Perfect 10: Tears For Fears

The 1980s threw up lots of weird and wonderful musical phenomena but few were as gloriously unlikely as Tears For Fears. Two surly council estate teenagers from broken homes who became school chums and Bath buddies, Roland Orzabal (guitar) and Curt Smith (bass) formed their partnership from the ashes of a mod revival outfit in the summer of 1981. And it was an electronic pioneer of the moment who they had to thank for that.

“We’d been in this mod band called Graduate but Gary Numan had shocked us out of all that. He was getting No.1s wearing eyeliner, and there we were doing knees-ups to Madness. So we split from the band. I got an asymmetrical hairstyle, Curt got plaits, and we started listening to synthesizer music.” — Roland Orzabal

Channelling their difficult childhoods via intellectual lyrics inspired by The Primal Scream by John Lennon’s one-time psychologist mentor Arthur Janov, the unprepossessing pair took full advantage of the new musical technology that had become available. Drawing sonic inspiration from the Brian Eno school of cerebral art-rockers, TFF utilised those tools to create sumptuously melancholy “affects music” with a melodic intensity that was unbelievably captivating and entertaining. 

“We’d been listening to Remain In Light by Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel’s eponymous third album and Scary Monsters by David Bowie. These were amazingly produced, very rhythmic records that made us want to try something similar. Access to synthesizers gave us the chance to experiment.” — Curt Smith

With a rotating list of supporting musicians that included Ian Stanley (keyboards) and Manny Elias (drums)*, the group released a triumvirate of phenomenally successful albums that sold over 30m in a seven year period. Here was a commercially appealing band, popular enough to see its frontmen on the covers of teen magazines, yet crafting ponderous songs with obtuse often morbid lyrics, strange, experimental B-sides, and creative if overly grandiose album tracks. If that doesn’t sum up the Eighties I don’t know what does. Though Orzabal admitted to The Quietus not long ago that the lack of serious critical acclaim still rankled: “We weren’t particularly liked by some of the music journals. If you were on the front cover of Smash Hits, you were doomed.”

Inter-personal and management issues forced an acrimonious falling out and Smith’s departure for a solo career. With his increasingly perfectionist approach to production, Orzabal, the band’s primary songwriter, carried on regardless, doing an OMD by using the name for a further pair of LPs in the 1990s as Tears For Fears gradually faded from the public consciousness. After a few false starts, TFF officially returned as a duo in 2004 having managed to patch up their differences. 

Lest we forget these two were born just two months apart. Curt was 60 in June, while Roland celebrates his ascent into sexagenarianism in August, so publishing this in July seems a fitting exercise in fence-sitting. It’s a fact that almost all of their biggest hits were sung by the more accessible, gossamer tenor-voiced Smith while the less easy on the eyes and ears Orzabal can stake many undisputed claims to be the creative powerhouse behind the band.

Thus, in the spirit of equality I’ve chosen a Perfect 10 of Tears For Fears tracks for your utmost delectation, five sung by one and five by the other, but restricted to their work together nonetheless. Some of these ten you may consider were so over-exposed that, good as they are, you wouldn’t feel terribly sad about never hearing them again. Alas, no one can deny their run of singles and stuff were an incredibly strong body of work, and if this article encourages people to become better acquainted with an act that had hitherto passed them by then perhaps these listicles serve a purpose after all.

So here’s a chance to shake a few memories loose and break them down again. Yup.

Suffer The Children (1981)

Unlike most groups who struggled for years before attracting any attention from record companies, TFF were a studio driven duo not a live act, so nobody could ‘discover’ them. Indeed, the pair had only two songs in the bag when they got signed. “We had gone into a demo studio in Bath with just Suffer The Children, and we knew nothing about synthesizers,” Orzabal told Smash Hits in 1982. “It was our producer, David Lord who showed us how to use them and he played all the difficult bits at first.”

The track duly impressed Phonogram and TFF were signed to the label. Their lyrics were deep, dark, and definitely not the usual pop fare. In fact, when Suffer The Children was released as the debut Tears For Fears record later that year both John Peel and the NME, harbingers of cool at the best of times, likened them to Manchester doom merchants Joy Division. With its Smith-voiced nursery rhyme intro, the single version can come across as a trifle dated and twee than the later re-recording on The Hurting, but it would be key to Tears For Fears’ future success, and was played for six solid weeks on Peter Powell’s show alone, so there was certainly some enthusiasm. But to really get going would take another couple of goes.

Pale Shelter (You Don’t Give Me Love) (1982)

After the failure of STC, Curt and Roland were paired with the man whose studio touch had brought OMD chart success, Mike Howlett. However, it was a match deemed poor by both band and producer, who referred to them as “difficult.” Unhappy with the Sydneysider’s more technological approach, Orzabal vented to International Musician: “He smothered everything in echo and reverb. And it actually sounded good. Well at first, that is… when you’re not used to the subtleties of recording.” 

Inspired by Henry Moore’s art book of the same name, Pale Shelter is another Orzabal song but this time it’s sung by Smith and only Smith. “Normally it’s pretty obvious [who should sing a particular song],” Smith told The Quietus. “If it’s a softer song it’s normally me. If it requires being belted, it’s normally Roland. My voice is a lot darker, a lot more melancholic, and Roland is more of a shouter.”

Originally released as the second single in 1982, Pale Shelter failed to dent the charts and was attempted again in mellower and arguably more palatable form and included on debut album The Hurting, where it became the third and final Top 5 hit to be extracted in the spring of ’83. Then two years later, once they had cemented themselves as a successful global act, the original Howlett produced take was unleashed again, eeking out a No.73 showing in Britain. Whatever the version, it’s clear the band and label had faith in the track, with the subject matter with the disappointment of a parental relationship.

Mad World (1982)

Ah yes, the one with the funny dancing. 

After a pair of flop seven-inchers things were looking a bit grim for the duo. “Our original record deal was just for those two singles”, Curt told superdeluxeedition.com, adding that “without [A&R man] Dave Bates’ passion, the record company probably would have dropped us”. Enter drummer-producer Chris ‘Merrick’ Hughes from the newly disbanded Adam And The Ants. Under Hughes’s sonic supervision, the propulsive, earthy Mad World, with its distinctive, pensive percussion played on a Roland drum machine slowed to half-speed, succeeded in spectacular fashion. The single peaked at No.3 in November 1982 (though scarcely registering stateside), giving TFF the go-ahead to complete their album. In 2013, Roland Orzabal recalled its creation in an interview with The Guardian:

“The chorus – ‘The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had’ – is from Janov’s idea that nightmares can be good because they release tension. I wrote it when I was 19, on the dole in Bath. I was listening to Radio 1 on this tinny radio and Duran Duran’s Girls On Film came on. I just thought: ‘I’m going to have a crack at something like that.’ I did and ended up with Mad World. Eventually, we made the demo but I didn’t like it. So I said to Curt: ‘Look, you sing it.’ And suddenly it sounded fabulous. 

“The song was intended as a B-side but Polygram said it was too good, so it became our third single. I’d come up with this dance for it and used to do it a lot in the studio, so the record company told me I had to do it in the video, since Curt was singing and there was nothing else for me to do. So there I was, stuck by this lake doing my flying wombat impersonation, but it worked.”

Change (1983)

Another single in various permutations, though, characteristically, Roland was initially not satisfied with the version we know and love: “I remember trying to convince everyone that we’d recorded Change at too fast a tempo. We had another crack at it, slower, but it lost something in the process”. For the record (and cassette), this somewhat demoish slower take is what’s usually labelled as the ‘new version’ and was a bonus track on some formats at the time. 

It’s a nice rarity, but on reflection, you don’t mess with the big hits, because the familiar recording rolls along supremely, with frantic arpeggio marimba sounds, Smith’s funky bassline and a smattering of synthesizers. And with that huge pop hook in the chorus, it all conspired to propel the song to fourth place in early 1983, and was their first single to become an international success, breaking the Billboard Hot 100 in the US that August.

Memories Fade (1983)

With its powerful mechanised rhythmic tension, tight drum-machine programming, and sparse, minor-key melodies that reflected the fraught paranoia and resignation of the subject matter, The Hurting is a hallmark of early-80s darkwave and goth, and this meandering, transportative, and utterly depressing deep cut is the deepest: “Memories fade but the scars still linger”, sings a bruised Roland, who wrote it at 19 going on 20, and which suggests that teenage angst has nothing on its twentysomething counterpart. It’s one of the axioms in the lexicon of life, and if you’re a person who does not carry a scar, you haven’t lived. 

Trivia time: In the course of preparing this article, it emerged that this is the favourite Tears For Fears non single of the person who produced it, Chris Hughes, who tells me from Oxford that “it’s just beautifully written and powerfully expressed.” Not only that but on his 808s & Heartbreak set, Kanye West constructed Coldest Winter around so much of Memories Fade that it’s essentially a cover version with mildly rejigged lyrics. The 2008 track’s frosty, minimalist production impressed another English pop duo so much they nabbed its engineer for their next LP. They’re the Pet Shop Boys.

Shout (1984)

Released in 1985, Tears For Fears’ second album Songs From The Big Chair sounded more extroverted and approachable, and defines the sound of big mid-Eighties pop-rock like no other. Oscillating wildly between ambitious arena-ready anthems with vocals that shamelessly shunt world-sized choruses with a “Yeah!” (I’m looking at you, Head Over Heels) and elegant ballads evoking the loss of control in an overwhelming era, the results are dense, layered multi-section songs that sound calculated, finessed, meticulous, and ultimately more in common with prog-rock than most of new wave.

Following the fine if bombastic Mothers Talk, the LP’s second 45 was this vocal exercise in primal scream therapy. Though, ironically, for a song called shout, there ain’t a great deal of shout going on. Lulu they ain’t! It was a breakthrough moment for the band, becoming a huge international hit, peaking at No.4 in January 1985 in the UK but going all the way to the top of the US Billboard Hot 100, staying at No.1 for three weeks. 

Despite its ubiquity it’s still fiercely effective, with power chords, heavy percussion, and even (gasp) lengthy synth bass and guitar solos, something previously unheard of in TFF’s oeuvre. In order to help the track build, Chris Hughes provided thunderous live drumming over the synthetic sequenced foundation. It all combines to illustrate a perfect example of what Roland and Curt do best — channelling a genre-hopping drama in a six-and-a-half minute single about relieving stress through unleashing anger rather than bottling things up. Modern Britain in a nutshell then. Though Orzabal did say that the song, written at the height of the Cold War, was also a battlecry against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and an encouragement to political protest and not to just accept the problems thrown at people by government or society. Issues that are more relevant in 2021 than ever.

Everybody Wants To Rule The World (1985)

Welcome to your life. With an opening line like that is it any wonder Curt and Roland chose to open their recent live shows with a copper-bottomed classic like this. Epic in scope, giant in appeal, Everybody Wants To Rule The World is their signature song that really defined that mid-’80s big studio sound where, for a brief few months at least, Tears For Fears were the biggest pop band on the planet. Orzabal co-wrote the song with Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes, the latter of which tells me this is his favourite TFF single of all time: “It was clearly aimed at a kind of drive-time, Americana, feel-good thing.”

It may be a surprise therefore to note the producer says that recording the song — even with its shifting cross-rhythm time signatures written in duple-triple meter but taking in everything from 3/4 to 6/4 to 12/8 — was an effortless process. Sampled by Nas, covered by Lorde, it was also re-recorded as Everybody Wants To Run The World for a 1986 single to support Band Aid sister charity Sports Aid, which was Curt and Roland’s way of apologising for pulling out of Live Aid at the last minute.

In its original 1985 incarnation, it’s one of life’s great ironies that a song originally titled Everybody Wants To Go To War could provide such a sense of uplift, yet it’s so obviously a meditation on power that you could project virtually every major issue of the 1980s onto the lyrics: the environment (“Turn your back on mother nature”), the fleeting nature of financial success (“Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure/Nothing ever lasts forever”), authoritarian rule (“Even while we sleep/We will find you”), and the Cold War (“Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down”). It‘s that treatise on the themes of control and corruption which led to it being banned from the radio during the first Gulf War. And with lines like “I can’t stand this indecision / Married with a lack of vision”, surely the group’s greatest hit is more prescient now ever before. 

Sowing The Seeds Of Love (1989)

A guilty, gleeful indulgence that cost in excess of a million quid, 1989’s Seeds Of Love set was much more progressive, psychedelic, experimental, and dare I say organic. Without a doubt, it’s indulgent in a good way. The whole album has a slight subtle jazz vibe that I can only describe as afterglow, meaning that it would make perfect music for an acid comedown, floating back into the everyday world in the glistening morning sun. The semi title track is over six minutes long yet never gets boring — this joyous homage to the psychedelic Sgt. Pepper era Fab Four boasts layered vocals, expansive instrumentation, and a triumphant proggy structure that really takes you on a journey. 

With production so glossy it’s almost fascist, the whole thing is a feat of songwriting and engineering — you can’t get away with seven bridges in a song these days, though perhaps Sowing The Seeds Of Love is a little too derivative of that Lennon ‘give love a chance/all you need is peace’ formula to be a masterpiece. 

A hippie rally call for love and peace man, then, in the heart of Thatcher’s Britain, and quite frankly we needed it. The fact it was the best Beatles single not written by ELO was another bonus factor, and it wiped the floor with the hack pastiches that Noel Gallagher would later put his name to. Oh, and that line, “Politician granny with your high ideals/ Have you no idea how the majority feels?” was obviously a none too subtle dig at the now woefully out of touch Prime Minister approaching her final year in Downing Street. Though she wasn’t the only one on her last legs. 

Size Of Sorrow (2004)

Resilient and some might say, bloody minded, in the 1990s Orzabal went all Andy McCluskey/OMD and carried on the brand name on his own with ever decreasing commercial returns. As far as most people were concerned, Tears For Fears were as good as dead. Then, in a nostalgia nudging exercise par excellence, the Donnie Darko soundtrack version of Mad World was a surprise Christmas hit in 2003 and refreshed enough memory banks to breathe new life into the band. Especially as Californians Michael Andrews and Gary Jules managed to do what TFF had never done – have a number one single in Britain. Now that’s kinda funny. 

The time was right for Smith and Orzabal to put aside their differences for a sumptuous, luxuriant comeback album. Very much Seeds Of Love Part II, 2004’s oft-delayed Everybody Loves A Happy Ending was a slightly workaday attempt to say “Let’s pretend the ’90s didn’t happen – or even anything after The Beatles”, while the title alone an ironic attempt at self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one. 

Size Of Sorrow is one of the ‘moody’ ones — and one of the few tracks that doesn’t over-egg the Fabs throwbacks. That’s probably because it was written by Roland a decade earlier and was first performed live during the Elemental Tour of 1993. The earlier version featured a lead vocal performed by future Bowie bass player Gail Ann Dorsey, who was working and touring with TFF at the time. The studio version here was sung by the returning Smith as a heartfelt Beach Boys type vocal effort over a melancholic mid-tempo ballad that despite the lyrical content is by far the most distilled vision of loveliness you’re ever likely to hear from a couple of bygone boys from Bath.

I Love You But I’m Lost (2017)

Written by Roland and Curt, with Dan Smith from indie outfit Bastille and the song’s producer Mark Crew, this was Tears For Fears’ first new song in 13 years, and one of two new tracks included on the band’s greatest hits collection, Rule The World in 2017. Well, what a turn up for the books. They’ve ditched the done-to-death Beatles affectations for one of those things they did so well in their nascent days: an uplifting song about depressing things. And even though the synth-heavy sonics of I Love You But I’m Lost give the most cursory of nods to techno, pop, electronica and an almost darkwave, it’s wrapped in a shimmering, utterly contemporary sound that’s more futuristic than retro. It’s also fabulously catchy to boot, with Orzabal singing the verse in an atypically higher octave that at first listen could almost be Smith. 

Speaking about the track, Roland said: “This song is about the haziness, the blurred lines within a relationship, the sense of having someone and losing someone in the same instant; like putting your arms around that person only for them to instantly disappear into vapours, the idea or ideal of someone who is impossible to pin down or own.” Based on that gleaming nugget, let’s hope the powers that be are able to pin TFF down to a full album sometime this decade. I’ll be head over heels if they do.

Steve Pafford

Wanna delve deeper? Try these bonus beats: Ideas As Opiates and the Cure-ish Watch Me Bleed are from The Hurting; Head Over Heels and I Believe were the fourth and fifth singles from Songs From The Big Chair, while The Working Hour is a quintessential non-single, and a ‘US Remix’ of Mothers Talk (actually a re-record) was released as its final 45 in 1986 and succeeds in being even more full of bombast than the original but with its dramatic intro hook — the best part of the song — inexplicably removed; the beautiful Woman In Chains is a duet with spectral-voiced Oleta Adams from Seeds Of Love, while its bass-bolstered flip-side Always In The Past is just as good; 1990 single Johnny Panic And The Bible Of Dreams was a Fluke-revamped club mix of the B-side to the jazzy sophisti-pop of Advice For The Young At Heart; 2004’s Last Days On Earth gives Lenny Kravitz’s It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over a run for its ’70s soul money; lastly, 2014’s Ready Boy & Girls? was a limited 10” Record Store Day release of three covers of songs by Animal Collective (My Girls), Arcade Fire (Ready To Start) and Hot Chip (And I Was A Boy from School), hence the amalgamated title of the EP. The wags. 

*Manny Elias happens to have been born in the same Calcutta hospital in India as my great aunt Cymraes. Though he has an advantage over her as she didn’t play the drums. Her loss.

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