One of my favorite albums of all time is Songs From the Big Chair by British band Tears For Fears. Released in February 1985, it was their second album and also their most successful from both a critical and commercial standpoint. Even though it contains only eight tracks, with five of them running more than five minutes long it feels almost monumental in scope. Every track is brilliant in its own right, and there isn’t one wasted second on the entire album. The band released five of the tracks as singles, including the massive worldwide hits “Shout”, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Head Over Heels”.
I’d first learned about Tears For Fears two years earlier when I heard their song “Change”, one of the singles from their excellent 1983 debut album The Hurting, on the radio. I really liked that song, but shockingly, never heard “Mad World” until years later. That song was a huge hit in Britain, but received practically zero airplay in the U.S. where I live. Two years would pass before I would hear another song by them, and when “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” hit my eardrums, it was love at first listen. The song was actually the third single from Songs From the Big Chair to be released (after “Mothers Talk” and “Shout”), but the first to receive radio airplay in the U.S. in the spring of 1985.
In the creation of Songs From the Big Chair, Tears For Fears moved away from the predominantly synthpop feel of The Hurting, and toward a more sophisticated and fuller orchestral sound that would become their signature style – a style of music that I dearly love. In addition to band front men Roland Orzabal on guitar and lead vocals and Curt Smith on bass and backing vocals, other working members included Ian Stanley on keyboards and backing vocals, and Manny Elias on drums and percussion. Under the guidance of producer Chris Hughes, the new Tears for Fears sound helped make Songs from the Big Chair become one of the biggest-selling albums worldwide in 1985, as well as receive near-unanimous critical acclaim.
The album was originally to be titled The Working Hour, but Orzabal fought to change it to Songs From the Big Chair, inspired by the 1976 television film Sybil starring Sally Field, about a woman with multiple personality disorder who feels safe only when she’s sitting in her analyst’s “big chair”. Orzabal and Smith have both stated that they feel each of the album’s songs had it’s own distinct personality.
The album opens with “Shout”, a bombastic protest anthem that makes you want to stomp your feet and pump your fists in the air. The song was a stylistic departure for Tears For Fears, with explosive percussion, screaming synths and a lengthy killer guitar solo that propelled it straight to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. I love how the song builds to a spectacular crescendo, and it’s arguably one of the most musically and lyrically satisfying songs ever recorded. Next up is the brilliant “Working Hour”, a gorgeous and dramatic song with jazzy overtones courtesy of the soulful wailing saxophone, accompanied by incredible guitar work, sweeping synths and resounding percussion that send chills up and down my spine. Orzabal passionately sings about being a slave to one’s work: “This is the working hour. We are paid by those who learn by our mistakes.”
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a truly exceptional song, and perfection from start to finish. It’s also very likely their most catchy, radio-friendly song, though the lyrics deal with a rather dark subject. Smith has stated “It’s about everybody wanting power, about warfare and the misery it causes.” Interestingly, Orzabal and Smith were ambivalent about the song, and initially didn’t want to include it on the album. They felt it’s syncopated shuffle beat wouldn’t fit in with the timing and feel of the rest of the album. That said, I think Orzabal’s intricate guitar work is absolutely fantastic, and I love the powerful driving rhythms and both his and Smith’s impassioned vocals. It’s become Tears For Fears’ signature song, as well as one of the most beloved songs of the past 40 years. It ranks among my top 10 favorite songs of all time, and I never tire of hearing it.
“Mothers Talk” has a progressive rock feel, with an intense galloping beat as a foundation, over which the band layers a fusillade of cinematic synths, along with a lively mix of jangly and chiming guitars, and lots of unusual sounds. They slow things down on the mysterious and jazzy “I Believe”, a live recording of their song about primal therapy. The highlights here are the haunting piano work and gorgeous sax played by Will Gregory, their touring saxophonist at that time.
Tracks 6 & 7, “Broken” and “Head Over Heels”, play like one long continuous song, with “Broken” serving as both a dramatic introduction and ending to “Head over Heels”, which is essentially a love song. Taken together, they’re a musical masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. The piano riff at the beginning of “Head Over Heels” is magnificent, and the synths, strings, guitars and percussion are all glorious. The official video they made for the song is really charming, and god, weren’t they adorable back then!
The song segues into “Listen”, an epic, nearly seven minute-long track of such incredible beauty it almost makes my heart ache. The lush instrumentals and cinematic synths are spectacular, then calm to a peaceful interlude as Curt Smith softly croons the hopeful lyrics “Mother Russia badly burned. Your children lick your wounds, your wounds. / Pilgrim father sailed away. Found a brave new world, new world. Listen…” The song ends with Orzabal and guest vocalist Marilyn Davis chanting the lines “Cumpleaños chica, no hay que ocuparse”, which roughly translates to “birthday girl, don’t worry”. They seem to be telling us that everything will work out alright (though now, some 35 years later, I’m not so sure.)
Songs From the Big Chair is one of the most beautiful and flawlessly-produced albums I’ve ever heard, and is a true masterpiece on every level. Tears For Fears also released a deluxe version of the album featuring a total of 33 tracks, some of them additional songs and others remixes or edits of the eight original songs, as well as a seven and a half minute long interview with Orzabal and Smith discussing various aspects of the album.
I saw Tears For Fears in concert on their Seeds of Love Tour in 1990 (with Debbie Harry opening), and it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.