Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Hurting Of Tears For Fears

The origin of band names has become a topic of much interest, even conjecture, throughout popular music history. A virtual mini-mythology has evolved around the source and meaning of band names, no doubt serving to fuel the mystique and intrigue surrounding those artists. On occasion a band’s name can clearly reflect their place of origin, the name of one of its members, or the style of music they play. At other times, their moniker is more ambiguous, or in certain cases can be just plain inexplicable and weird. The 80s yielded its share of interesting band brands, with the likes of Duran Duran (taken from the name of the villain in the film ‘Barbarella’), Crowded House (inspired by the band’s cramped living quarters), R.E.M. (the acronym for the term ‘rapid eye movement’), T’pau (named after a Vulcan princess from the TV series ‘Star Trek’), Wang Chung’s name evolved out of Huang Chung (translated from the Chinese term for ‘perfect pitch’), whilst a twosome of troubled teen musicians from Bath adopted their moniker from a term associated with a radical form of psychotherapy.

Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith first meet one another during their early teens, in their home township of Bath, England. Both had some uncomfortably common ground, having grown up as middle sons in broken homes, but their love of music (and a shared sense of humour) helped to forge a more positive aspect to their bond as friends. Orzabal began dabbling in writing and playing music during high school, and formed his own heavy metal style school band (covering the likes of Led Zeppelin and Slade). Orzabal called around to Smith’s house one day and walked in on him singing along to Blue Oyster Cult. Curt’s version of the Cult wasn’t half bad, so Orzabal invited him to join the band. Over the next few years, Orzabal remained committed to the music muse, and during the late 70s he formed a folk style duo (heavy metal to folk - he was obviously exploring his options). By contrast, Smith had gone on to try college, but his behaviour had grown ever more troublesome, and he turned to vandalism and petty theft (which included stealing cameras from his school) as outlets for his teen angst.

Both lads were intellectual in nature, but Orzabal channelled his thirst for knowledge into reading copious amounts of books. Around age seventeen, one of the books that caught Orzabal’s attention was ‘Primal Scream’, by American psycho-therapist Arthur Janov. Basically the book espoused an approach to treating adult neuroses via a direct confrontation of traumatic early life experiences, including parental abandonment, and expressing the long repressed pain associated with those feelings of loss - or something like that. Janov had ascended to a new level of notoriety a decade earlier, through his association with John Lennon and Yoko Ono (something about being keen to drill holes in their heads). At any rate, Janov’s approach resonated strongly with Orzabal at the time, and provided him with some answers he’d been looking for. Orzabal thought his friend Curt Smith might also benefit from the read, so he leant him ‘Primal Scream’ - the duo’s combined appreciation for some of the book’s themes would inform directly, and indirectly, their early work as a recording outfit. But there were still one or two boxes to tick on the path toward that point of their career.

During 1980, Orzabal (guitar/keyboards) and Smith (vocals/bass) joined a mod-revival come ska/new wave band called Graduate, alongside John Baker (guitar/vocals), Steve Buck (keyboards/flute), and Andy Marsden (drums). The band took their name from the 1969 film ‘The Graduate’, and they opened their shows with a cover of ‘Mrs. Robinson’. Graduate signed with the small time label Precision Records, and released the singles ‘Elvis Should Play Ska’ and ‘Ambition’, and released a ska-pop style album ‘Acting My Age’. Before year’s end, both Orzabal and Smith had decided they wanted a stronger say in the direction of their music, and thus Graduate ceased to be. During the first half of ‘81, Curt Smith hooked up with a new band called Neon, alongside Neil Taylor (guitar), Manny Elias (drums), Rob Fisher (keyboards), and Pete Byrne (vocals). Neon were essentially a straight up pop-rock outfit, and by mid ‘81 Roland Orzabal had come on board to replace Taylor. The band recorded several tracks in-studio during mid‘81, and released the single ‘Communication Without Sound’, but the remaining members were destined for a brighter future beyond Neon. Fisher and Byrne went on to form Naked Eyes (see previous post), whilst Orzabal and Smith opted to form a new band, in which they would become the core creative forces, and the nucleus of the group (Elias would later join their new enterprise).

The duo adopted the name History of Headaches, and began writing material that was influenced (musically) by some of the darker strains of synth-fuelled post-punk, along with avant-garde tinged art-rock. But the aspirin bill grew to astronomical proportions, and so the duo dispensed with the History of Headaches tag, in favour of adopting the name Tears For Fears. The name came directly from a chapter heading from Janov’s controversial ‘Primal Scream’ book, which would in some respects inform Tears for Fears’ early work, both thematically (lyrically), and stylistically. Orzabal and Smith hooked up with synth-guru and producer David Lord (worked with Peter Gabriel), and recorded several demo tracks, with a stronger emphasis on synthesizers and drum machines. The demos earned Tears For Fears a contract with Mercury (Phonogram) Records, and their debut single, the David Lord produced ‘Suffer The Children’, was released in September ‘81 (and eventually charted as a re-recorded re-release in Britain at the height of the band’s fame in 1985 - UK#52). Keyboardist Ian Stanley, and ex-Neon drummer Manny Elias then came on board as effectively full-time members of Tears For Fears, though Orzabal and Smith would essentially remain the public face of the band. Producer David Lord went on to other projects, and Mike Howlett (Sniff ‘n’ the Tears, A Flock Of Seagulls, Fischer Z - see previous posts) helmed production on the second single, ‘Pale Shelter (You Don’t Give Me Love)’, co-written by Orzabal and Smith (with the title inspired by a Henry Moore drawing). The single missed the British charts post its March ‘82 release, but work had already begun in earnest on Tears For Fears’ debut album.

Ex-Adam & the Ants drummer, turned producer par-excellence Chris ‘Merrick' Hughes, became a key addition to the equation in formulating Tears For Fears’ debut set. Beside Ross Cullum, Stanley oversaw production on the ten track album, during late ‘82 and into ‘83. The next single to emerge from the sessions was the haunting track ‘Mad World’, released in September of ‘82. The song was originally intended as a B-side to ‘Pale Shelter’, but thankfully found its way to a headline single release. The song’s gloomy, atmospheric synth sound was perfectly crafted to appeal to the new-wave, post-punk masses. Some labelled it a tad too morose, even claustrophobic sounding, but I’ve always found it to be rescued from its own weightiness by the adept dashes of quirkiness laced throughout. Lyrically, ‘Mad World’ took much from Orzabal and Smith’s affinity with Janov’s work, indeed much of the track’s source album would be imbued such. ‘Mad World’ delivered Tears For Fears some financial peace of mind at #3 on the British charts (OZ#12), but the U.S. was less enamoured with the darker side of British pop at that time. The promo-video for ‘Mad World’ was the band’s first, with Curt Smith looking suitably moody staring through a window, whilst Orzabal performed a series of peculiar dance moves outside. ‘Mad World’ has remained one of my favourite Tears For Fears tracks, as much for its lyrics as anything - sometimes disturbing, yet compelling in the spikes of emotionally-repressed imagery it evokes - “I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad, the dreams in which I‘m dying are the best I’ve ever had”. Not surprising then that ‘Mad World’ later found its way onto the soundtrack to the 2001 cult classic ‘Donnie Darko’, and via the Michael Andrews/Gary Jules cover, eventually to a UK#1 spot in 2003.

The single ‘Change’ hit stores in Britain during February of ‘83, by way of lead in to Tears For Fears’ debut album, ‘The Hurting’, released a month later. ‘Change’ was more rhythmically upbeat than ‘Mad World’, though it’s tone was still more overcast than blue skies. It was undeniably classy 80s style synth-pop, and featured a compelling hook that attracted enough listeners to propel it to a peak of #4 on the British charts (OZ#29 - when released in the U.S. later in ‘83, ‘Change’ also became Tears For Fears’ first foray into the Stateside charts - #73). The much anticipated album, ‘The Hurting’, was a highly palatable pop rendering of angst and alienation. References to psychotherapy and emotional exploration were littered throughout, and Orzabal dipped deep into the wells of self awareness and self expression. Some critics labelled Tears For Fears’ sullenly intellectual posturing as pretentious (moi?), even whiny, but for most a genuine craftsmanship shone through the thematic gloominess, and vague hints of indifferent superiority. Conceptual analysis aside, ‘The Hurting’ proved an impressive debut, both commercially and critically, for a pair of musicians who were both still only 21. On its second week of release, ‘The Hurting’ felt no pain at #1 on the British charts (OZ#15/US#73), and on the back of its success, the hauntingly sweeping ‘Pale Shelter’ (a re-recorded version) was re-released in April of ‘83, and second time around found shelter at #5 on the British charts. The promotional video featured some quite confronting imagery (I’ve never been a fan of crocodiles, giant domestic irons, or swarms of paper planes). Despite portraying an intensely serious persona throughout much of their work, Tears For Fears also appealed to the teen-set, aided in part by Orzabal and Smith’s pin-up looks, and the band garnered the Smash Hits ‘Most Promising New Act’ gong for 1983.

Tears For Fears hit the road in support of ‘The Hurting’ throughout the latter half of ‘83, and during that period the quartet (Orzabal, Smith, Stanley, Elias) wrote the song ‘The Way You Are’. Following the conclusion of tour duties, they returned to the studio with Chris Hughes to record the song, which was subsequently released in November as somewhat of a stop-gap measure. Musically, ‘The Way You Are’ wasn’t a patch on the band’s previous releases, and featured a heavy reliance on in-studio trickery in place of organic production. ‘The Way You Are’ washed to a high of #24 on the British charts, mostly due to the lingering wake of popularity from ‘The Hurting’. Both Orzabal and Smith made no secret of their disdain for the track in later years, and ‘The Way You Are’ wasn’t considered for inclusion on the band’s planned second album. What the song did achieve was to provide the resolve for Orzabal and Smith to change the direction of Tears For Fears, to avoid recording a re-constituted version of ‘The Hurting’.

A few months of soul searching and song writing ensued, and by early ‘84 Tears For Fears assembled in-studio once more, this time with producer Jeremy Green. The chemistry with Green didn’t gel well, and soon the band turned back to Chris Hughes for guidance. The track that had required re-working was ‘Mothers Talk’, and it was released in the U.K. in August of ‘84, by way of lead out to Tears For Fears’ sophomore album. Orzabal handled the lead vocal duties on the call to arms styled ‘Mothers Talk’, which showcased a decidedly more radio-friendly feel to it (Orzabal and Smith traded vocal lines), and it was clear that both band and producer were becoming more confident, and refined in their work. Over time, three separate promo videos were shot for the song, which peaked at #14 on the U.K. charts. The promo video for the later remixed U.S. release (March of ‘86 - #27), referenced one of the song’s inspirations, the anti-nuclear book ‘When The Wind Blows’ by Raymond Briggs. The U.K. version features on the DVD collection I have, and Orzabal continues his oddly styled dance moves atop a hillside, in between drowning in piles of newspaper headlines - my psychoanalytic skills fall short of working out the significance of the kite flying and dominos.

‘Mothers Talk’ was essentially a taster for an album which Tears For Fears had already been working on for nigh on a year. Both Orzabal and Smith had taken a deliberate approach to make their music more commercially appealing, and with their next single, Tears For Fears would achieve that goal, and then some.

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