Recently it’s seemed like rather a “Mad World”, so let’s wish a happy birthday to the man who sang that nearly four decades back. Curt Smith is 61 today, and is the more vocal half of Tears for Fears.
Smith grew up in middle-class Bath, England being a fan of various forms of pop and rock, and as a teen taught himself to play bass. Later, he’d learn keyboards. He met and became friends with Roland Orzabel in school, and by 1980, they’d formed a band called Graduate that leaned towards ska, as was the trend in the UK then. After a little-noticed indie release that included the single “Elvis Should Play Ska”, they split and joined Neon, a band featuring Pete Byrne and Rob Fisher. After a year or two, Neon turned off its “open” sign, with Byrne and Fisher becoming Naked Eyes, and Smith heading off with Orzabel to start Tears for Fears.
With a keen interest in the new wave of the era – Orchestral Manouevres, Depeche Mode etc – as well as in the artsy styles of Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads, plus a slice of classic rock, ala Led Zeppelin, thrown in they had a good chance of sounding unusual and memorable. Even if they’d sung about dancing or girls like most acts. But they delved deeper into their psyche, went to counseling (including the primal scream type that John Lennon once championed) and wrote songs far deeper than the typical 20 year olds…something Smith said was a little arrogant perhaps (fans would disagree) and won them some harsh criticism. “We came from an era when young men should be seen and not heard,” he told the Guardian recently, saying people would sneer “Who are you to be talking about these subjects?”
Speaking to a generation, one might think. Their 1983 debut The Hurting was one of the biggest debuts of the decade in Britain, going to #1, but that was only a mere hint of the success the next one, Songs from the Big Chair would have. It topped North American charts as well, sold in the range of ten million copies, won critical praise far and wide and launched four hit singles, including the bombastic “Shout”, the stellar love song “Head Over Heels” and the one they’d forever be synonymous with, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.”
The latter was one Curt sang lead on; although he and Roland both sang, Smith was the lead vocalist on the majority of their better-known songs including “Mad World,” “Pale Shelter” and “Advice for the Young At Heart.” Curiously he didn’t sing lead on “Head Over Heels”, which was one of the few songs he got co-writing credit for. Generally, writing was Orzabel’s task, Smith sang and played bass and added keyboards when needed (which in the early days was infrequent as even though normally considered a duo, and photographed that way, keyboardist Ian Stanley was a member through the ’80s.)
A combination of diminished sales for the third album, The Seeds of Love, differing opinions as to the group’s direction and personality conflicts led them to part ways in 1990 (generally being referred to as “breaking up” although Orzabel technically retained the band name and suggested Smith quit) . They’d briefly reunite around the decade’s end, put out a new record in 2004 and tour sporadically for a number of years after, but Smith says they avoided “80s All Over Again” style tours with other artists of the same “genre” because “we don’t consider ourselves from a (specific) decade.” He added “I can’t put my heart into it…unless we have something fresh to say, do or play.”
So, along the way he married for a second time (his first marriage during the band’s heyday didn’t last long) , moved to the States, had two daughters and became primarily a “stay at home dad.” He said he recalled hearing a teacher asked students what their parents did and his daughter replied “mommy goes to work in an office and daddy goes to the gym.” So low-profile was he in fact, that he once went to a karaoke bar in Vancouver, while filming a show, and sang “Everybody Wants To Rule the World”… “and no one paid a blind bit of attention! They didn’t realize it was me.” Not that he did nothing; he has put out four solo albums, tried his hand at a little acting (having a semi-regular role in the cable show Pscyh) and in 2010, being a bit ahead of his time, started a series of online shows from his home, where he’d invite artists who’d play “unplugged” style acoustic versions of their songs and answer questions in between, all while being streamed in real time.
Of course, now Smith has something fresh to say. He and Orzabel patched things up recently (Orzabel says his own second wife has shown him how to be “polite and kind and not hostile all the time”) and they put out a new album, The Tipping Point, this spring. They’ll be celebrating his day tonight with a concert at the PNC Bank Center in New Jersey and a show in Wantagh, NY tomorrow before heading over to tour the UK in July.