Tears for Fears have always been hard to pin down. As my friend’s dad recently pointed out, they never inspired the same sort of cultish devotion as their 1980s contemporaries such as The Jam or The Smiths, and yet any 80s playlist would feel incomplete without them. Hailing from Bath, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith never quite fit in to the new romantic club scene of London (Spandau Ballet, Culture Club); they didn’t align themselves with the jangly guitars of Manchester (The Smiths), the ambitious big rock of Scotland, Ireland and Liverpool (Echo & the Bunnymen, Simple Minds, U2), nor the futuristic throbs of lesser-known cultural hubs such as Sheffield (The Human League, Heaven 17) and Basildon (Depeche Mode, Yazoo).
Yet the boys have done quite well for themselves, filling out the London O2, with a new album on the cards later in 2019 – though as this album has been promised to fans for almost 15 years now, I think it’s reasonable to hold onto some doubt.
The duo was supported by the criminally underrated Alison Moyet, whose bluesy voice has often been overlooked due to its bubble-gum synthpop wrapping. Whilst there were notable absences from her set (‘Invisible’ and ‘Is This Love?’), she has historically justified the decision by arguing that they do not reflect the mind of a sharp 57-year-old woman who is much more likely to tell men who have wronged her where to go rather than singing sad songs about them.
This much was reflected by the numbers taken from her latest album, the producer of which clearly understood how to harness the dark power of her voice whilst still using rich, electronic arrangements. ‘I Germinate’ and ‘Beautiful Gun’ were full of drama and passion, and even sarcasm, partnered with stellar Numan-esque dance moves, and yet she still held a candle for her classics. Yazoo anthems ‘Nobody’s Diary’ – written when she was just a teenager – ‘Situation’ and ‘Don’t Go’ unsurprisingly went down a treat, and after a heartfelt performance of ‘Only You’ there was hardly a dry eye in the house. It was the perfect way to warm up the appetites for those anxious to see Tears for Fears, though Moyet might have set the standard much higher than the boys could ever hope to meet.
Tears for Fears rattled through their hits, and hardly spoke to each other in between – although they have never been known for their personal charisma. One wonders if this relates to hints dropped earlier this year by band member Curt Smith that the future of the duo is still uncertain; the pair have had their differences before, breaking up in 1989 and producing very little since their lukewarm reunion in 2004.
Roland Orzabal, however, seemed particularly thrilled at the prospect of having filled one of the largest venues in the UK – “there’s a f*** lot of people here!” – which was translated into gleeful, if slightly awful, dad dancing. This is perhaps a logical next step for the man who provided us the questionable bopping of the iconic ‘Mad World’ music video in 1983. One can forgive him for such moves (not a patch on Moyet) and the even more questionable man bun when one remembers the sheer diversity of hits that Tears for Fears have produced – delivered in voices which have hardly changed since the 1980s.
The melancholy, nihilistic tracks from their debut album, The Hurting, have lyrics which sharply with the catchy synthpop melodies that made them so popular; it isn’t often that one gets to see thousands of people dancing to lines such as “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”. Their second album Songs from the Big Chair was packed with the MTV hits that helped them break America (‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, ‘Head Over Heels’, ‘Shout’), whilst The Seeds of Love drew its inspiration from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.
This again contributes to Tears for Fears’ ambiguous nature: they are a band of undisputed classics, and yet they are never just one thing, and the hits that they have possess a sinister underbelly. Indeed, even the fizzy, upbeat synths of ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ are counteracted by the song’s subject matter which is nuclear annihilation.
The boys ran the risk of being completely overshadowed by their backing singer, Carina Round, who took on the role of Oleta Adams for the beautiful cry against the patriarchy that is ‘Woman in Chains’, though her gentler version of ‘Suffer the Children’ did rob the track of its original spiky bitterness and Camus-style nihilism. Instead, like Gary Jules’ cover of ‘Mad World’, the song became a borderline parody of itself, fitting with a more Nietzsche-style nihilism of despair.
It must be bizarre for men in their 50s to be performing angst-ridden tracks written in their twenties at all; they do not share the same reservations as Moyet. Some comfort could be drawn from the fact that their fans have aged with them, though the duo are far from a washed-up nostalgia act. Aesthetically they have stepped their game up with better production and merchandise that matches their most recent greatest hits album, making sure that they are still relevant for younger fans. They were after all used on the soundtrack for The Hunger Games and Stranger Things, and have been covered by artists such as Lorde and Weezer, showing that they are never far away from popular memory.
Indeed, it is fair to say that many casual onlookers came away from the rather therapeutic singalong encore – “shout, shout, let it all out!” – pleasantly surprised by the number of hits Tears for Fears had up their sleeves, even if the pair are not necessarily remembered as emblematic of the glorious decade of the 1980s. It was a masterclass in how to write good hits, and the truth remains that Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith are better together than they ever were apart.
by Dominique Pope