Music

Finding the Sublime in Jazz, an Argument for Abstraction

Image from Live at Birdland Original recording remastered, Live (1997)

Jazz columnist Will Layman presents seven pieces of music as evidence of the beauty and urgency of pure sound in instrumental jazz.

Folks who don’t like jazz usually confess to being put off by music that doesn't feature a singer and lyrics. They also don’t like that most jazz is heavy on improvisation, with instrumentalists noodling around, playing lots of seemingly random notes. Give me a melody. Give me a love song.

I like a tasty pop song as much as anyone. But I also want to argue that the abstraction -- the lack of pop singing and lyrics, the presence of the mystery of improvisation at the heart of most jazz performances -- is also a wonder. At the core of music, there's an expression of feeling and meaning that implies rather than tells. A perfectly placed note or a gorgeous tone, a whipcrack rhythm or a sensual blend of instruments makes us feel things without our knowing why. That’s the magic of music.

Because jazz allows each musician to color his sound freely, infusing it with personality and expressive variation, its abstraction is of the richest variety. Jazz is high art with a big heart.

Abstraction in Art, Generally

When it was announced that Bob Dylan had been chosen to receive a Nobel Prize in literature, there was a bit of a stir. Many in the literary community were upset that this choice would take attention away from a deserving but obscure literary writer in favor of an artist who has already received countless plaudits from the music community. You can argue it either way. Dylan’s use of language, in the form of song lyrics, dramatically changed popular music worldwide, bringing storytelling, wordplay, and literary sophistication to a popular art form. He elevated rock to high art.

I mention this because I have some friends who said, “His lyrics are great, but I just don’t like his music much. Or his singing.” This made me realize that I have had very nearly the opposite reaction to Dylan over the decades. I know that his lyrics are wonderful, of course. But when I listen to his music, which I love, I rarely focus on the words. I find the music alone deeply compelling -- not the melody and the harmonies as much as the sound as a whole: the band, the rhythms, the voice keening against guitars, the tumbling intensity of “Like a Rolling Stone”, the wistful optimism of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, the soulful sense of purpose and destiny in a live version of “I Shall Be Released” from 1975.

You may or may not love the pure sound of these Dylan recordings, but they are undeniably expressive, independent of (but also in service of) the lyrics. The music itself tells a story. Indeed, it is the highest calling of music to tell its story or to express its emotion through sound and not just words. Similarly, cinema uses words, but its most profound calling is to tell its story and express emotion through the camera, through moving images. An actor speaks the words of a script, but what that actor does with her face or body, her gait or her sighs or her eyes, is arguably the more profound part of her art.

These parts of acting, filmmaking, and music are the less explicit parts. In portraiture, the face and upper body of Lisa Gherardini may be the explicit, obvious part of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, but just as important is the hazy, impressionist landscape behind the main figure. With Monet and his water lilies, the canvas would become almost entirely abstract, and soon enough painters of several different schools would create entirely abstract works -- all color, form, texture, and intensity.

Not everyone loves "abstract art”, of course. It implies meaning and feeling rather than beating you over the head with it. But that is where art is most... artful. It’s where art makes the case for its magic.

Jazz Is a Unique Form of Instrumental Expression

The argument I’m making might well apply to any form of instrumental music. However, at least within Western culture, there are two things that make jazz special.

First, jazz lets every musician craft his own sound and even vary it from moment to moment. Classical music prescribes a “correct” tone and creates color through arrangement and orchestration. In a US culture in which individualism is nearly a religion, the fact that no two trumpet players or saxophonists sound alike provides jazz much of its power.

Second, jazz almost always involves improvisation. Today, classical music is 99 percent a slave to the written notes on the page. In jazz, there's sophisticated composition and arrangement but it's integrated with the performers’ spontaneous composition, not only making every performance different but also making jazz performances into conversations that reflect real-time interaction and expressions of individual emotion.

It’s worth noting that even jazz performances that feature a vocal are often somewhat abstracted expressions of individual emotion. From Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday to Cassandra Wilson, jazz singers typically apply techniques that twist basic melodies and change the sonority of the voice so that the lyrics are muffled, growled, elongated / shortened, or otherwise made harder to follow. Even when jazz uses words, the words tend not to dominate the performance.

In jazz, then, the feeling and emotion are artfully implied but also passionate expressions of individuals who are reacting to each other (and often the audience too) in the moment. In jazz, I’m arguing, the heart of the musicians and the heat of the moment merge to create a form of abstract expression that is anything but cold.

Seven Examples, From the Sizzling to the Sublime, of Unforgettable Emotion in Jazz

Here is a handful of examples, jazz performances where the sound alone is rich in feeling. These aren’t merely demonstrations of technical instrumental facility, but moments where an artist is exposing heart. This is how jazz moves us.

Miles Davis, “My Funny Valentine” (1964, live)

“My Funny Valentine” is a durable standard by Rogers and Hart, from the 1937 show Babes in Arms. It was recycled in the film version of Pal Joey (1957) and in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955), but the life of the song was extended almost infinitely by jazz musicians, who love its motif-driven melody and moody chord changes.

Davis picked up the song in the mid-'50s when it was all the rage, having been the lead track on Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Young Lovers from 1953. The classic Davis studio recording from 1956 is set at a ballad tempo with Davis playing the melody, his whispery Harmon mute in place. He would play the tune regularly with his bands for the next decade, but by the early ‘60s, Davis was using the song in a much more expressive and fluid way. During his 1964 concert at Lincoln Center in New York in support of civil rights causes, he played the tune with the open horn. The start of this performance is a great exhibit of how a bunch of sound -- without explicit story through lyrics -- can evoke a world of meaning a feeling.

The effect of the first six minutes of this recording are more powerful and expressive than any other recording of the song, with or without words. First, pianist Herbie Hancock establishes a mysterious canvas for the opening phrases or melody. Davis starts toward the bottom of his register, sounding both brass-clear and breathy, sonic qualities that evoke both majesty and a hauntedness. He makes one dramatic climb up to a bright, held note, and then he shifts the note down an octave only to slyly bend the note another quarter step downward.

Davis uses this technique several times in this melody statement and the following solo, alternating clarion, declamatory runs with bent-note asides that twist the tune back into itself. In other words, he is both optimistic and unsure. In some spots, Davis falters just a bit, exposing vulnerability, seeming to exhibit the song’s lyric (“Is your figure less than Greek? / Is your mouth a little weak? / When you open it to speak / Are you smart?”).

To my ear, the overall impression of his solo here is one of emotional desperation. He pleads a bit, screams some, he cries, and he woos. George Coleman’s saxophone solo is stately and Hancock’s is thoughtful and perfectly textured, but during the six minutes that Davis holds your ear, you know that you're hearing a complete story -- an expression of bottled-up intensity.

Charles Mingus, “The Original Faubus Fables” (1960)

In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus tried to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School with force. Two years later, bassist Charles Mingus recorded the first “Fables of Faubus” on Mingus Ah Um, and he followed that recording with a more raw quartet version, with shout-sung lyrics, on 1960's Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus on the independent Candid label.

The playing here is some of the most tragicomic in jazz. The theme has an urgent, funky push-pull as well as a wild bridge in which Eric Dolphy’s alto saxophone bleats like a mad ... governor (?) while Ted Curson plays protesting burst of brass in his lowest register. But it's during the improvising that the sense of anger and absurdity comes out. In this playing the musicians are somehow playing roles in a drama using just sound. They mock, pose, and speak back to power.

Curson seems to be playing the lament of years of segregation with a stately solo that alternates between logical melodic expression and soulful blues lamentation. Then Dolphy comes on with a statement that is more wild and untamed, shards of blues phrases flying with a combination of anger and comedy. Dolphy is a ripe tomato, almost cracking open as he rips and quavers and rises and falls like a man who has run out of breath. And options. In this emotional music, a listener gets the story and feeling directly.

Somehow, “Faubus” cracks you up and cracks you open. It mocks even as it takes things seriously. The combination of voices here is exactly perfect for its purpose.

Louis Armstrong, “Black and Blue” (1929)

This early record from Louis Armstrong also has some lyrics but, as was common back then, the first chorus is strictly instrumental. As good as Pops’ singing is, just listen to the first minute, which is a tiny clinic in how a great player can take a simple melody and use it to show beautiful command of time and pacing, but also an elegant defiance. The melody is mournful, but Armstrong plays it with a limber sense of time and an elegant intelligence. The song as written, of course, is a complaint about the unfairness of racial discrimination. But hearing Armstrong’s radiant trumpet at the start is the hear the answer before the question has been asked.

What do we hear that evokes a sense of rising above. Armstrong takes a blue melody and he sashays it through time. The notes have a casual, loose momentum as they are placed in time -- the tumble forward like the hips of a great dancer. The minor intervals say “sadness” but the sharp attack of each note and the swing of the notes through time say “I got this."

In just 16 bars of playing, Armstrong provided his response to racism: to rise above it through excellence, elegance, and joy. Thereby fighting it by changing the very world that let it thrive. In that minute of music, you can hear Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and Mos Def being born.

Keith Jarrett, “My Song” (1981 and 2009, live)

This simple theme written by pianist Keith Jarrett first appeared on his 1978 ECM record My Song, performed by his quartet with saxophonist Jan Garbarek. The tune itself is heart-tugging and gorgeous, combining a chiming, nursery rhyme accompaniment with a few gospel flourishes and several breathtaking harmonic shifts. It’s a pretty song, and maybe that’s all it would be in hands of most musicians.

This live version for solo piano, recorded in France in 1981 in low fidelity, nevertheless catches an artist in the middle of pure lyricism and flight. Jarrett caresses the theme at the start, yes, but he does so with relatively little fuss or cuteness. He plays it with simplicity and clarity.

But at about the 2:30 mark, he begins an improvisation that seems to bend the very idea of the piano. The left hand plays the harmonic form simply and the right hand begins with a ringing, fresh melody. Soon, however, it's as if the spirit possess Jarrett’s right hand and it begins to spin webs of melody that are fast, yes, and also precise, finally rippling melodies that are long and unexpected, quick strings of tones that rise, curl, turn, fall, twist. The curve of notes seem to bend as if they;re being played on guitar strings even though, of course, that couldn’t be. Jarrett fools your ears with a comet of notes, leaving a bending trail of fire.

There it is again, the same simple melody played by the same composer almost 30 years later. If you ever doubted that time makes us wiser, here is the proof. Jarrett takes his time beginning the familiar theme, working with denser, more darkened harmony. Listening to this is like tasting a favorite dish again, but one that has been flavored with spices that make the taste more complex, more varied -- less sugar but more complexity.

When Jarrett gets to the melody, it's still simple and beautiful, but he articulates it with more personality, bending it to feeling the way that Billie Holiday used to alter a Tin Pan Alley tune. His improvisation (beginning at the four-minute mark) is now a true conversation between both hands rather than stunning virtuosity from one, surely a recognition that life looks and feels more nuanced, complicated, mediated, and cooperative at 60 than at 30.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (featuring Wynton Marsalis), “In Case You Missed It” (1981, live)

This tune is a popping modern theme by saxophonist Bobby Watson, which he contributed to the book of drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Blakey, the drummer, was over 60 when this video was made of his last famous band -- famous because it featured trumpeter Wynton Marsalis before he had gone out on his own. (That’s brother Branford on alto sax.) Blakey was a jazz preacher, who reveled in teaching younger musicians and in spreading the gospel to new audiences through vigorous, high-energy, hard-edged swing.

Sometimes, in music as in sports, what'ss sublime is just seeing a great performer at full extension: a Michael Jordan dunk, the unfurled home-run swing of Bryce Harper, a full-extension touchdown catch by Calvin Johnson. The poetry can be in the astonishing mastery of craft.

The peak of magic here, from 3:50 to 5:15 is the young Marsalis’s solo, which is essentially 90 seconds of heart-stopping calisthenics. Marsalis, barely out of his teens, can play anything on the trumpet. And. So. He. Does. He plays low and tricky, high and skipping, funky half-valve blue notes. He flutters up and down like a hummingbird. He glisses the horn as if it were a tiny trombone.

He astonishes, and because it’s on videotape you can see Blakey, mouth hanging open, have trouble believing what he’s hearing. No one else on the stand is as talented (even if Bill Pierce, the tenor player, is wiser and more sage in 1981) and everyone in the room knows it. You hear those 90 seconds and can see the whole future for this kid and the music he will make.

Herbie Hancock with Freddie Hubbard and others, “Canteloupe Island” (1985, live)

Here’s a better trumpet solo, if a very different one. Freddie Hubbard was a few years short of 50 when he appeared at this all-star concert with Miles Davis’s 1964 rhythm section and Joe Henderson on tenor sax. The tune is Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” (later made famous for being sampled for the hip-hop novelty “Cantloop (Flip Fantasia)” by US3).

What you hear on Hubbard’s solo is different that the athleticism of Marsalis. From its very first note, this solo on a blues form is total conviction and badass certainty. Every last note of this solo is knife strike to your heart -- some of them sharp punctures, some tricky swipes, some slow, light strokes that barely break the skin, and some little stabs of sadness. The colors of this solo are not pastels or grey tones but bright primary colors streaked with blue. Dark blue.

Everything on this track is fantastic -- just dig the heady challenge of the tenor solo by Joe Henderson or the stabbing rhythms of Hancock, but everything Hubbard does is just a little more cocksure and ultra-fantastic. And after they play the melody one more time, the three soloists trade back and forth with Hubbard running the show like a circus-master.

The sound of confidence is infectious.

John Coltrane, “Naima” (1965, live)

If I had to ask someone to listen to just one jazz musician play just one thing, it would be this. In 1955, saxophonist John Coltrane wrote a ballad, “Naima”, for his wife. Formally, it's an interesting piece of music, with a series of chords shifting over just two “pedal point” notes in the bass, all fitted around a serene melody that seems to reach up to the stars. But forget technique and dig the feeling.

The original recording of “Naima” is from 1959: controlled, beautiful, tempered. By 1965, Coltrane’s life had dramatically changed. He left Naima in 1963 and was using his music, more and more, to seek something spiritual. The performance here traces a lifetime. Trane begins respectfully, playing the melody and theme with gentle affection. But after McCoy Tyner’s piano solo, he returns with an improvisation that is volcanic. While it screams and shrieks, it is not with anger, and this is not “free jazz” that abandons the melody or form.

Rather, Coltrane keeps the melody mostly under his fingers but surrounds it will a flow of energy that cracks down to the bottom of his register, bounces back up in torrents that reach for the clouds, and then flows around the notes. This is not a long solo, an indulgence -- it's a sculpture of rapture. It sounds like something that’s being created, forged in a hot oven. Lava spouts and sizzles and flows with majesty, too. In a whoosh the band brings us back to the melody, unadorned and simple, followed by Coltrane’s melodic ascent up seven tones to a last beautiful reach into an ending.

From contentment and calm, a soul grows restless, it strives to something greater but within defined limit, and then it returns home. What a journey.

And there I give you seven steps to heaven. Examples of emotion expressed in musical abstraction that I believe make the case for this music as something sublime, artful, intense, beautiful. There are many more musicians, and many different kinds of music could lay their claim with equal authority. But jazz, too often maligned as boring or “all the same” or irrelevant, remains one of the great forms of American expression. Yes, it's abstract expression. It asks you to see into it and interpret. It requires active listening. But it also reaches across and grabs you by the heart with sounds that are fiercely, defiantly individual.

What could be a clearer statement of the complexity and beauty in American culture?

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image