Treble 100: No. 47, Tears For Fears – Songs from the Big Chair

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Tears for Fears songs from the big chair

I had one of many moments of feeling my age this year when just before class started, I played Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” for my students to go along with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Students recognized the song, being more familiar with the Gary Jules version, but were repulsed by the faster pace and upbeat synth. They couldn’t imagine that this was the original. Depending on the ebb and flow of nostalgia, the early to mid ’80s are seen as either crass, hollow, and faddish, or as being an era of innovation, depth, and genius. Of course, both can exist at the same time. For every Loverboy, there’s a Depeche Mode. For every Foreigner, there’s a Talking Heads, and for every Bryan Adams, there’s a Tears for Fears. My students couldn’t reconcile deep, introspective lyrics without an obvious, breathy delivery. 

I’ve been nothing if not vocal over the past few decades of my life that I firmly believe 1985 is the best year for music. I admit this take is heavily biased by the time in which I grew up, but there’s plenty of evidence I can stack up to make my case. One that I often use as key testimony is Songs from the Big Chair by Tears for Fears. Like Peter Gabriel’s So, which I wrote about recently, Songs from the Big Chair is one of those albums that feels like one cohesive suite instead of a haphazard collection of songs. Perhaps this is due to the duo’s penchant for psychologically complex themes—the band’s name is inspired by primal therapy; their debut, The Hurting, filled with songs about childhood trauma, etc. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith took their craft deadly seriously, Songs being no exception. However, they did make an effort to have a more pop-oriented atmosphere within their sophomore effort, making it more accessible, while still avoiding frivolous lyrical material. Even the “love song” is cryptic. 

They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, selling ten times as many records in the U.S. as their debut. In the end, it became their most successful album, with over 9 million albums sold worldwide, the sixth biggest album of that year. It still houses their most recognizable songs (other than “Mad World”) in “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

On the note of those singles: first impressions are often everything, but with this era of the band, there are different entry points. For the UK, “Mothers Talk” was the first single, preceding the album release by six months. For the U.S., it was “Shout,” released about four months prior. Both share the same pulse-pounding atmosphere, but the latter turned out to be the massive hit, and rightfully so. Though on first blush it seems to be incredibly repetitive, it’s the incremental build-up, programmed drum fills, guitar solos, and reprised background vocals (“I’d really love to break your heart” and “they really really ought to know”) that make this song as excitingly chilling as it is. 

When the album finally broke in both countries, the next “first impression” was the cover. Whether or not they were consciously referencing Simon & Garfunkel is debatable (let’s be honest, there are only so many compositions of photos of duos), but there are definitely comparisons to be made (i.e., one of the two carrying the heavier load in songwriting and lead vocals). But let’s not dwell on either their dark debut or their upcoming feud; the idea here is to sit comfortably in the high point, that being Songs from the Big Chair, and specifically one of their best tracks, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” This song is a ninja, a thief in the night, the Tooth Fairy and Santa; it sneaks up on you with its jangly guitars, slow-loping rhythm, and dropping keyboard notes. One wouldn’t guess that the song is arguably the band’s most lyrically political. It is the embodiment of “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” And, like several of the tracks on the album, it has an energizing bridge that is undeniable:

There’s a room where the light won’t find you
Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down
When they do I’ll be right behind you

What I found the most stunning about my own experience with Songs from the Big Chair is that even after I fell in love with these two monster singles, it still had more in store for me, including my personal favorite, “Head Over Heels.” This song alone makes this album worth purchasing; the rest is just a bonus. The opening grand piano that is essentially the stripped down riff from “Broken,” the wailing guitar notes that come in, and then the building drumbeat set the tone immediately. The lyrics are surprisingly complex for such a universal phrase of a title. Certain lines stand out as being eminently interesting:

But traditions I can trace against the child in your face
Won’t escape my attention


My mother and my brothers used to breathe in clean air
and dreaming I’m a doctor
It’s hard to be a man when there’s a gun in your hand

These last three lines also have the underlying background vocals of:

Nothing ever changes when you’re acting your age
Nothing gets done when you feel like a baby

Even the “yeah” that Orzabal can’t help but shout after, ”I made a fire and watching it burn” helps build the energy that is inevitable by the end of the track. Full disclosure: for years I thought the line “and dreaming I’m a doctor” was “and dreaming I’m adopted,” which adds a much darker tone to the song. 

So, verse – chorus – verse with background vocals – chorus, then there’s the signature TFF bridge (for lack of a better term) with “This is my four-leaf clover.” After that, what on paper could be disastrous, a bunch of la-la’s, turns into a glorious celebration. But the song is not even done. It could have faded out with that (and some single / radio edits do), but then on the line “funny how time flies,” the song transitions into a live coda of “Broken,” itself an underrated gem that bookends “Head Over Heels.” It is this bookending and repeated piano riff that helps the album feel all of one piece. The song now generally sits comfortably at the end of their concert setlists just before the encore of “Change” and “Shout.” And who doesn’t want to see that? 

Songs from the Big Chair is one of those albums that is mostly known for its singles (and I realize how obvious this statement is and how it relates to every album), and I know I’ve concentrated mostly on those singles, but there are hidden treasures in “The Working Hour,” “Broken” and “Listen.” It’s a quintessential sing-along album, even if some of the lyrics are slightly misheard (ahem). The album had a four-week stay at #1 on the Billboard album charts, shortly after the single release of “Head Over Heels.” You may have thought my reference to Bryan Adams previously a bit left field, but his Reckless (due to the single release of “Summer of ‘69”) interrupted Songs from the Big Chair’s reign for two weeks before it reappeared at number one in August, only to be then dethroned by Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, the bestselling album of that year. 

What I love most about the album is that it is perfectly balanced and sequenced. The singles are spread out, the songs are a blend of synth-pop sheen and guitar rock, and the lyrics are deep and erudite. There are definite parallels to Wham!, another duo from the era, but while Wham! doubled down on the pop, Tears for Fears weaved in and out of genres, creating their own style of psychological pop rock that managed to avoid faltering under the weight of its complexity. Everything about it brings me comfort, whether hearing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in the supermarket, singing along to “Head Over Heels” in the car, or even just seeing an image of the album cover. It’s as if Roland and Curt are looking through the plane and saying, “It’s going to be OK.” 

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