For better or worse, the past decade-plus of pop culture has been consumed by a 1980s revival. In music, everyone from The War on Drugs to Carly Rae Jepsen has decided that gated drums and Yamaha synths are back in style. Contemporary artists also have revived some of the best (and worst) ‘80s songs with cover versions that often stray far from the original’s sound.
Few covers better exemplified this trend (and arguably helped to spur it) than Gary Jules and Michael Andrews’s version of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” from the 2001 film Donnie Darko.
As the propulsive, synth-heavy first single off of Tears for Fears’ 1983 debut album, The Hurting, “Mad World” peaked at number three on the U.K. charts and scarcely registered stateside. Tears for Fears wouldn’t make their mark in America until two years later, when the band’s second album, Songs from the Big Chair, and its second and third singles, “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” dominated the 1985 Billboard charts, making the band one of the most successful representatives of the so-called Second British Invasion. But the band took four years to record a follow up and, while the resulting album received critical praise, it failed to repeat Big Chair’s commercial success.
In the years that followed, Tears for Fears’ founding duo, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, parted ways. Orzabal, the band’s primary songwriter, temporarily carried on under the Tears for Fears name. But the band gradually faded from the public consciousness, at least in the U.S., where Tears for Fears was relegated to the ‘80s kitsch dustbin, alongside artists like Culture Club and the Thompson Twins.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Donnie Darko began the resuscitation of Tears for Fears’ reputation. Despite having the misfortune of being a film revolving around a D.C.-area plane crash released a month after 9/11, Darko quickly became a cult classic. Its moody, teen-centric, faux-intellectual science fiction made for perfect dorm room fodder. And Tears for Fears was at the center of it all. “Head Over Heels” played over a scene-setting opening montage, and Jules and Andrews’s “Mad World” served as the film’s moody musical heart. Rendered as a slow piano ballad by Jules and Andrews, their cover version topped the U.K. charts and reached number 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2001. Along the way, it reminded people what an extraordinary songwriter Orzabal is.
Now — thanks, in part, to the judgment of musicians and critics who grew up with Big Chair, Darko, or both — Tears for Fears is cool again.
But Tears for Fears was always a cut above their ‘80s peers. Beloved, reviled, and revived, synth pop has come full circle since its heyday. And Tears for Fears were among its most skilled practitioners, with songs that transcended their synth sheen (try imaging “Hold Me Now” or “Karma Chameleon” holding up as a piano ballad) and production that was both cutting edge for its time and still pleases jaded audiophiles’ ears today.
While perhaps not as singularly innovative or sonically timeless as that decade’s other albums profiled in The Best Version Of…, Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love and Peter Gabriel’s So, Tears for Fears’ first two LPs — the subject of this special double edition of TBVO — are memorable precisely because they’re unmistakably of their time. Few ‘80s artists produced back-to-back releases that both embodied the sound of the era and stand the test of time, measured in terms of both songs and sonics.
From the beginning, Tears for Fears’ Orzabal and Smith were saddled with a reputation as dour studio perfectionists. “Lest you harbor any doubts as to why Tears For Fears have taken over five months to record their first album, the answer is simple,” Johnny Black quipped, opening the first major profile of the band in the December 23, 1982, issue of Smash Hits. “These are intelligent, sensitive young men[.]”
Both Orzabal and Smith grew up in U.K. council [public] housing, the former in Bath, the latter near Portsmouth. “We both come from broken homes,” Smith told Vice in 2014. “We were both brought up solely by our mothers, more or less.”
Despite his modest upbringing, Orzabal was introduced to music at a young age. “I had what you could call a very unorthodox background,” Ozabal recounted in the 1985 Scenes from the Big Chair documentary. “Neither of my parents had normal jobs, nine-to-five jobs. My father had a nervous breakdown when I was three years old and became semi-bedridden. And to make money he decided to run an entertainment agency with my mother, who was a dancer [stripper]. We had an awful lot of different entertainers around the house.... [including] guitarists and singers and that’s where I first got into the guitar as a means of accompanying the voice.”
When Orzabal was 13, his mother left his abusive father and moved the family to Bath. Given his parents’ unorthodox lives and the general ‘60s-holdover vibe of Bath, Orzabal initially gravitated towards “hippie” culture and music. But his teenage rebellion included a brief foray into heavy metaldom. “Because I was more advanced on the guitar, at school I gave guitar lessons…,” Orzabal explained to The Quietus’s Wyndham Wallace in 2013. “There were always a lot of kids who wanted to learn, and I could teach them a few things, and we’d end up being in a [heavy metal] band. I was best friends with a guy who I taught to play bass, and he went to my school. He knew Curt from his previous school[.]” Through the bass player, Orzabal met Smith, whom he asked to join the band after hearing him sing along to Blue Öyster Cult’s “Then Came The Last Days Of May,” of all songs.
On the surface, the bookish Orzabal and pugilistic Smith had little in common, but the two bonded over their shared difficult upbringings and abrasive senses of humor. “[Roland] was kind of a nerd,” Smith quipped to Wallace. “He was more studious. Both his parents were very educated. Mine were definitely undereducated. So I guess, even though we grew up along the same lines, he was from a very different background. I was interested in reading…. But on a council estate it’s hard to find like-minded people. I think we were both like-minded people, but from very different backgrounds.”
The friendship between Orzabal and Smith, who picked up the bass, evolved into Graduate, a five-piece Mod revival band. Graduate released one album, Acting My Age, on Pye Records and scored a minor hit, “Elvis Should Play Ska,” in Spain. “We were just a sixties revival Mod band who were elevated to the position of having a record deal,” Smith told biographer Will Hall. “Really we should just have been playing the clubs around Bath.”
Neither Orzabal nor Smith was happy with Graduate’s musical direction. While Graduate’s focus was rekindling a previous generation’s music, Orzabal and Smith longed for a new sound. “It was also an interesting time, because around then technology had just started taking off, in the sense that Linn drum machines and the need for a band really didn’t exist anymore,” Smith told Wallace. “Before then it was always kind of bands based around the studio, but Gary Numan changed all that. And we realized we wanted to concentrate on making really good records, something that lasts.”
“It wasn’t even so much liking [Numan],” Orzabal elaborated to Vice. “It’s that we were kids following trends and trends in those days were really powerful. You’re acutely aware something is changing and then suddenly [in 1979] Gary Numan was number one. We were familiar with the style, having listened to Bowie, but it was a shock that he was number one.”
More significant influence came in the form of three albums released in 1980, the same year Graduate’s only album hit shelves. “We’d been listening to Remain in Light by Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel's eponymous third album [popularly known as Melt], and Scary Monsters by David Bowie,” Smith told The Guardian in 2013. “These were amazingly produced, very rhythmic records that made us want to try something similar. Access to synthesizers gave us the chance to experiment.”
“Curt turned me on to Peter Gabriel III, which bizarrely had no hi-hats or cymbals and this thunderous ambient drum sound and lots of tuned percussion, too,” Orzabal noted in the liner notes to the 30th anniversary edition of The Hurting. “Alongside that, I was listening to Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Remain in Light, plus [David] Byrne and [Brian] Eno’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.”
Spurred by these new sounds, Orzabal and Smith left Graduate and began plotting their musical life as a technologically savvy, studio-driven duo. “Well, you always find in a group that there’s nucleus of one or two people,” Orzabal told Melody Maker in November 1983. “Nowadays when you've got the facility with multi-track recording to go in and do it yourself, there’s just a lot less pain and hassle involved…. Basically we heard Simon & Garfunkel and decided that was the life for us. It's just easier, that's all.”
“The reason we could leave,” Smith elaborated in the liner notes to The Hurting’s 1999 remaster, “was because technology had just got to the stage when you could actually do it without a band. That was the main musical theme of The Hurting.”
Despite that programmatic vision, The Hurting began with Orzabal and an acoustic guitar. “Most of the songs were written in the flat that I shared with Caroline, who’s my wife now of thirty years…,” Orzabal told Wallace. “[M]e being unemployed, and without anything really to do or to get up for, I used to sit at the window and just watch people go about their work. It was simple as that. Writing those songs was therapeutic, definitely.”
Many of the songs Orzabal began writing revolved around the pain and trauma of childhood, a topic that seemed relevant to both Orzabal and Smith, given their troubled childhoods. Orzabal filtered this theme through the work of Arthur Janov, the father of “primal” therapy, the philosophy that had inspired John Lennon’s solo debut, Plastic Ono Band. Orzabal had been introduced to Janov through his guitar teacher, who told him that she was planning to travel to the U.S. to get treated by Janov.
“I said, ‘What?’” Orzabal told CBS:
It seemed pretty drastic. And she had a copy of [Janov’s book], The Primal Scream, and she said, “Why don't you read it?” And I read it and it felt like a revelation. I identified with the feelings expressed in the book and this idea that you can unburden yourself of all those dark and tormented feelings. I took to it like the proverbial duck and became very evangelical about it as well. My only convert was Curt who identified with it as well. It was then pretty much us against the world. It was like we were born again.
The pair were so moved by Janov’s work than that they took the name Tears for Fears from his work and saw his theories as the thread unifying The Hurting’s songs. “It’s a concept album,” Orzabal told Wallace. “Tears For Fears was a concept. The Hurting is a concept album.” As he elaborated in the liner notes to The Hurting’s 1999 remaster, “[Primal therapy] was a major, major part of the force behind the band. His influence was massive on the songs. ‘Ideas as Opiates’ is a chapter in one of his books. ‘Prisoners of Pain’ is another one of his books. That system of psychology enabled me to write about my emotions.”
The relationship between TFF’s music and primal scream therapy was much more instrumental, too. “Although it sounds really funny,” Orzabal admitted to Melody Maker in 1983, “our whole aim when we started [as a band] was basically to get money to do it.” As Orzabal explained later, “We’d read [Janov’s] books…[but] at the time you could only get [the therapy] in LA or New York, and for two kids on the dole it was a lot of money to fly out there.”
In time, Orzabal and Smith would regret explaining the Janov connection to the press, both because they felt it made them seem pretentious and because it implied they agreed with all of his ideas. “When [our interest in primal therapy] did become public, we found out that apart from being misconstrued a lot of the time, even when it was written down exactly how we’d said it, we don’t actually explain it very well,” Smith quipped, taking some of the blame for the band’s image as British pop’s serious young men.
The duo’s more immediate problem was finding a way to turn Orzabal’s acoustic sketches into fully formed synthpop songs. “It was very difficult for me at the time to play ‘Mad World’ on acoustic guitar,” Orzabal told CBS. “It just didn't sound right.”
Luckily, Orzabal and Smith had a “rich kid” friend, Ian Stanley, who would later become the closest Tears for Fears ever got to a co-equal third member. Stanley lived in a “big fuck-off house outside of Bath,” as Orzabal told Vice, with a home studio stocked full of the latest equipment. “Without Ian’s eight-track studio, his Roland JP4, his CR78 drum machine, and MXR Pitch Transposer, we wouldn’t be where we are now…,” Orzabal said later. “He gave us the opportunity to demo, at his home studio, songs such as ‘Pale Shelter,’ ‘Change,’ and ‘Mad World.’”
Now, Orzabal and Smith could try out some of the sounds they’d heard on the Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads albums that convinced them to abandon Mod revivalism. “[W]e weren’t old enough to truly emulate those albums,” Orzabal told Prog magazine in 2015, “so it ended up as a kind of adolescent, fragile, distilled version of them.”
The woodshedding Orzabal and Smith did in Stanley’s home studio shaped the way they’d approach their debut album. “[O]ur whole method of recording changed [from Graduate]…,” Orzabal told International Musician. “We started with a drum machine and some keyboards and then we overdubbed everything…. All there is is the rhythm, the chords…, and the tune of the song. From there on its pure invention, running over the song again and again, and trying out different sounds.”
The band’s first proper studio session came with producer David Lord, who had recorded Graduate and who would go on to produce Peter Gabriel’s fourth album. “David was the first producer we worked with,” Smith remembered. “He had a studio [Crescent Studios] in our hometown of Bath and produced hits with local band The Korgis. It was a marriage of convenience.”
The studio time was left over from Graduate, whose A&R representative, Richard Zuckerman, supported Orzabal and Smith’s synth pop ambitions. “I had no problem with the band [Graduate] breaking up because for me it was always Roland,” Zuckerman told Wallace. “I don’t want to diss Curt too much, but they were friends. There’s no doubt that Roland was helping Curt along. He helped him to learn how to play bass guitar and gave him a job in the band. But it was all about Roland. Roland was the star.”
With Lord, Orzabal and Smith cut a version of “Suffer the Children” that effectively showcased the duo’s new sound, which Lord helped the duo bring to life. “We had gone into a demo-studio in Bath with just ‘Suffer the Children,’ and we knew nothing about synthesizers,” Orzabal told Smash Hits in 1982. “It was our producer, David Lord, who showed us how to use them and he played all the difficult bits at first.”
Despite its leap forward in sound, the Lord version of “Suffer the Children” comes across as more dated and twee than the version that would be released on The Hurting. But the recording would be key to Tears for Fears’ future success.
When Pye began trimming staff, Zuckerman left and arranged for Orzabal and Smith to keep the master tape of the Lord-produced “Suffer the Children.” On the strength of that tape and a demo version of “Pale Shelter,” Phonogram signed Tears for Fears to a two-single deal. “I was allowed to sign them on a two single deal, with an option for an album,” Phonogram A&R rep David Bates told Wallace, “which means I had to succeed in the charts with the singles before being allowed to carry on and make an album.”
“I think the advance was about £12,000,” Orzabal remembered in 2013, “which for us was, like, ‘Woah!’ It might have been £14,000, but it was a two single deal.”
Phonogram released “Suffer the Children” — backed with a beguilingly uncharacteristic acoustic song, “Wino,” which also was produced by Lord — as a single in November 1981. “Suffer” received spins from influential BBC Radio 1 disc jockeys John Peel and Peter Powell, but otherwise sank without notice.
Bates then paired Tears with producer Mike Howlett, a match that was deemed poor by both the band and Howlett, who referred to them as “difficult.” “He smothered everything in echo and reverb,” Orzabal told International Musician, “and it actually sounded good. Well at first, that is. Because when you’re not used to the subtleties of recording, you can be seduced by that sort of thing.”
The band recorded five songs with Howlett before parting ways. “Mike was far too commercial for us,” Smith said later. “I don’t think we were learning anything, and we’re not good at being pushed in a direction we don’t wish to go.”
The lone publicly available product of that unhappy creative marriage was Tears’ 1982 “Pale Shelter” single, backed with the Gabriel-inspired “Prisoner.” The song also marked Smith’s first lead vocal on a Tears’ track. (“I was very particular about the songs I wanted to sing,” Orzabal told Wallace, “and [deciding] if I could use my voice.”) But the single flopped on the charts. And for good reason. Howlitt’s slick production turns “Pale Shelter” into a Human League B-side. “He made [Tears for Fears’ songs] sound just like Mike Howlett,” Smith quipped.
After the band’s troubles with Howlitt, Bates hooked them up with former Adam and the Ants drummer and producer, Chris Merrick Hughes. “One day in early 1982 I was at the Phonogram Records building — Park Street, London, in those days — walking past my good friend and longtime collaborator David Bates’ office,” Hughes remembered. “He shouts, ‘Come have a word with this guy on the phone.’ I spoke to an articulate, quietly spoken gentleman, who was concerned about some recordings he had made.”
Hughes brought in producer Ross Cullum, who was George Martin’s assistant at AIR Studios and had previously worked with Roxy Music and Kate Bush, to co-produce the album. The four began working on “Mad World” at London’s Brit Row Studios. “It was myself, Curt, Ross Cullum, and Chris Hughes in a very tight four,” Orzabal told Prog. “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.”
“Roland had a vision of how the song should sound and feel,” Hughes recalled to Wallace, “and they both had a strong sense of what they wanted.”
The pairing of Hughes and Cullum with Orzabal and Smith proved to be a perfect match. “All Chris wants to do is get your ideas down on to tape,” Orzabal said in a mid-1980s interview. “If I played you the demo of ‘Mad World’ you’d see that it really is similar [to the finished version] — all the parts, virtually all the sounds…. All [Chris] did was make it sound a lot better.”
“’Mad World’ was written and largely designed by Roland way before we got into the studio,” Hughes told me in an email. “It was the first song we worked on together. I thought his vision was extraordinary. It was great to work at reconstruction from such a great demo and making it a finished single.”
Lyrically, the song that would become Tears for Fears’ breakout hit was born of the same ennui that had inspired The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” (From “All the lonely people / Where do they all come from?” to “Worn out faces / Bright and early for their daily races.”) But like much of the duo’s early music, “Mad World” was cut through with youthful angst. “We were sitting in his flat,” Smith recalled to Vice, “and we were looking out of the window at people going to work, and existences we thought were pointless.”
Like “Pale Shelter,” Orzabal handed the lead vocal on “Mad World” to Smith. “Normally it’s pretty obvious [who should sing a particular song],” Smith told The Quietus. “If it’s a softer song it’s normally me. If it requires being belted, it’s normally Roland. My voice is a lot darker, a lot more melancholic, and Roland is more of a shouter.”
“In the early days, I’d just write the songs, and if I couldn’t think of some lyrics, I’d ask Curt to do them,” Orzabal told authors Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein. “When we started off, it was very much Curt as frontman and me as studio boffin. It was like that until ‘Shout.’ Because it was such a big hit, when we got to America, people saw us more as co-frontmen. Certainly, in the early days in England, Curt was the pop star, and I was in the background.”
Despite declining to sing it himself, “Mad World” was an intensely personal song for Orzabal. “I had suffered from depression in my childhood,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “My dad had been in the second world war, had electric shock treatment, suffered from anxiety and was abusive to my mum. I kept a lid on my feelings at school but, when I was 18, dropped out of everything and couldn’t even be bothered to get out of bed. I poured all this into the song.” Indicative of the bond that brought the duo together in their early teens, Smith could relate to Orzabal’s sentiment in “Mad World.” “We were both the middle of three sons and had been brought up by single mothers with absent fathers,” Smith explained. “My father always worked away, and died when I was 17, but I hated him by that point. It hit me later in life, but back then I was teenage and angry. The song was the perfect platform.”
While Orzabal and Smith were thrilled with the Hughes-produced version of “Mad World,” they didn’t initially view the song as a single. Instead, it had been earmarked as the B-side to “Pale Shelter.” But Bates convinced the band to make “Mad World” their third single and the first from what would become The Hurting. “There were times of concern after we’d released two singles and neither was a success. Polygram had signed us for just two singles initially…,” Smith said in 2013. “But Dave had a belief in us. We had a belief in ourselves. Chris Hughes was then on board as a producer. And we thought we were an album band, not a singles band.”
Against all expectations, “Mad World” rose up the U.K. singles charts, peaking at number three in October of 1982. “I couldn’t believe it!” Orzabal told Wallace. “It just kept going up the charts in those days where records didn’t just go in at number one and fall. It was quite remarkable! It was a muted excitement because we were still making The Hurting, but every week Music Week would come out: ‘Oh yeah, you’ve gone up ten places.’ Just incredible! Who knew?! It’s bizarre!”
The only one who wasn’t surprised was Bates. “Let’s take a simple view,” Bates reflected. “A hit song has to have a catchy chorus, something anyone and everyone can hum, whistle or sing while at work, driving or walking. ‘Mad World’ had that. A vocal that is unique, stands out and is easily identified? ‘Mad World’ had that. Then 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 that it was a hit.”
From the song’s pensive opening drum sounds, which were either a Roland TR-808 or a Roland CR-78 drum machine slowed to half speed, the Hughes-Cullum version of “Mad World” created an enveloping sonic world. “Mad World” succeeded despite (or, perhaps, because of) its two-note chorus, as Orzabal marveled to Vice. That simple chorus, delivered over an interesting descending piano riff, feels like a therapeutic release following the tense synth buildup of the pre-chorus (“I find it kind of funny / I find it kind of sad…”). This sense of sonic evolution was furthered by the “Penny Lane”-esque synth horn line during the second verse and drummer Manny Elias’s augmentation of the song’s drum machine foundation.
“The recording of ‘Mad World’ is so warm, so atmospheric…,” Orzabal elaborated in 2013. “The way that Chris augmented it is fantastic. It’s a very earthy sounding record.”
“Mad World” brought with it renewed pressure to deliver a full-length album worthy of the attention brought by the single’s success. “It definitely got harder after [‘Mad World’],” Smith told The Quietus. “We didn’t want to make just a commercial album. We wanted to make a statement. I think we were quite pretentious. That was the age we were at. We were convinced that we were right in everything we did…. That’s what you are at that age. You think you know everything. It’s not ‘til later on in life you realize you don’t.”
“With the pressure of deadlines it became harder to finish in the allotted time,” Orzabal said in a contemporary interview, “so we kept having to stich studios. It kept going on with all these deadlines, which we never ever finished. In fact, I don’t think the album was finished even after it was released!”
As Hughes told me in an email, The Hurting was recorded at a variety of studios. In London, the band recorded at Pink Floyd’s Britannia Row Studios, Red Bus Studios, and both the Penthouse and famed Studio 2 at Abbey Road. In Bath, they recorded at Lord’s Crescent Studios. Finally, the record was mixed at George Martin’s London AIR Studios.
The foursome would work seven days a week, sometimes staying through the night until the early morning. “Most of the time we tend to be in the studio, and basically I’m in there working from morning until night,” Orzabal wrote in Record Mirror’s “A Day in the Life of Roland Orzabal” feature in 1982. “We’ve been having quite a lot of problems finishing off our first album, so we’re working very hard.”
Orzabal wasn’t exaggerating. When Smash Hits’ Johnny Black arrived to interview the duo three months before The Hurting’s release, the duo overslept and arrived late, having been up recording until six in the morning. “I remember being at AIR Studios in London,” Orzabal remembered in liner notes to the 30th anniversary edition of The Hurting, “and saying hi to Paul McCartney as he was just starting his day and we were just finishing ours.”
“We were locked away in this penthouse studio in Abbey Road, cut away from everything, for nearly a year,” Smith said in 2013. “I think it took its toll. The hours were long, and it was back then when we were young. In later years in life you learn that anything you do after midnight is worthless because you’re just too tired. You think something’s good and then you come back in the next day and you realize it was dreadful. And there was the pressure from the record company. We realized we had something with ‘Mad World,’ and we needed more than one hit from an album.”
“It was an incredibly difficult album to make,” Orzabal recalled to Majewski and Bernstein. “We were working every day, seven days a week, mainly at Abbey Road’s Penthouse studio. We would be working until two in the morning. We would be doing vocals over and over and over again. These are the days before Auto-Tune. I remember Curt being in tears in the toilet. There was this new kind of ambition around the band.”
“There was pressure there,” Hughes told Wallace. “There were late nights, but there were tracks we were making that were extremely well received. I had no interest in rushing and not giving due care and attention to things. We weren’t trying to capture a first take punk outburst.”
“The recording was at times painfully slow,” Orzabal remembered, “and it seemed to be that all four of us [Hughes, Cullum, Smith, and Orzabal] would have to like something for it to go on the record. That’s a lot of discussion and debate.” “Four people almost democratically choosing snare sounds and hi-hat sounds,” Orzabal added in another interview, “and it was just ridiculous.”
“I’m not sure that it was weak decision making on anyone's part,” Hughes countered, “more a sense of, ‘This isn't good enough, perhaps we could try this instead.’”
“The Hurting,” Smith said in a mid-‘80s interview:
Took us a long time because Chris Hughes pushed us in another direction and made us look at our songs different. Although it was on its way for quite some time, for about four or five months we had to regroup on things we weren’t happy with. So it ended up taking a lot of time and costing a lot of money because we were fussy — as we still are — and slightly confused. But the more we went on, the less confused we got. The problem with taking so long was that when we looked back at tracks we’d done months before, we’d think, “Ooh, I don’t like that.”
Orzabal and Smith were determined to use then-new technologies to reinvent the songs that Orzabal had written on guitar. “I suppose the strange thing,” Orzabal said at the time, “is that basically I’m a guitarist and Curt is a bass player, yet we’re leading what is essentially a synthesizer band…. I find that when I write on the guitar I’m more likely to be derivative…. But with a synthesizer you can get a sound you’ve never heard before and therefore you’ve got more chance of coming up with something original. I suppose in a sense our music is very much dictated by the equipment we’re using.”
As Hughes said in an email, “Synthesizers were the main focus [with The Hurting] and on the cutting edge [for the time].”
Despite the band’s reliance on new technology as instruments, recording The Hurting was an analog affair. “The Hurting was essentially a 24-track analogue recording,” Hughes explained to me. “The tech to sync a second machine was available to us, and I’m sure we took advantage of in excess of 40 tracks from time to time.”
Fittingly, The Hurting opened with the title track, which set the tone, both sonically and lyrically, for the album that followed. Written by Orzabal as an estimation of what he thought the Thompson Twins might sound like based on Smith’s description, “The Hurting” became the obvious lyrical lynchpin for the album. “[The lyrics were] typical feeling sorry for oneself and typical identification with the victim that runs throughout that album!” Orzabal joked in the liner notes for the 1999 remaster of the album.
Smith agreed. “‘The Hurting’ is really the thing that personified the whole record,” he argued. “If we’re talking about the writings of Arthur Janov, that’s the one that basically sums it up.”
Sonically, “The Hurting” opened with a blast of delayed and gated drums. These unmistakably ‘80s drum sounds are augmented by Orzabal’s chiming guitar, a series of synth flourishes, and a processed scream buried in the chorus, which (like the opening drum sound) recalls “Intruder,” the opening track from Peter Gabriel’s third album that so influenced Orzabal and Smith. “The Hurting” takes a left turn on the drumless bridge, which — with its acoustic guitar strums and octave-effected electric guitar figure — recalls XTC at its most gentle. The song then finishes with hypnotic, repetitive outro (“Is it an horrific dream? / The hurt, hurt, hurt”) and slow fadeout.
“The resonant drum parts were processed using a Lexicon 224 digital reverb unit…,” Hughes wrote to me. “By the time we had finished [‘The Hurting’], it did feel like a strong opening manifesto statement.”
“Mad World” followed “The Hurting,” and “Mad World,” in turn, was followed by a new Hughes-Cullum version of “Pale Shelter,” which despite remaining one of the album’s more dated-sounding songs, is altogether tighter and more sonically compelling than the gimmicky Howlitt version. “[It was] another reconstruction, which I enjoyed doing,” Hughes told me, “trying to improve on the performances and recording qualities.”
The next track on The Hurting, “Ideas as Opiates,” was Marx-via-Janov. Whereas Marx argued that religion prevented workers from reaching class consciousness, Janov broadened the idea and turned it inward, arguing that ideology, in general, could prevent people from recognizing submerged pain that needed to be addressed. “[The song’s title is] the chapter [title] from Janov,” Orzabal explained in 1999, “and it’s really a reference to people’s mindsets, the way that the ego can suppress so much nasty information about oneself — the gentle way that the mind can fool oneself into thinking everything is great.”
Sonically, it’s my favorite track on the album (and one of Hughes’s, too). “[‘Ideas as Opiates’] is a brilliant piece of writing made into a brilliant record by a brilliant vocal,” Hughes told me. “The rest is minimal discipline and some fine sax playing.”
“Ideas as Opiates” features perhaps the sparsest production on The Hurting. The core of the track is a repetitive synthetic drum line and a ringing two-chord piano progression that recalls John Lennon’s “Mother,” off of that that other Janov album, Plastic Ono Band. This foundation is occasionally augmented with jagged electric guitar before veering off in an unexpected direction with a piercing saxophone solo from Mel Collins, best known as a member of King Crimson in the early-‘70s and a contributor to The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls later in the decade.
Collins serves as a musical bridge from “Ideas as Opiates” to the next track, “Memories Fade.” Like “Ideas as Opiates,” “Memories Fade” begins sparsely, with little more than a wobbly synth and Orzabal’s unusually gentle vocal. Lyrically, the song deals with repressed memories. As Orzabal explained in 1999, “The whole notion of repression in psychology is that although things are shoved to the back of one’s mind, they still exert a force on your behavior, creating phobias, depression, insecurities….”
Around the 1:00 mark, “Memories Fade” exploits quiet-loud dynamics, exploding with shimmering guitar chords from Orzabal, a fantastic bassline from Smith, and impellent drums, supplied by a Simmons electronic kit, according to Hughes. Collins’s sax enters at the 2:00 mark, leading to an almost synthpop-meets-Steely Dan instrumental bridge, and then reenters in the song’s ominous closing, before dropping out as everything fades but the initial synth.
Taken as a whole, “Memories Fade” is one of the most innovative productions on The Hurting, and it came early in the Hughes-Cullum-Orzabal-Smith collaboration. “[‘Memories Fade’] was the second track I worked on,” Hughes told me. “It was started at Britannia Row Studios. I enjoyed toying with reverb levels during the mix down at Air 3. Another all-time favorite [track] of mine.”
“Memories Fade” is followed by “Suffer the Children,” whose title recalls a Biblical verse (Matthew 19:14), but was once again rooted in Janov. “[W]e really thought that children were born innocent and good and holy…,” Orzabal explained later. “When you’ve got kids of your own you realize how bloody difficult it is. But [‘Suffer the Children’ is] that kind of thing — saying look at what you’re doing with your child.”
This Hughes-Cullum version of “Suffer the Children” kept the foreboding vibe of the Lord-produced single, but excised Smith’s hokey intro and pushed the instrumental parts higher in the mix, resulting in a more dynamic, hard-hitting recording.
The Hurting’s seventh track, “Watch Me Bleed” is one of its slightest lyrically. Orzabal embarrassedly described the track as “feeling sorry for myself” in the liner notes to the album’s 1999 reissue. But the combination of Orzabal’s urgent acoustic strums, Smith’s chugging bassline, and Elias’s baleful drums turn one of the album’s weakest songs into a weird combination of The Cure and The Pixies.
Buried as the eighth track on the album, “Change” became Tears for Fears’ second top-five hit in the U.K. singles charts. Not unreasonably, Orzabal has dismissed the tune as “one of cheap pop lyrics.” But with its insistent marimba line, “Change” is also one of the most immediately catchy tunes, a quality that helped make the song the band’s first to crack the Billboard Hot 100. Nonetheless, Orzabal was unhappy enough with the version that made it onto the album that he pushed Smith, Hughes, and Cullum to cut another version. “When we did our first version, I felt it was too fast and not electronic enough in a sense,” he told Pop Matters in 2013. “So I managed to coax and moan and we rerecorded a version. But the record company was clear that they...like[d] the first version a lot better. The second version got buried until [the 2013 edition of the album].” The slower, more “electronic” version is, indeed, a better listen than the album version, but it’s hard to imagine that it would’ve become a hit.
The second-to-last song on the album, “The Prisoner,” is Tears for Fears at its most bizarre and atonal. Almost industrial in tone, it’s arguably the closest TFF ever got to Throbbing Gristle or Suicide territory. However, like much of The Hurting, Orzabal and Smith credit Gabriel’s influence for “The Prisoner.” “I liked Gabriel III — all the scratchy noises of ‘Intruder’ and stuff like that,” Orzabal explained in the liner notes to the ’99 reissue, “and that was our adolescent attempt at it.” Smith agreed, though gave their attempt higher marks. “Peter’s third album was probably the biggest influence on the recording, if you’re going to name one. It’s quite obvious in ‘The Prisoner’. I actually love that song. It brings that depth to the album. I think that without ‘Ideas As Opiates’ and ‘The Prisoner’ [The Hurting] doesn’t have the same depth…,” Smith told The Quietus. “We were not a one-dimensional band. Songs like ‘Ideas As Opiates’ and ‘The Prisoner’ were definitely the side that, in a weird way, during the recording became more important to get across.” Shortly after The Hurting’s release, Orzabal also cited those songs’ as ones that he felt best represented his more mature, economical lyrical style. “I’ve got to the point where I can say more things with fewer words,” he explained. “Like ‘Ideas as Opiates’ and ‘The Prisoner’ are much gutsier and much more from the spine as well as the heart than some of the others.”
The Hurting closes with “Start of the Breakdown.” Though it’s buried at the end of side two, “Breakdown” is one of the album’s standout tracks. Built on a foundation of what Pop Matters’ John Bergstrom aptly called “near-tribal drumming and trancelike keyboard figures,” “Breakdown” wears its Talking Heads/Byrne/Eno influences on its sleeve while still retaining Orzabal’s unmistakable musical and lyrical imprint. Indeed, “Breakdown” was one of Orzabal’s most personal songs on the album. “It was a reference to my father, who had a nervous breakdown,” Orzabal explained later. “‘Dry skin flakes when there’s ice in the veins….’ He had arterial sclerosis, and breakdown is the nervous breakdown.”
Released the first week of March in 1983, The Hurting peaked at number 73 in the U.S., but shot to number one in the U.K. just a week after its release. It would go on to stay in the U.K. album charts for 58 weeks and sell more than a million albums worldwide.
Critically, however, the album proved to be polarizing. Sounds, Smash Hits, and Rolling Stone all praised the album. “Britain’s Tears for Fears,” David Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone, “stand out among the current crop of identikit synthpop groups by virtue of their resourceful, stylish songwriting and fetching rhythmic sway…. Beguiling hooks and panoramic guitar effects suck the listener into dizzy whirlpools of cleverly synthesized orchestration…. It is testimony to their refined pop instincts that they manage to produce this much pleasure from the pain.”
Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland was more circumspect with his praise while still giving the album high marks. “Tears for Fears’ pop primal therapy tends to luxuriate in the attention it attracts…[and is] ludicrously labored,” Sutherland wrote. “But, crucially, their lyrical lethargy is salvaged by what really sells them; their structural invention... sensibly, their suffering’s usually controlled to sound smooth…. The success of The Hurting lies in its lack of friction, in its safety and, for all their claims that coping with relationships has been warped beyond their ken, Tears for Fears have contrived an assured masterpiece of seduction.”
New Musical Express’s Gavin Martin, on the other hand, spoke for the critics who found Tears for Fears’ introverted, Primal Therapy-referencing lyrics tiresome. “[The Hurting is] bound to be very popular with a lot of people out there…but so was the Reverend Jim Jones when he took 5000 followers to Guyana to commit mass suicide,” Martin wrote. “Tears For Fears are the perfect group for all those tucked up, 'what are we going to do with our lives' student types who spend every moment wrapped up in their tiny problems and pathetic existence…. It’s escapism of the worst kind; and more a symptom of the happy death, no hope feeling that's starting to grow in Mrs. Thatcher’s madhouse than most people imagine.”
Responding to the drubbing that Tears for Fears took from some critics over the band’s overt references to Primal Therapy, Creem’s Dave DiMartino observed, “What could be is that TFF, by actually writing and singing songs about subjects more relevant than purple rain and material girls, have left themselves open to a wide array of criticism by cynic, dope and moron alike.”
Though they had their defenders, reviews like Martin’s made them wonder whether the album’s close association with Primal Therapy did more harm than good.
“It concerned me,” Smith explained to DiMartino:
Because I thought, “Look, people are getting the wrong image of what we’re like.” Because what they were writing wasn't me, you know? At times it got comical. I'd read the NME review of The Hurting, and they compared us to the Reverend Jim Jones, the guy who led all his followers to kill themselves, and Margaret Thatcher, and all these people who I thought were...you know. And I cut it out and used to show it to friends, you know? Because people know me…and this guy's never met me. Basically, that guy took out the lyric sheet and didn’t listen to the album, I don't think. He reviewed the lyric sheet, and he got all that wrong, as well. And yeah, it disturbed me.
While Orzabal agreed that The Hurting’s association with Janov negatively impacted Tears for Fears’ image, he initially stood by the group’s decision. Over time, however, he began to reconsider that stance. “We believed we were victims and that very much colored our approach to The Hurting, thinking that we were born neutral beings and that our tough upbringing troubled us,” he told Vice. “The way of releasing the trauma of my childhood was to do primal therapy, which I did for six years. It was really gimmicky and very Californian.” After completing Primal Therapy, Orzabal began to reconsider that view of human nature and the importance of Primal Therapy to the exclusion of forms.
What Orzabal never came to regret is The Hurting’s distillation of very real, very potent emotions. “Writing for me, when I was a young boy was extremely personal, and now it’s not,” he said in 2013. Few songs on the album captured Orzabal’s ability to channel those emotions into song than the song from The Hurting with the most longevity. “Mad World hasn't dated,” Orzabal told The Guardian, “because it's expressive of a period I call the teenage menopause, where your hormones are going crazy as you're leaving childhood. Your fingers are on the cliff and you're about to drop off, but somehow you cling on.”
It took decades for Orzabal to view those emotions from a distance. He didn’t complete Primal Therapy until after Tears for Fears recorded its second album, Songs from the Big Chair, and many of the same lyrical themes that appeared on The Hurting would recur on Big Chair.
However, by the time The Hurting was completed, Orzabal and Smith were already in a different place sonically, one that made it even clearer how little they had in common with their synthpop peers.
“I suppose our whole thrust, musically and philosophically, as Tears for Fears came out in The Hurting,” Orzabal explained to Las Vegas Weekly in 2014. “When we finished that album, it was almost like, ‘Okay, well, we’ve kind of said our bit. What are we going to do now?’ But of course we were successful, and the record company was pushing us, pushing us, pushing us to come up with another single, come up with another single.”
Smith and Orzabal responded to that pressure by hastily returning from touring to cut a new single.
Orzabal took the publishing money he made from “Mad World” and upgraded the equipment in Ian Stanley’s home studio, which would become the band’s de facto studio going forward. “After The Hurting, we got very much involved in our own home studio,” Orzabal explained in the 1985 Scenes from the Big Chair documentary. “We learnt all about reverb and EQ and all the things that come in handy when you’re in a recording studio, so much so that we sort of forgot about the song and we actually attempted making records without songs and then fitting the songs in later to a bunch of interesting sounds. That resulted in a single called ‘The Way You Are,’ which if you analyze it, has some great bits in it, but together it’s pretty hard to get ahold of.”
Orzabal and Smith took two weeks to demo and, with Hughes at the helm, a full month to record the arty, polyrhythmic “The Way You Are.” “We were recording in the same old formula,” Smith told Creem in May 1985. “[What the record company] really wanted was another single. And the fact that the single had to be good seems to be secondary…. [W]e recorded the single, and it wasn’t very good. I mean, I don't think it was very good. All this clever-clever sort of thing. It was all cross-rhythms, that sort of thing. t’s just not a good song. But the way we tried to do it was to make it a good song, by using clever techniques.”
Released in November 1983, “The Way You Are” represented both an artistic and a commercial step back for Tears for Fears. “I think it was ill-conceived,” Hughes said in the liner notes of the 2014 edition of Songs from the Big Chair. “Roland wrote it, and wanted it to become something, with a good heart. We tried to make it work….”
Following the relative failure of “The Way You Are,” Orzabal and Smith took time off to regroup and chart their new musical direction. “After ‘The Way You Are’ we were disillusioned,” Smith told Melody Maker. “Basically something didn’t ring true about the way we’d been approaching songs over the last year. We were getting bored with the idea of there being a formula for hits. It was a safe way of doing things.”
Hughes felt the same way. “It turned out that Chris was really disillusioned with what he had been doing with us as well,” Smith explained in a mid-‘80s interview. “He wanted to bring a bit more earthiness to our music and try to make us live up to our full potential. As such he’s had a lot to do with our new direction.”
Hughes encouraged Orzabal to reintroduce the guitar into his music and not bury his hooks in a mess of technology. “The tendency in Britain at the time was to make clever, introverted synthpop records, and we had done that with The Hurting,” Hughes told Mix magazine in 2007. “I thought Roland's songwriting was universal and that we could have a more American, if you will, type of record.”
By some accounts, Orzabal was reluctant to move in that direction. “I had a conversation with them about direction,” Bates remembered in 2014, “and I seem to remember talking about maybe putting more guitars on, but I didn’t know whether Roland and Curt would want to do that.”
The band began working on one of Orzabal’s new compositions, “Mothers Talk,” without Hughes, and the initial version hewed closely to the sound of The Hurting and “The Way You Are.” “‘Mothers Talk” was a transitional song, in so much that it set up and broke us past The Hurting,” Orzabal told Mike Mettler in 2015. “[The first version] was very electronic-based with no guitars, but with sampled bass and sampled drums. And the record company rejected it, quite wisely…and they got us back with Chris Hughes…. Chris rewrote the script, really — or tore up the script. He started editing it, beefing it up, and talked about putting guitars on it, and it was quite a strange experience. But once we had dipped our toe in the water, it set us on a course to have a much bigger, much more robust, and not-so-introspective sound.”
“The first version I heard was very synth-orientated,” Hughes explained in 2005, “and I suddenly thought, ‘You know, this would be great with guitars. You know, really steely, banging guitars on this would be fantastic.’ And I remember saying to Roland, ‘Come on, let’s put some guitars on this.’ And Roland in a slightly arse-y mood starts banging this guitar, and I’m saying. ‘Yeah, this is great. This is really, really great.’ And I think it kind of evolved from that. But I think he was a bit reluctant to do guitars at first.”
The band previewed this new sound with the release of the Hughes-produced “Mothers Talk” in August 1984, six months before the release of Songs from the Big Chair.
If The Hurting was marked by the influence of Peter Gabriel’s sonically sparse third album, Songs from the Big Chair anticipated Gabriel’s warmer, more elaborate sound on So. “The Hurting was quite minimal,” Hughes noted in 2014. “There’s loads of space between the atoms. You can hear into it. You can hear what’s going on. But [Songs from the Big Chair] was unbelievably layered — textures on textures.”
Hughes also introduced the Orzbal and Smith to older American music that was nonetheless new to the relatively green British pop stars. “The Hurting was big everywhere apart from America. When we came back to England, we felt like we wanted to make something bigger,” Smith explained to Majewski and Bernstein. “We’d grown up a lot and weren’t just concentrating on primal theory. The last thing we wanted to do was The Hurting, Part 2. We started listening to different stuff, thanks to our producer, Chris Hughes. We were introduced to people like Steely Dan and Lynyrd Skynyrd. We listened to a lot more Frank Zappa. But it wasn’t a conscious decision to sound American. The only conscious part was that we never wanted to make the same album twice.”
“One can argue that the economy, and homogeny, of a band like The Human League is what made them so attractive and appealing,” Orzabal told Prog. “Whereas dormant within us were the seeds of something much more musicianly, whether you like it or not.”
The “not-so-introspective sound” of Big Chair was matched by its lyrical themes, which Orzbal characterized as more “outward-looking.” “I think lyrics are a big component as to why the albums sound quite different,” he said in the liner notes to the 30th anniversary edition of Big Chair. “The Hurting is very much me, me, me, me, me, me, me. ‘I’m having such a horrible time growing up, I hate my family, my parents,’ and all that stuff. It’s all ‘me.’ Whereas you get to Songs from the Big Chair, and it’s more about ‘let’s do this all together.’”
With Hughes, Stanley, and new Engineer David Bascombe (who would go on to engineer So), Orzabal and Smith took most of 1984 to record and mix the album that would become Songs from the Big Chair. “The [second] album will take time because we want it to be good, simple as that…,” Orzabal predicted to Melody Maker in November 1983. “t's bloody hours and days and days of work that goes into [an album], especially where we're concerned, just in trying to create new things. And caring about the product more than anything.”
While ever the perfectionists, the recording of Big Chair proved to be less fraught than The Hurting. “In comparison to The Hurting, which was like pulling teeth at times, it was far easier,” Orzabal remembered in 2014. “We just took our time over it.”
Most of Big Chair was recorded at Stanley’s newly-revamped home studio, which now included a 32-channel Soundcraft console and a 24-track analog tape machine. The band also had use of an ever-expanding keyboard collection, including Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Fairlight CMI, Roland Jupiter 8, Yamaha DX7, and PPG Wave, as well as a LinnDrum LM-2 drum machine. Additional recordings were made at Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson’s Maison Rouge studio in London, and the album was mixed at Union Studios in Munich, which had a state-of-the-art Solid State Logic desk.
“It was a really exciting time,” Bascombe told Mix magazine in 2007. “I loved all the new technology that was coming out, and Tears for Fears was pretty much at the forefront of it all. We also had some old analog mono synths — Ian had an old Roland modulator system that we used on a couple of things — but the [synths] were the mainstays. The LinnDrum did almost everything else. We just chose whatever device would deliver the sound we were after.”
While Elias and, especially, Stanley had become the de facto third and fourth members of Tears for Fears, Orzabal and Smith preferred to continue their assembly-line method of song-making, rather than recording songs live in the studio and build from that foundation. “[Orzabal] didn’t want to just have a live band in the studio cutting tracks,” Hughes said in 2014. “Manny played some fantastic drums on some of the record, and there’s a fair amount of the record where he’s not playing. He was invited to come and play when it was appropriate, really. It’s like the two guys out of Steely Dan — exactly the same. Roland and Curt would have the final say [regarding who played on each track].”
Stanley, nonetheless, played a central role on Big Chair. “What was vital about Big Chair was the relationship between Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes,” Orzabal explained later. “Ian would challenge Chris in a very subtle way. We were recording at Ian’s house anyhow, but a real friendship developed between the two of them, and that’s what was responsible for, I think, how good that album turned out.”
As Stanley stepped forward, Smith assumed a somewhat reduced role. “[H]ow the album got made was essentially Roland, myself, and Ian,” Hughes said in the liner notes to the 30th anniversary edition. “Curt — obviously I’m not detracting from [him] — was in and out and did vocal, and at crucial moments was incredibly important, but essentially the day-to-day nature and tone of the record was described by myself, Roland, and Ian.”
“I think when it got to the ‘I’m going to spend a couple of days programming’ I would conveniently find something else to do,” Smith quipped in 2014.
The track that leads off Songs from the Big Chair, “Shout,” was one of the last songs recorded for the album and immediately earmarked for the album’s opener. “When we’re pulling an album together, we don’t usually think of sequencing until we’re done,” Smith told Mettler. “But that’s not necessarily true for Songs from the Big Chair…. [T]he first track on an album, you want it to have some impact. And “Shout” seemed like an obvious [choice].”
Orzabal had developed the rhythm for “Shout” on a Linn drum machine after listening to Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind” from Remain in Light. Initially, Orzabal only had the chorus and viewed it as a throwaway idea. But the intervention of Stanley and Hughes convinced him to work on it more.
“[‘Shout’] is an extraordinary story,” Hughes explained in a 2005 interview:
Because Ian and Roland had been hanging out over the weekend, and Roland had played Ian a very, very simple drum beat and a little Prophet 5 bass synth, and he’d sung a very, very early version of the chorus of “Shout” to Ian. Monday morning I turned up, and Ian said, “You have to — you have to — get Roland to play you this song. It’s called ‘Shout,’ and it’s astounding.”... I said [to Orzabal], “Let’s hear it.”… Roland [was] a little reticent and little bit reluctant to even play it. But Ian insisted...and I remember [Orzabal] set up the little box, and it was this clacking little noise with [imitates the “Shout” intro], these little milk bottle noises.... Then he hit the bass synth and just started singing ‘”hout, Shout, let it all out.” I said, “We’re doing it. We have to start everything and record it now.” It was at that point [that I] thought “Yeah, this album is special.”
Typically for Tears for Fears, the track took months to complete. “[‘Shout’] took a long time to get right,” Hughes said. “Technologically, it was based around a Linn drum, a Drumulator, and a Fairlight and real guitars and synths. At that point, it was one of those tech tracks and to massage it into place took a long time.”
The album version of “Shout” clocks it at over six minutes and 30 seconds. Despite its relatively linear structure, the track evolves as it progresses. “As a piece of music it was brilliant,” Bascombe explained in the liner notes to the 30th anniversary edition of Big Chair, “and because you’ve got six minutes you can do so much, and the idea was you would steadily build, otherwise its six minutes of dullness. But if you’ve got six minutes of building and there are things happening and developing all the time…there’s a certain passion.”
In order to help the track build, Hughes played live drums to mix in with the synthetic foundation. He also coaxed Orzabal into adding a climactic guitar solo. “I mean, you have to put guitars on it, because the drums are so big,” Orzabal joked to Mettler. “I remember playing around with the guitar solo. It was a little of, ‘You can’t be serious, Roland. You’re really going to play that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ It’s not something that I would have done during The Hurting at all — it would have been against our religion!”
Lyrically, “Shout” seems like an obvious bridge between The Hurting and Big Chair. However, the most obviously Primal song in TFF’s repertoire actually has nothing to do with Janov. “Quite simply it’s about protest,” Orzabal said in the Scenes documentary. “It’s about making a noise about things politically or socially that disturb you.... When I wrote it I found it quite therapeutic to sing ‘these are the things I can do without’ and I think that’s been part of its appeal to a lot of people.”
“My idea was that it was very similar to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Give Peace a Chance,’” Orzabal told Mettler. “I imagined a lot of people singing the chorus, and it going around and around and around, and it was only when I took it in to the studio and played it to Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes that they said, ‘That’s absolutely commercial, but we need a verse.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ [chuckles].”
In order to get it to a length that would fly on American radio, the label had to convince the band to fade the U.S. single version nearly two minutes early. “Because the record took a long time...the record company would come down and have a listen and make suggestions...about certain things taking too long, certain things being too long…,” Hughes recounted. “I can remember all the band discussing with Dave Bates…about the length of ‘Shout.’ We had our little stand, really. We wanted it to be eight, nine minutes and have radio have to play it, because it was that great. And of course it got faded.”
Whether because of or despite the label’s decision to cut the track’s length, “Shout” gave Tears for Fears its first number one single in the U.S. It also garnered respect from British rock luminaries. “When we started getting feedback [about Big Chair] from people we respected, our peers, we knew [it was a good album],” Smith told Mettler. “I remember meeting Elton John for the first time in Europe, and he came straight up to me and said, ‘The first time I heard “Shout,” I was blown away.’ It’s those kind of things where the people you respect and admire appreciate what you do that let you know it’s good.”
Perhaps fittingly, given its piecemeal tech-centric construction, “Shout” would become Tears’ most remixed track. The band itself releasing several 12-inch extended remixes, and its insistent rhythm made it a favorite of DJs. “One of the things I remember,” Hughes said in 2005, “was being in New York when ‘Shout’ was a hit, because there was a short period where ‘Shout’ was picked up in a kind of hip-hop sense. And I remember being in Central Park on a sunny day and people with ghetto blasters — with blasters — playing distorted versions and club remixes of it. ‘Shout’ had this kind of urban thing, and it was, for me, so far removed from how it was conceived and recorded — some tiny little place in Bath — and there’s these guys really blasting it in Central Park.”
The second track on Big Chair is “The Working Hour,” which both Orzabal and Smith have identified as their favorite track on the album.
Drummer Manny Elias gets a rare co-writer credit on “The Working Hour,” thanks to coming up with the rhythm that inspired Orzabal. “‘The Working Hour’ came about when we were rehearsing for our second our third tour at a school called king Edward’s school in Bath,” Elias explained in Scenes. “I was just messing about on the drums and came up with the basic pattern that goes on during the verse of the song, which Roland latched onto and he started playing some chords to that. Ian had another set of chords, which were a totally different song. We just put the two together, and it seemed to work.”
While Elias crafted the drum pattern, “The Working Hour” features both Elias and ace session drummer Jerry Marotta on the track.
Likewise, the song’s distinctive saxophone parts, which open the track and weave through “The Working Hour,” were played by both Mel Collins and Will Gregory. “The main saxophone riff is extremely important and powerful,” Orzabal told Mettler. “It’s got that sort of ‘crying’ quality to it.” But the track’s chaotic sax solo was provided by Gregory alone. “I absolutely adore that solo,” Hughes said in 2005. “We had Mel Collins come down and he was inked in to do the solo — and he does do some playing on the track. We did various solos and various takes, but the work that Will Gregory did was the solo that was kept, and I absolutely adore it.”
The lyrics for “The Working Hour” reflect its birth on the road. As Orzabal explained in the liner notes to the 30th anniversary edition of Big Chair, “It’s one of those songs that basically complains about how hard we were working [laughs]. There were times when you felt like you were working for the record company, whereas before we had a deal, in the early stages, you’re not working for anyone but yourself.”
Given the song’s theme and the effort that went into recording Big Chair, it nearly became the album’s title. But Orzabal objected, and the band eventually chose to name it Songs from the Big Chair, a reference to the 1976 TV movie Sybil starring Sally Field. “The idea for the title came from a film called Sybil which is about a girl with 14 different personalities,” Smith explained in Scenes, “and her analyst had this very large chair that when she regresses back to certain personalities in her past. She always wants to sit in this big chair because it’s a place where she feels comfortable, not scared of anyone and not frightened about what the outside world thinks of her. And it conjured up just a really nice image for us.”
The third track on the album, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” would give the band its second Billboard Hot 100 number one. Like “Shout,” it also was a late addition to the track list. “When I was given a month off [of recording] to finish writing Big Chair,” Orzabal explained in the 30th anniversary edition’s liner notes, “what I used to do was nick people’s rhythms, mainly Talking Heads, which [inspired] the original rhythm for ‘Shout’…. [For ‘Everybody’] what I had in my Linn drum machine was a rhythm that was like a cross between a song by Lynx called ‘Throw Away the Key’ and Simple Minds’ ‘The Waterfront’ [sic]. So I programmed the drum machine and tuned my guitar down to a low key and came up with this verse and chorus.”
Also like “Shout,” Orzabal needed to be coaxed into finishing and recording “Everybody.” “We were at Ian Stanley’s house for most of the summer [of ‘84],” Hughes said in a 2005 interview, “and Roland on an acoustic guitar one afternoon was just strumming [imitates ‘Everybody’ chords]. I heard it once and said, ‘What’s that?’ ‘Oh, nothing.’ Classic Roland! ‘Oh, nothing. Just a couple of chords.’ And it was in the shuffle beat [imitates chords]. I said, ‘What are the chords, what are the notes?’”
Hughes programmed the chords into an 8-bit MIDI sequencer and periodically played it in the studio trying to convince Orzabal to finish the track. Both Smith and Orzabal’s wife agreed with Hughes that the rudimentary track had promise. Eventually Orzabal relented and devised a chorus: “Everybody wants to go to war.”
Unlike “Shout,” it was a quick path from that chorus to the finished track. “I think a few days later, Roland, myself, and Ian sort of sat down [to finish writing the song],” Hughes said. “And the thing for me about that track is that [unlike] ‘Shout,’ which had a very, very difficult birth, took forever to get right — took months to make sense — ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ was written and recorded in about a week, which at that time for us was ridiculously quick.”
Mix’s Heather Johnson broke down the construction of the track in a 2007 feature:
Hughes programmed most of the drums on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” They borrowed the snare drum sound from “Shout” and pitched it up. The hi-hat and shakers came from the LinnDrum. The kick drum sound came from the Fairlight CMI. Smith laid down a new bass line with the PPG Wave, and Orzabal and local session musician Neil Taylor laid down the electric and acoustic guitar parts. The synth pattern came from the DX7. Bascombe recorded Smith and Orzabal's vocals with a then-new Neumann TLM 170 microphone at Union Studios in Munich, where they also mixed.
“It’s probably the most straightforward recording on the record,” Hughes told Johnson. “Other tracks were recorded to two 24-tracks, then we would do edits on tape, and any piece of technology that could have gone wrong or held us up probably did. But ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ was so simple and went down so quickly, it was effortless, really. In fact, as a piece of recording history, it's bland as hell.”
“It’s was probably the easiest song we ever had to record,” Orzabal reflected in the liner notes to Big Chair’s 30th anniversary edition. “When we came to mixing [‘Everybody’], it was almost impossible to do anything to it. You just pushed the faders up and all the parts worked. It was very different from ‘Shout.’”
While the chorus was changed from “Everybody wants to go to war” to “Everybody wants to rule the world,” the song’s political focus remained. In the broadest sense, “Everybody” provided a subtle condemnation of Reagan- and Thatcher-era avarice underneath its danceable sheen. However, “Everybody” also cast a remarkably wide net without coming across as preachy or convoluted. As Pitchfork’s Tal Rosenberg observed, “you could project virtually every major issue of the 1980s onto the lyrics: the environment (‘Turn your back on mother nature’), the fleeting nature of financial success (‘Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure/Nothing ever lasts forever’), authoritarian rule (‘Even while we sleep/We will find you’), and the Cold War (‘Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down’).”
Mixed in with these broad socio-political comments was a throwaway line that referenced the band’s struggles with their record label over the length of the “Shout” single. “The lyrics were written the day before,” Orzbal told Majewski and Bernstein. “We were in Germany mixing the record, and I had to stay in the hotel room and quickly come up with the lyrics for Curt to sing the next day. The only line of any significance is ‘So glad they had to fade it.; That was a reference to a conversation with Dave Bates in his A&R office…about the “Shout” edit for radio….”
Released as a single in March 1985, “Everybody” became a top-10 hit across the world. After debuting at number 70 in the U.S., it rose steadily until finally replacing Wham!’s “Everything She Wants” atop the Billboard charts in early June. “It was a thrill knowing it was going up the American charts,” Hughes recalled in 2005. “I remember actually arriving — this is classic stuff! — arriving in New York and getting a car into town and it [‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’] being on the radio.”
“Mothers Talk” is the fourth track on Big Chair. “‘Mothers Talk’ is basically two ideas,” Orzabal explained in the Scenes documentary:
The first comes from an old wives’ tale which mothers say to their children when their children pull a face. They say, “You’ll stay like that when the wind changes.” And so that’s where I got the idea for the lyric “My features form with the change in the weather.” Around about the time I was finishing the lyric, the American nuclear misses were being brought into England and a lot of people were quite scared about it. I certainly was. Therefore it took on a nuclear flavor.... There’s a cartoon book by a guy called Raymond Briggs, which is called When the Wind Blows...about a potential Third World War, and that’s where I got the line “When the wind blows.”
While “Mothers Talk” was released as the first single from Big Chair, Orzabal and Smith were never fully happy with it. “It was the first single because it was the only song that was done,” Orzbal lamented in the liner notes of the Big Chair 30th anniversary edition. “ ‘Head Over Heels’ wasn’t done, and ‘The Working Hour’ wasn’t really a single. I never really liked ‘Mothers Talk,’ and I certainly don’t like it in retrospect.”
“I think our feelings towards it have been tainted a little because the record company did release it as a single,” Smith elaborated. “We knew we had better singles on the album, but they wanted to release it before we’d done the rest. Thankfully, that only happened in England.”
As a result of the band’s dissatisfaction with the track, it underwent a significant evolution after its release as a U.K. single in August 1984. While both the U.K. single and album version of “Mothers Talk” open with a Fairlight-provided string sample from a Barry Manilow record, Big Chair features a longer, somewhat mellower mix of the recording that served as the basis for the U.K. single, while the U.S. single (which didn’t appear until August 1986) features a completely different recording. While I prefer the original U.K. single, with its punishing drums and slashing guitars, both Orzabal and Smith favor the slower, more guitar-centric, soul-inflected U.S. single version, which anticipated the band’s direction on their third album, Seeds of Love. (All three versions appear on the 30th anniversary edition of Big Chair.)
“The rerecording made it less bitty and angular, and it had more motor behind it, which made it better, I think,” Smith observed. “The problem with that song is that we ended up doing it three times, and what we’ve learnt since is that if it doesn’t work the first time, just leave it. Because there is something inherently problematic within the song structure if it takes you that many goes to get something you’re okay with.”
The first track on side two of Big Chair is “I Believe,” a slinky piano ballad featuring another evocative Gregory sax solo. The track is dedicated to Canterbury scene great Robert Wyatt, whose music Hughes introduced Orzabal to.
“‘I Believe’ is one of my favorites,” Hughes said in 2005. “I was a huge Robert Wyatt fan, Soft Machine days and his solo albums... and I basically played Roland Rock Bottom, which he got instantly. He got the fragility of it and the artistry of it.... And there’s a certain style and a certain twang in Roland’s vocal which is a tribute, or homage as we say these days, to Robert Wyatt. It’s a beautiful song, beautifully sung, beautifully played.”
“I Believe” also features one of Orzabal’s most alluring, Donald Fagen-esque turns of phrase: “I believe that maybe somewhere in the darkness / In the night time, in the storm, in the casino / Casino Spanish eyes.” Orzabal planned to cut the elliptical “Casino Spanish eyes” line, but Hughes encouraged him to keep it in. “It’s a poetic romantic notion,” Hughes observed. “I don’t know specifically what it means, but the text in that song is wonderful.”
“One of my favorite songs on the album,” Orzbal said in a 1985 promotional interview. “Very simple, a nice sort of jazz swing to it. Now, I don’t wanna harp on about the lyrics or anything like that, but I think that they are the most potent and powerful lyrics we've ever put onto vinyl."
Big Chair’s next cut, “Broken,” is the closest the album comes to a throwaway track. The swirling, rocking cut features what can only be described as top-notch shredding on the guitar from Orzabal. But the track’s main purpose is to serve as a bridge to the album’s centerpiece, “Head Over Heels.”
“It was that 1983 tour — we did the whole ‘Broken’/‘Head Over Heels’ segue, so it kinda had to go on the album,” Orzabal explained. “Even though it had been a very basic B-side, which I think was done in a day.”
The final 30 seconds of “Broken” sets up the opening to Big Chair’s next track, “Head Over Heels,” which the band viewed as the album’s potential hit prior to the writing of “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
“It came out of ‘Broken,’” Smith explaned in the 30th anniversary edition liner notes. “The riff in that became a big motif [in ‘Head Over Heels’], and I think we turned what was a strangely avant-garde B-side into a pop song. I always thought that it was a possible single because the chorus is great, the bassline is great, and it has a good feel to it.”
“‘Head Over Heels’ was the track that when the guys started making the album they thought…was enough [to make the album great]...,” Hughes said in 2005. “We went to London...to Madison Rouge [studio] along Fulham Road to record the backing track for that.... Curt’s bass playing and Manny’s drumming were really, really good. Then we brought it all back to Ian’s house in Bath and did all the overdubs.”
With its deceptively simple love-song lyrics, “Hey Jude”-esque outro (“La la-la la la, la la-la la la / La la la-la la-la”), and kitschy music video, “Head Over Heels” gave Tears for Fears its third big hit from Big Chair, peaking at number 12 in the U.K. and number three in the U.S.
“Head Over Heels” segues back into a brief live reprise of “Broken” (which was excised from the single version of “Heels”), then gives way to Big Chair’s final track, the simultaneously disorienting and mellifluous “Listen.”
Just as “Shout” was always pegged as the album opener, the proggy “Listen” was tagged early on as the closing track. “Chris Hughes was good at sequencing,” Orzabal told Mettler. “It was pretty obvious we were going to start with ‘Shout’ and end with ‘Listen.’”
The foundation of “Listen” was written by Stanley, with Orzabal and Hughes chipping in to turn it into a complete song.
“Ian played me this demo of ‘Listen,’” Orzbal said in 2014. “It was around for a long time, and I just thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ Ian recorded it on a [Roland] 100M system in which you couldn’t recall all the settings. You had to write down what you did. It was a huge modular system. He’d not really made any notes, so we then had to try and recreate every sound with synths and it took a while! [laughs] But it was great fun to work on, especially as it was very different from the other songs.”
What’s striking about “Listen” is the diverse set of artists it recalls. To this writer, it evokes both Kate Bush and late-period Pink Floyd instrumentally. Orzabal’s ethereal, pitch-adjusted backing vocals underscore the Bush comparison, while Smith’s sparse four-line vocal (“Mother Russia badly burned / Your children lick your wounds / Pilgrim father sailed away / Found a brave new world”) recalls Night and Day-era Joe Jackson.
“I suppose the obvious [progressive rock] track [in Tears for Fears’ repertoire] is ‘Listen,’” Orzabal told Prog magazine. “You hear it and you think of the two words that one always associates with long, trippy music: Pink Floyd… Hey, you know, we grew up with Genesis and Yes and that kind of stuff.”
“The ‘epic’ side took over on things like ‘Listen,’” he elaborated to Mettler, “where you’re really in Pink Floyd territory. I mean, how did we get from being a duo mucking around with synths [on The Hurting] to that kind of epic sound — all that sort of ‘dripping’ Fairlight and the crazy vocals? It was strange, really strange!”
“Listen is the most extraordinary piece of work to me,” Hughes said in 2005:
There’s two bits to “Listen,” really. There’s Ian Stanley’s “Listen,” which is essentially the skeleton of the track, the actual motif, set of keyboard motifs. It’s an incredible bit of writing…. Roland and myself and Ian worked from Ian’s demo...spent a lot of time cutting it up and inserting a little verse, which Curt sings beautifully, and then the track kind of evolves into something which is slightly more Roland. Roland’s high-pitched, verispeed singing. Roland’s slightly Carlos Santana guitaring. And the track just evolved into this sort of finale. The second half of that track is very final. I can’t imagine having another track after it. It just seemed totally obviously the last track on the record.”
Tears for Fears’ perfectionist tendencies transferred to the mixing sessions for Big Chair, which dragged on until Christmas of 1984. Mixing “Shout” alone took four days. “It was a very careful, considered process,” Bascombe told Mix.
“We did do remixes...,” Hughes said in 2005. “The tracks don’t all sound the same. We’d mix one, then remix, [and] perhaps go back and remix [another song] to make it sound a little bit more like the rest of the record. There was definitely some massaging and some honing....”
While the band, Bascombe, Hughes, and Bates thought they had a solid record on their hands, they weren’t prepared for the acclaim that would meet Big Chair upon its release on February 25, 1985. “When we get so close to something we can’t be that objective,” Smith said in the liner notes of the 30th anniversary edition. “It was more the reactions of our friends and people we knew. The reaction I got from anybody I played ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ to was ridiculous.”
Songs from the Big Chair rocketed to number two in the U.K. charts the week after its release. (It was kept from the top spot by Phil Collins’s ubiquitous No Jacket Required.) In the U.S., Big Chair surpassed its U.K. mark. While it didn’t debut on the Billboard 200 until April, Big Chair climbed steadily before peaking at number one in mid-July, where it stayed for five weeks.
As with The Hurting, however, critics were polarized about Big Chair.
Sounds’ Johnny Waller gave the album an ecstatic review, proclaiming Big Chair the “sort of record to wallow in with the lights out” before concluding that “Tears for Fears are stretching and growing, both in their imagination and their horizons.”
Likewise, Melody Maker’s Barry McIlheney gushed “none of you should really be too surprised that Tears for Fears have made such an excellent album…that fully justifies the rather sneering, told-you-so looks adopted by Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal on the sleeve.”
By his curmudgeonly standards, The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau also gave Big Chair a positive review. “Never one to pay much mind to the plaints of English lads with synthesizers, I got duly annoyed at the surface and let it go at that,” he wrote:
Imagine my surprise when I discerned substance underneath — uncommon command of guitar and piano, Baker Street sax, synthesizers more jagged than is deemed mete by the arbiters of dance-pop accessibility. Even found a lyric that went “We are paid by those who live by our mistakes,” not bad at all. Yet in the end the surface is still annoying — not so much pretentious as portentous, promising a depth and drama English lads have been falling short on since the dawn of progressive rock.
Christgau pronounced Big Chair a “B” album. (For context, the following week, Christgau would give R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction a “B+” and The Smith’s Meat is Murder a “C+.”)
Rolling Stone’s Don Shewey, in contrast, slammed the album. In the process, he oddly accused Tears for Fears of aping U2, XTC, Echo and the Bunnymen, Yes, and Spandau Ballet — a collection of artists that have little in common besides being British and releasing albums in the 1980s. “Apparently, these elements have not been borrowed consciously,” Shewy wrote, “but absorbed naturally – which is worse: they can't help it if you've heard it all before.” Practically the only thing Shewey liked about Big Chair was the production quality.
Unsurprisingly, NME delivered another critical Tears for Fears review. The magazine’s Dan Kelly provided a backhanded compliment by calling Big Chair “a calculated and brilliant peak” before declaring that it represented “a quintessence of their polished pop putty.” “Gone forever,” Kelly continued, “is the limpid frailty that characterized their drippy, doe-eyed debut to be replaced by a cocky assurance.”
Along the way, however, Kelly leveled other criticisms that (to my mind, at least) could just as easily be taken as high compliments. He lamented the band’s recording process as “endless layering of all their constituent parts — everything from polite electro to battery operated Who powerchords to tiny echoes of Robert Wyatt — into a widescreen operatic pop.” He then went on to compare Big Chair to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and (oddly) 10cc’s The Original Soundtrack. “Children of the multitrack mother and product of obsessional care and attention to (often unnecessary) detail,” Kelly declared, “they were lauded in their time as exemplary zeniths of modern music. Now they’re vilified and abandoned, like prefab tower blocks.”
While Kelly’s verdict may have been proven true for The Original Soundtrack, quite a few music snobs and audiophiles are still spinning Dark Side and Big Chair, and it’s hard to believe that Orzabal and Smith would be upset to have their album compared to Pink Floyd’s masterpiece — or that Hughes and Bascombe would object to having their production compared to Alan Parson’s legendary Dark Side engineering.
Whatever the contemporary critical reaction to the album, it was a hit with listeners. Consumers snapped up more than five million copies of Big Chair in the U.S. alone. Moreover, Big Chair has stood the test of time, receiving recent retrospective plaudits from even the most snobbish outlets.
Looking back from today’s vantage point, those responsible for making Big Chair also see it as a special record.
Bates: “I think it’s their best work. It’s their best album. The Hurting had some good moments on it, but sonically, I listen back, and I think, I wish we’d done this or that.’ But Songs from the Big Chair, for me, I think it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of my life.”
Orzabal: “I can’t judge it. I don’t listen to it, obviously. I just think it’s iconic. I think the album cover…and the title…. Again, really iconic. Whenever I see that album cover I just think there is something right about it.”
Smith: “As an album it’s hard to say [if it’s the best thing we did]. The Hurting is very dear to my heart because it’s the first album, and we were very precious about it…but I guess if I had to take one to a desert island, it would be Songs from the Big Chair.”
Hughes: “There comes a point when you make an album where one day you turn up and you listen back to a few tracks you’re working on and you think ‘This is special.’ And that definitely happened with that album.”
No matter whether one prefers the “iconic” pop sheen of Big Chair or its sparser, moodier predecessor, it’s worth tracking down the best versions of both albums.
While The Hurting has been issued on CD and other digital formats numerous times, there appears (yes, this is foreshadowing) to exist only three distinct digital masterings of the album: 1) the original CD mastering, first released in 1983 and credited only as “digitally mastered,” 2) the 1999 CD, which was remastered by Hughes and Jon Astley at Astley’s Close to the Edge Mastering and includes four bonus tracks, and 3) the 2013 30th anniversary edition, which was remastered at Abbey Road by Peter Mew and issued with bonus tracks in 2CD and 3CD+1DVD boxes. This mastering is thought to appear on the standalone hi-res Blu-ray released in 2014.
First, let’s take a look at the dynamic ranges for the three versions, as measured by both R128 dynamic range and crest factor DR score 1:
As is often the case with 1980s CDs, the 1983 mastering scores high on both measures. Likewise, as is often the case with late-‘90s and early-‘00s “loudness war”-era CDS, the 1999 mastering generally scores the lowest on both measures. Meanwhile, the 2013 30th anniversary issue mostly falls in between the 1983 and 1999 CD, with its DR scores coming closer to the latter’s and its R128 scores for the most part coming closer to the former’s.
While the raw scores lead me to believe that the 1983 CD has good dynamics and the 1999 CD has poor dynamics, they paint a less clear picture of the 2013 CD. So it’s worth taking a look at the waveforms of all three in Audacity for a selection of tracks:
The waveforms show that both the 1999 (red) and 2013 (green) masterings are louder than the original 1983 CD (blue). While neither the ’99 nor the ‘13 is “brickwalled” in the strictest sense of the term, the ‘13 seems to be the more dynamic of the two, in keeping with the R128 numbers. The ’13 looks to have more peaks intact, while the ‘99 looks to have more chopped peaks. More notably, the volume buildup at the 40 second mark of “Mad World” is clearly visible in both the ’83 and ’13 CDs, but it’s gone in the ’99 CD, indicating greater use of compression. Normally, that would be enough to toss out the ’99 CD, but with so few versions of The Hurting, I’ll keep it in the running for now.
Turning to EQ, there’s a clear pattern when comparing Har-Bal “average power” graphs2 for “The Hurting,” “Mad World,” “Ideas as Opiates,” “Suffer the Children,” and “Start of the Breakdown” from the ’83 CD (blue) and the ’99 CD (red):
In general, the ’99 remastering tends to be more “V”-shape, with boosts in the high end and the low bass. Comparing the ’83 CD (blue) and the ’13 CD (green), less of a clear pattern is visible:
On several tracks, the ’13 CD has slightly more treble and slightly more mid-bass, but less deep bass. On others, however, the ’13 varies only slightly from the ’83 CD.
Turning to subjective analysis, one mastering is easy to dismiss, but other complexities also emerge.3
With its increase in compression relative to both the ’83 and the ’13 masterings, the ’99 mastering already had one strike against it. While it sounds like a cleaner transfer of the master tapes than the ’83 CD, the “scooped” EQ of the ’99 CD is another strike against it, at least to my ears. The final strike is what sounds to me like the telltale remnants of noise reduction on several tracks.
Several tracks on The Hurting evince tape hiss, particularly during quiet intros. I asked Hughes about tape wear during the long sessions for The Hurting and he said, “Bouncing was an everyday event in those days, tape wear did occur but was minimal and easy to compensate for. However, tape decay over time is more of a problem.”
Tape hiss is evident, for example, during the opening of “Suffer the Children” on both the ’83 and ’13 CDs. However, this hiss is absent on the ’99 CD. In its place is a high-pitched, phase-y, “watery” noise that sounds like the artifacts of early noise reduction technology. I asked both Hughes and Astley if noise reduction was used on their ’99 CD. Hughes said he didn’t recall using it. But Astley said it was used on the intros and outros of songs with hiss. To my ears, the cure of noise reduction is worse than the disease. The NR’s remnants are distracting, and it also affects the tone of synthesizer that opens “Suffer.”
Given the above, I’m comfortable crossing the ’99 CD off of the list.
But deciding between the ’83 CD and the ’13 remaster is much more difficult.
According to DR scores, the ’83 CD clearly is more dynamic than the ’13 CD. But the R128 numbers, which often correspond to subjective perception better than DR scores, indicate that this difference is relatively small, with the ’13 mastering even pulling ahead on a few tracks. That said, the ’83 CD has the overall edge on dynamics.
On transfer quality and clarity, however, the ’13 mastering comes out on top. Using Har-Bal’s loudness matching feature to eliminate the volume difference between the ’83 and ’13 CDs, then flipping back and forth between the two, the difference in detail between them is readily apparent. Nor is the extra detail in the ’13 mastering solely due to EQ choice. When I used Har-Bal’s EQ-matching feature to bring the ’13 CD’s EQ closer in line with the ’83 CD’s EQ, the ’13 CD’s edge in clarity was still obvious. More importantly, I think Mew’s EQ choices on the ’13 mastering improve most tracks.
All told, the ’13 mastering simply out-resolves the original ’83 CD. Instruments, as in the acoustic guitar during the bridge of “The Hurting,” as more lifelike. Room sounds, as on Orzabal’s vocals on “Start of the Breakdown,” are more noticeable. Finally, instrumental separation, such as when the deep synth enters after the guitar solo on “Suffer the Children,” is better. To use a cliché audio descriptor, the ’83 CD simply sounds veiled compared to the ’13 CD.
However, the ’13 mastering other issues. Most significantly, there’s a burst of static in the left channel near the 2:33 mark of “Ideas as Opiates.” This flaw doesn’t exist on either the original ’83 CD or the ’99 remaster.4 Several fans over at Super Deluxe Edition noticed this glitch. One emailed the label and was told: “Unfortunately this could only have come from the original master tape as this reissue was heavily remastered. In this case unfortunately there is no way of us amending the glitch and as it was approved and signed off by the band no further action can be taken.” Another poster at SDE, claiming to work for the label, wrote: “The audio glitch in ‘Ideas for Opiates’ mentioned was also on another master (24/96) supplied by UM for another purpose. Clearly, this glitch (a digital drop-out in the left-hand channel only compensated for, quite badly, by interpolation) was not picked-up during QC for the CD. I am now part of the mastering process and have complained about this and am listening right now in the studio to a new master which does not have this artefact. This master is intended to be used for all future rereleases.
The hi-resolution Blu-ray of The Hurting released in ’14 contains the same liner notes and mastering credits as the ’13 boxes. The track times, DR scores, and R128 values of the Blu-ray are also remarkably similar to those of the ’13 remaster. However, the Blu-ray notably does not contain the glitch in “Ideas as Opiates.” The Blu-ray is also free from some digital clipping (which is of debatable importance) that’s visible on the ’13 files in Audacity.
Given the above, it’s worth asking if the ’14 Blu-ray actually contains a different mastering from the ’13 CD.
Here’s the same selection of songs we’ve been looking at from the ’13 CD (green) and ’14 Blu-ray (purple).
While the differences on most tracks are small, they exist. On one track, “The Hurting,” the difference is dramatic, with the Blu-ray having much less high end than the ’13 CD (and even less than the original ’85 CD).
Comparing the ’13 CD and the ’14 Blu-ray head-to-head, the differences are noticeable. On some tracks, the Blu-ray has slightly more tape hiss, which doesn’t seem to be explained by different EQ choices. On most tracks, the Blu-ray sounds ever-so-slightly more resolving, at least to my ears. However, “The Hurting,” which features dramatically less treble on the Blu-ray, sounds unambiguously better on the ’13 CD. The Blu-ray’s top end is just too muted on that track. What does seem clear is that the ’13 CD and ’14 Blu-ray do not contain the same mastering, even if most songs sound very similar between the two and Mew is credited as the mastering engineer on both.
Making things even more complicated, both the ’13 CD and the ’14 Blu-ray have inverted polarity, when compared to both the ’83 CD and the ’99 CD. Differences in polarity are often very subtle, and it’s not uncommon for mastering engineers to purposely invert polarity on a mastering if they feel it sounds more natural, since all instruments in a mix don’t necessarily have the same polarity. The commonality of polarity problems has led some DAC makers, including Schiit and RME, to produce DACs with polarity buttons. (Polarity can also be flipped easily track-by-track in Audacity.) I’ve played with polarity button on my DAC many times. On some albums, the differences are more apparent than others, but they’re usually incredibly small. It’s also the case that sometimes some elements of a song sound better with normal polarity, while others sound better with flipped polarity. In my view, polarity is often more a matter of taste than a serious technical error. I don’t want to speculate whether Mew’s reversal of polarity on his mastering(s) of The Hurting was intentional or not.5 But after closely listening to his mastering(s) with the polarity as it is on the discs and flipped, I don’t think it should be a factor in deciding which version of The Hurting is best.
So where does that leave us in crowning the best version of The Hurting?
I feel comfortable saying that the improved resolution of the ’13 and ’14 Mew mastering(s) outweighs the ’83 CD’s greater dynamic range. However, neither the ’13 CD boxes nor the ’14 Blu-ray are perfect. The ’13 boxes include a bevy of compelling bonus tracks, as well as a better EQ’d version of the title track. However, they also contain the glitch on “Ideas as Opiates” and some digital clipping (however insignificant). The Blu-ray, on the other hand, offers ever-so-slightly better clarity than the ’13 CDs and lacks both the glitch on “Ideas as Opiates” and the digital clipping, but the EQing on “The Hurting” is far too treble light.
If absolutely forced to choose, I’d give the TBVO crown for The Hurting to the ’14 Blu-ray. But for those who care more about bonus tracks and better EQ on the title track than the glitch on “Ideas as Opiates” or the final few percent of resolution, one of the ’13 boxes is also a fine choice. (I also wouldn’t blame fans who’d rather just stick with their original ’83 CDs, even if it’s very clear that the two Mew masterings wring much more detail out of The Hurting.)
Now let’s turn to Songs from the Big Chair.
Despite many, many releases, to the best of my knowledge there exist only six distinct digital masterings of Big Chair: 1) the original 1985 CD (and subsequent rereleases) mastered by Nick Webb; 2) the 1997 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CD; 3) the 1999 CD, which includes seven bonus tracks and, like the ‘99 The Hurting CD, was remastered by Hughes and Astley; 4) the 2006 2CD "Deluxe Edition", which was remastered by Gary Moore and includes numerous bonus tracks; 5) the 2014 4CD+1DVD 30th anniversary box set which includes a bevy of bonus tracks, a new mix of the album by Steve Wilson, and a new remaster of the original album by Andrew Walter at Abbey Road Studios (the Steve Wilson remix and Walter remaster also were made available on a standalone Blu-Ray and as a hi-res download); and 6) a 2014 Japanese SACD, billed as a “DSD flat transferred from UK original analogue master tapes by Richard Whittaker at FX Copyroom, London, in 2014” and also issued on a SHM-CD and an MQA-CD.
The quality of each of the above versions has been debated by fans. For this TBVO analysis, let’s start by taking a look at the dynamic ranges of each of the six masterings:
By DR scores, both the ’99 remaster and ’06 Deluxe edition stand out. However, the R128 numbers tell a more mixed picture. So let’s take a look at some waveforms.
The GIF below shows three tracks — “Shout,” “The Working Hour,” and “Mothers Talk” — from the ‘85 CD (blue), the ’99 remaster (red), and the ’06 Deluxe remaster (green):
Even from three tracks, it’s abundantly clear that one of these is different from the others. The ’99 CD is significantly more compressed than the others, with the gradations in volume near the middle of “Shout” and near the 3/4th mark of “Mothers Talk” completely squashed.
The ’99 remaster is the only of the six digital masterings of Big Chair that’s overly compressed. On that basis alone, it’s our first cut.
Now we’re down to five versions.
It’s at this point that we run into one of the several issues surrounding the various masterings of Big Chair.
All of the digital masterings of Big Chair except the ‘97 MFSL CD have the stereo channels arranged so that the percussion played by Jerry Marotta at the beginning of “Shout” goes from left to right. On the MFSL, it goes from right to left. This channel switch is carried throughout the album. Mobile Fidelity swapped the channels in order to match the original vinyl release of the album, which has the percussion going from right to left. (The original CD, however, has it going from left to right.) When the 30th anniversary edition was being put together, Wilson looked into this discrepancy. Apparently, the original master tape, which had the percussion from right to left, had a note to flip the channels. Wilson confirmed with both Orzabal and Hughes that the tape should be flipped and the percussion at the beginning of “Shout” should go from left to right. Therefore, both the original vinyl versions of Big Chair and the MFSL CD have the channels wrong.
Unlike the polarity discrepancy with The Hurting, the channel swap with Big Chair significantly affects the album’s sound. That’s a big mark against the MFSL. However, were the MFSL to sound dramatically better in terms of transfer quality and EQing than other versions, it might be worth keeping it in the running for the TBVO crown, given that the flipped channels can be fixed (however laboriously) in free programs like Audacity.
But that’s not the case. The MFSL is the only version of Big Chair that has significant digital clipping. Even worse, it’s clear that the MFSL wasn’t sourced from the correct tape, since “Head Over Heels” includes an extra round of “la-las” (and therefore an extra 20 seconds) compared to all other versions. Finally, the MFSL’s equalization is almost identical to the 1985 CD’s. Flipping back and forth between the two in Audacity after reversing the channels on the MFSL and matching the levels using Har-Bal, the differences between the ’85 CD and the MFSL were minute, but they almost all favored the original ’85 CD.
The MFSL, therefore, is our second cut.
Now we’re left with four versions of Big Chair: the original ’85 CD and the three 21st century masterings.
Let’s turn to the first mastering of the 21st century, the 2006 2CD “Deluxe Edition,” mastered by Moore. The Har-Bal graphs in the GIF below compare the equalization of five songs — “Shout,” “The Working Hour,” “Mothers Talk,” “Head Over Heels,” and “Listen” — on the ‘85 CD (blue) and the ’06 remaster (green):
The ’06 remaster has a fairly consistent boost from the sub bass through the bass region. This bass boost is often, though not always, accompanied by a slight cut in the mids and a slight boost in the highs.
On some tracks, with some equipment, the ’06 remaster’s bass boost is appreciated. But the combined effects of the bass boost, mid cut, and increased compression renders the ’06 remaster overall muddier than the original ’85 CD. In A/B testing with loudness-matched files, the ’06 is, at best, as resolving as the ’85 CD. But on several tracks details get lost on the ’06 remaster that are clear on the ’85 CD. The acoustic guitar that enters around the 2:43 mark in the left channel of “The Working Hour,” for example, is much harder to discern on the ’06 CD.
While the ’06 “Deluxe Edition” remaster is far from a horrible mastering, it’s just not as good as the ’85 CD. So it’s our next cut.
Now we’re down to three versions, and we face another perplexing issue with the digital masterings of Songs from Big Chair.
The 2014 30th anniversary edition of Big Chair was released with much buildup and anticipation. The largest version of the 30th anniversary release, featuring four CDs and one DVD, includes a plethora of B-sides, rarities, and live tracks, along with Walter’s remastering of the original album and two Steve Wilson’s remixes of the album (stereo and surround). The DVD included with the box includes Wilson’s remixes and Walter’s remaster in hi-resolution audio, and these files also were released as a Blu-ray and a download.
The first interesting anomaly with the 30th anniversary edition is that the hi-res Walter remaster included on the DVD, Blu-ray, and as a download has very slightly different equalization from the Walter remaster included on the CDs. It’s incredibly subtle, usually amounting to slightly more low bass in the hi-res version, but it’s there. From my listening, I slightly preferred the hi-res version to the CD version.
While the slight differences between the hi-res and redbook versions of Walter’s remaster are an interesting quirk, there’s a larger problem with the 30th anniversary remaster.
As many fans have noted, there’s a persistent channel imbalance on the 30th anniversary remaster. Now, it’s common for masterings to have ever-so-slightly different channel balances from each other. Testing several Big Chair masterings in Audacity, every remaster exhibits small differences in channel balance, with some masterings being more “in balance” than others. Moreover, the most “in balance” mastering can vary from song to song. However, on most songs, the left channel in the Walter remaster is significantly louder than the right when compared to other masterings. (Some fans have estimated the difference to be as much as two or three dBs, but my measurements show it to be more like .5 to 1.5 dBs.) This tends to shift vocals and other sounds that should be in the center of the stereo image slightly to the left. Like the channel swap on the MFSL, this imbalance can be fixed in Audacity or manually if your stereo has a balance knob. But it’s a fairly laborious track-by-track process to get it right, since not all tracks are equally out of balance. It goes without saying that this isn’t an ideal situation, especially for listeners who want to simply pop in a disc or download some tracks and hit play without fixing flaws.
Given the channel imbalance in the 30th anniversary remaster, I have to cross it off the list. Even with the channel imbalance fixed it would, at best, tied for the best version of Big Chair. However, the 30th anniversary edition is still worth seeking out for fans who want all the extras (even if this particular Wilson remix isn’t one of my favorites).
That leaves two versions of Big Chair: the original ’85 CD and 2014 “flat transfer” by Whittaker released in Japan in CD, SACD, and MQA-CD formats beginning in 2014.
Let’s take a look at how the Whittaker transfer (yellow) compares to the ’85 CD (blue) in Har-Bal for the same selection of tracks used above:
The Whittaker flat transfer is stunningly similar in EQ to the original ‘85 CD, which suggests that Webb did little EQing when he mastered the ‘85 CD. Insofar as there are any differences, the ‘85 CD has slightly more bass on some tracks and a sub bass boost that’s so low that it’s mostly inaudible.
Subjectively, the Whittaker transfer barely edges out the original CD. The former has just an extra bit of resolution, especially when it comes to placing instruments and voices in the soundstage. Sounds are simply more three-dimensional on the Whittaker transfer, even if the difference is subtle. The aforementioned acoustic guitar on “The Working Hour” is easier to identify in the Whittaker and has a more round, realistic tone. Likewise, both the swirling synths that open “Head Over Heels” and Smith’s propulsive bassline on the track have more dimension on the Whittaker, making them easier to separate from the sonic layers that surround them.
The TBVO crown for Songs from the Big Chair, then, goes to the various Japanese releases of the Whittaker transfer. But the original ’85 CD remains a good budget choice.
As Orzabal mused in Scenes from the Big Chair, “There’s been two distinct stages in Tears for Fears’ history so far. Both albums. The Hurting, in which you could say we laid ourselves bare. We made a very fragile album, which was full of adolescent kind of emotions that most people try to forget and sweep under the carpet. With Songs from the Big Chair, [as I sing] in the song ‘Mothers Talk,’ it was time to put our clothes on and face the world.”
No matter which stage of Tears for Fears you prefer, track down the best version you can find, put it on your system, and savor some of the best — and best sounding — synthpop the ‘80s has to offer.
1. Only original album tracks, not bonus tracks, are included in this measure, for an apples-to-apples comparison between versions.
2. When necessary, Har-Bal’s loudness matching option, which doesn’t affect the frequency response, was used to create clearer graphs.
3. For the subjective analyses, all editions were ripped with XLD and played with Audirvana. The DAC/Amp combo was a Schiit Yggdrasil/Ragnarok stack. I also mixed in a Crane Song Solaris DAC, RME ADI-2 DAC, Matrix X-SABRE PRO MQA, and Monoprice Liquid Platinum headphone amplifier. Most listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer and a diverse set of headphones, including Focal Utopia, Sennheiser HD800S, MrSpeakers Ether 2, and Massdrop/Koss ESP/950 Electrostatic System.
4. Another “flaw” I caught during close listening is a click at the 4:44 mark of “Memories Fade.” This click appears to have been removed on the ’99 remaster. But it’s there on both ’83 and ’13 masterings, which leads me to believe that it’s part of the original master tape.
5. Mew is retired. But I’ve reached out to Abbey Road to see if I could be put in touch with him. If I’m able to speak with him, I’ll update this TBVO.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.