Tears For Fears

Six Degrees of Tears for Fears’ ‘Songs From the Big Chair’

Annie Zaleski

By Annie Zaleski

on 11.11.14 in Lists

[Six Degrees is a feature where we explore the sonic and spiritual connections to one record. — Ed.]

Tears for Fears are not a prolific band. In their 33-year career, the kaleidoscopic U.K. rock group have released just six studio albums, with the last being 2004′s Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. However, principal members Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith have always made those count, as evidenced by a new, remastered reissue of their biggest album, 1985′s Songs From the Big Chair. The record sounds even more massive than it did 30 years ago: steely guitars, booming drums (both live and programmed, giving the record a stern backbone), rumbling bass tones and stacked layers of piano and keyboards. Stylistically, the band paired these big sounds with more nuanced fare — from the flittering saxophone heralding “The Working Hour” and the torchy, jazz-cabaret soul of “I Believe” to the corrugated funk edge and orchestral flourishes of “Mothers Talk.”

Songs From the Big Chair is far brainier and more complex than most pop music of its time, even if its rhythmic new wave was thematically in line with an era obsessed with nuclear apocalypse and unchecked totalitarians. The record crams disparate musical styles together, often on the same song: The jumbled, musically self-referential “Broken” sounds like the rest of the album swirling together down a drain, while “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” draws on the band members’ love of the Beatles and proggy guitars.

Yet while Songs From the Big Chair sounds busy, it’s not cluttered; there’s a perfect balance between the bleating keyboards and cascading piano of “Head Over Heels,” or the layered harmonies and creased metallic guitars of “Shout.” And the album-closing “Listen” is an emotional revelation, with stacks of moon-landing synths, operatic howls from Marilyn Davis and a skittering underbelly of sound effects.

The hefty six-disc deluxe reissue of Songs From the Big Chair contains a plethora of single mixes, extended versions, remixes and pre-album takes, as well as a remixed version of the album by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson. They provide valuable insight into how the LP evolved both before and after release. Put simply, Tears for Fears have always been striving for creative satisfaction, not perfection.

Perhaps that explains why the band’s music is so malleable. Post-Big Chair, Tears For Fears dabbled in sprawling psychedelic pop (1989′s The Seeds Of Love), atmospheric prog-jangle (1995′s Smith-less Raoul And The Kings of Spain) and colorful XTC-isms Everybody Loves A Happy Ending. With so much variety, it’s no wonder that an equally diverse lineup of artists have covered or sampled their songs: Gloria Gaynor, Lorde, Adam Lambert, Nas, Matthew Dear, Evergreen Terrace and Disturbed, to name a few.

The Experimental Inspiration

Tears For Fears have always talked up their affection for David Bowie in interviews; in fact, Curt Smith noted to The Guardianthat Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was one of the records that kickstarted the band. (Orzabal later covered that album's "Ashes to Ashes" in the early '90s when Smith wasn't in the group.) However, Bowie's murky Low, part one of the Berlin trilogy, is most spiritually connected to Songs From the Big Chair. On Low, Bowie balanced his commercial tendencies (the ragtime glam of "Be My Wife," the loping funk-soul stroll "Sound + Vision") with an increased interest in synthesizers and textured instrumentation. With Big Chair, Tears For Fears built upon the minimalist greyscale new wave of 1983's The Hurting (mainly in the form of generous overdubs and shellacked synth layers) while preserving their knack for pop hooks ("Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Head Over Heels").

The two records also had producers who relished influencing their charges' music. Low's Tony Visconti used an Eventide Harmonizer to alter the record's drums and manipulate sound, while Big Chair's Chris Hughes took it upon himself to educate Smith and Orzabal about bygone musical eras. "We were never big musos in the sense that we had gigantic record collections, but Chris did," Smith recalls in the new Songs From the Big Chair liner notes. "He was a huge Zappa-head, loved Little Feat, and a lot of ‘70s American music and he would play stuff to us along the way, which we were influenced by because we hadn’t heard it before."

The Rhythmic Idols

In these same Songs From the Big Chair liner notes, Orzabal casually admits that Talking Heads "[inspired] the original rhythm for 'Shout.'" While he didn't specify what song or album steered him, he's been open in other interviews about his love for the band and this LP. Talking Heads' eclectic, slippery music on Remain in Light is looser and more exuberant than Songs From the Big Chair, but the records share a commitment to velocity — ensuring that rhythm and groove is at the forefront of the music, propelling the songs forward. The booming drums and ancillary percussion sprinkled throughout Songs From the Big Chair — most noticeably the repeated echoing chimes on "Shout" — as well as the LP's singed funk corners, also owe a debt to David Byrne and co.

The Ambitious Contemporaries

Orzabal also said in the new liner notes that part of the rhythm for "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" was obliquely inspired by Simple Minds' "The Waterfront." That song appears on the band's 1984 LP Sparkle in the Rain, an ambitious, guitar-oriented record somewhat indebted to U2's early-'80s anthems. (No doubt this is due at least in part to the album's producer, Steve Lillywhite.) However, Sparkle in the Rain also added modern synthpop sheen, which further downplayed Simple Minds' ridged post-punk and marbled disco-funk; much like Tears for Fears, the band were moving toward being less obtuse and more commercial.

The Prog-Pop Progenitor

Songs From the Big Chair's producer, Chris Hughes — who was also a member of dark post-punk obscurities Dalek I Love You and the decidedly lighter Adam & the Ants — is credited with drum programming on "Red Rain." That song was found on Peter Gabriel's groundbreaking 1986 LP So, an album whose sonic and textural ambitions match those of Big Chair. Like Tears for Fears, the ex-Genesismember lured listeners to the record with Technicolor commercial anomalies ("Sledgehammer," "Big Time"), but then proceeded to stick to more atmospheric, moody textures. Working with producer Daniel Lanois, Gabriel toned down his artsy synth-rock and gnarled prog qualities while introducing more intricate rhythms and ethereal vocals from Youssou Kate Bush and Youssou N'Dour.

The Heir Apparent

For the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Lorde gave "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" a creepy makeover, amplifying the song's power-hungry undercurrent with sinister double-tracked vocals, scurrying digital fragments and thundering drums. That same attention to textural detail — and ability to infuse a pop song with weightier observations — crops up on Pure Heroine, a modern-sounding record with a penchant for sly commentary on social castes and class dichotomies. But like Songs From the Big Chair, Pure Heroine is far weirder than the hit "Royals" would have people believe — from the syrupy electro-goth overtones and propulsive beats to the space-age production. And like Roland Orzabal, Lorde has a distinctive vocal timbre; she can growl like a she-devil or croon wistfully — and make it sound easy.