Amazing things happen when we stop planning, analyzing and second-guessing ourselves long enough to allow the creative process to happen on its own accord. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, the duo behind the synth-pop group Tears for Fears, had spent many months working and re-working Songs From the Big Chair, the follow-up to their 1983 Phonogram debut, The Hurting. Each song entailed endless analysis and adjustment in every stage of the recording to make sure Orzabal’s weighty lyrics came through with ample power and their music conveyed the sophisticated yet accessible sound they wanted. But when they got to “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” the last track recorded, they had grown tired of fiddling and the whole thing tumbled out in less than two weeks. Why? They followed their first instincts, and because they wrote the song so quickly (and just possibly because they were burned out and ready to go home), they didn’t take the song too seriously and figured it was an upbeat ditty to balance out more intense fares such as “Shout” and “Broken.”
Ironically, their throwaway track, this month’s Classic Track, became the album’s centerpiece and debut single, topping the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Dance charts, and leading the band to commercial success that far exceeded their expectations. With this single — and the album’s other chart-toppers, “Shout” and “Head Over Heels” — the band achieved their goal of winning over the U.S. market and then some.
Tears for Fears were already well-known in the UK thanks to The Hurting, which had produced three Top Five U.S. singles. They felt reasonably content with their success on the other side of the pond, but their producer, Chris Hughes, knew that Orzabal’s songwriting, combined with Smith’s keen melodic sense, could win over audiences worldwide. “The tendency in Britain at the time was to make clever, introverted synth-pop records, and we had done that with The Hurting,” says Hughes. “I thought Roland’s songwriting was universal and that we could have a more American, if you will, type of record. The overall impression when we started Songs From the Big Chair was that it was a big record, so it felt like everything was already moving in that direction.”
With The Hurting, the band incorporated the latest of 1980s technology — MIDI-controlled keyboards, synthesizers and drum machines — into an all-electronic concept album dealing with mental anguish and emotional crises. With Songs From the Big Chair, they continued to take an inner-directed approach but with a lighter touch, both conceptually and musically. “I felt that we should keep the synths that we loved, but re-introduce guitars,” says Hughes. “Roland was reluctant to at first, but once we recorded ‘Mother’s Talk,’ we had hit on the style of what the album could be.”
Working in keyboardist Ian Stanley’s home studio, the band recorded eight songs, which initially seemed like enough for one album. But Hughes thought the record needed more work. “Roland had convinced the label that the album could work on ‘Head Over Heels’ and ‘The Working Hour,’” he says. Granted, “Head Over Heels” did become their third U.S. Number One, but a couple more strong songs sure wouldn’t hurt.
Not long after that decision, Orzabal played Hughes a chant he had written called “Shout.” They stopped everything else to focus solely on that number, which would become their second Number One and one of the most recognizable songs of the decade. They spent many, many months on that powerful anthem alone, making sure that each layer worked perfectly with the others. Near the end of its evolution, Orzabal walked into the studio and played two simple, chimey chords on his acoustic guitar. He didn’t give them much thought, yet he couldn’t stop playing them. “It’s nothing,” he told Hughes. “It sounds a bit like [the Simple Minds song] ‘On the Waterfront.’” Those two chords became the foundation for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
“I had a little 8-bit computerized MIDI sequencer called a UMI [Universal Musical Interface], and I programmed those two chords and a bass line, and had that running on and off for days in the studio,” says Hughes. “Roland was really not interested. I said, ‘You have to go away and write this song! I know it’s only two chords, but it’s really, really good.’ Some weeks later, he came in with basically the chorus line. From the day he came in with that chorus line, myself, Ian Stanley and Roland sat down and finished the whole thing in about a week. If you put up the 2-inch masters of that song now, it almost mixes itself. It’s very straightforward.”
Typical of synth-driven 1980s pop, the entire song was programmed, and the only organic elements were a few guitar parts and Smith and Orzabal’s vocals. “This was the flavor of the time,” explains David Bascombe, who recorded and mixed the album. “It was all very controlled.” Their layered style of recording also made it easier to work from Stanley’s home studio, which the band had recently upgraded using advance money from the second album. Stanley’s newly expanded home studio included a 32-channel Soundcraft console, a 24-track analog tape machine and room for the band’s keyboard and synthesizer collection, which included such classic designs as Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Fairlight CMI, Roland Jupiter 8, Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and PPG Wave. They also had a LinnDrum LM-2, another recent acquisition.
“It was a really exciting time,” recalls Bascombe, who was just starting his career at the time. Songs From the Big Chair was his first major album project — a testament to his inherent talent. “I loved all the new technology that was coming out, and Tears for Fears was pretty much at the forefront of it all. We also had some old analog mono synths — Ian had an old Roland modulator system that we used on a couple of things — but the [synths] were the mainstays. The LinnDrum did almost everything else. We just chose whatever device would deliver the sound we were after.”
Hughes programmed most of the drums on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” They borrowed the snare drum sound from “Shout” and pitched it up. The hi-hat and shakers came from the LinnDrum. The kick drum sound came from the Fairlight CMI. Smith laid down a new bass line with the PPG Wave, and Orzabal and local session musician Neil Taylor laid down the electric and acoustic guitar parts. The synth pattern came from the DX7. Bascombe recorded Smith and Orzabal’s vocals with a then-new Neumann TLM 170 microphone at Union Studios in Munich, where they also mixed. “We wanted to mix on an SSL, but not in England,” Hughes recalls. “So we looked through the SSL guide and found one in Munich!” The locale also allowed for a bit of skiing for some of the team, as Bascombe recalls.
Mixing Songs From the Big Chair took almost as long as the recording process and was just as tedious. Bascombe mixed many of the songs more than once. “Shout” alone took four days. Limited technology, combined with the band’s perfectionist streak, made for many a long day. “It was a very careful, considered process,” recalls Bascombe. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” however, wasn’t taken as seriously. “We only mixed this track once,” he recalls. “It came together easily. With the other songs, there was a lot of second-guessing, making sure every sound was really pushing the band. But this was more straightforward.”
“It’s probably the most straightforward recording on the record,” adds Hughes. “Other tracks were recorded to two 24-tracks, then we would do edits on tape, and any piece of technology that could have gone wrong or held us up probably did. But ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ was so simple and went down so quickly, it was effortless, really. In fact, as a piece of recording history, it’s bland as hell.”
The song’s simplicity comes through when one hears the pulsing shuffle-beat, bright melody and singable lyrics. Even though the message is still quite serious — about people craving power and the misery of warfare — the song serves as a refreshing break for those listening to the album straight through, as well as for the team that recorded it. “When you’ve spent so long trying to perfect the other bits and pieces of the record and it has taken such a long time, it’s a breath of fresh air when something comes together in a very innocent moment,” says Hughes. “It was up on its legs too quick to over-fuss it.”
The song recorded as an afterthought became the album’s lead single, shot to Number One for several weeks and helped the album reach quadruple-Platinum status less than a year after its February 1985 release. The album broke Bascombe’s career; he went on to work with such artists as Depeche Mode, ABC, Peter Gabriel, Erasure and, more recently, James, Natalie Imbruglia and Linkin Park, among others. He also rejoined Tears for Fears to engineer and co-produce Seeds of Love back in 1989.
Songs From the Big Chair also remains a key album for Hughes, who’d already had success with Adam & The Ants before meeting Orzabal and Smith in the early ’80s. “When I’m working with people now, they refer to either the math, science and synths of Tears for Fears or the rawness and mayhem of Adam & The Ants,” he says. Hughes went on to work with Howard Jones, Lloyd Cole and Robert Plant, among others. He also issued a solo CD and recently finished recording and producing a new jazz project called The Quartet, featuring former Wang Chung vocalist/guitarist Jack Hues, to be released on Hughes’ own Helium Records.