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Tears For Fears: Many Happy Returns To 'Songs From The Big Chair'

Wednesday, 25 February 2015 Written by Graeme Marsh

There is one hurdle that many British bands - including several with iron-clad claims to legendary status - never manage to clear: breaking the States.

Since the Beatles and the Stones spearheaded the initial British invasion back in the ‘60s, many have tried and failed. But, history did repeat itself in the early ‘80s, when a clutch of New Romantic bands began to pop up in Britain following the trans-Atlantic punk period.

Their blend of synth-pop, garish fashion and big hair was both refreshing and intriguing. The movement spread to the US, where a fledgling MTV played a big role in beaming these flamboyant and often striking individuals directly into living rooms.

During July 1983, the presence of British acts on the Billboard charts reached a pinnacle, with seven of the top 10 singles originating from the UK, including original invasion survivors the Kinks, with Come Dancing. A couple of months earlier, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith of Tears For Fears had made their first dent on the UK album standings, with ‘The Hurting’ toppling Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' from the number one slot. This level of success, though, was not repeated in the US.

‘Songs From The Big Chair’ would change all that. With label pressure for a single ringing in their ears, they decamped to the home of Ian Stanley to work on their second album near their hometown of Bath, avoiding the time-consuming and alienating London sessions for their debut.

"I don't know if it was a happier time," Orzabal later told the Press Association. "I don't know if happiness is a necessary ingredient in making a great album. It was much more enjoyable, I know that much, and it was much more of a laugh. And we'd exorcised our philosophical demon during making ‘The Hurting’. We said everything we needed to say. That was Tears For Fears as inspired by Arthur Janov's Primal Therapy and all of his books."

A couple of false starts followed. The hastily released non-album single The Way You Are was put out due to the record company’s wish to keep the band in the limelight. Then, some nine months later, in August 1984, Mother’s Talk arrived. This single would end up on the album, but again the suits sought greater commercial impact.

Both the label and producer Chris Hughes had cast an eye on the recent success of British bands in America. As liner notes, provided by Smith, for the recent deluxe reissue claimed, they “saw the capability within us to really reach a bigger audience”.

“I don’t think we were ever concerned with it,” he added. “But we liked the idea of doing something different. That conscious effort to bridge the ocean between here and America was really more down to Chris and Dave Bates [the band’s A&R rep].”

Two tracks were already in the bag – Head Over Heels and The Working Hour, a cut inspired by the pressures the band had felt – but Orzabal came back with some new, partly formed ideas, including a ‘protest’ song, just a chorus at first, in Shout.

The prominent presence of guitar, along with the band’s staple synth diet, drove the track and in the UK it soared, reaching number four. In the US it would enjoy even greater success, but not just yet. Across the pond, another song was selected to lead the vanguard: Everybody Wants To Rule The World.

"I was comfortable with the bombastic nature of Shout, but Everybody Wants To Rule The World was an anomaly of everything we'd done before,” Orzabal continued in his PA interview. “It was bright and really bloody simple, not dark and complex like Mad World or Pale Shelter, and it was sarcastic, so it didn't sit well with anyone. But once we'd recorded it, we listened back and realised it just took care of itself.”

The decision proved to be a masterstroke. The 'stadium sound'-loving Americans lapped it up, sending it to number one while the band gigged Canada. They hadn’t even set foot in America by the time the song hit the top, and the ensuing US tour found them playing small gigs when, overnight, larger venues were suddenly required.

With Shout also topping the Billboard chart, the album became a multi-million seller. Bands like Duran Duran, ABC, Culture Club, the Police and the Human League had paved the way and their contributions, as well as growing influence of MTV, cannot be ignored. But, just as the fascination with the British new wave started to fade, Tears For Fears picked up the baton for another surge. For this reason alone, ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ rightly takes its place in the hall of fame: Many Happy Returns.

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