Too often, the shorthand for 80s pop is a few lazy pointers like frizzy perms, shoulder pads and cheap Casio preset production line hits.
But when you dig underneath the anthemic choruses and tinny synth leads, the charts in the early to mid-80s were filled with singular experimental artists hiding in plain sight, with heavy subject matter offset by the emerging sleek production practices of the day.
Tears For Fears are a perfect example, topping the charts with intensely personal songs about childhood trauma, depression and alienation – with some of the most epic choruses in pop music history.
As well as maybe Pet Shop Boys and Talk Talk, Tears For Fears are the ultimate crossover art-pop act of the era. If they’d started making music six or seven years earlier they’d have been hanging in post-punk circles, but that’s just electronic pop music’s good luck.
Roland Orzabel and Curt Smith began making music in Bath in 1980, forming mod revival band Graduate and releasing one album that disappeared into the ether. By 1981 they flipped to a more ambitious prog-pop sound as History of Headaches, changing their name to Tears For Fears, a name inspired by primal therapy, which promoted reliving childhood traumas as catharsis and literally venting via primal screaming. It would in turn inspire the chorus of their biggest anthem, “Shout, shout, let it all out”.
On the face of it, the band’s 1983 debut album The Hurting seems like an obvious hit, with its propulsive new wave synths, jangling guitars and euphoric choruses, but the record chronicles the pain, hurt and difficult transition from childhood to early adulthood, with lines like, “Watch me bleed… bleed forever”, and, “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”. The latter line is from the song Mad World, which got another jolt of life in 2001 with Gary Jules’ slow acoustic reading – maybe the start of the trash habit of turning iconic pop songs into sad sack slow versions for talent shows. They even put their stamp on the biggest Christmas pop song of all time, as Band Aid features a slowed-down sample of ‘The Hurting’ in the intro to ‘Do They Know…’.
Tears For Fears’ most successful album – and still a defining record of the era – is 1985’s Songs From the Big Chair. The album has their most iconic wind machine on a clifftop hits like ‘Shout’ and ‘Everybody Wants To Rule the World’, and the maybe the greatest synthpop ballad of them all, ‘Head Over Heels’. The album was a an international smash hit – No1 in the US for five weeks.
Forever restless, the pair indulged their Beatles obsession on the 1989 album The Seeds of Love – another stylistic shift that saw them attempt an epic psychedelic rock masterpiece, that went down obvious Beatles paths, notably Orzabal’s McCartney affectations on ‘Sowing the Seeds of Love’ and the Sgt Pepper ornate arrangements through the album.
Smith and Orzabal have admitted that The Seeds of Love broke the band and they split acrimoniously in 1991. Orzabal continued with the TFF name for the albums The Elemental in 1993 and Raoul and the Kings of Spain in 1995. The band’s long-awaited comeback album came in 2004, with the suitably titled Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, after an initial meeting in 2000, and Orzabal admitting that Smith was his muse all along.
After sporadic live shows since their initial reunion, the current tour feels like a triumph – their first European full tour in over a decade, still playing arenas.
Tears For Fears’ influence on pop music is obvious on the last few decades of music, from The 1975 to Arcade Fire, and Smith and Orzabal now come onstage to Lorde’s low-key version of ‘Everybody Wants To Rule the World’. But at the 3Arena this week, when Lorde’s dirgey version evaporates and Smith’s iconic high-fret guitar jangle washes it away, you’ll know there’s only one version worth hearing, really.
- Tears For Fears play the 3Arena in Dublin this Thursday, January 31
(Appeared in Irish Daily Star)