I am always happy to admit when I am wrong. For many years I was totally wrong about Tears For Fears, but I blame my mistake on … other influences. Back in late 1982 and early 1983, when they had their first flush of success with the singles “Mad World”, “Change” and “Pale Shelter” I thought they were crap but this was mainly because of the people who liked them. There was a bunch of girls in my class in school who swooned over the two main members Curt Smith and Roland Orzabel, the music was entirely secondary to whether Curt and Roland looked dreamy in their videos. Hell, I wouldn’t ever be that shallow, would I? I often look back on my teenage years and think I must have been an insufferable snob, looking down my nose at anyone not listening to whatever I was enjoying. I’m amazed any of my friends spoke to me. Or my family for that matter. But back in early 1983, my thirteen year old self sneered at the girls adding the initials TFF to my pencil case.
I’m not sure why my pencil case was the subject of so much inter – band rivalry. I can still see it now in my mind’s eye – a plastic pencil case, rectangular and decorated with a Castrol GTX logo. Only there was so much writing on it that it was hard to discern the original design. All the boys would scribble The Jam, The Style Council, U2, Echo and the Bunnymen. .. the cool bands of the time. The girls would write Duran Duran, Wham!, Spandau Ballet… And the girls would scribble insults about the boys and their music, and the boys would scribble insults about the girls and their music. It was like an Internet forum in microcosm, but on a small piece of plastic being hurled around the classrooms of Stanwell school. Tears For Fears were just another “band for girls”, weren’t they? Never mind that I secretly thought some of the second verse of “Mad World” was downright marvellous – all that stuff about going to school and being nervous, that struck a chord with this young lad who had been to three new schools within the space of 4 years.
But no I kept that to myself and sneered. When Tears For Fears issued their debut album “The Hurting” in the Spring of 1983 I wasn’t interested, preferring to devout my time to Freur and OMD (see many previous posts). It was even played to me by my next door neighbour when I popped over to play “Chuckie Egg” on his Acorn Electron but still I ignored it. The stigma of “the girls like it” was too much for me. By the end of 1983 their fourth hit single “The way you are” was stumbling around the middle of the charts and I mention it in my diary as “The worst song of the year, a complete mess”. It may not be the former but it is the latter.
Summer 1984 was the summer of “Frankie Says”, “Two Tribes” and “Relax” monopolising the top of the charts, George Michael never wanting to dance again, hi energy disco and whatever else was in the charts. In August Tears For Fears issued their new single “Mothers talk” and I still wasn’t impressed. Sure it had big drums but what didn’t? Everyone had big drums that summer. It still sounded like a mess to me, not sure where to put the guitars into the mix, lots of Fairlight presets. That summer was spent hanging out at the Yacht Club (did I ever mention Penarth was posh?) and their disco would bang out the same tunes over and over. The girls all loved “Mothers Talk” and danced to it at the Yacht Club while trying to be sophisticated. I hid at a table and hated life. (One of the reasons “How soon is now?” struck a chord with me was the verse about going to a club, you know the one….) Still not impressed by Tears For Fears
Then they issued “Shout” at the end of November and I changed my mind. There was a passion within “Shout” which really spoke to me. I didn’t quite understand what the song meant but there was a conviction in the performance and the words which was unmistakable. And it kept on building, starting simple and slowly adding layers, first some Fairlight vocal sounds, then guitar and real drums, organ and more voices. Over six minutes long, this was quite an epic. And in my head that line “I’d really like to break your heart” sounded like how I felt that Christmas. So much so that I bought it a few days after Xmas 1984 (alongside a Casino VL-tone, “Life’s a scream” by A Certain Ratio and “Devil and darkness” by Freur). But stupidly I bought the seven inch which had a habit of jumping quite badly – too much musical information crammed into the grooves. The single sleeve was intriguing though – it had a sleeve note written by producer Chris Hughes noting the somewhat tortured creation of “Shout”. And the video was great too – the passion obvious in the performance, and the communal element when all their friends and family join in with the band (echoing the promo film for “Hey Jude”, although that may not have been deliberate).
But I still didn’t tell the likes of Elaine, Beverly or Lesley that I’d bought a Tears For Fears record. Hell no. I was too young and proud to admit my mistake to them.
By the summer of 1985 their second album was unavoidable. “Everybody wants to rule the world” had dominated the start of the year. Now “Head over heels” and “I believe” were everywhere too. So I took the plunge on the album around September. Only being a cheapskate I bought it on tape from a market stall in Bessemer Road Sunday market. It’s odd thinking about that market now because I very much doubt it is there now. Oh the fruit market is still there but it’s a very different Cardiff back then.
I’ve written previously about areas of Cardiff which have changed, mostly for the better, and it seems Bessemer Road has changed. Now it is a link road heading towards the development around Leckwith, where the new Cardiff City stadium was built after Ninian Park was flattened to make way for houses. In 1985 Bessemer Road was a home of a B and Q DIY store, a number of cash and carry stores and the fruit market. And on Sunday everyone went to the market there, and B and Q, because that was all that was open. I loved the market, the row of burger and hot dog vans outside wafting the smell of fried onions through the air, the stone steps down in the market which were treacherous in wet weather, and all the market stalls… People selling meat out of the back of a van, the patter of “I can’t do it for a tenner, I’d be ROBBING you missus… how about a fiver?” in the rich Cardiff accent. Loads of stalls selling slightly dodgy looking label clothes. A stall or two with electrical goods like radio cassette players in brand names you’d never heard of (I bought some tapes from there which my early home recordings are on – Prinz Professional Low Noise – ever heard of them? Me neither). There were a few music stalls, one full of rows and rows of 7 inch singles which were totally random, you had to wade through hundreds of dross before you’d find a gem… you’d call it crate digging now… And another with tapes on the walls which is where I bought “Songs from the big chair” from, alongside “Meat is murder”. It was about a year or so later I released these were knock off tapes, not the real thing – paper labels on the tapes instead of printed details like my Beatles tapes. But I bought “SFTBC” on tape that day because it was the “limited edition” tape with the album on one side and a load of b sides on the reverse.
But again I still didn’t tell Beverley or Elaine or anyone else that I actually quite liked Tears For Fears. I couldn’t come back from my public declaration of hate. Was I too proud? Was I just an opinionated pillock? Who knows. I just kept listening to the album and absorbing the songs. But definitely no mention of the album in my diary or my end of year poll. It was my guilty secret that I dare not tell.
Around the autumn of 1986, something happened to change my mind. I’m not sure why but Andy Kershaw played a Tears For Fears Peel session from 1982 on his radio show. I doubt it was Peel himself who played it in 1986, even though he had been looking back on old sessions that summer with the Soar away Summer Seventies Spectacular or whatever he called it, where he played a load of old sessions from the 70s instead of having new sessions. I often wondered why he did that – was it preparation for the release of the Peel Sessions EPs on Strange Fruit which began to be issued during the Autumn of 86? Was there some behind the scenes problem with recording sessions – an upgrade to the studio perhaps? Maybe I should read a book, there are plenty there now. Anyway Kershaw or whoever played this TFF session from 1982 and I was amazed. There were four songs – “Ideas as opiates”, “Suffer the children”, “The hurting” and “The prisoner” – and I loved every song. Maybe early TFF weren’t all surface and lack of substance after all. These songs spoke to me, about feelings of isolation, lack of control, sense of self and a misunderstood childhood. At least that’s how it seemed in the Autumn of 1986. I immediately bought a cheap tape of “The hurting” and played it over and over, the songs made sense to me and I loved them all intensely. Even the songs I had heard as singles before fitted better into the album, made sense in the context of the album. I started to read a little more about the band, discovered the ideas behind their music were inspired by Arthur Janov and his Primal Scream theories of psychotherapy, none of which was new to me as I had read “Lennon Remembers” when I was younger. Suddenly everything slotted into place.
And I was finally ready to declare my love for Tears For Fears. One night after a typically boring session at the Railway pub, a bunch of my friends and I ended up at Beverley’s house for a game of Trivial Pursuit or something similar, and Beverley and I were perusing her record collection to find something to play (it was definitely Autumn because she had the twelve inch of “World Shut Your Mouth” and I insisted that she played the whole EP because the b sides were so good). I noticed a load of her Tears For Fears records there and said to her I was sorry for giving her such a huge amount of stick about liking them, that I had decided that I liked them now and would she mind playing “The hurting”? Only it wasn’t quite that casual, I was very apologetic as only a slightly drunk teenager can be (and incidentally if you are wondering no I didn’t fancy her but it is a fair question to ask). Beverley smiled and said “You know what Rob, we’ve all moved on from Tears For Fears now, but it’s nice to know you’ve finally caught up with us”.
So maybe the girls were right after all. Maybe the girls were the hipsters, and us boys were the fools, they set the trends and we just followed along hoping to impress them.
So how does “Songs from the big chair” hold up thirty years later? Well it holds its own very well. The reason I had to include something about “The hurting” is because the two albums work together well, in much the same way “Imagine” seemed to soften the message of “John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band”, then “Songs from the big chair” is a sweetened version of “The hurting” but contains the same messages. I also think I was more accepting of “The hurting” in the Autumn of ’86 because I had spent the Summer absorbed in “Compass Kumpass” by Dalek I, an album produced by Chris Hughes who TFF specifically asked to produce them because of that Dalek I album. Also listening to both TFF albums I spot direct or indirect references to OMD, this may not have been deliberate but it certainly made me feel at home. “The hurting” is quite an internalised album, facing the past and trying to work it out with some kind of knowledge – at least that is my impression (for another impression, please read Lena Friesen’s excellent review at Then Play Long here). There is a lot of Pain (every occurrence of the word pain was capitalised in the lyric insert) involved, a lot of thinking, not a lot of engaging with the world. But there is a striving for solutions too – “Belief is our relief” from “Ideas as opiates” for a start. “The prisoner” is as claustrophobic as the title predicts, the blasts of Mellotron voices hark back to “Architecture and morality”, or maybe some prog rock hellfire sermon. And yet for me, the album closer “Start of the breakdown” was my favourite song. I could imagine a video for it too, a stark white room focussing on a piano at the start, the camera expanding and drawing back to reveal more instruments as layers are introduced… But that was in my mind’s eye. “The hurting” then was good, and gained an audience who wanted more, even if they were teenage girls. And as was proven, teenage girls are often right and teenage boys are usually idiots.
Listening now, I feel like I missed a lot of the subtleties within this music. Or maybe I’m more aware of the world. Would it surprise you if I said I was slightly insular as a teenager? You hadn’t guessed already. But maybe I listen closer now. “Shout” still packs a punch, building slowly but powerfully – each layer adding to the tension which never seems to break. It’s a protest song though and there was a lot to protest about during the period the album was made, from the miners strike to impending nuclear Armageddon which felt like it was only minutes away. But once the real drums kick in around the three minutes mark and the power chords drive through the song – and a pointed guitar solo – it becomes communal, this is a band looking outwards at the world rather than inwards at themselves. This song was a call to arms, if slightly indefinable, but at least it was a start, a step forward. This was as much the sound of Christmas 1984 as Band Aid and “The power of love” and “Last Christmas”. The opening of “The working hour” is almost the definition of mid 80s, the sax solos (by Mel Collins and future Goldfrapp member Will Gregory) are mellifluous and the waves of tinkling Yamaha DX7 electric piano would soon become a cliché but in early ’85 there was still some novelty in the combination. And my, doesn’t it SOUND good? The CD of “Songs from the big chair’ nestled up nicely beside “Brothers in arms” on yuppie coffee tables around the world – “Listen to this! No clicks and pops!” But once the song starts it falls over itself, the Linn drum programming crashes down, the chord progression isn’t quite as normal as expected and it sounds on edge. Again, could this be political? “This day and age, for all and not for one, all lies and secrets….” Is work the answer, at a time when unemployment was so high and times so hard? “Fear is such a vicious thing, it wraps me up in chains” – back to the thoughts and feelings of the debit album, but more approachable, more adult, and a desire to work it out – “Find out what this feeling’s about”. To seek an understanding, a solution. The song closes with more sax solos and we’re back to the start. “Everybody wants to rule the world” I always had a problem with. It is light relief after the previous two songs but still has moments of darkness – the middle eight’s desire to retreat to “a room where the world can’t find you”. But I’ve never liked the jogging rhythm, the general breeziness. The “this could break us in America” attitude. It probably wasn’t written with that in mind but… Maybe someone can help me with that one. I suppose I still remember Dave Blake – the guitarist in my brother’s band – saying “Tears For Fears shouldn’t be allowed to have guitars, that song isn’t fit to stand next to ‘Going Underground’” He was a Jam fan who wouldn’t follow the Style Council, Weller had sold out his credibility… But I digress. “Mothers talk” fits better at the end of an album side than as a single. Again I could be reading too much into it but I always thought this was about nuclear war – the reference to “When the wind blows”, the Raymond Briggs graphic novel perhaps? What do mothers not talk about? Death? Just the threat of Armageddon hanging over us all. So the big drums sound like bombs dropping. Still an oversequenced mess at times but I do like the dubbed out coda though.
By the time I was hearing this album in the autumn of ’85 I had an idea of who Robert Wyatt was, if not quite the range of his extraordinary achievements. I knew “Shipbuilding” from a few years before, and the songs from his “Extended Play” EP which Peel had played the previous year. “I believe” was a tribute to Wyatt – the brushed drums and piano accompaniment was ample evidence – but has it’s own agenda too. For a start the opening line “I believe that when the hurting and the pain has gone we will be strong” references back to their debut album (and the non capitalisation of pain in the lyric sheet is notable). But the rest of the lyric is peculiar, a set of beliefs that aren’t really believed in (I’m thinking of “God” on “John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band” for some reason), from astrology and fate onwards. The lines “I believe if you’re bristling when you hear this song I could be wrong or have I hit a nerve?” are quite self referential but not quite as directly as Matching Mole’s “Signed curtain” or “O Caroline” (endless thanks to David Shaw for knowing the technical term for this – cheers!). So a song about faith which isn’t about faith really – it’s “Faithless” even. After all those contradictions, “Broken” kicks in, that Linn Drum crashing and purposeful guitar, before a beautiful descending melody plays over disquieting chords… then some words which point back to the debut again – “Between the searching and the need to work it out….” and references to children again… the descending melody returns and moves into “Head over heels”. Again a casual reading would have this as a love song and there are elements of that but there’s still a lot of dealing with the past here. But the music and melodies and arrangements are so perfect that the majority of listeners probably didn’t notice anything. There’s even a singalong chorus, and a lyrical link back to “Broken”, which flows into a live version of “Broken” from late ’83 (well recorded, I must say, was there some studio sweetening?) and as the crowd go nuts, the final song quietly slides into view.
“Listen” is a real gem. There’s a lot of OMD in this song, hints of “Sealand”, “Stanlow” and the title track to “Architecture and morality”, the movements from quiet to loud, the industrial clang, the occasional discord (there’s an electric piano chord which harks back to “Ideas as opiates”). There aren’t many words for Curt Smith to sing but they again hint at more than they say – “Mother Russia” and “Pilgrim fathers” looking to both sides of the Cold War. But the music is beautiful, slow and deliberate, building in intensity. Probably sequenced to all hell, but gorgeous too, textured and delicate in places, euphoric and rich in others. In the right mood this song can make me sob my heart out.
Flipping the metaphorical tape for the seven songs of b-sides is instructive. Sure there’s not many songs to get the postman whistling but plenty of good ideas. Tracks like “The marauders”, “Empire building” and “The big chair” show the band getting to grips with the new technology at their disposal, the grimy 8 bit world of Fairlights and Emulators. In a way these pieces are comparable with the work other bands were making in this area, the same muddy drum loops and sound tricks as Art Of Noise, Depeche Mode and OMD – compare these songs to “(The angels keep turning) The wheels of the universe” for a start. The b-sides also include “We are broken”, the first recorded version of the song which was the b-side of “Pale shelter” back in the Spring of ’83, it’s more primitive than the album version but just as urgent. There is also a personal favourite song of mine on the b-sides tape – “The conflict”, which builds slowly but has no moment of impact, just unresolved tension.
Somehow Tears For Fears managed an almost impossible feat with “Songs from the big chair”, the songs were both personal and political, yet were immensely popular. The album spawned five hit singles in the UK and was very popular for a long time. It also broke the band in America, where both “Everybody wants to rule the world” and “Shout” reached number one. They were everywhere in 1985, inescapable. Except for Live Aid. Maybe it was missing out on that day which didn’t push them into the upper echelons. But they worked hard and toured hard, and it almost killed the band – the reliance on the sequencers and primitive computer power of the Fairlight made each show a chore and this was something they wanted to move away from for their next album and I’ll come to that at another time.
What is peculiar is how popular Tears For Fears were without being influential. There were no followers, no other duos using similar ideas. There were other electronic duos, sure… OMD by ’85 had expanded to a six piece with a brass section and swung between godlike and powerful (“Crush”, “88 seconds in Greensboro”) to trite (“So in love”, “Secret”) within the same album. Vince Clarke was getting Erasure off the ground, Pet Shop Boys were starting to make a name for themselves (I remember seeing them on “Pop around” – “Run around” with music – in the summer of ’85 promoting “Opportunities” on its original issue and thinking they’d go a long way). But there wasn’t the combination of populism and psychotherapy which characterised Tears For Fears.
(Edit – Thanks to Marcello Carlin for reminding me that the existential moody teenagers listening to TFF in their bedrooms went on to form bands like Radiohead and Mansun who both did show their influence, sometimes very directly – “Wide open spaces” for a start. So their influence was on the next generation. Thanks MC)
But there was an odd after-effect in an unexpected place – “Strangeways here we come” and “Viva hate”. Both were recorded at the Wool Hall studio in Box, Somerset which TFF had used for their first two albums, and the characteristic Linn Drum thump of TFF can be heard on “Last night Maudlin Street” and “Break up the family”. As for “Strangeways”, play “I believe” and follow it with “Last night I dreamt somebody loved me”. That piano introduction, the sound effects… ok maybe it’s just me who hears that. Maybe Morrissey was a fan? Maybe as someone else obsessed by his childhood he understood the ideas of Tears For Fears better than most? Or maybe I’m reading too much into music again?
Next time – Are you happy now, laughing at the world?