The Outer Limits: Tears For Fears

Far be it from Prog to suggest that Tears For Fears were straight-up prog.

But they did feature associates of King Crimson and Camel on their 1983 debut album The Hurting, and the second, 1985’s Songs From The Big Chair, included members of Stackridge and Peter Gabriel’s band, as well as a song dedicated to Robert Wyatt. The multimillion-selling …Big Chair was hailed by the Progarchy website as the greatest prog-pop album ever, rivalled only by XTC’s Skylarking and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

By their third, 1989’s The Seeds Of Love, there were appearances by everyone from Phil Collins to Jon Hassell. Hell, even Rick Wright’s son-in-law played bass on the fourth, 1993’s Elemental, while the recent 5.1 surround sound mix of …Big Chair was courtesy of Steven Wilson. Oh, and their forthcoming seventh LP, their follow-up to 2004’s Everybody Loves A Happy Ending, is being co-produced by Chris Braide – founder member, along with Trevor Horn and Lol Creme, of Producers. It also includes a track that mainmen Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith have described as “Portishead meets Queen”. Okay, maybe they were a bit prog.

Start Of The Breakdown, the last track on The Hurting, was really proggy,” says ex-Mansun man Paul Draper. A huge fan of Tears, he admits their vocal melodies and chord progressions had a big impact on his band. “The arrangement, the way it builds – it could be from a Pink Floyd album. The whole of side two of …Big Chair, from Broken to Head Over Heels and the live version of Broken, was pure prog. Some of the musicianship wasn’t a million miles away from 80s Yes.

“They were a band with depth in a pop world,” he adds. “They were massive, even if they have gone in and out of fashion over the years. At the time they were phenomenally successful, but they lacked credibility because they didn’t have a normal band line-up. Critics don’t like that sort of thing.

“They weren’t really a band, not in the rock’n’roll sense. They didn’t sound rough at the edges; they were working with the best session players and it all sounded very polished. But like they say about Quincy Jones, the best thing about him is his address book. Even as a teenager I liked the fact that Elemental was overproduced, and The Seeds Of Love had this grandiose, mad, psychedelic, stretched‑out title track. It was sophisticated and overblown.

“Mansun had the same A&R guy as Tears at one point and he told me Roland is a real perfectionist in the studio. Apparently, he [Orzabal] came to one of our gigs in the 90s and wanted to meet us, but we didn’t get the chance. I still want to meet him. In fact, I still want to work with him!”

When Prog speaks to Orzabal and relates the prog love for Tears For Fears, he is flattered.

“It’s very nice,” he says, even if he is barely awake – it’s morning in Los Angeles, where he is working on that seventh Tears album with Smith and Braide, alongside highly regarded rising Vienna-based electronica producer Christopher ‘Sohn’ Taylor.

Asked whether he agrees with the connections made between Tears and prog, he replies: “I suppose the obvious track is Listen [the seven-minute climax to …Big Chair]. You hear it and you think of the two words that one always associates with long, trippy music: Pink Floyd. Mothers Talk [the first single from the album, in August 1984] was a bit of a steal from Weather Report’s Teen Town, especially the bass part at the end, which was a sort of tribute to Jaco Pastorius. Hey, you know, we grew up with Genesis and Yes and that kind of stuff.”

Orzabal recalls that, “ridiculous as it may sound”, he and Tears partner Smith hooked up after he heard the latter singing Blue Öyster Cult’s Then Came The Last Days Of May. After a brief period in ska band Graduate and another as metalheads History Of Headaches, Orzabal and Smith joined forces as Tears For Fears, an opportunity for the friends from Bath to exorcise their respective bad feelings about their unhappy childhoods – they took the name from John Lennon’s favourite primal scream theorist, US psychologist Arthur Janov.

The Hurting was a concept album involving copious quantities of post-punk angst and alienation, recorded in a penthouse studio in Abbey Road with producer Chris Hughes and his right-hand man, Ross Cullum, who had worked with Roxy Music, Kate Bush and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and was erstwhile assistant to George Martin.

“It was myself, Curt, Ross Cullum and Chris Hughes in a very tight four,” recalls Orzabal, the main songwriter. “Chris was a Zappa freak and Ross would be listening to Coltrane. We would argue about virtually everything that was put on the record, all the way down to the hi-hats.”

The Hurting was recorded under the influence, says Orzabal, of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Talking Heads’ Remain In Light and Peter Gabriel’s III.

“But we weren’t old enough to truly emulate those albums so it ended up as a kind of adolescent, fragile, distilled version of them,” reflects Orzabal, who was 21 at the time.

The Hurting was a relatively late addition to a British synthpop canon that included the likes of The Human League’s Dare, Heaven 17’s Penthouse And Pavement, OMD’s Architecture & Morality and Depeche Mode’s Speak & Spell. “It had that element of lo-fi-ness, that early-80s grainy pre-digital thing going on with the analogue synths,” notes Paul Draper, who bought the album the day it came out. The adolescent angst and dour philosophising evident in tracks such as Mad World, Pale Shelter, Suffer The Children, Ideas As Opiates, Watch Me Bleed and Start Of The Breakdown made perfect sense to the 12-year-old.

Orzabal acknowledges that one of the differences between Tears For Fears and their peers was their reliance on external musicians.

“One can argue that the economy, and homogeny, of a band like The Human League is what made them so attractive and appealing,” he says. “Whereas dormant within us were the seeds of something much more musicianly, whether you like it or not. As time went on we started using those session guys – like Pino Palladino and Manu Katché – who allegedly were the best in the world.”

_Songs From The Big Chair _may only have featured eight songs, but they were all big – world-class triumphalist anthems, with titles that demanded attention, such as Shout, Listen and Everybody Wants To Rule The World. They required a lot of performing too, hence the appearance of Mel Collins (Alan Parsons Project, Camel, Crimson) and Will Gregory, later of Goldfrapp, both on sax. With Chris Hughes once more at the controls,

…Big Chair was a nonpareil burst of pop bombast. Well, almost nonpareil.

“Were we trying to out-Horn Trevor? Yeah, of course!” laughs Orzabal. “That was very difficult to do. But were we bothered – disturbed – by Trevor Horn? Yes.”

The success of …Big Chair and its attendant singles, which brought them No.1 hits in Europe and the States, made Tears For Fears one of the biggest acts on the planet. And yet they were conspicuous by their absence from both Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? and the following summer’s Live Aid extravaganza. Did they not get a call from Sir Bob?

“When we heard about Band Aid we were mixing …Big Chair in Munich, because Chris Hughes had fancied a skiing holiday – the things we had to work around!” Orzabal laughs. “That’s when we got a phone call via our manager. I remember it vaguely as, ‘Oh, Bob Geldof’s getting together with a bunch of musicians to record a song. Do you fancy going to do it?’ And we were like, ‘Not really, no.’ We had no idea what it was. The next thing we knew, it was No.1.

“By Live Aid, we had taken off and become huge,” he adds. “But by then we were on our first tour of America and due to go to Hawaii and on to Japan, so the question was, ‘Do we fly back from Hawaii to do the [Live Aid] show in Philly?’ We took a vote and Hawaii won.”

Was Geldof cross?

“Nah,” Orzabal says. “There were already too many people doing it for him to worry. Anyway, think about it – bands who played later in the day like Queen and U2 were used to playing stadium rock. It was easy for them and they sounded great. But some of the other artists, our peers, that came on early in the morning… No one remembers their performances, and some have tried to erase it from their history. I think we would have fallen into that category.”

Orzabal is being disingenuous. If anything – unlike Spandau Ballet, Adam Ant and many of the other acts on that historic day, who were on the commercial decline – Tears were enjoying a frighteningly rapid ascent and they would have been hard to accommodate on the bill. But their very enormity proved their undoing. The two boyhood pals grew apart as they toured the world, and Orzabal even found himself frozen out by his road crew, who were growing tired of his dictatorial demands – that “perfectionism” of which Paul Draper spoke.

Expectations were so great for the follow-up to …Big Chair that it took four years to arrive, and sessions for it were fraught. The Seeds Of Love may have reached No.1 in the UK, gone Top 10 in the US and included Sowing The Seeds Of Love (psych-era Beatles compressed into six minutes), but given the achievements of its predecessor, it was considered a failure.

By then, Smith and Orzabal were feeling variously isolated and disillusioned. So, with no little acrimony, they went their separate ways. Smith moved to New York, where he recorded a series of solo albums. Orzabal stayed in the West Country, where he carried on as Tears For Fears for two albums: Elemental, and 1995’s _Raoul And The Kings Of Spain. _

Relations were so bad that Orzabal uses the phrase “war broke out” when detailing the events of the early 90s. Fortunately, by the early 00s, enough time had elapsed for Tears to reconvene – and not murder each other – for the underappreciated Everybody Loves A Happy Ending. The album boasted the excellent, Bowie-ish Last Days On Earth, and Secret World, which should have been a gigantic hit.

Since then, Tears have become something of a cause célèbre: Mad World was a worldwide hit all over again after Gary Jules’ version appeared on the soundtrack to Donnie Darko, and today they are revered by musicians as varied as Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, US psych-prog duo MGMT and, well, Paul Draper of Mansun.

“They’re working with one of the coolest producers right now [Sohn], and if Roland can write some good stuff, they could be massive again,” says Draper. “They’ve got a phenomenal back catalogue. Even something like Mothers Talk – it sounds like Thomas Dolby on acid! Those songs will never go out of fashion.”

“Are we influential?” ponders Orzabal. He agrees that it’s hard to be influenced by Tears For Fears because there are so many iterations: the synthpop minimalists, the …Big Chair maximalists, the bombastic prog-soul/psych merchants of Seeds Of Love…

“Exactly,” he says, adding with tongue firmly in cheek: “It’s like Oasis, isn’t it? Were they influenced by The Beatles, or by The Rutles?”

Has recording a new album given him an opportunity to reassess Tears’ position in the pantheon?

“We can take on anything,” he asserts. “And we’re having fun doing it. But the question is: can we still have a hit like we used to? I think we can.”

Now all they’ve got to do is not kill each other. So far, there have been zero homicides in that LA studio. Everybody loves a happy ending.

The 30th Anniversary Edition of Songs From The Big Chair is out now on UMe. For details, see

Your Shout

They had Songs From The Big Chair and sowed The Seeds Of Love. But how prog were Tears For Fears ?

“In 1985 currency? Certainly more prog than Yes were at the time.” Gordon WD Fleming

“Steven Wilson has remixed the album Songs From The Big Chair. Have a listen. Then decide.” Ian Mcintosh

“Christ knows, I have given up trying to understand what prog even means, all I know is they’re a great band!” Rob White

“Art rock at times, less than Simple Minds or OMD, imo.” Ron Curtis

“Pioneering in terms of some of the sounds they make, but I always think of them as progressive pop, as opposed to rock.” Dave Jowitt

“The extended version of Shout makes me think of a pop band doing their best to write a prog song. It is good pop music, but not quite prog.” Anibal Rosario Planas

“About as prog as cat litter.” Karl Jamieson

“I always liked them, but no, not prog.” Andy Brassington

“Very prog! Some of their stuff was more prog than the 80s Genesis. The track Listen from …Big Chair being a prime example…” Brendan Eyre

“Would have said no in the 80s, but now I’d say yes.” Andy Wyatt

“Who cares. They’re exceptional!” Chid Seisay

“Any band that uses Nick D’V is prog.” Ken Coffman

“Mel and Phil Collins worked with them, they did song suites and concept albums and really pushed the envelope for mainstream music in the 80s. Maybe not prog per se, but very much influenced by it!” Adam Kullen

“_Sowing the Seeds Of Love _(the song) is prog – the rest are just arty, but great regardless.” Xander Rapstine

“IMHO they are the fringe with bands like 10cc, Jellyfish, Toy Matinee, Supertramp and City Boy. Prog to me is anything that ventures beyond the norm in musicianship, concept and production. The lines for me have become a bit more blurred with hindsight. But I know what I like!” Sherman Applegate

“No, not prog. But sailing in its direction at times.” Robert Michael Wells

“If you really want to put a label on bands, I would say Tears For Fears is among the proggiest of the new wave scene of the 80s.” Francois Fournier

“Yep, pop prog in the same vain that Tin Spirits are today. Catchy tunes with a slight edge that pricks up those prog tuned ears.” James Shardlow

Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.