March 26 – Tears For Fears Weren’t ‘Hurting’ For Fans

Suffering is supposed to be the raw stuff of art,” ’80s wunderkind author Jay McInerney once said. Today we celebrate a pair of his musical contemporaries who’d no doubt agree, Tears for Fears. The duo that went on to become one of Britain’s biggest acts of the decade had their first real taste of success on this day in 1983 when their debut album, The Hurting, made it to #1 on the UK charts.

While it might seem they were a veritable overnight success, that’s hardly the case. Their rise to fame took some time – and a lot of suffering. As much as the recording of the album was arduous, the years leading up to it that was the raw material was tougher. The Hurting was a concept album about childhood stress, psychological distress and resultant psycho-therapy. Not the love affairs and fast Chevys that populate so much of pop music.

Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, who make up the band (technically keyboardist/engineer Ian Stanley and drummer Manny Elias were also part of the band but they were kept to decidedly supporting roles) had a lot of raw material to work with when they first met in the late 1970s in their hometown of Bath, England, a city which is also home to Peter Gabriel and Midge Ure among others. They joined a band called Neon with Pete Byrnes and Rob Fischer (the latter became Naked Eyes after Orzabal and Smith departed.) and then a short-lived group called Graduate. Graduate had little fan support at home but managed to have a chart-topping single – “Elvis Should Play Ska” – in Spain.

While Orzabal had surprisingly grown up loving country music and Smith had leaned more towards the heavy metal stylings of Blue Oyster Cult and Led Zep, they had both come to love Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and Gary Numan. They decided to form their own band to create that sort of sound. Their initial name, History of Headaches (Orzabal later said of that name, “It’s awful!”) quickly gave way to the one we are familiar with.

Their backgrounds played a big role in creating the rather bleak content of their early work. Both had grown up in “council estates”, the British version of public housing tenements and were fairly poor as children. Smith’s family might have been worse off financially. “It was a very poor, basic upbringing, but it taught you to be independent,” he told The Quietus in a substantial 2013 interview.

Orzabal’s upbringing was more unusual. His parents owned an “entertainment” company which was run out of their apartment after his Dad suffered a nervous breakdown when Roland was three. The entertainment was largely stripping. His mom had been an exotic dancer and went on to train young women for that, something he recalls his Dad quite enjoying! However, beyond the naked ladies, the company also employed a ventriloquist, who taught little Roland that skill, and several musicians. Guitarists would sometimes stop by and play, and the lad would sing along. “I thought, yup, that’s what I want to do.”

If all that was a little unorthodox, it might not be the worst way to grow up as a young boy. Unfortunately, he also remembers all too well “my Dad would be physically violent towards my Mum. It got so bad that in the end, she left.” He felt guilty for not being able to stop his father and responsible for protecting his little brother. The emotional scars went deep and showed up on The Hurting.

By lucky coincidence, Ian Stanley had his own home studio which enabled the band to record their demo tape, which consisted of just two songs: “Pale Shelter” and “Suffer the Children”. (Both songs made it onto the eventual album, but in re-recorded versions. If you want to hear the original of “Pale Shelter”, try tracking down the Canadian 7” single, oddly enough.) Thankfully, the two songs were enough to catch the ear of David Bates at Phonogram Records, who got the OK to sign the band and give them a £10 000 advance.

Suffer the Children” was their first release in Nov. 1981. Now, one might expect to find that it was a smash hit and the band was on their way, but it wasn’t the case. The song barely made a ripple on the charts but it did get played by the ever-influential John Peel on BBC and that was good enough for Phonogram to go ahead with the second single, “Pale Shelter” and send Tears for Fears into the studio to record a full album. They brought in producers Chris Hughes, a member of Adam and the Ants (who would later on work with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Wang Chung and Lloyd Cole in the studio) and Ross Cullum to produce it. The pair re-recorded and mixed the previous singles and then went to work on the next single, “Mad World.”

Curt didn’t want the song to be released as a single. He didn’t seem to like the sound too much and perhaps thought lines like “I find it kind of funny/ I find it kind of sad/ the dreams in which I’m dying/ Are the best I’ve ever had” a little too morose for pop radio. “We argued about that,” he remembers, “we’re not A&R people! We didn’t expect ‘Mad World’ to be a hit.”

The label’s Bates disagreed. “A hit song has to have a catchy chorus, something anyone and everyone can hum…’Mad World’ had that. A production or sound that has something uniquely identifiable, that stands out. ‘Mad World’ had that. From the first time I heard it, I believed it was a hit.”

He was right! It made it to #3 in their homeland that winter (and did well in North American markets savvy to underground British music, as well as in the Philippines.) . This was a double-edged sword for them; it made them some money and doubtless ensured that the album, when completed would at least sell, but it also really put the pressure on them to hurry up and get the work done in the studio. The stress rather got to Orzabal and Smith and perhaps toned the lyrics a bit darker still.

The hours were very long. The pressure of the business, the side that myself and Roland have never enjoyed,” were compounded by increasing demands to do press and shoot videos.

Finally the album was done and released on March 7, 1983 to tremendous response in their native land and decent reviews elsewhere. The BBC loved it, Smash Hits magazine gave it an 8 out of 10 and later allmusic‘ gave it 4.5 out of 5. “A daring debut for a pop-oriented band,” they enthused, “by virtue of its makers’ ability to package an unpleasant subject and the psychologically-wretched family histories in an attractive and sellable musical format.” He likened it to a John Lennon work, a comparison also made by Rolling Stone. Comparisons to Joy Division also abounded, though listening to it now it might be surprising the main frame of reference wasn’t Peter Gabriel and his third solo album. Substitute Gabriel’s voice for Orzabal’s on the title track and you’d have a song which would have been completely at home on the earlier record.

When Rolling Stone reviewed the album that summer, they gave it a middling three-stars out of five but praised it nonetheless. “Tears for Fears stand out among the current crop of indentikit synth-pop groups by virtue of their resourceful, stylish songwriting and fetching rhythmic sway,” David Fricke wrote. “On both ‘Mad World’ and ‘Pale Shelter’, beguiling hooks and panoramic guitar effects suck the listener into dizzy whirlpools of cleverly synthesized orchestration.”

Despite boasting rather dour titles like “Start of the Breakdown” and “Watch Me Bleed”, the British public couldn’t get enough. In less than three weeks it was certified gold and had knocked Michael Jackson’s Thriller out of top spot. It went on to spend a dizzying 65 weeks on the chart and go platinum there as well as in Canada , and gold in the U.S. CFNY radio in Toronto picked it as their album of the year.

It was just the start for the pair, commercially at least. A couple of years later their fame and success took a leap upwards with Songs From The Big Chair. In time they’d go on to top 30 million album sales. One who was unimpressed by it all, it seems was Roland Orzabal himself. “By the time we got to 21, we’d become professional musicians. It became a job. After that it just became more and more watered down and mainstream.” Perhaps it wasn’t surprising they split up in 1991 and spent over a decade apart with Smith moving to the U.S. and turning his attention to acting. However, in time they’d reform for tours and just recently they put out their first new album in 18 years, The Tipping Point, which has already gotten to #2 in the UK and the top 10 in the U.S. 

4 thoughts on “March 26 – Tears For Fears Weren’t ‘Hurting’ For Fans

  1. Badfinger (Max)

    They had some history. I like the Graduate cut and their look. They look like a British Invasion band in the early sixties. Music was really cool. They are another band that wasn’t played a lot on radio rock stations here BUT…MTV played them a lot. That is where I learned about them the most.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d never heard The Graduate before, but that one track was quite decent. TFF were curiously big early in Toronto… it’s weird, but true that their ‘Pale Shelter’ and Pet Shop Boys ‘west End Girls’ were somehow hit singles in Canada with original versions before they became hits in their homeland and were re-recorded. Possibly some of the labels selected Canada and particularly Toronto as some sort of test market?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Badfinger (Max)

        When I first read the Graduate…I thought…the movie? lol…then my mind kicked in gear. I liked the look they had also.
        That is the only thing I can think of on why there with the original versions.

        Liked by 1 person

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