BEST OF 2021: Tears for Fears have always been a bit of a quandary. While it was easy and convenient to package them up as a ‘synth band’ at their dawning - a (new) wave they had no problem surfing - they are actually something else entirely. And we’re not sure if even they know what.
Bands tend to come to synthtown by one of two routes. They’re either A) Utopian Brave New World-ers, mesmerised by the Kraftwerk stance and eager for similar escape. Or B) Grabbers of a flailing synthy lifeline as an escape route out of the uncool maelstrom mess of prog rock.
Human League and Heaven 17? Utopians. Barely able to play a note but crafting all-new magical noise precisely because of that. Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, and Tears for Fears? Proggers to a man. Shamefully aware that their ‘widdly widdly clever music’ was increasingly dooming them to beardy non-recognition, but also aware that popping some bloops on the top and sacking the drummer might - might - just get them a hit.
And then there were the haircuts. And that dancing.
But let’s not dwell in painful reminiscence on their debut and instead remember that Tears For Fears’ core of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith went on to ace the ‘80s and with the upcoming release of their Tipping Point album, are perhaps in better shape now than ever.
So, join us as we romp through a landscape of global smash hits that has seen reinvention, regret and reunion in equal measures and pick our favourite five plus their essential further listening…
1. Memories Fade
OK. Odds are you’re familiar with TFF’s 1983 number one smash hit debut album The Hurting. It’s home to a slew of modern classics that we implore you to revisit. Title track The Hurting, Mad World, Pale Shelter, Change, Suffer The Children and Start of the Breakdown - all are brilliant. That’s why our pick from their debut album is Memories Fade -the one track that flawlessly dodges all the angsty naivety that’s dripping all over the rest of the album.
The Hurting’s guitars? Barely there. Are they not plugged in properly? Why so thin? And the bass? Plodding, ponderous and often not-even-there-at-all. The Human League and Soft Cell featured booming backing and bottom ends that covered off funky, robotic and everything in between, so how come both TFF’s bass and guitar faders seemed to get a downward nudge every time they left the control room? Could it be that producer Chris Hughes (ex-drummer with Adam and The Ants, aka Merrick) preferred to edge up the beats instead?
Non-single Memories Fade bucks the weedy trend with great keyboard work, a bassline you can hear and feel, and drums that fail to dominate.
This global smash is an obvious pick, but it’s impossible not to explore.
Shout was born during a month of writing sessions by a solo Orzabal at his home in Bath. Seeking inspiration, he’d programmed up a copycat beat from Talking Heads’ Seen and Not Seen from their classic Remain In Light album on his LinnDrum, and teamed this with an “ominous” bass sound on his Prophet-5 synth. Soon he took to chanting along with his new creation. But, after nailing the chorus in minutes, it took months for the song to be realised in full.
Orzabal reluctantly played it to visiting TFF keyboardist Ian Stanley as an afterthought, to show what he’d been up to, and it was Stanley who saw the appeal. “This is going to be a worldwide smash,” he told Orzabal, giving him all the encouragement he needed to turn his unfinished “looping mantra” into an actual track.
TFF were big fans of the LinnDrum, and it’s that machine that provides the core beat of Shout - triangle, rimshot, shakers. However, the distinctive tom and snare sound used on the finished track come from another source.
Fledgling company Digidesign first made its name selling EPROM chips for drum machines featuring new sounds that could ‘simply’ be swapped out with the existing sound chips in your machine. Pop your drum machine’s hood and you’d find a single chip per sound. Take out the snare chip, pop in another and you’ve got a whole new snare drum. Amazing…
Its most popular early creation was the ‘Rock Drums’ chipset. This featured five EPROM chips containing a crunchy ringing metallic snare, a cardboard box kick drum, deep bucket-y toms, clanging hi-hats, and a sharp crash all (it is has been alleged) sampled from the opening bars of Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks (but we couldn’t possibly comment).
It IS possible that Orzabal or producer Chris Hughes burned EPROMs for their Linn bearing the Digidesign sounds, but it’s far more likely that they ran an E-MU Drumulator alongside the Linn as the original Digi chipset was sold in Drumulator-ready format.
Digidesign would go on to even greater things, of course, not least inventing Pro Tools a few years later.
3. Sowing The Seeds of Love
No. THIS is the start of the breakdown. In interviews over the years, Smith has always stated that they’re most at home in the studio, but it seems that the excesses of Seeds’ recording process were a grind too far, as Orzabal’s mounting perfectionism wore away at Smith’s patience.
After the success of their second album, Songs From The Big Chair, and its global tour, the band took a well-earned three-year rest that Smith made the most of, by A) Being out enjoying himself like the global rock/pop superstar he was. And B) Getting divorced.
Meanwhile it was Orzabal who was left to work, fret, record and re-record an in-trouble third album as costs spiralled, working increasingly with keyboardist Nicky Holland rather than the absent Smith. Holland co-wrote five of the album's eight tracks with Smith contributing to just this title track.
But what a track it is. A shameless Beatles pastiche, it’s basically Hello Goodbye with the trumpet from Penny Lane and the trickery from Day In The Life. The track’s dazzling layers and switcharounds means that it never outstays its 6:17 running time. Special nod to the Hot Chocolate You Sexy Thing break at 3:29.
It’s the centrepiece of a complex and costly album that more often than not edges Smith out in favour of the newly discovered soul and gospel sounds of vocalist Oleta Adams, making it an at times difficult to reconcile sequel to Songs From The Big Chair. Its second track - the overlong 8:33 Bad Man’s Song - basically (re)sets the TFF tone with only the excellent Advice For The Young At Heart being a comfortable fit for existing fans.
The album would cost over £1m to produce, a sum that the band would have to recoup in royalties from sales before they earned a penny, adding further to the friction of its sessions. And there was one final straw on the horizon when – perhaps sensing the imminent financial collision the band were hurtling towards - their then manager Paul King was accused and subsequently convicted of impropriety with TFF’s cash.
Orzabal and Smith had signed to King’s (no joke) Outlaw Management at the start of their careers and he had seen the Big Chair money come rolling in. But by Seeds, with no new product, Outlaw were in trouble, with gaps in their accounting leading the company to fold in 1990, the year after the release of the album, and King being declared bankrupt and convicted of fraud and imprisoned for three and a half years soon after.
Throughout this ordeal Orzabal had wanted to drop King, but Smith had stuck by him, adding to a rift that in 1991 would lead to the band splitting. This despite Seeds being another hit, reaching number 1 in the UK and number 8 in the US.
The story goes that in the final winding up of all things TFF, the band had two remaining assets to carve up. One was the name Tears for Fears (and the rights to continue recording and performing under that name) and the other was a powerful Audi Quattro sports car. Smith chose the car.
Orzabal continued as Tears For Fears, penning the Smith-dissing Fish Out of Water on first ‘solo’ TFF album Elemental (“With your high-class friends you think you’ve got it made. The only thing you made was that tanned look on your face”) and the King-slamming Cold on its follow up Raoul and the Kings of Spain (“King got caught with his fingers in the till. Where’s your calculator? Did you leave it in your will?”). Ouch.
4. Broken/Head Over Heels/Broken (live)
In these days of bloated, overburdened, overdue album releases featuring as many as 18 tracks (and that’s before the extra 12 courtesy of the ‘Special Edition’ a year later), Tears For Fears' brevity of content looks positively Ebineezerian by comparison.
Both Big Chair and its four-years-in-the-making sequel Seeds only feature eight tracks - a crime compounded further on Chair when you consider that one of them, Broken, actually appears twice. AND the track had already appeared (as We Are Broken) on the B-side of Pale Shelter from the album earlier. What a swizz…
Yes, it’s time to partake of Big Chair’s famous sandwich and tuck into the Broken/Head Over Heels/Broken (live) triple tracker. The meat of the track is, of course, Head Over Heels, a new track that borrowed the chiming piano riff from the break of Broken. Thus we get the bread of Broken… segueing into the filling of Head Over Heels… before returning to bottom layer Broken again (albeit this time in inexplicably live form, recorded in December 1983 at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in a performance subsequently released as part of TFF’s In My Mind’s Eye live video in 1984). The result is a bit of a musical journey, therefore, which ends with a wholly unexpected round of mid-album cheering.
Worth pointing out that good old-fashioned vinyl, cassette, and CD forms manage the Broken to Heels transition as the band and producer intended, but modern streaming services have a spell-breaking click between the tracks. Tsk.
Head Over Heels was released as a single (sans Brokens) requiring a Dave Bascombe remix, reaching an impressive number three in the US top 100 billboard, and cementing their status at this point as officially ‘massive’. Meanwhile it reached a decent 12 in the UK.
Just to add to the confusion, the 12-inch vinyl ‘Preacher Mix’ of the track released at the time DOES feature both ends of Broken (along with new vocals, replacing Broken’s lyric and melody with Orzabal reading aloud the lyrics of album track and subsequent single I Believe in the style of a preacher…) with the end portion of Broken this time being the return of the studio recording rather than the album’s live recording. Sigh.
Of course, HOH went on to be brilliantly deployed in the movie Donnie Darko in a scene especially created in order to use it, but it’s the track's actual video that seals the deal for us, containing one of our favourite ‘80s video moments EVER. Yes, we’re talking about the part where Ian Stanley approaches the librarian’s desk, she suddenly ducks below it and a ruddy great Roland Jupiter-8 SWINGS IN (you can just see the wires) upon which he then proceeds to bust out the track’s blinding synth solo. WITH ONE FINGER. Funny how time flies…
5. Closest Thing To Heaven
Of course, Everybody Loves A Happy Ending, and what better title for the group’s reunion album in 2004 - the first with Orzabal and Smith on board since Seeds in 1989.
The album took four years to complete after personal loss in both camps prompted Orzabal and Smith to reach out and bury the hatchet in 2000. And the good news was that their previous triumphs and adversities melded to create an album that - for us - edges even the heady heights of Seeds of Love.
Closest Thing to Heaven joins a rousing, confident, musically and lyrically strong opening set that might not be shot through with ‘pop’ this time, but instead displays maturity and talent in spades, replacing the wanton experimentation and need to rewrite rules that’s telegraphed heart-on-the-sleeve all the way through the likes of difficult ‘middle albums’ Elemental and Raoul and the Kings of Spain.
Again, there are Beatles nods via the reverse reverbed tom rolls straight from the Seeds of Love, but it’s the great bass playing, effortless guitar-plus-piano and a shaker-driven drum groove that win our hearts.
And yes, that is the (now sadly departed) actress Brittany Murphy in the video.
Four more TFF tracks that narrowly missed our five
1. Mother’s Talk
Is this the most exciting intro to a 7-inch single ever? (In a four-way tie with Mel & Kim’s Respectable, Duran Duran’s The Reflex and The Sweet’s Blockbuster of course). A badly looped, but oh-so-cinematic string swirl sample from a Barry Manilow track gives way to de rigueur descending Fairlight ORCH5 orchestra crashes while a LinnDrum and E-MU Drumulator tick and tock their way through drum patterns programmed by machines on machines. It’s difficult to sum up how inexplicably hi-tech the first 20 seconds of Mother’s Talk sounded in 1984.
After the misstep of gap-filler The Way You Are (see later), the band weren’t afraid to put the brakes on and have a complete rethink and - in the UK at least - that rethink came in the shape of Mother’s Talk and their not-difficult-at-all second album Songs From The Big Chair. Now no longer primal screaming wimps, but something very nearly (but not quite) resembling a rock band, their bolder, noisier return aimed to not only wipe the floor with their previous personas but slay the American charts in the process.
Lyrically powered by the old-wives tale that a child’s gurning face would ‘stay like that’ if the wind changed and the not-cuddly-at-all, Raymond Briggs nuclear war-themed comic book and cartoon When The Wind Blows, it’s altogether an odd clash sonically, lyrically, and musically.
The band had - in the pursuit of a new, tougher sound - axed The Hurting producer Chris Hughes in favour of Jeremy Green but after unsuccessful sessions they instigated Hughes return, meaning that the track was re-recorded and ready for world-conquering release in 1984.
Except it didn’t quite work that way. Orzabal himself was never that keen on the track and reluctantly agreed to it being the new album’s lead single in the UK, where it reached a slightly disappointing 14. In light of this a US release was shelved, with the album’s lead there being Everybody Wants To Rule The World in early 1985 instead.
It was a huge smash, hitting the US number one slot, and number two in the UK, setting the scene for the global glory of the Big Chair album to come.
With the album long in the tooth but still performing Stateside, Mother’s Talk did get an eventual airing in the form of the ‘US Remix’, being a complete re-recording of the track, mixed by Bob Clearmountain in sessions at the end of the band’s Big Chair US tour. It’s a rockier, more conventional band take on the song featuring Ian Stanley ditching his usual synths for some guitar posturing in the video.
This second - to our ears overstuffed, slow and inferior - version wasn’t released in the UK and ultimately only reached number 27 in the US, making the original take a bit of a hidden gem.
2. Advice For The Young At Heart
We love Advice For The Young At Heart, the only track on The Seeds of Love that features Curt Smith on lead vocals in a sign of the conflict to come. Criminally, as the third single after the title track and Woman In Chains, this superior release only made number 89 in the States and 36 in the UK, meaning it may well have shamefully passed you by. Until now.
3. Who Killed Tangerine
Gah. No room in the five for this gem either! This album track from 2004’s reunion is a similar Seeds of Love-style retro blast, even taking advantage of a Beatles-inspired steal in the shape of the drum riff from Come Together.
4. Break It Down Again
Peak solo Orzabal. Getting it right in the band’s only top 20 hit to date post Seeds of Love break-up. Here we go!
And finally… Songs In The Big Bin
Tracks of my Tears… We couldn’t let this trio of TFF curios pass you by.
1. The Way You Are
Every group has got one, and TFF’s black sheep comes in the form of their fourth UK top 30 hit, The Way You Are, the only track written by all four ‘classic’ band members (ie, Orzabal and Smith alongside Ian Stanley and drummer Manny Elias).
This stopgap, post Hurting, pre Chair filler saw the band going 100% hi-tech, being an experiment in letting the machines take the lead and seeing where they took them… And the answer is into a messy cacophony of synthy bongs and random drum machine clattering that the band excluded from their 1992 Greatest Hits.
The track’s ‘failure’ prompted a U-turn on their hi-tech strategy to date and a move to a more real and soulful sound that helped propel Songs From The Big Chair (which also doesn’t contain this single) to become such a huge hit. So not a complete waste, then.
And The Way You Are DOES resurface on 1996’s B-sides and outtakes album Saturnine Martial & Lunatic. If you’ve only let the TFF singles and Big Chair album brush your eardrums so far, treat yourself to a whole album full of brave, surprising, experimentations on the flipside of their shiny coin.
And while the video’s ‘nerdy girl takes pictures of men building trains’ theme is indeed less than interesting, the whole exercise is ‘saved’ by Orzabal’s groundbreaking and arresting interpretive ‘dahnce’…
2. Curt Smith - Soul on Board
Of course, after three global smash hit albums record label Mercury couldn’t just let Smith ride his new Quattro into the sunset…
Yes, while TFF chugged on with Orzabal in the driving seat, there are the inevitable Smith solo albums, too, the first of which being his thoroughly unremarkable, contract-fulfilling debut solo Soul On Board - an album so loathed by its maker that he not only publicly denounced it at the time but it remains unavailable on streaming platforms to this day.
But - ever the willing trash-track bloodhounds - we’ve dug up the fragile, slightly wonky and (we concur) not-actually-very-good title track just for you.
3. Mancrab - Fish for Life
Big fan of The Karate Kid? Yeah, us too. Seen Karate Kid Part II? Yeah, us neither.
Showing no sign of slowing down post Big Chair album release, Orzabal and TFF keyboard stalwart Ian Stanley co-penned and produced this one-off single as Mancrab for the Karate Kid 2 soundtrack. Stanley even appears in the video.
And do you recognise lead vocalist Eddie Thomas Jr? That’s because he’s one of the Motown-inspired gas station dancers in the Everybody Wants to Rule the World video.