In the not-so-distant past, the roundtable of NPR’s All Songs Considered sat down to discuss the ‘80s. What was at times a thoughtful discourse on the much-maligned decade more often than not devolved into a bunch of aging hipsters laughing at synthesizers. At one point, a panel member (I can’t recall whom) brought up Tears for Fears. Immediately, Bob Boilen (the host) recoiled in disgust. After some coaxing from the forgotten panel member, he reluctantly began to spin “Head over Heels”. Before the synth-laden opening bars of the song could even give way to the first verse, he hit the faders, gasping, “I can’t even get past the damn opening keyboard!”
Nineteen eighty-five was 25 years ago. I wasn’t even born yet, but given my childhood worship of Marty McFly, that’s still pretty hard to believe. To many, Back to the Future is about the only thing worth celebrating from that year (the Goonies and The Breakfast Club notwithstanding). Yet seemingly lost on pop culture historians is the anniversary of another massively successful piece of pop art celebrating its first quarter-century: Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair.
Tears for Fears don’t get much respect. Even in the wake of Donnie Darko, they’re mostly considered an afterthought in pop history. Yet, in an era that favors stripped-down, no-fi production, the sheer majesty of Tears for Fears’ sound is surprisingly refreshing.
Did the ‘80s suck? Yeah. By any reasonable standard, when you look back at the Reagan years they pale in comparison to the cultural output of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even the ‘90s were probably better. Yet every era has its bright spots, and to me, Songs from the Big Chair is a shining example. The album spawned two number one singles (“Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”) as well as a number three (the aforementioned “Head over Heels”). But this isn’t about chart success (if it were, I might as well extol the virtues of Starship). Songs from the Big Chair stands the test of time because, above all, it is a fantastic pop album.
Despite their relatively low output as a band, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith were excellent songwriters. The melody of “Head over Heels” is breathtaking; melodrama at its finest. When that keyboard solo kicks in after the first chorus, you can’t help being awestruck. “Shout” amazes with its primal scream-influenced lyrics and grandiose production; the music is so big. This type of stylized, reverb-drenched production tends to be critically reviled and to modern ears can seem badly-dated. When it comes to synthesizers, one of the major criticisms amongst “Rockists” is that, in attempting to replace analog instrumentation, they largely fail; to me this is part of the appeal. What largely attracts me to ‘80s music is how unreal it sounds. Instead of recoiling in disgust (a la Bob Boilen), I tend to revel in these production quirks; we may never hear music that sounds like this again.
Of course, being able to appreciate said dated production largely depends on why you listen to music in the first place. Some people see music as a representation of “what’s happening now”, and view all older music as irrelevant. A lot of that has to do with pop music’s youth-centric posture. The kind of “us vs. the world” mentality associated with adolescence lends itself well to music that more often than not tries to sell itself as a lifestyle choice rather than entertainment. The truth of the matter is all musical “movements” fade away. Some artists hold up better than others, and others remain lodged in the past. Tears for Fears might belong to the latter group, but that doesn’t mean they should be forgotten. So take this occasion to give Songs from the Big Chair a listen; I guarantee you it’ll be unlike anything you’ve “heard” before.
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