In an episode of Cheers that aired on February 20, 1986, a throwaway gag unintentionally gave audiences a brief glimpse into the ascending relevancy of 80's rock/pop acts. Titled "Dark Imaginings," there’s a scene that features Sam Malone (Ted Danson) bringing a date to his (series-titular) bar. The main joke is that Sam's date makes him look impossibly old and out of touch with current trends, beyond the fact that she is 15-20 years his junior. While regaling the bar patrons with the details of their date, Sam struggles to remember the name of the contemporary artist they had been listening to at her apartment ("John Cougar Mellen...something..."). Sam's bartender, the much younger Woody (Woody Harrelson), then engages the young woman in a discussion about her favorite "rock groups." Her list: "Thompson Twins, Tears for Fears, and, uh, U2!" In ascending order, those bands represent the hierarchy of mainstream music in the mid-1980s: Thompson Twins were then at the tail-end of the their relevancy (the bottom), U2 was on the verge of becoming the biggest rock band in the world (the top), and in the middle was Tears for Fears (TFF), who at this time were likely considered the "Newcomers of the Year" in the U.S. following the breakthrough success of their 1985 sophomore album. Considering how fleeting the careers were of so many new wave and new romantic acts from the U.K during the early part of the 80's, TFF could have easily fizzled out like their contemporaries in the Thompson Twins. But with the staggering international success of their second record—with its irresistible hooks and crossover appeal—they could have also just as easily been as big as U2. In the end, they were neither. Rather, they are a unique case study in popular music history. Their overall legacy has already been thoroughly analyzed at Optimism Vaccine, so instead—in anticipation of the album's 30th anniversary in February 2015 and in recognition of the recently released SuperDeluxe reissue—this piece will function as a historical analysis of one of the most essential albums in the history of the popular music: Songs from the Big Chair.
Endurance from the Big Chair
This past September, TFF took a break from recording their 7th studio album to briefly tour the U.S. West Coast. During the encore of their Los Angeles show, they surprised the Wiltern Theater crowd with a performance of "Working Hour," a song from the ...Big Chair that TFF (core duo Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith) had not played live in nearly a quarter-century. All things considered, "Working Hour" is a deep cut in that it was never released as a single and, when compared to the monstrous hits off of Songs from the Big Chair (SFTBC), it was likely an afterthought in the minds of an audience seeing the band live nearly 30 years after their commercial breakthrough. Nonetheless, the crowd goes manic for the album cut, with a reaction you would expect for "Shout" or "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."
In the above video, you can hear the audience loudly singing along with Orzabal during the chorus. The immensely positive reaction for this deep cut proves that it's not just the massively popular singles that resonate with audiences. For a classic album to endure and not grow stale after repeat listens, every track has to matter; the sum should be greater than its parts. This notion is easy to overlook when considering just how big the hit singles were from SFTBC. In fact, non-TFF fans can be forgiven if they think that SFTBC is actually a greatest hits compilation, rather than a linear studio package.
TFF's 1983 debut album, The Hurting, was a best-selling in the band's homeland (it famously knocked Michael Jackson's Thriller from the #1 spot on the U.K. album charts), aided by the success of the singles "Mad World," "Change," and "Pale Shelter." With their record company eager to capitalize on that success, there was a push to make TFF's next album an even bigger success. They especially wanted to break the band in the U.S. SFTBC was already intended to be crafted as an international commercial breakthrough before the band decamped to their Wool Hall Studios near their hometown of Bath, U.K. in 1984 to write and record all of the songs for the album.
Now, to any consumer of music post-1990, the mere 8 songs that make up the track list might make SFTBC seem like an EP-length recording. However, the seemingly low number of tracks does not betray the feeling that SFTBC is a massive, full-length album with dramatically sweeping highs and lows. Thematically, when considering the album's title is inspired by the 1976 made-for-TV-film Sybil—starring Sally Field as the titular sufferer of multiple personality disorder who feels most safe while sitting in her analyst's "big chair"—each song has it's own completely distinctive personality. So, on the surface, the album may seem like a collection of very different songs that were just thrown together. This is especially true when considering that The Hurting was so heavily influenced by adolescent angst and Primal Scream therapy; TFF's debut album had a very obvious theme and structure. However, as a singular work of art, SFTBC has actually has a very deliberate flow to it.
Side 1 is an outwardly exploration of world politics and social anxieties. "Shout" begins the record and, while many now just view it as a fixture of 80's hits’ playlists, it's a political anthem that has no direct antagonist, though it certainly was inspired by Cold War-era hysteria. Because “Shout” does not address any specific subjects, its simple message remains relevant to this day. This is a likely reason why the song is still a perennial favorite on just about any radio station, from classic rock radio to college radio. That and, obviously, it was a massive #1 hit (arguably, TFF’s signature song).
“Shout” opens the album with a confident commandment, while the second track, the aforementioned “Working Hour,” flexes the band’s true musical talent and studio acumen. And were it not for the smooth sax solos and lack of a meat-and-potatoes-aesthetic (1985 was "Born in the U.S.A." territory), “Working Hour” would have been celebrated as a true "Blue Collar Anthem.” The lyrics are suitably direct (This is the working hour/We are paid by those who learn by our mistakes) and the conviction is appropriately strong in Orzabal's vocals. Internally, the song's lyrics were inspired by the band's issues with their record label, whom they were repeatedly butting heads with as there was pressure on the duo following the (U.K. and mainland Europe) success of their The Hurting. Stylistically the song may have spent a little time coming off as a bit dated, particularly in the U.S. during the 1990s and early 2000s when the only band fashionable enough to pull off a heavy amount of sax solos was…Dave Matthews Band. Fortunately, time has caught back up with the genuinely sublime sounds TFF crafted in this song and its influence can be heard on recent recordings by Destroyer and Blood Orange. The song perhaps sounds even fresher now than it did in 1985:
If "Shout" is widely recognized as TFF's signature song, then certainly "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"—the last song recorded for the album, as it was initially considered by Orzabal to be too "lightweight"—has to be recognized TFF's signature song-A. It was the first U.S. single released from SFTBC and it was the song responsible for catapulting TFF into full-fledged international stardom in 1985. In context of the album, as the third song it continues the theme of exploring social anxieties and criticizing the "powers that be." Specifically, Orzabal’s lyrics in "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" admonish the era's decadent excesses and the politics of Regan and Thatcher (I can't stand this indecision/Married with a lack of vision). The anger and resentment is cleverly hidden under Smith's sweet vocal treatment, as well as the song's melodic and rhythmic sheen; it's done so beautifully (and unashamedly commercially) that much of the song's message likely fell on deaf ears when it hit #1 in multiple countries across the globe. It's no wonder Dennis Miller used it as the theme song for his HBO talk show, even though the song stands against almost every conviction Miller preaches.
"Mothers Talk" closes Side 1 and, in the context of TFF's singles, it is a bit of an oddity. Much of SFTBC was constructed around the idea that "Mothers Talk" would likely be the biggest hit off of the album, with the exception of "Head Over Heels" (more on that later). TFF initially started the recording sessions in 1984 believing that they would be the sole producers, but they soon experienced some difficulty in recording a version of "Mothers Talk" that left them truly satisfied. After several failed attempts, they brought back The Hurting's producer Chris Hughes (formerly "Merrick," one of the drummers for Adam & The Ants), who subsequently produced the final mix of the track, and eventually, the rest of SFTBC. In the end, "Mothers Talk" was certainly not the biggest hit off the record, but it is the one TFF song that exclusively reflects the musical trends of its era. Both Orzabal and Smith will be the first to admit that TFF were never "trendy," but "Mothers Talk" is a highly stylistic piece of synth-pop; a sample-heavy dancehall floor-stomper straight out of 1984. Hell, Rolling Stone recently recognized it as the #96th best single of "Pop’s Greatest Year," which is a rather low ranking, but at least it's several positions ahead of stereotypical 80's dreck like Cory Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" and Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)."*
Production history and fashionable flourishes aside, "Mothers Talk" effectively ends the politically conscious half of SFTBC. The lyrics express the anxieties over the threats of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War era. Furthermore, there are several blatant references to Raymond Brigg's 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows, which tells the fictional story of the Soviet Union bombing the U.K. through the viewpoint of an elderly couple incapable of grasping the true gravity of the situation.** It was certainly not the sort of dreadful material TFF’s “contemporaries” Wham! or Duran Duran would've been singing about over an infectiously danceable hook:
If Side 1 is a lyrical exploration of the consequences of abusing power, Side 2 reflects on the aftermath of what happens if the egos of those in power were to go unchecked. This is especially true of “I Believe.” Musically, the song is a grand departure from everything TFF provides on Side 1—the audience is suddenly treated to a very sparse and intimate recording. There’s virtually nothing happening in “I Believe,” apart from Orzabal’s vocals, a grand piano, some light drumming and a few jazzy sax flourishes. The song’s lyrics were inspired by—and allegedly written for—ex-Soft Machine drummer and paraplegic singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt. It’s highly likely that the Robert Wyatt audience was—and still is—vastly different from the mainstream crowd that was buying SFTBC in 1985. It's as if it was simply the goal of Orzabal and Smith to introduce their “teeny bopper” audience to a slightly avant-garde rock musician that they would never have known about—particularly in the pre-Interenet age. No word on whether or not Wyatt’s record sales increased as a result of the exposure, or if he even knew of the credit he received in the SFTBC liner notes, but “I Believe" features some of the most poignant lyrics and restrained production in TFF's arsenal:
Side 2 also acts as a bit of a prog-rock suite, in that all four songs fade directly into each other. “Broken,” however, acts as both a sonic and lyrical segue to “Head Over Heels.” “Broken” is arguably the least indispensable track from SFTBC if only for it 1.) Being a re-worked B-side and 2.) Being the shortest song on the LP. That being said, it operates as a brief interlude for the band to flex their rock chops and give a grand introduction to the ballad that was initially thought by Orzabal to be the one song that would launch TFF into international stardom…
…which isn’t to say that “Head Over Heels” was a bust. Far from it. “Head Over Heels” is just as fondly remembered as SFTBC’s slightly more popular #1 hit singles. Sure, maybe some of that has to do with it being prominently featured in Donnie Darko or Funny or Die’s “Literal Version” of the song’s iconic music video. But in the end, “Head Over Heels” endures because it is a perfect pop song. Combining an instantly recognizable melody with a killer chorus, it’s a small wonder that the song stalled at #3 on the Billboard charts…although, obviously, it was still a big hit. Lyrically, in keeping with the themes of SFTBC, it challenges the machismo stereotypes of the 80’s hyper-heterosexual male; sure, the song’s protagonist is frustrated by his unrequited love, but at least he’s not a demeaning, macho asshole. Rather, he remains intellectual, sensitive and self-conscious, as he tries to escape society’s impossible expectations of the alpha male while he dreams of a happy ending with his admired one. It might be a little lovelorn and sappy, but it’s cerebral pop gold and a timeless piece of music:
SFTBC closes with “Listen,” which is a left-field choice on an album absolutely staked with pop-rock golden nuggets. There’s little doubt that many fans listening to the record at home were taken aback by “Listen;” it’s an avant-garde, near-7-minute epic that is equal parts new age, prog rock, world music, and (subtly) gospel. The first half is a medieval instrumental updated for the synth-age, only interrupted with Smith’s brief vocal interludes that feature somewhat obtuse political references (Mother Russia badly burned/Your children lick your wounds). The second half storms out of the synthesized medieval age and brings listeners to an ambiguously ethnic world full of Santana-esque guitar solos, big drums, and a rousing chorus of indecipherable broken-Spanish (complete with an opera singer and Orzabal’s crazy-ass pseudo-Spanish screaming). It’s hard to make complete sense of it all and, frankly, “Listen” could be interpreted as an inside-joke from Orzabal and Smith. SFTBC is undoubtedly a very commercial record 7/8’s of the way through, but “Listen” functions as a way for the band to be highly experimental. It also seems to laugh in the faces of audiences and critics that have may have taken the duo too seriously. Even the title "Listen" has a meta-textual feel. It's a rather fucking brilliant way to end the record, as it usurps everybody’s expectations: “Listen” wipes away the memories of everything you have heard from TFF before and it leaves you with absolutely no idea about what direction the band may head in. As that old show business cliché goes: “Always leave them wanting more!”
Impact from the Big Chair
Amongst its peers of #1 albums in 1985, SFTBC is a bit of an anomaly.*** TFF themselves occupied an unusual spot in popular music in the 80's. They were too pop and used too much technology in their sound to be appreciated by aging rock purists, yet they were very guitar-driven and a bit too experimental for the era's fans of disposal pop music. Though SFTBC’s multi-platinum status boasts some rather impressive sales numbers, they're dwarfed by the 1985 sales of albums by Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen, and Dire Straits (individually). Collins' No Jacket Required was an untouchable pop record, captivating the ears of everybody's parents back in 1985. Springsteen was the ultimate Regan-era hero with Born in the USA, whose patriotism was ironic enough for liberals and staunch enough for conservatives. And Dire Straits were rock veterans whose breakthrough Brothers in Arms featured the hit "Money For Nothing"—its innovative computer animated music video dominated the MTV airwaves for the kids and its ambiguously homophobic lyrics got the fists of new romantic-hating rock fans pumping in the air (it's safe to assume that Brit Mark Knopfler was not referencing bundles of firewood in his verse about the man with the "earring and the makeup," which in context could have seen as a dig at the earring-and-eyeliner-clad Orzabal and Smith). While it certainly was not unusual for a British new wave act to be at the top of the charts in the mid-80's, TFF had very little common with most of their mainstream counterparts. Additionally, 1985 saw the tail-end of the second "British Invasion," as TFF, Dire Straits, and Sting at one point took up the top 3 spots on the Billboard album charts. It would be another 27 years before three British acts took up the top 3 spots in the U.S., when Adele, Mumford & Sons, and Marsha Ambrosius accomplished the same feat in 2012.
Beyond the mainstream tastes of 1985, SFTBC turned TFF into a bit of a crossover act in the States. Outside of the Hot 100 Singles and Hot 200 Albums charts, Billboard has always had a history of segregating album and singles charts for different demographic markets (i.e. Hot Country, Top Latin, Hot Christian, etc.) The history of what is now known as the Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs and Albums charts are a little complicated, in that they have gone through numerous name changes in the last 50 years. For instance, from 1982-1990 the charts were officially called Hot Black Singles & Albums. The demographics of those charts have always been evident even without the clear racial signifier featured in their titles for most of the 80's, but they have always reflected the tastes of "urban communities," according to (mostly rich and white) music industry suits. To a certain degree, though, in 1985 the charts at least had the ability to symbolize ownership and celebration of cultural styles specific to black communities, especially before hip-hop and modern R&B were appropriated by mainstream markets by the late-80's and early-90's. For a white rock group to earn a spot in the Hot Black Singles chart was extremely rare, if not impossible, but TFF managed to do so with "Shout." That TFF were able to transcend racial boundaries in the States speaks volumes about the appeal of SFTBC. Aforementioned 1985 albums by Dire Straits and Bruce Springsteen sold more than two or three times the amount of SFTBC, but they certainly never had that same crossover appeal. This is not to say that this necessarily makes SFTBC a better album, but it does make it more culturally significant than many may have ever realized.
SFTBC did not single-handedly define popular music in the '80s. In fact, it can easily be argued that it is often in the back of the mainstream mind when many think of music that is exclusivesly "Eighties!" That’s because SFTBC, and TFF for the matter, are not fit to be tied to the decade wherein they became famous. They did not fit in then and they certainly don’t fit in now. Look up any 80’s renunion tour roster of sad, washed up acts and TFF are nowhere to be found. Thankfully, they’re still relevant enough to headline things like Portland’s ultra-hip PBR music festival, this past September’s Project Pabst. But the fact that it was a success in 1985, despite its clear difference to other records in the "hit parade," means that it could have just as easily been a hit album in 2015.
More importantly, though, SFTBC is a transcendent artistic statement of from the 80's. It's a sensitive record from a duo of sensitive men who, for too brief of a time, ruled the pop world ahead of the image-obsessed synth pop acts and cock-rock alphamales of the 80’s. In spite of itself, SFTBC is a statistic amongst the other bestselling albums in 1985, in that it still sounds postively fresh 30 years later. While the big hit songs from the "Big Chair" are staples of the decadent era they emerged from, their relevancy remains sealed in the modern era. Even a still-ubiquitous song like "Shout" holds its own against the more popular contemporaries of its time (i.e. "Sussudio" by Phil Collins) and the present (i.e. "Pompeii" by Bastille). In just 8 songs, TFF created something for everybody. An accidental masterpiece from the Bathonians? Maybe that's a bit hyperbolic, but it's also not far from the truth. After thousands of repeat listens, SFTBC has well-withstood the test of time and remains a curious hit record that can be appreciated by casual music fans and hip music geeks alike.
(Songs From the Big Chair was re-released in the U.S. on 11/11/2014 in a massive 6-disc box set, featuring a band-approved remastering of the original 8-track album, bonus discs featuring B-sides, remixes and previously unreleased live tracks, a 5.1 surround sound BluRay version of the album, and a DVD featuring the 1985 documentary Scenes from the Big Chair, music videos and television appearances from the era.)
*-The dubious distinction of an American music rag honoring "Mothers Talk" as one of the best songs of '84 is also a bit puzzling, considering the song was never released as a single in the U.S. until 1986 in a completely re-recorded version.
**-It was later made into a 1986 feature-length animated film that will likely be the SADDEST FUCKING THING YOU WILL EVER SEE and it also features a song not by Tears for Fears, but David Bowie.
***-An interesting footnote related to the success of the album: TFF had the number one song and number one album in the U.S. when the mega Live Aid concert took place in Philadelphia & London. TFF were, without rival, the hottest act on the planet at the time, yet they were noticeably absent from the gig. They canceled their appearence at the last minute (due to the expiration of contracts for a few of their touring musicians), but then again, Bob Geldof also tried to book them at the last minute. What could have been a setback for many bands at the time ulitmately did no harm to TFF. Some 20-years later, Orzabal and Smith would state that they simply decided not to perform at Live Aid so that they could rest during the middle of their lengthy world tour. Who knew they could be so...punk?