongly represented on our charts throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with lots of hits non-Aussies will never have heard of.

Be Yourself Tonight could almost have been tailor-made for that chart environment, and was duly rewarded. To my ears, conditioned (if not solely) by those particular parochial influences, it was the perfect Eurythmics album, and Revenge was almost as good. My back-to-back C90 of both got a lot of play.

In the context of the album, “There Must Be an Angel” worked beautifully, a light and joyous bit of fluff after the rocking “Would I Lie To You?” and before the gritty “I Love You Like a Ball and Chain”, and that’s how I think of it to this day. The single was a number 3 for us, but I barely remember its chart run, because my many listens to the album have far outweighed it.

Despite the album’s rock reputation, this was no retreat from synth pop; it’s just happy and warm where their earlier hits were icy and aloof. There isn’t a guitar sound to be found on it. Even “Would I Lie to You?” is as notable for its horns as its guitars, and has a bed of synths beneath them.

Some might object to Lennox’s vocal gymnastics, but to me they’re almost the quintessential Lennox vocals, as if she’s revving the engine and saying “Let’s take this baby out and see what she can do!”. The band were named for a form of dance gymnastics, after all. It’s impressive to think that Lennox recorded this while suffering from vocal chord nodules (if Wikipedia is to be trusted). What a trooper!

If we were talking about the Australian number one, my mark would be at or near the very top; for this, wedded as it is to the album in my mind, I’m more than happy to call it a 7.

The thread saw unfavourable comparisons of the Eurythmics with bands like the Associates, Scritti Politti and the Cocteau Twins, with charges of fakery in both their initial adoption of synth-pop and their later appropriation of soul and rock elements. Some of the criticisms were intense, and I got the feeling I was becoming the local Eurythmics apologist; but so be it.

I get the feeling that the Eurythmics are in some eyes a bit of a scapegoat for the pop-will-eat-itself turn of the mid-1980s, specifically in relation to this album and this year. Fair enough that they share some of the blame, if that was in fact such a terrible turn of events, but weren’t Spandau Ballet first at the banquet? And Wham? And, and...

I love bands that take sharp left turns in their musical style without drops in quality, and that’s very much what the Eurythmics did—twice, or more. And I’m baffled by the suggestion that they were synth-pop fakers. Everything they did apart from this album and its successor was fake? You’d be equally justified (to my mind, not at all) in calling them fake rockers. Were Simple Minds synth-pop fakers because of what they later recorded? Or Depeche Mode? And if the fakery was because of what came before, I’d take “Love is a Stranger” over a lot of other early ’80s synth tracks, whether or not it’s somehow invalidated by their pop-rock outings as the Tourists. Compare the self-reinvention of Tori Amos, Eddie Vedder, and any number of others, famous and otherwise; does that make all their subsequent work a lie? Or was their earliest work a lie? Or did they just keep trying new things until they found a style that clicked? (To clarify, the reference is to their early incarnations as ’Y Tori Kant Read’ and as a hair-band LA rocker as ’exposed’ by Rolling Stone.)

When I read the Rolling Stone exposé of Vedder I decided I just didn’t care, because it didn’t change how I felt about his music. Ultimately I find this idea of authenticity not that helpful when considering popular music. One thing that bothers me about the idea of the authentic original being paramount is that it privileges those fortunate or obsessive few who follow lesser-known acts and can keep track of who came first; and disparaging the larger public for their choices assumes that they enjoyed exactly the same choices as the privileged and rejected the “superior” options.

Few in my neck of the woods had heard of the Associates or the Cocteau Twins in the 1980s, and we’d heard half a dozen Eurythmics singles before “Wood Beez” turned up. I still only know of the Associates because the Divine Comedy covered them, and only know of them because I moved to Britain.

Speaking of which: having been surrounded for a decade by women who speak like her, I listen to Annie Lennox’s singing with a new ear, and it makes more sense. The “blee-ee-eess” that some find so objectionable is less so when you consider that Scots bend vowels in all sorts of different ways to the English. Lennox used the same vowel sound when she intoned “sweet dreams are made of thee-uss”—she just didn’t draw it out across half a dozen notes. Now I’m wondering if the intense vocal acrobatics would sound nearly as fake or showy if they had a Kentish accent over them rather than an Aberdonian one. I’m so co-ho-ho-ho-hold, let me in at your win-dow-ho-ho-ho...

4 October 2009 · Music