A 1985 bestseller re-issue which fails miserably to stand the test of time to put it mildly.
Songs From the Big Chair? The cheap shot would be Songs From People With Big Hair, more like. This album was first released at that surreal moment in the summer of 1985 when Live Aid bestrode the world and a pop music establishment (Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Phil Collins, the emerging Madonna) ruled the roost, defined as much as by their glossy MTV videos as by their ubiquitous pop dance recordings.
It was therefore ironic in a sense that one of the biggest global bands of that summer should be an outsider duo from the west country of England who bore no relationship to this establishment and whose name (and seeming intensity) was inspired by the primal therapy psychologist Arthur Janov, made famous by a patient of his, one John Winston Lennon. Just as ironically for performers who would have had no place on Bob Geldof’s rolodex, the band -- in a nod to their global rise -- had been added late on to the Philadelphia Live Aid bill (but had then, irooy on irony, had to drop out at the last minute).
This context is important when approaching the re-issue of Songs From the Big Chair in November 2014, a re-mastered CD accompanying a six-disc “super deluxe” edition box set featuring previously unreleased material. We are all acquainted with albums from the '50s onwards which match the epithet “timeless”. Tears for Fears may have gone on to further success in the late '80s before an acrimonious falling-out in 1991, but Songs From yhe Big Chair -- which spent five weeks atop the US charts during that glorious summer -- was the band’s Warholian 15 minutes. The record company knows it, hence the mega-repackage now.
The best test from this 29-year perspective might be to take the lesser well-known tracks first. In truth, the subsequent listening experience is quite shocking and makes you seriously question the taste of the record-buying public in 1985. "The Working Hour" sets the (wrong) tone, and unfortunately it’s downhill from then on as the record segues from one lacklustre track to another, leavened by the irregular shaft of light. "The Working Hour", dominated by repeated crashing piano chords, is a reminder of the difference between epic and bombastic, a latter failing to which the band succumb on way too many occasions. "I Believe" is a dirge -- underpinned by that damn piano again -- which just seems to be a platform for main songwriter Roland Orzabal's grandiloquent statements. "Broken" is a sprawl which seems to have forgotten any meaning to the expression “keep it tight”.
On the bonus tracks towards the end of the album, the band (or, more likely, Orzabal) abandon any attempt to write tunes and churn out a succession of over-long instrumentals. One of these, "The Big Chair", is probably meant to prove Orzabal’s proficiency with quasi-Birthday Party industrial rock -- instead it serves only to showcase the damage that musicians can wreak when given the freedom of the studio and indulgence of their ego.
Even the singles, located in the first half of the record, have lost their shine over time. "Shout", unfathomably a US No. 1, and "Mothers Talk" are best described as histrionic and over-wrought. Only "Head Over Heels" and of course "Everybody Wants to Rule the World", a great driving radio single to this day, match the pop standard which Tears for Fears set with their first album, The Hurting. Indeed, a quick listen to the latter record is a salutary reminder that Tears for Fears could once upon a time write and perform songs -- "Pale Shelter", "Mad World" -- combining foreboding atmosphere and insidious hooks that sat comfortably within the strictures of the four-minute single.
The fact is that the 1982/83 version of Tears for Fears was a genuine collaboration which relied just as much on Kurt Smith’s ethereal vocals as on Roland Orzabal’s maverick ambition. By 1985 Orzabal had become the dominating force in the band, and his penchant for extravagant pretentiousness reached its apogee with 1989’s Seeds of Love.
The re-issue of Songs From The Big Chair contains barely enough songs to make up a decent EP. Heaven knows what six discs of this stuff could inflict. Do yourself a favour: Go buy The Hurting and listen to what was once a rather interesting English post-punk band before the worst excesses (as opposed to the best sensibilities) of the '80s got to them.