Saturday, 16 April 2011
51 Songs From The Big Chair - Tears For Fears
Purchased : 12th November 1985
Tracks : Shout / The Working Hour / Everybody Wants To Rule The World / Mother's Talk / I Believe / Broken / Head Over Heels / Broken (Live) / Listen
The date in my little red notebook reveals the context. This was bought in Leeds on a Tuesday afternoon on my way home for a Littleborough Civic Trust committee meeting (always the second Tuesday of the month) in the evening. I had been on the committee since 1981 (as a junior co-opted member) and stayed on it throughout my university years and beyond. This was a particularly exciting time (relatively speaking) as earlier in the year we'd shown the chairman the door (I was kept informed of the coup but it would have happened without me) and were in the process of repairing three years of neglect while fending off our ex's new rival organisation.
Anyhow back to Roland and Curt. After the last two non-charting LPs this was one of the biggest LPs of the year only kept off No 1 by Phil Collins's mega-selling No Jacket Required . It was a massive seller all over the world but most crucially in the USA making them curiously surly superstars in the mid-80s. It was also a fairly risk-free purchase as 5 of its 8 tracks had been released as singles by the time I bought it.
For this second LP Roland Orzabal and producer Chris Hughes went for a bigger glossier sound less reliant on synths than their debut. Though the title was inspired by a book about schizophrenia there is no overarching concept and while primal therapy definitely influences some of the lyrics this is a more expansive , less claustrophobic LP .Band politics at this time were interesting. TFF were still a duo on the cover but background keyboard player Ian Stanley co-wrote 5 of the tracks compared to a single credit for Curt Smith.
"Shout" (the single which broke them in America and restored them to the Top 3 in the UK) is the perfect bridge between the two LPs retaining some of the primal therapy themes - "Shout shout let it all out" - but swapping the Roland synths for a rich Hammond organ and a stadium-sized chorus. Actually the song is more a call for political protest ,an indication of Orzabal's more outward-looking worldview on this LP. The song's real glory though is Smith's bone-shaking bassline which turns a potentially whiney dirge into a juggernaut. Orzabal chips in a nifty guitar solo at the end but the battle's won by that point. At nearly 6 minutes it also heralds their move towards longer songs, a tendency that would seriously betray them on their next LP.
"The Working Hour" is even longer and dominated by the saxophones of Mel Collins and William Gregory with the song bookended by lengthy solos. Orzabal coming in at the 2 minute mark bemoans the lot of the working man in a rather vague way before letting rip on the final mantra -"Find out ! Find out ! What this fear is about" - with typical passion. At this point it harks back to the utter desolation of "Memory Fades" from the first LP but elsewhere the big piano chords and chattering percussion of Jerry Marotta lead to a certain FM radio-friendly blandness. It's the most obvious illustration of the stryggle between instinct and ambition on this LP.
Curt Smith takes the vocal reins for the LP's most enduring song "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" which again just missed out on the top spot in the UK. It is much lighter than the rest of the LP its presence a testament to producer and co-writer Chris Hughes's commercial nous. The song is a sober look at megalomania ; it starts out deliberately bland with its shuffle beat, tinkly synth part and Smith's smooth vocal then gets progressively darker as Manny Elias's drums get heavier and Orzabal comes in with his harder vocal and rock guitar. A masterpiece in pop consruction it cemented their reputation for the rest of the decade.
Then the low point. I regarded "Mother's Talk" their summer 1984 hit as a failed experiment so I was a bit disappointed that it re-surfaced on the LP. Lyrically it's OK , an anti-nuclear diatribe inspired by Raymond Briggs's When The Wind Blows, the mother of the title clearly Mrs T - "Follow in the footsteps of a soldier girl". It's the music that's ugly, an attempt to ape British contemporary Scritti Politti's flirtation with brutalist electro-rhythms . Of course Green Gartside knew to sugar the pill with his saccharin vocal stylings but here you have Orzabal at his most hectoring and tuneless and then he adds some abrasive guitar to make it worse. I didn't like it then and I don't now.
Side Two starts with "I Believe" (the patience-testing 5th single) which they originally inteneded to offer Robert Wyatt hence the dedication in the subtitle. Whether Wyatt appreciated it isn't known but it's clearly in thrall to his Shipbuilding from three years earlier with its combination of bluesy piano, downbeat jazz and drowsy but heartfelt vocal. The lyric sounds suspiciously like it's directed at Orzabal's estranged father - "I believe that if you're bristling while you hear this song, I could be wrong or have I hit a nerve ?" It's well-realised but not really my thing and unfortunately the album's best pointer to the sound of the next LP.
Then comes the confusion with two songs that share some lines and a keyboard motif. First up is "Broken" an unashamed rock track with another thunderous bassline and fast guitar licks. Orzabal comes in halfway through with another despairing lyric then it's over.
"Head Over Heels" follows , a close cousin to "Shout" with its steady pace and Hey Jude chanted refrain. The nearest thing to a conventional love song the group recorded (perhaps significantly Smith has a co-writer's credit here ) it doesn't quite live up to the promise of its superb grand piano and guitar intro (used to great effect in Donnie Darko ) . I don't think the constant shifts in pitch of Orzabal's vocal do it any favours either. After concluding with the same final verse as "Broken" it segues into a brief snatch of "Broken" from a live recording.
The final track "Listen" emerges from the subsequent applause. It's the only really synth-led track and does feel like a bone thrown to fans of their previous sound. That said, it owes more to Ommadawn-era Mike Oldfield and Pink Floyd (the blistering slide guitar in the latter stages had me checking the credits for a David Gilmour cameo; it isn't him) than their New Romantic peers. The haunting choral synth motif runs throughout the song apart from Smith's two brief verses about Russia and America which suggest a Cold War theme. It establishes a call and response structure where the answers come from Marilyn David's operatic stylings, Orzabal's African chanting, the odd sound effect and the aforesaid guitar. It's ambitious but they pull it off and it's my favourite track.
The public voted with their wallets to make this one of the big albums of the eighties. To me it's good but not quite great.