Here’s one to “shout” about. Everybody might want to rule the world but on this day in 1985, Tears For Fears took a big step towards doing that (or the world of music at least), with the release of their second album, Songs From the Big Chair.
The Brit quartet * (the asterisk because for all essential purposes, Tears for Fears was a duo of bassist/ lead vocalist Curt Smith and guitarist/keyboardist and occasional vocalist Roland Orzabel, but they included drummer Manny Elias and keyboardist Ian Stanley in the credits as well) had started off very well in their homeland with their ’83 debut The Hurting. That had won them a ton of critical praise, a platinum record in new wave-loving Canada and another one from their homeland, where the album hit #1. However, with sales of perhaps two million and almost no recognition in the U.S., Tears for Fears were still not in the Duran Duran/Culture Club level of the new music stratosphere. This album would change that in a big way… a big chair way!
The band had made a deliberate attempt not just to put out “The Hurting, The Sequel”, when they began making this one. Says Smith, “The Hurting was really influenced by modern technology at the time. (This) expressed our desire to move on from there…to be less insular.” Hughes added their record company, or companies (depending on where you were you might have bought Songs from the Big Chair as a Mercury Records, Phonogram, or Vertigo release) “saw the capability within us to reach a bigger audience. I don’t think we were concerned with that.” Part of the change came from producer Chris Hughes, who’d worked with them on their debut at least. He brought in a number of North American records – the band mentioned Steely Dan, Bryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen specifically – for them to broaden their range of influences. More guitars came in, a little bit of American R&B spice was subtly mixed in and songs were a tad more upbeat by and large. As allmusic would later note, “if The Hurting was mental anguish, Songs...marks its progression towards healing.”
The album originally consisted of just eight songs, running around 41 minutes. Later editions have expanded it to 15, with remixes and outtakes, including the pseudo-title track “The Big Chair.” That one, Smith said, created the title for the album: “The Big Chair is from a film called Sybil, about a girl with 16 different personalities…the only time she felt safe, the only time she could really be herself was when she was sitting in her analyst’s chair.” Surprisingly then, the single “Shout”, seen by many as an ode to primal scream therapy was not. “It concerns protest, inasmuch as it encourages people not to do things without questioning them,” explains the singer.
Another odd single from the record is “Mother’s Talk.” In the UK it was released months before the album, to satisfy fans waiting for new material. It was partly inspired by the nuclear war-themed graphic novel When the Wind Blows. In North America and Japan, it was the final single “off” the album, although they totally re-recorded it with a new producer, Bob Clearmountain. Either way, writer Orazabel didn’t care much for the tune, saying “we unabashedly tried to become more commercial. I was against it.”
For it or against it, they definitely did become more commercial with those two plus two more international smashes coming from it , “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” and “Head over Heels.” Four hits out of an eight song record…pretty good batting average!
At the time, Britain’s Smash Hits gave it an 8 out of 10 rating, complimenting their “looser more explatory (tone) than before” as well as the “unflinching lyrical honesty.” Over here, Rolling Stone said they “sound a lot like a lot of British bands…you can hear U2’s social conscience, the Bunnymen’s echoing guitars and XTC’s contorted pop wit.” Noentheless, they found it a good album, and picked “the last cut, ‘Listen’” as the one with “the most to offer.” Years later, Q would give it 4-stars for its “spotlit spacious sophistication plus anthemic choruses” while allmusic gave it 4.5, focusing on how “the songwriting took a huge leap forward.”
The mix of very British musicians listening to very American singers worked. The album generated singles that competed nicely with the likes of Springsteen and Michael Jackson for attention that year, with both “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” hitting #1 in both the U.S. and Canada. The album itself would nudge Phil Collins out of the top spot on Billboard that summer, and spent five weeks on top in the U.S., and also topped Canadian, German and Dutch charts, eventually going 7X platinum in Canada and 5X in the U.S. At home in Britain, the album stalled at #2 but still sold a highly-enviable triple platinum. With worldwide sales over ten million, it arguably was the biggest success in the entire English new wave movement of the ’70s and ’80s. That was something to “shout” about!