My teenage Eurythmics fandom began with their first big hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” whereupon I purchased the back catalogue, In The Garden, Sweet Dreams and Touch and I continued buying their albums up until 1987’s Savage, which was pretty much the whole shebang. They were all over the radio in the 80s, but the only album that holds any interest for me now is 1984—by far the only one with any real longevity about it—ironic given that in some ways this was specially made for the year of the movie 1984, an unused soundtrack for the film of the George Orwell classic (a theme which popped up again on Radiohead’s opening track for Hail To The Thief in the song “2+2=5”). Orwellian ideas like “Big Brother” eventually permeated society becoming a ubiquitous part of our cultural heritage—still a ‘threat’ even today, only, a much more insidious one than the garish way Orwell imagined it—as it was portrayed in the movie.
Any number of icy 80s synth bands with a penchant for cold experimentation could have probably made a decent effort at a soundtrack to 1984. Eurythmics really went out of their way to create something sonically complex, endlessly inventive and which captured the grimy, industrial, cold world of 1984 brilliantly. Not only that, but they made an album of quite captivating morbidly sinister pop, which in some ways, prefigured the whole techno/industrial scene plus elements of world music in its tribal rhythms. Pretty clever stuff. Soundwise, it reminds me a little of OMD’s Dazzleships (1983) album, or Jean-Michel’s Jarre’s Zoolook (1984). In any case, my special connection to this stuff is that I had to study the book 1984 for Form Five high school literature in the year, 1984. No coincidence, obviously.
Clever wouldn’t be suffice though if the songs didn’t stand up as the bleakly emotive despairing things they are. I listen to this now and I’m still moved and intrigued by its cold isolation, its fear factor, its despairing quality. I’m also still fascinated by its amazing palette of effects, only some of which still sound embedded in the 80s—that whole stuttering vocal thing – crikey, let’s relegate that to the mid-80s and bury it there for good. I feel it prudent to point out that there is still a kitsch quality to this however—it’s not really that cool, and yet…it doesn’t sound quite as dated as you might think. I think what makes it a cut above a merely good dystopian futurist synth-pop album is the weirdness factor, the ‘African-ness,’ the poly-rhythms and creepy chanting. I ought to write the whole review in Newspeak, but I’d have to learn it first. Okay, so let’s find out in more detail just how Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart present their version of Orwell’s futurism thirty years past its used-by date…
I Did It Just The Same… the title here refers to a line uttered by main character Winston after realizing the prostitute he was about to sleep with was nowhere near as young as she looked. It starts with pips and pops echoing and a wheeling kind of hum, which creates some kind of dark alley feel, at night, punctuated by Lennox’s loud “huh” pushed out of her chest, and various “huuuuh” and “hmmmm” sounds, a loud very precise kind of dance beat and lots of other neat effects, piano, chiggering rickety cricket sounds, and Lennox adding her own sound effects, a freaky kind of futuro-scat if you like. Lots of echo effect on some of the sounds. “Heeeeeeeyyyy, zump zump, boom boo boo boo, ayeeahh, oh boo doo ooooo yeah.” Her singing is awesome, all made up words and sounds. The tune is quite neat and I adore the way the song ends on this tumbling echo sound. The whole thing introduces the creepiness brillianty. Strange and beautiful.
Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four)… was the first single off the album, a poppy number full of quite kitschy 80s signifiers. Starts off with that stuttering vocal effect, “Sex…sex…sex…sexcrime…sexcrime.” The rhythm is pure pop, more weird Lennox vocal effects and a nostalgic, affecting lyric: “Time was when I faced the war / Turned my back against it all / How I wished I ‘d never been born / Wish I wasn’t living here / Sexcrime.” This is by far the tackiest, most ‘eighties’ sounding song on the album. Awfully catchy. Lots of stuttering drum and bass effects, but painted loud in day-glo colours, and not really half as threatening as it ought to be. The vocodered voice adding “nineteen eighty four” in between pauses in lyrics is the worst part of the whole thing. It sounds like Kids TV, Doctor Who, the Tomorrow People. Towards the end, the song becomes more and more cluttered with stuttering sounds, a rhythmic frenzy and Lennox blowing raspberries. Hilarious. Tacky, but immensely enjoyable.
For The Love Of Big Brother… is more atmospheric, long slow ambient keyboard lines, a swinging more syncopated rhythm and one of the only other songs to contain a full lyric. This sounds like The Cars doing “Heartbeat City” – all eerie icy 80s synths, a slow, sheeny kind of thing. Lennox’s voice floats above it all, so soft and sheeny that it’s difficult to catch words other than the chorus: “I still hear the echo of your footsteps on the stairs / Still recall the images that seem to live out there.” Meanwhile, a major part of the song is Lennox’s voice sampled and used as a synth sound; “yeah yeah.” It’s quite a mellow number in feel, yet somehow danceable at the same time with its powerful rhythm. There’s also sitar like sounds, or echoey guitars, I can’t tell, that sound like the Cure circa The Head On The Door. “I still hear the sound of conversations from the hall / Look to see who’s coming / But it’s nothing and there’s no one there at all.” This captures something of the post-take over isolation, the soulless environment, the banal reality of the totalitarian futurescape as presented by Orwell in his book. Lennox’s voice is like a sky backdrop in a Hanna Barbera cartoon—like floating clouds moving along in parallax.
Winston’s Diary… continues the slow icy synth feel, but with a warm Eno-esque undertone, and one lone high note on the keyboard wailing along with the warping, morphing synth tones. Quite a short piece, just over a minute long.
Greetings From A Dead Man… brings the menacing beat, reminds me quite a bit of Laurie Anderson’s track “Puppet Motel” on her album Bright Red. So we have this shuffly, strong, doomy kind of rhythm, and stabs of icy synth, and Lennox going “ba ba bam ba ba ba bam” in fast melodic patterns. It’s not half as scary as that Laurie Anderson track however, it’s too melodic. That’s the thing about the Eurythmics – their pop sensibility prevails over their desire to really creep us out. It’s too likable, even if it sounds a bit weird in places. The more I listen to this the more I’m convinced Anderson used it as a blueprint for “Puppet Motel.” It’s really similar. The main melody comes from Lennox’s phoned-in vocal effects. Again, the stuttering aesthetic is in full effect here—the whole song is built around trailing wisps of stuttered out echoes, vocals. The drum sound is really cool though – a real drum sound, a real tom-tom kind of feel, like soft leather straps on drums, African, and not processed electronic tackarama, although I’m sure it’s all been fed through a sequencer. Quite a long track. I love how this finishes too. Lennox’s “ba ba ba bam ba ba ba bam, hey yeah” becomes more pronounced. Great stuff.
Julia… was Winston’s love interest in the novel. This is amazing. It’s mostly vocal with Lennox’s heavily processed voice. Not only that, but she seems to be singing parts over top of herself. “Julia / When winter leaves and branches bare … My darling, will we still be there?” It’s awfully melancholy, with winteresque piano, a staccato synth part buzzing away in the background, and piano doing the same. Lennox’s voice is the main feature here, so distraught, so despairing; “Oh Julia / And the leaves turn from green to brown / And autumn shades come tumbling down / To leave a carpet on the ground / Where we have lain.” The synth tones comes shining across like rays of the morning sun. The processing is interesting. It’s all phases, as though her voice has been turned into a synth itself. There’s even horns in here adding a light plaintive touch midway through the song. It’s quite an unusual song and sound. No beat at all. All effects and ice, shimmering, shifting phases: “Will we / Will we / Will we still be there” – repeat for a long while until fade out. Pretty mournful sounding stuff. And still it goes on, with some cool Spanish style guitar playing a fanciful dance around the synths as the song fades…truly beautiful.
Doubleplusgood… refers to a rating system in Newspeak, the language of the Big Brother regime—good, plusgood and then doubleplusgood. This is perhaps my favourite song on the album though. The rhythm is really African-sounding, all hard, flapping voodoo drum sounds, a horribly icy synth winding through, and a TV news presenter voice telling us things like, “Doubleplusgood / Times nineteen twelve eighty three / Verify / Times fourteen twelve eighty-four / Reporting BB day order / Doubleplusungood.” Meanwhile, Lennox’s main vocal refrain repeats throughout the song: “Plusgood / Doubleplusgood / Plusgood / Doubleplusgood.” The news presenter voice starts getting messed up, and, ach, stuttering again. The rhythms here are brilliant. This is the song that most resembles some tacky kind of view of the future, it’s a real pot pourri of all those things I mentioned in my opening paragraphs—world music, eighties aesthetic, techno, industrial, plus a language schtick, and computerized vox. “Your attention, your attention …t..t..t..tension…ten..nine eight seven six five four…” The TV voice keeps trying to count from ten down to one in increasingly exasperated tones. Weird and freaky and immensely enjoyable.
Ministry Of Love… is the name for the ministry of police and crime, including torture. This song is the kind of thing that seems slight when you first hear it, but it’s the weirdness of a track like this that really has the most after-image, resonance, impact. It’s comprised of this snippet of an electronic tone, cut up and repeated into a melody that plays throughout the song, while staccato, messed up rhythms add a disorienting feel, and Lennox’s voice sings “Ministry of Love” in an overcooked spook voice, which I’m (not) afraid to say is not scary in the least. A high pitched keyboard sound warbles about through the mix, but the song gets truly great when the chanting starts and various screechy sounds blend in. We say “African” chanting, though that’s something of a cliché. It could be any kind of chanting. The chanting is spooky, a little frightening, but exciting too.
Room 101… refers to the room where Winston is brought to be tortured: “The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” This is too over the top. Big hard synths, twinkling sounds, but again, its broad synth brushstrokes make it sound garish. Once again, I hear subtle aspects of Anderson’s Bright Red aesthetic in here, something that’s only just occurred to me for the first time now. The synths give way to a hard, punishing beat, and Lennox’s voice flails, like an operatic diva in the background, while a slowed down, phased out male voice comes in telling us “It’s the worst thing in the world.” This isn’t a bad track, but it’s too obvious, too faux-dramatic, completely lacking whatever subtleties some of the other tracks brought to the cinerama of it all. I guess the idea was to make Room 101 sound as nasty as possible but instead we end up with another track permanently stuck in the 80s. The song ends abruptly with a male voice saying “Room 101” and we hear a cell door crash shut.
I don’t know why I’m so drawn to these kind of dystopian vibes, but I find something exciting in the idea of a man scrabbling for his freedom while the big power lines of totalitarian authority loom over him. I reckon it’s a part of growing up in the 80s under what Freddie Mercury called the “shadow of the mushroom cloud” which finally dissolved by the end of that decade, but really only evolved into more insidious form of information technology. Will the Eurythmics’s 1984 ever find a place in some kind of retro-futurist revival and be upheld as a classic ahead of its time? Hm, I doubt it. But, there weren’t too many other albums sounding quite like this as early as 1984.
This was Alan Bumstead’s 18th Favourite Album in the 80s