“This City Never Sleeps”: Eurythmics talk about the art of making videos on “Radio 1990”

By on May 30, 2017

Our “Radio 1990” profile on the band Eurythmics features their video for “This City Never Sleeps,” which featured lyrics, written by Annie Lennox, that were inspired by some of the difficult times she’d endured after leaving the Royal Academy of Music conservatoire in London, England, around the time when she’d first met Dave Stewart.

Watch this full-length episode — it originally first aired on July 27, 1984 — now on Night Flight Plus.

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“This City Never Sleeps” — the last track on the Eurythmics’ groundbreaking Sweet Dreams album, released in early 1983 — is one the bleakest songs that Eurythmics recorded during their career, with impressionistic, heartfelt lyrics that stress what it’s like to live a life of solitude (“These walls so thin I can almost hear them breathing / And if I listen in I feel my own heart beating…it goes boom.”)

Here’s an excerpted passage about the track from Lucy Ellis’s excellent Annie Lennox: The Biography (Omnibus Press; July 1, 2001), which you can purchase at Amazon or wherever you buy your books.

The final track, “This City Never Sleeps,” is based around Annie’s time spent in a miserable bedsit when she left the Royal Academy of Music. Peter Ashworth recollects Annie writing the evocative words quite some time before her move to Stapleton Hall Road.

“That was in the little bedsit that we shared in Camden Villas. It was a tiny room, a bed in one corer and a sink in another corner. I remember her writing these lyrics while she was there. It was a very depressing place,” he says today.

Elaborates Annie: “I’d regressed back to when you first come down to London and you have to rough it. That was happening in my private life — it was a telling strain on me, it was very hard to live with it. ‘This City Never Sleeps’ is simply to do with what was happening to me at the time. You know…the walls were so thick that I could hear the girl coughing next door! It was very depressing and I thought ‘Jesus!’ There’s millions of people all over the world who have this feeling where the city just hums all night and they don’t know who the person is next door to them, and they don’t even wanna know because they treasure that tiny bit of privacy, that square box so much…”

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“When Annie presented Dave with her reflective, melancholic lyrics, he immediately seized on the imagery of the underground train rattling through the night and dashed off to nearby Camden Town tube station, where he recorded fifteen minutes of train noises on Annie’s small Sony Walkman. Returning to the studio, Dave slowed down the tape until the recording was almost ‘in tune’ with the music, then literally held his electric guitar in front of the speakers so that it picked up on the squealing of the train wheels and began to noisily feed back into the system. In that way, the train sound effectively morphs into a screeching slide guitar, and the doctored sounds of the subway serve to heighten the lyrics. Annie is double-tracked and low in this reflective, attractive semi-ballad, and the ambient synths and repeated bass line well reflect the boredom and frustration of being a stranger in the neighborhood.”

The track would also be featured on the soundtrack to 9 1/2 Weeks, about an art gallery assistant Kim Basinger who plays sex games with a man she barely knows (Mickey Rourke).

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Eurythmics — one of the most successful duos to emerge in the early ’80s — would enjoy their first taste of success with “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” a track featured on their second UK album (their first in America).

The song exploded so quickly up the charts that it mistakenly gave the impression that they were something of an overnight sensation.

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Nothing could have been further from the truth, however, as it was actually the fifth full-length album that Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart had worked on together: three of those albums had been released as full-length records by the Tourists — a successful power poppin’ group who played a mix of folk, psychedelia, and new wave — and the fourth had been their 1981 debut as Eurythmics, In the Garden.

Lead vocalist and classically-trained on both piano and flute, Lennox — who hailed from Aberdeen, Scotland — was born Christmas Day in 1954.

Her piano- and flute-playing skills had won her a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, but she would end up quitting school during finals, apparently disgusted with the school’s pretensions, and she began working a number of odd jobs in London while playing with a folk-rock band, a jazz-rock group, and a cabaret duo, not really having much success.

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Multi-instrumentalist Stewart — from Sunderland, in northern England, born September 9, 1952 — had already played in a number of groups too, eventually leading his own British folk-rock band, Longdancer, who signed with Elton John’s Rocket Records.

Through a friend’s introduction, Lennox and Stewart would first met each other in a health food restaurant in London’s Hampstead area. Lennox, working as a waitress, had taken Stewart’s order for a plate of cabbage (yum!), but she denied his second request, which was that she marry him immediately.

They did eventually become a couple, though, and were linked romantically and shared a flat together for several years, and it was during that time, in 1977, that they would form a group called the Catch, which shortly became the Tourists, with a reclusive alcoholic, drug-taking lead singer named Peet Coombes, who Stewart was writing music with at the time (Coombes eventually died in 1997 following years of alcohol and drug abuse).

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Lennox and Stewart wouldn’t write too many of the Tourists’ songs — the band ended up having several hits in Britain, though, including a Top Five remake of Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be with You” (#4 UK, #83 U.S., 1980) and a Top Ten hit, “So Good to Be Back Home Again” — which may have contributed to forming their duo Eurythmics in 1980 (not to mention they were keen to move on from legal hassles with the band’s management and various publishers and record labels).

It was while they were on tour with the Tourists, in the city of Wagga Wagga, in New South Wales, Australia, playing around late one night with a little portable mini-synth, that they came up with the idea of leaving the band and striking out on their own, even as just as their romantic relationship was ending its run (there would be difficult times ahead for both former lovers over the rest of the decade).

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Stewart, in particular, didn’t really want to be in a band (and he’s said that the Tourists’ group dynamic had started to become too volatile), and he wanted to follow his own creative path, which more and more was taking him away from guitar-based songs and more towards synthesizers and new technology in general.

Their name was initially spelled as “Eurhythmics,” but they’d decided to drop the “h” not too long after they first began to use it. In case you were wondering, the name itself came from a Greek term that was used by Emil Jacques-Dalcroze, who taught children music through movement (which Lennox had encountered as a child).

Indeed, the American Heritage Dictionary defines Eurhythmics as “the choreographic art of interpreting musical composition by a rhythmic, freestyle graceful movement of the body in response to the rhythm of the music.”

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Stewart had liked that their name because the “Eu” seemed a good way to signify that they had what he thought was a very European sound, and he liked that it had “rhythm” because he thought they had a very “rhythmic” sound (compared with the “melodic” focus of the Tourists.

That was really their main point, to distinguish themselves from the group dynamic of the Tourists, who were always searching for the next big pop hook, and steer themselves toward a more complicated, heavily-rhythmic sound that was focused on studio wizardry as much as it was on the playing of musical instruments.

The name Eurythmics never did begin with “The,” however, but like most bands the “the” was usually added anyway.

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At the time, their U.S. label, RCA Records, were looking for a group or artist with an artsy rock vibe — they had recently parted ways with David Bowie, due to creative clashes over Bowie’s artistic bent to always do something new and different — but after Eurythmics were signed in 1980 execs at RCA declined to issue their first album, which in February of 1981 had been recorded and co-produced with legendary German producer Conny Plank at his studio in Cologne, Germany (Plank had produced the later Tourists sessions).

The sessions also featured Marcus Stockhausen (son of the avant-garde composer), and members of a couple of German progressive rock bands, including Robert Görl (of D.A.F.) and bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of the band Can, as well as drummer Clem Burke of the band Blondie, who just happened to be in Plank’s studio at the time (forming a lasting bond with Lennox and Stewart).

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Despite the impressive resume of musicians, the label opted to not release In the Garden in the U.S., waiting until their second album, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), which Lennox and Stewart produced themselves, as a way to introduce them to their American record-buying audience (who then went out and found expensive British import copies of their debut).

It turned out that RCA were a bit concerned that Americans wouldn’t fully understand the name Eurythmics, which seemed too “foreign sounding” to the execs, but Stewart is reported to have leaped on top of a conference room table at their offices in New York City, towering above them, explaining that Eurythmics wasn’t a band anyway, it was the name of a recording project for he and Lennox, and he told them he thought it would look impressive on a billboard, the same way that “foreign sounding” company names like Adidas or Nike looked.

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Stewart apparently convinced them, and further convinced his label to pay less attention to their name and whether or not they could be marketed as a group; it had been Conny Plank’s advice, in fact, that now Lennox and Stewart were no longer members of the Tourists, they should do everything in a smaller, more compact way, and control every aspect of it, which became their future basic philosophy.

Instead, Stewart said, they should focus more attention on their sound, which he said was not going to rely heavily on electric guitars — which he said were too associated with the 1970s at that point, a decade that was already over and finished — but on synthesizers, which were still rather new in the pop music realm, the new direction for the new decade.

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His studio wizardry and her theatrical appearance and mournful vocals made for an exciting new sound which was at the time quite new, and they retreated to Chalk Farm in London and used a bank loan to establish a small 8-track studio above a picture framing factory, where they began to experiment.

RCA’s timing turned out to be perfect, with the American debut — and the video for the title song — came along at just the right time to take full advantage of the music video revolution.

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“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” had one of those memorable, catchy riffs — throbbing synth lines intertwined together — that helped to define a predominant sound of the 1980s, the icy cool and high-tech sound of synth-heavy electro-pop.

A lot of the song’s lyrics had been made up by Lennox on the spot, singing along in a stream-of-consciousness manner, and thirty minutes later it was complete.

During the track’s recording, the dark and powerful sequenced synths were accompanied by Stewart and Lennox banging along on glass milk bottles that had been filled with different levels of water in order to create specific notes.

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The entire budget for the song — recorded with an 8-track recorder and synthesizers — was roughly $700.

The stylish, androgynous video for “Sweet Dreams” — featuring Lennox in her new orange crew-cut — received constant airplay on MTV, and pushed the single to the top of the charts, where it remained for the next seventeen weeks, spending one of those weeks in September 1983 in the #1 spot in the U.S. Meanwhile, the album itself went gold.

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Another hit, “Who’s That Girl?,” was released on July 8, 1983, and shot into the UK singles chart the following day, before ended up at #3 UK, #21 U.S.

In the song’s video, the theatrical gender-bending Lennox played a blonde chanteuse who leaves a club with her butch alter-ego, a gender-bending Elvis Presley clone (they kiss at the video’s climax).

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The success of Sweet Dreams — which also featured a cover of the 1968 Sam & Dave hit “Wrap It Up” — was the perfect set-up for their platinum follow-up album, Touch, which was released near the end of ’83.

The album continued their string of hits, including “Here Comes the Rain Again” (#4 U.S., #8 UK, 1984) and a rare optimistic song, “Right By Your Side” (#10 UK, #29 U.S.)

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MTV continued to play the band’s videos, except for “Love is a Stranger” (#23 U.S.) — a single they’d re-released from earlier in their career — drawing the line for its storyline which featured Lennox again playing both male and female roles, dressed like a transvestite, a concept she would employ in various subsequent videos.

They would continue to blur glamor and gender imagery — Lennox had also dressed like Elvis when the band performed at the 1984 Grammys — throughout the rest of their career.

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At the end of 1984, they released the soundtrack for the film adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, which received poor reviews and sales, despite the Top Ten U.K. placing of its single, “Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four).”

1985 saw the release of their fifth album, Be Yourself Tonight, which paid homage to the Stax, Atlantic and Tamla-Motown sound of melodic soul and R&B.

The album featured guest appearances by both Stevie Wonder (on “There Must Be an Angel,” a UK #1 hit in July ’85) and Aretha Franklin (“Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves,” #18, 1985).

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The album also yielded the hit single “Would I Lie to You” (#5, 1985).

For their penultimate album, Revenge, Eurythmics broadened out their sound to something approximating stadium rock. The album was deemed a success (#12, 1986) and it produced a Top Twenty single, “Missionary Man” (#14, 1986), and their next long-player, We Too are One, was successful too. Released in 1989, it too would top the UK album charts at #1 (#34 US, #34 Austrailia), but it would prove to be their last. The duo of Lennox and Stewart called it quits in 1990, although they would re-unite again at the end of the decade.

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Check out the “Radio 1990” profile on Eurythmics, featuring an excerpt from their interview with Lisa Robinson, and also be sure to check out their video for “Who’s That Girl?” in our “Take Off to Androgyny,” which originally aired on April 13, 1984. They’re all streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.