On the eve of its 35th anniversary, a mini feature on the first Eurythmics album I bought, and the only one of the seminal duo’s long players I owned on vinyl.
Darling, just be yourself tonight.
The 1980s were an incredibly productive decade for Eurythmics. After bursting on to the pop scene with the krautrock textures of 1981’s In The Garden, there was an album a year almost without fail all the way through to 1989’s We Too Are One and their first extended hiatus.
Coming slap bang in the middle of everything is their fourth/fifth album Be Yourself Tonight, released on Monday 29 April 1985. Just five months earlier the duo had released what was intended as a soundtrack album (not without controversy), 1984 (For The Love Of Big Brother), for the film of the George Orwell novel and were riding a huge critical wave.
Largely recorded in the outer suburbs of Paris (and not a very posh area of Paris either, according to future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, who interviewed the duo at their “unglamorous” studio for Smash Hits) with additional tracking in Detroit and Los Angeles, Be Yourself Tonight continued Eurythmics’ high profile progression, but saw Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart cast off their digital iciness. According to Annie, the duo wanted to make “commercial but also very individual” music that was a concerted, commercial shift away from their trademark experimental synthetic pop to adopt a more traditional band-based rock and R&B sound.
Having said that, thanks to Lennox’s leanings, there was often a vein of ’60s rhythm and blues running underneath even the most synthesized of Eurythmics songs. Stereogum were pretty on the ball when they offered the observation that with a sweet Wrecking Crew arrangement, Here Comes The Rain Again could have been a hit for Diana Ross and the Supremes, one of Annie’s favourite groups growing up in the austere granite grey of Aberdeen. This is where Annie’s R&B tendencies come into their own, which, of course, also explains the presence of Detroit’s finest, a pair of legendary black American guest stars I’ll get to in a minute.
The release of Be Yourself Tonight also coincided with a new look for the singer, who ditched the carrot-topped child of Ziggy Stardust androgyny of the previous albums and became, in biographer Lucy O’Brien’s words, “a bleach-blonde rock ‘n’ roller.”
While it does contain some genuinely exceptional songs, the record as a whole comes off a little overrated in retrospect. Be Yourself Tonight is essentially a deep soul album in white-English-geek drag. As far as exploring new song structures and broadening the sonic platte then Be Yourself is atypically conventional and perhaps unadventurous, though in terms of songwriting it’s an extremely solid piece of work.
Would I Lie To You? is a brash, uncompromising album opener and lead single, giving listeners a first hint that they’re in for a raucous ride. Everything in this deliciously defiant two-finger salute clicks: the almost disco bassline, the metallic – but nowhere near generic metallic – guitar riffs, the funky gasping-for-air brass section, and the fiery emotionalism of Annie’s soaring vocals (caterwauling, one less kind review opined at the time), all combine to make the song one of the finest examples of Eighties white rhythm and blues, as the D in D&A explained in The Dave Stewart Songbook:
“When we started putting it down the song had a lot of energy and inspired Annie to come up with the great lyric, ‘Would I Lie To You’ and a melody with very odd answering harmonies, ‘Now, would I say something that wasn’t true.’ These harmonies are very unusual and Annie is a genius at working them out very quickly in her head. The song started to be a fusion between Stax-type R&B and Eurythmics. Ollie Romo played a classic R&B drumbeat, our bass player Dean Garcia played a great solid line, and we soon realised this could be a monster track.”
Rock critic Stewart Mason described the melee as, “Sounding like Dusty Springfield’s even brassier kid sister, Annie Lennox lets rip on this song, delivering a feisty smackdown of a lyric to Dave Stewart’s head-bobber of a lead guitar riff.” Some people spit venomous toadspittle when it comes to discussing Dave’s dissonant garage-like solos on this record, and not every one is inspired, but more often than not they work, because he’s Dave Stewart and we’re not. Australians, nurtured on a force-fed diet of gritty pub rock, were in agreement and gave D&A their first chart-topper in the land Down Under, from where I’m writing this.
Now you know how it goes: if you ain’t got a great set of lungs, you ain’t truly fit for R&B, and if you ain’t got enough vocal hook lines to back it up, your R&B is gonna stink like a skunk down a drainpipe.
Neither is a problem on Be Yourself Tonight. Annie’s singing only gets better with time, so much, in fact, that she goes toe-to-toe (and holding her own) with Aretha Franklin’s powerhouse pipes and manages to match the Queen of Soul (no mean feat, obviously) seamlessly on Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, the bombastic gospel-inflected duet that has since become a feminist anthem, and also serves as the centrepiece and defines the album.
A string of further musical guests help out here, including Elvis Costello (he and Annie doing their best Marvin and Tammi impression on the atmospheric Adrian), exquisite arrangements by Michael Kamen, and, inspired by his star turn on Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You the previous year, Stevie Wonder providing some of the most joyous harmonica ever committed to tape on the sublime, ethereal There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart).
In late July, the song gave Eurythmics their first and only No.1 single in Britain, just two weeks after the Live Aid concert that one half of the duo refused point blank to take part in (small clue: it wasn’t the one who was recuperating surgery on her vocal fold nodules, which was another reason why they also didn’t tour the album).
Sticking with the singles, I’ve often felt It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back) was one of the more under-appreciated Eurythmics 45s from their first flush, but aside from the bass-heavy electronic pulses and the yearning fluttering warmth of Lennox’s vocals, the song was notable for marking the first time a Eurythmics album boasted four bona fide hits. Moreover, the duo did go on to receive an Ivor Novello Award in 1986 for the track, recognising the composition’s musical and lyrical importance.
This coruscating quartet are very possibly the best cuts on the album, but (I Love You Like A) Ball And Chain comes close – a classic menacing “powerfest” from Annie. Some like the girl more romantic, some like her more ‘masculine’, take your pick; Ball And Chain is a very strong argument, though, in favour of the latter.
Oh, did I mention yet that, in true R&B fashion, many of these songs evolve into grooves halfway through? With no verses or choruses, just a flashy jammin’ atmosphere and bombastic vocal gymnastics sections? They’re all good.
The hooks get a wee bit weaker towards the end of the record (Here Comes That Sinking Feeling deserves to be mentioned, though, with Annie’s breathtaking “here it comes, here it comes again!” screams that are enough to, well, literally take the breath out of you), but essentially, even though Conditioned Soul and Adrian shimmer like pearls in the shell, I won’t go into detail on every one of the nine songs because the formula’s pretty non-diverse.
If you love the first half, you’ll at least like the second half anyway, which ends with the stadium stomper Better To Have Loved (Than Never To Have Loved At All) (D&A do like their parentheses) (don’t they?), neatly pointing to the direction they’d expand upon on with Revenge the following year.
So, on one hand, it’s easy to get wistful in remembering that the breakthrough Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) or any of their previous albums were loaded with hooks-a-plenty while coupled with daring, dazzling innovation. On the other hand, it’s heartening to find such a tastefully recorded album right smack dab at the point in the Eighties when mainstream music started to lose its edge. Be Yourself Tonight certainly deserves to be salvaged, not savaged.
BONUS BEATS: Music television came into my family’s home in 1984, and my world was suddenly cracked open. A precocious infant channel exposed me to things I had only heard rumours about: Music television overflowing with sex, rock & roll, new wave… and new bands like a-ha and Pet Shop Boys. Not to mention Phillip Schofield’s first telly job in Britain. But this wasn’t MTV—that had yet to arrive on European shores—this was the music mad Sky Channel, Europe’s first ever cable and satellite channel, and Rupert Murdoch’s new baby that had been midwifed by none other than Kate Bush.
To coincide with the release of Be Yourself Tonight, in the spring of 1985 Dave and Annie were the subject of an hour-long special by VJ Pat Sharp, who, if I remember correctly, with customary naffness and ill-prepared research was given short shrift by the Lennox one. Even Princess Diana got a sardonic mention.
Sadly, I’ve not seen the programme since the broadcast, and back then Sky was only available to cable viewers in certain new towns of the UK. If anyone knows the existence of a video recording of said speech do let me know. I can still vividly rccall Annie telling the lank-haired Sharp that Be Yourself Tonight “is sort of a rock and roll album,” to which my slightly puzzled mother offered the withering assessment, “Isn’t she strange?” Quite.