Song of the Day, November 2: Who’s That Girl? by Eurythmics

EurythmicsWhoGirlToday’s song helped cement the pioneering reputation of an 80s chart powerhouse. Eurythmics broke big with their second album, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), and its #1 smash title track. The next album, Touch, featured an overall harder sound with some interesting experiments and another handful of pop treats.

Who’s That Girl? features a cool vocal from Annie Lennox over a wash of synths. A simple tale of suspicion, it’s a well-crafted song anchored by the disarming delivery. It also featured a smart video, featuring Lennox singing in a club while David A. Stewart parades a series of women (mostly cast from a number of successful British bands) in front of her. A second Lennox character, a man reminiscent of a young Elvis, appears at the end of the clip, escorting the blonde-wigged singer out of the club and away from her cheating boyfriend.

It’s a fun video, nicely constructed and perfectly suited to the song. Enjoy this great 80s hit today.

Song of the Day, November 28: Better To Have Lost In Love by Eurythmics

EurythmicsLostToday’s song is Better to Have Lost In Love (Than Never to Have Loved At All) by Eurythmics. It closes out their 1985 masterpiece Be Yourself Tonight. Lushly orchestrated, it’s a sad look at the end of love with a determination to find the silver lining. Annie Lennox is in fine voice, grimly recalling what went wrong, aching through her current pain, and soaring through the title line with elegant grace.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

How American Top 40 Expanded My Musical Horizons: A Reply to Scott Timberg

Since Casey Kasem’s death on June 15, media of all sorts have been flooded with pieces celebrating his work on American Top 40. Perhaps the most intriguing is the provocatively titled Casey Kasem, Ronald Reagan and music’s 1 percent: Artificial “popularity” is not democracy penned by Scott Timberg for Salon.com.

He takes issue with a common theme in the pieces about Casey and AT40, arguing that the show was fundamentally a mouthpiece for the music industry and not an effective representation of what music had to offer. It’s a well-written, thought-provoking piece, and I encourage anyone interested in music and chart history to read it here. That said, Timberg runs away with his thesis and makes a fundamentally flawed assumption. I tried to craft a comment to reply on the Salon site, but realized that I needed more space to explore my objections — hence this post.

Timberg makes three basic points. The first two are pretty straightforward. First, the “best” music is not necessarily the most popular. I certainly agree with that, although his implication that popularity and quality are mutually exclusive doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. (Four lads from Liverpool rather effectively debunk that theory…) I will point out that Casey never claimed to present the best music, however, relying on phrases like “the biggest hits,” “best-selling,” and “most played.”

His second, most central point is that best-seller lists — which is what AT40 fundamentally was — are inherently corporate publicity tools. Again, there is some real truth to that. Companies promote what they think will sell, so it was easier for Elton John to make the Top 20 in 1982 than Haircut 100. I would argue that the relationship is a bit more nuanced than Timberg allows. Take Eurythmics haunting debut single, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). It had limited corporate backing until it’s long, slow chart climb proved the duo were promotable. Even conservative industries are looking for the next big thing as well as the sure-fire draw.

The conclusion that Timberg draws from these two points, however, rings completely false. This passage from the latter part of the article sums his point up nicely:

The heyday of Kasem’s show may’ve been, as most remember it, a sweet passage in their youth. It certainly was for mine. But “American Top 40” worked – like the best-seller lists and the now-ubiquitous Monday-morning movie box office reports, Reagan’s tax cuts, and “American Idol,” whose Ryan Seacrest now helms Kasem’s old show — as a mechanism for the winner-take-all-society. It shines attention on the artists and the songs who need it least, and ignores those who need it most.

It is fundamentally untrue that AT40 played no role in opening up new musical doors for its listeners. I’m the perfect example.

My radio listening options were extremely limited and conservative. I was a casually regular AT40 listener from 1973 to some time in 1980 and became what could best be described as obsessive from 1980 to the fall of 1984 when I headed to college. During that time, every chart week included at least five or six songs that I only heard on AT40. Many of these became favorites and led me to seek out the source albums, expanding my musical experience even further. A couple of examples nicely underscore the disconnect between my daily listening options and my chart-based window to broader horizons.

The first time I ever heard Rick James was Super Freak [#16, 1981] on AT40. I’m not a fan of the song anymore — the fact that it’s one of his least misogynistic songs is damning it with the faintest of praise — but it was a massive hit that has been included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When I actively requested that my local station play it, I was given the classic “not on our playlist” line. I even asked why and was told that it was “too urban” for the market. It doesn’t take much effort to decode that reasoning and to imagine what other music wasn’t going to show up on my airwaves.

Let’s take a look at two bands that Timberg specifically mentions as mistreated by the AT40 model, the Clash and Talking Heads. For weeks, the only place I heard the biggest hit by either band — Rock the Casbah [#8, 1983] and Burning Down the House [#9, 1983] respectively — was Casey’s countdown. Sure, Casbah’s source album, Combat Rock is no London Calling, but I only learned about — and bought — the classic album because I learned about the Clash on AT40.

In the long run all three of these songs eventually got airplay in my hometown, but only after they broke into the Top 20. Previous Top 30 hits by all three acts never made the cut and my less consistent chart listening kept me from ever hearing them when they were singles. Many other songs that tickled the Top 40 never got that extra push and were only available to me once a week.

I come from a solid middle-class background. I grew up in a mid-sized town (population around 30,000 when I graduated high school) with a large public university less than 20 minutes away. Despite these relative advantages I had very limited listening options. I lived outside of town, surrounded by farmland, so we didn’t have cable TV and the moderate advantages of MTV access. I can only imagine what kids in smaller, more isolated towns must have faced when looking for music. In my case, American Top 40 was a lifeline, opening a door to a lifelong love of music of all sorts.

Timberg is careful not to blame Casey for what he sees as the corporate awfulness of AT40, which is kind. But in assuming that every radio listener had equal access to a broad range of options, he ignores his own relative privilege and demeans the real value that the show offered to thousands of kids like me. His list of alternative sources of musical information are wonderful:

The other side of things – old-school rock critics, college radio, smaller independent stations where the jocks pick their own music, record stores where the clerks pushed the stuff they loved, zines and alternative weeklies – helped build a parallel track in the early ‘80s that allowed a more expansive range of music to flourish.

But none of that matters if you don’t have access to it. An “alternative” record store finally came to town my senior year, but I only knew where to start because of the musical education I got from AT40.

My feet were already firmly on the ground. For four hours a week the musical diversity I got from Casey — however limited it may have been — helped me reach for the stars.

Song of the Day, May 19: You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart by Eurythmics

EurythmicsChillToday’s song is You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart by Eurythmics. Taken from their stirring 1987 album Savage, it fits the overall theme of breaking free of destructive patterns and relationships. Flashing back to the duo’s early work, this is a synth-and-drum-machine driven ballad. Annie Lennox chants the title line as a dark anchor to the overall lyric, singing about the drudgery of an oppressive marriage. Swinging from chirp to growl, she shows that her voice only improved as it aged, making the most of her vocal and stylistic range.

Enjoy this dark song today.

Song of the Day, November 7: One Step Nearer the Edge by the Tourists

TouristsEdgeToday’s song is One Step Nearer the Edge by the Tourists. David A. Stewart and Peet Coombes left Longdancer in the mid-70s to form the Catch with singer Annie Lennox. The band evolved into the Tourists and enjoyed moderate success in the UK. By their third album, Luminous Basement, Coombes influence was waning and Stewart and Lennox began contributing more significantly. This song is Lennox’s first full composition for the band. A haunting song of yearning and need, it set the stage for her future work with Stewart in Eurythmics, which arose from the ashes of the Tourists a year or so later.

With its stark imagery and dark vocals, One Step Nearer the Edge evokes powerful feelings. Lennox is in fine voice as she ponders the power of a lover to bring her to the brink — of joy? of despair? both?

One step nearer the edge
You take me so closer
One step nearer the edge
If I should fall will you throw me down your line?
You see when I fall I really go down.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, August 9: It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back) by Eurythmics

eurythmics-its-alright-babys-coming-backToday’s song is It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back) by Eurythmics. It was fourth and final single from their wonderful 1985 album Be Yourself Tonight. With a distinctive horn section and some elaborate guitar tracking, it has a complex structure; unlike the nods to rock, soul, and folk on the rest of the disc, this track is more in line with their previous two albums. Lyrically, it’s a fairly straightforward love song, with Annie Lennox celebrating the return of a lover who has been too long away. She’s in fine voice, delivering a stirring, joyous performance.

It’s alright – baby’s coming back
And I don’t really care where he’s been.
It’s alright – baby’s coming back
And I won’t turn him around this time.

Enjoy this wonderful pop song today.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending May 14, 1983

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Beat It Michael Jackson 3
R & B Candy Girl New Edition

1

Country Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love? B.J. Thomas

1

Adult Contemporary I Won’t Hold You Back Toto

3

Rock She’s A Beauty The Tubes 3
Album Thriller Michael Jackson

12

Eurythmics-Sweet-Dream-VinylThis week sees a mainstay of the 80s charts debut with their first hit. Annie Lennox and David Stewart had been in the Tourists together before that band disintegrated. They formed their own musical partnership, Eurythmics, and released a debut album that went nowhere.

Regrouping, they found their distinctive sound, mixing eerie electronics, rock underpinnings, and Lennox’s wonderful voice into a mix unlike anything else around. The title track from their second album Sweet Dreams (Are Made of  This), entered the Hot 100 at #90 this week. It eased up the chart, lodging at #2 for four weeks behind Every Breath You Take before spending a single week at the top. While it was their only #1 in the U.S., it began a successful run that included many big hits and best-selling albums.

Album of the Week, January 27: Be Yourself Tonight by Eurythmics

Eurythmics_-_Be_Yourself_TonightEnglish guitarist Dave Stewart was a member of the folky band Longdancer in the early 70s. He and Peet Coombes left to form the Catch with Scottish singer Annie Lennox. That band evolved into the Tourists, who had some success in the U.K. and a minor hit in the U.S. before dissolving due to internal tensions. Lennox and Stewart decided to proceed as a duo and recorded the intriguing but detached In the Garden as Eurythmics in 1981. Deciding to take matters more into their own hands, they put together a home studio and recorded a number of singles; the stress of handling all their affairs themselves took its toll, and they regrouped, rebuilding the singles with new material for the stunning Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). That album led to huge international success which only grew with their third release, Touch. After a brief detour to record the ill-fated soundtrack for the film 1984, the duo — famous for their coolly moving electronic sound — were ready to stretch into new sonic territory.

Title Be Yourself Tonight
Act Eurythmics
Label RCA Release Date 5/11/85
Producer Mitchell Froom
U.S. Chart  9 U.K. Chart  3
Tracks
[US Hot 100]
  1. Would I Lie to You? [#5]
  2. There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart) [#22]
  3. I Love You Like A Ball and Chain
  4. Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves [#18]
    with Aretha Franklin
  5. Conditioned Soul
  6. Adrian
    with Elvis Costello
  7. It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back) [#78]
  8. Here Comes That Sinking Feeling
  9. Better to Have Lost In Love (Than Never To Have Loved At All)

For their fifth album, Eurythmics looked back at the music they loved and added a more traditional rock sound to their existing palette. The result was their most diverse disc, the sublime Be Yourself Tonight. Things kick off in fine style with Would I Lie to You?, a surprising rocker with a powerful guitar lick. Lennox was in fine voice, displaying a rock goddess manner not heard before. The single was one of their biggest, hitting #5 on the Hot 100.

To prove their experimental intent, the next track is the beautiful There Must Be An Angel, a near-gospel charmer with Lennox showing off her high range to beautiful effect. The song also features one of a number of guest appearances with Stevie Wonder lending some tasty harmonica. Next up is the dark I Love You Like A Ball and Chain, more reminiscent of their early work but with a gritty quality perfectly suited to the doomed relationship theme. The next guest shows up on Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves as the Queen of Soul provides a duet vocal. Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox prove to be a perfect pair, trading growls and belting out the chorus in an updated I Am Woman.

Side one wraps up with the de facto title track. Conditioned Soul repeats the line “be yourself tonight” and the imploring “when will you make up your mind?” as it explores individualism in the 80s. It also serves as a meditation on fame and is appropriately the most musically reminiscent of the duo’s earlier work. That leads neatly into the next guest turn, as Elvis Costello duets with Lennox on Adrian. (This is one of a pair of songs. Jennifer on the second album is dedicated to British comedy star Jennifer Saunders and Adrian is dedicated to her husband, fellow star Adrian Edmondson.) The bittersweet vocal pairing explores coping with the world and is delightfully effective.

The next hit is the album’s standout, It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back). A joyous celebration of love and impatience, it showcases Lennox in fine voice and merges the rock and electronic sounds perfectly. That song crashes into a dark counterpoint with the gripping Here Comes That Sinking Feeling another tale of betrayal. The disc wraps up with a wonderfully cautious bit of optimism. Better to Have Lost In Love is a sorrowful celebration of life and a suitable ending for this amazing musical journey.

FURTHER LISTENING: In general, Eurythmics’ earlier output is stronger than their later material. Sweet Dreams is a remarkable statement unlike anything else in music at the time, but it’s a bit inconsistent. Touch is a far better set of songs and the best of the duo’s very electronic output. Of their later discs, the real standout is the song cycle Savage, a meditation on modern life that finds Lennox in her best voice.

Song of the Day, August 20: I Need You by Eurythmics

Today’s song is I Need You by Eurythmics. Something of an anti-love love song, it appeared on their 1987 album Savage. Acknowledged by the duo as a very Annie Lennox driven album, it is a dark collection of songs. Transformed by Sophie Muller into a long-form video featuring all twelve tracks, it details the adventures of a frustrated housewife-turned-vamp. I Need You is the album’s penultimate track and wraps the themes together before the gorgeous Brand New Day.

Presented on the disc and in the video as the cool musings of a worn-out chanteuse faced with a disinterested audience, it’s a powerful, disturbing song.

I need you to pin me down
Just for one frozen moment.
I need someone to pin me down
So I can live in torment.
I need you to really feel
The twist of my back breaking
I need someone to listen
To the ecstasy I’m faking.
I need you you you

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, March 31: Here Comes the Rain Again by Eurythmics

Today’s song is Here Comes the Rain Again by Eurythmics. This has always been my favorite Eurythmics song, and not just because it seems perfectly suited to growing up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Annie Lennox is at the height of her vocal powers, delivering an amazing vocal of quiet intensity. The music is perfectly suited to the vocals, creating a dramatic tension that allows the song to be vaguely menacing and promising all at once.

Here comes the rain again
Falling on my head like a memory
Falling on my head like a new
emotion
I want to walk in the open wind
I want to talk like lovers do
I want to dive into your ocean
Is it raining with you

So baby talk to me
Like lovers do
Walk with me
Like lovers do
Talk to me
Like lovers do

A forecast of many things to come, it’s a rare perfect song. Here Comes the Rain Again peaked at #4 on the Hot 100 on this date in 1984. Enjoy revisiting this wonderful song today.

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