Top Twenty Tracks - Tears for Fears
I remember going to my friend David's house when I was little. He had lots of stuff we didn't have at my place, like a dog, a parrot, more games than anyone I knew, and a huge TV with cable, including MTV. I distinctly remember seeing the video for "Sowing the Seeds of Love" for the first time at his house. Years later I'd read that it cost over a million pounds to make (a ridiculous amount for 1989), but at the time I was blown away. David was trying to get my attention to play some sort of game, but I was too transfixed by what I was watching.
I started a deep dive into everything Tears for Fears. I got the latest album, then the previous two, then started riding my bike eight miles each way to this record shop that sold old vinyl and import CDs. What I discovered affected me enormously. This was the first time that I saw music as art, as not just making you want to tap your fingers or dance, but think something, feel something. Here was a commercially successful band, popular enough to see its frontmen on the covers of teen fan magazines, yet making songs with sometimes morbid lyrics, strange and experimental b-sides, and creative if overly grandiose album tracks. By the way, I was nine at the time, which I'm sure seems young to be into music in this way, but that's just how I was. I bought my first record at five, but that's another story.
Anyway, based on my long history with this band, I feel well placed to give you a definitive list of Tears for Fears's best songs. Yes, they have had number one singles like "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and "Shout", and are well known for being the originators of the often covered "Mad World", but only one of these songs makes my list. It's not that the others are rubbish, but there's just better.
By the way, if you'd like to listen along, I made nice little Spotify playlist for you here: https://spoti.fi/2Adtmnr
#1 — "Pale Shelter" (1983, The Hurting)
"Pale Shelter" has had a long history. Originally released in 1982 as the band's second ever single (following "Suffer the Children"), it didn't even dent the charts. Later it was re-recorded in a somewhat mellower and arguably more palatable form and included on The Hurting, where it became that album's third single. In that form it reached no.5 on the UK charts. Then two years later, once TFF had cemented themselves as a successful global act, the original Mike Howlett produced version was unleashed again, eeking out a no.73 chart showing. It's clear that the band and the record company had a love and faith for the track, and it's one that TFF still performs live to this day. It's also a song that's been samples and covered by multiple acts. A personal favourite of mine is the one by Matthew Dear feat. Tegan and Sara.
I'd recommend you to listen to the extended version which appeared as a b-side on the The Way You Are EP, the one with the piano intro. This is the one I've put on this Spotify mixtape, and I've also put the Matthew Dear cover on there too at the end.
#2 — “Sowing the Seeds of Love” (1989, The Seeds of Love)
If you listen to the rest of the songs that were on the charts when this came out, you'll notice that this song stands out as actually interesting. It's over six minutes long yet never gets boring — it's got multiple bridges, layered vocals, curious instrumentation, and a structure that really takes you on a journey. Other kids thought it was "weird", but they were free to listen to their Milli Vanilli and I was happy on my own. When it got to no.2 on the US charts, I actually remember being totally pissed off at Janet Jackson for taking the number one spot up with her "Miss You Much" drivel, though I wasn't too mad at Roxette the next week when they stole the spot with "Listen To Your Heart".
#3 — “Shout” (1985, Songs from the Big Chair)
Ironically for a song called "Shout", there isn't that much shouting going on. But it's still completely powerful, providing a perfect example of what TFF does best — they bring the drama. I wish I could get inside the head of a 1985 person to understand how a song like this could have been a number one. What you have here is a six-and-a-half minute song about relieving stress through unleashing anger rather than bottling things up. Not exactly normal. And this was in a landscape that saw it topping the charts between the likes of Phil Collins and Huey Lewis. And not even acceptable Phil Collins but "Sussudio" Phil Collins. I was perhaps too young to remember this song when it came out but I imagine I'd have been obsessed with it.
#4 — “Lord of Karma” (1991, b-side from Laid So Low)
The first TFF b-side to make the list, you get a clue from the opening synth bounce that this is a band that likes playing with noise, one that doesn't just make music but creates new sound. Here is a pop song that is at once mainstream in its melody and structure but oddly intellectual in its choice of instrumentation. It's also one of those songs where it makes no sense that it wasn't included on an album. I can only imagine that it was written too late for The Seeds of Love but before anyone knew what the next step for TFF woulf be.
#5 — “Head Over Heels” (1985, Songs from the Big Chair)
The height of TFF's commercial success came when they were at their poppiest. That's why their 1985 single "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" became their biggest global smash, a catchy, easy, and appealing song but which isn't actually their best pop song. "Head Over Heels", its follow-up, is their best pop song. Listen to the 7" version rather than the album version where it is not attached to the rockstrumental track "Broken".
#6 — “Fish Out Of Water” (1993, Elemental)
1993’s Elemental was a new sound for TFF. Now effectively a solo project by Roland Orzabal following the 1990 split with Curt Smith, the result was a harder, angrier product that somewhat reflected the grunge movement in the US. Interestingly, as the UK music scene started to move toward Britpop with the likes of Blur and Pulp, Elemental shows that Roland chose to embrace the US aural aesthetic instead. I wonder if things would have been different if Curt had stayed in the band. Speaking of Curt, this song quite explicitly talks about Roland's bitter feelings toward Curt. At the time I remember using this song to help relieve my own bad feelings towards a boy at school who wasn't reciprocating my crush.
#7 — “Memories Fade” (1983, The Hurting)
This is the most magical track on TFF's first album. It's meandering, it's transportative, and it's utterly depressing. Another song that the band faithfully continues to perform to this day, it reveals a musical passion that was most present in their early years, before fame, money, grueling touring schedules, and the loss of youth got in the way.
#8 — “Always in the Past” (1989, b-side from Woman in Chains)
Don't you just love a band who makes a b-side that's better than the single it's supposed to be supporting? It has one of the hookiest bass lines around, but perhaps was so annoyingly repetitive to play on tour that this could have been the reason why Curt Smith quit the band. But seriously why wasn't this on the album? The Seeds of Love only had eight tracks after all, you could have squeezed it in, right after "Advice for the Young at Heart". It would have been perfect right there.
#9 — “Change” (1983, The Hurting)
TFF's first album is best known for an indie new romantic synth rock style, some of which is a little hard to access (I'm talking to you, "The Prisoner"). "Change" however is the most immediate pop song on the record and it's the one that makes me wish I were an adult in 1983 so I could have bopped out to this at some university student union or club on the edge of Soho.
#10— “The Way You Are” (1983, The Way You Are EP)
A non-album single meant to keep fans appeased while waiting for the next album, "The Way You Are" is often forgotten, having not had a video made for it, having not been released outside Europe, and having been omitted from the band's 1991 greatest hits album. Yet it's a really interesting one. At 7:43, it's really way too long song for a single, but it's an early hint at Tears for Fears's later moves toward grandiosity that peaked during the Seeds of Love era. If you compare it to such later epics like "Swords and Knives" or "Badman's Song" then it's a little amateurish, but it makes up for it in pop accessibility. The use of strange moaning "ohs" on the backing track are baffling but genius. They must have had fun in the studio making this.
#11 — “Power” (1993, The Elemental)
As I mentioned already, TFF had a tendency to attempt rather a lot of epic songs. The peak of this epic era was The Seeds of Love, which only had one song under five minutes in length. Perhaps TFF decided to calm down a bit after that, which is why the next album Elemental is more restrained, except perhaps for "Power". It's a little nod to the fact that TFF can clean things up when they want to, but ultimately they can't help being grandiose at least once on an album.
#12— “Brian Wilson Said” (1993, The Elemental)
When "Sowing the Seeds of Love" came out, the media was rife with accusations of it being a Beatles rip-off, specifically of the song, "I Am the Walrus". I suppose this one from the follow-up album is a tongue-in-cheek response, attempting to blatantly copy the sound of another old band, The Beach Boys. But while the beginning of "Brian Wilson Said" does indeed sound very 1960s California, at around the two minute mark it meanders into dreamland, and further into something dreamily beautiful. It needs to be played after "Power", as it does in its original album placement.
#13 — “Famous Last Words” (1989, The Seeds of Love)
When Tears for Fears's long awaited follow-up to Songs from the Big Chair finally came out, it saw rave reviews, yet over time the album hasn't aged so well in the eyes of retrospective critique. The second half of the album goes a little off-piste, as if Roland was too over-excited playing with his new computer to notice that the songs were getting too long and needed editing. However, you could argue that the album had to go too far in order to justify the intense climax of the album's closer. In "Famous Last Words" you get two and a half minutes of twinkling piano and soft vocals to regain your composure until a sudden guitar entry and falsetto bridge wakes you back up again. Perfection.
#14 — “The Working Hour” (1985, Songs from the Big Chair)
In the mid-80s saxophones were a thing. Lady Gaga tried to bring them back but it didn't take. This song makes heavy use of the instrument but in a way that ages well and sounds in no way cheesy. If you watch live performances of this song, the whole band melts away while the saxophonist gets to do a full one-minute solo that brings the song to its climax. Here's another example of some of what TFF does best — drama, built slowly and finished with blissful resolution.
#15— “Me and My Big Ideas” (1995, Raoul and the Kings of Spain)
Tears for Fears started with some indie cred, but by 1995 it was over. The fifth album Raoul and the Kings of Spain was panned by critics, was a failure in the charts, and saw me ridiculed by my classmates for sticking by TFF in their worst hour. Objectively there are a few good tracks on the album, but most are throw-aways. The title track is one of the best, if you can ignore the lyrics. I have no idea what he’s talking about. It’s some sort of egotistical-narcissistic explanation that Roland has some link to the Spanish royal family but won’t take the throne because his daddy is a bad, bad hombre. Really the only non-problematic song on the album is this one, a duet with Oleta Adams (who dueted on their 1989 tracks “Woman in Chains” and "Badman's Song"). Don't bother with the rest of the album, stick to this one, unless you're feeling brave, and generous.
#16 — “Bloodletting Go” (1993, b-side from “Break It Down Again”)
Elemental arguably yielded the best b-sides of TFF's history. Not the most innovative, but the best in overall good songishness. It's a sign that Roland without Curt felt a sort of rush of freedom, inspired and happy enough to get a lot of great work done. "Schrödinger's Cat" and "Déjà-Vu & The Sins Of Science" were also great b-sides from the era, and many said at the time that the b-side "New Star" was not only better than its a-side "Cold" but that if it were on the album Elemental, it would have been the best track on it. Give it a listen if you're curious, but I find "Bloodletting Go" to be the best of the Elemental b-sides.
#17 — “Start of the Breakdown” (1983, The Hurting)
I recommend you listen to the live version of this from the The Way You Are EP, which has so much more emotion and immediacy, particularly in the screamed final chorus. "Start of the Breakdown" is an example that proves that TFF was once a real and even modest band, way before they got famous and started seeing their fans morph from indie kids into wet-knickersed teenage girls. Here it was just a few instruments and raw emotions. What more do you need?
#18 — “Pharaohs” (1985, b-side to "Everybody Wants to Rule the World")
Some of the first TFF tracks to really catch my attention were the b-sides. In this one, the BBC radio shipping forecast is played over a drum machine loop and piano solo. A very clever track that works perfectly as a bedtime lullaby if you're feeling insomniatic.
#19— “Mothers Talk” (1984, Songs from the Big Chair)
If any song on Songs from the Big Chair sounds like it could have belonged on the previous album The Hurting, it's this one. It only slightly hints at the mainstream pop direction that the band is about to enter. In the UK it was the first single released from Songs from the Big Chair, making a sensible bridge from The Hurting, and charting at a respectable no.14. However in the US it was remixed (with its dramatic intro hook — the best part of the song — removed) and released as the fourth single. Although the new remix was poppier in sound, it still probably confused its new league of pop fans, charting at a disappointing no.27 following three singles that hit no.1, no.1, and no.3 respectively. Listen to the original UK version, not the US Remix.
#20 — “Goodnight Song” (1991, Elemental)
The first single off TFF's fourth album, the first album entirely without Curt Smith was "Break It Down Again". It was a fine little pop song but sounded a bit too much like it was trying to be another "Sowing the Seeds of Love". It did OK in the charts, but the follow-up single, "Goodnight Song" totally bombed, and its failure to even crack the US Billboard Top 100 charts was basically the end of Tears for Fears as a band with a commercial future. However, despite chart failure, "Goodnight Song" is pure loveliness. It's also rather genius too in the way that its closing riff sounds sort of like waves pulling you back in, unable to escape, wishing the song that is now fading out would not end. You might also wish that this wasn't the end of Tears for Fears, but this effectively was the end.
- Honourable mentions: "Advice for the Young at Heart" (it's nice enough but so overly light you'd think it was hold music for a funeral parlour); "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" (a global number one that has nearly 5x as many plays on Spotify than any other of their songs, but I'm simply too tired of it to rank it objectively); "Suffer the Children" (while it's a decent track, it's worth listening to, especially in its original 1981 version, mostly to give an idea of how the band sounded in their infancy; "The Big Chair"(like some of their best b-sides, it's strange and compelling, but this one is just a little too unpleasant on the ears to make the top twenty list); "Secret World" (an absolutely gorgeous and classically epic TFF track that appeared on the 2004 comeback album Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, which saw Roland and Curt reunite. I probably would have included it on the main list but for some reason it's not available currently on Spotify). Listen if you can find it.
- Avoid like the plague: "My Life in the Suicide Ranks" (it's all just wailing and whining); "God's Mistake" (this was the first single from Raoul and the Kings of Spain released in North America, and it's pure garbage).