How We Wrote Our First Record: Tears For Fears revisit 'The Hurting'

Roland and Curt return to the broken homes and primal scream therapy that led to their debut album.

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Jan 22 2014, 10:26am

Christmas 2003. An earnest, soul-patch sporting American in a flat cap is at the top of the UK charts with “Mad World”, a song in which the singer tells us that “the dreams in which he’s dying are the best he’s ever had”. The song goes on to become a talent show staple, sensitively crooned with eyes wide shut by a series of young men with big feelings. This parade of hopefuls all cover Gary Jules; many of them don’t even realise that the song was written years before, and that a couple of latchkey kids from Bath had been catapulted to success by its release. These two kids are Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, and “Mad World” was the breakout single from their band Tears for Fears’ debut album, 1983’s The Hurting. Both of them liked Jules’ version, though they initially thought it was Michael Stipe.

Today, Smith lives in LA. He left the band in 1991, but the duo got back together nine years later when - this is a nice period touch - he sent Orzabal a fax suggesting they talk. The two repaired their relationship and Orzabal, who still lives in England, noticed that Smith now spoke in a mid-Atlantic accent littered with Americanisms. When they got together to record their reunion album, 2004’s Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, they found themselves sitting in a studio in LA, “strumming guitars all day and drinking coffee”, as Orzabal remembers. This wasn’t his “idea of fun”, but then Smith played one particular chord - some variety of E minor 7th - and Orzabal took off. “He’s always been my muse.”

At the end of last year, to mark a deluxe re-issue of their debut album, I spoke to Tears for Fears, separately, about making the record. It’s easy to forget that this was an album that stormed to the top of the UK album charts despite being a collection of songs about the traumas of childhood, made by an unknown new-wave band. Both members of the group were enthralled by the work of the psychotherapist Arthur Janov, whose best known book, 1970's Primal Scream, provided inspiration for Bobby Gillespie & Co. Janov was the inventor of “primal therapy”, a treatment that encourages the patient to explore their own childhood trauma, feel it anew and then express the long-repressed pain. One way of letting this pain out is the “primal scream”, which is literally that. Both members of Tears For Fears felt that their parents hadn’t, in the words of their hit “Pale Shelter”, given them love, they’d given them pale shelter.

Smith and Orzabal both had good reason to feel this way. “We both come from broken homes. We were both brought up solely by our mothers, more or less,” says Smith. They met when they were about 13, when Orzabal heard Smith singing a Blue Oyster Cult song and was impressed enough to suggest they do a little collaborating. Their first foray into the world of music was an odd one. The day Orzabal turned 18, their band Graduate signed a record deal. Graduate were a 5-piece Mod revival band and the boys, kitted out in their sharp suits, put out an album in 1980 called Acting My Age, which featured a single named "Elvis Should Play Ska". The Elvis in question was Costello, not Presley. It’s hard to think of anything more of its time.

In Britain, Graduate were a little late to the Mod revival party and the single failed to trouble the top 100. No such problem in Spain, where it was a huge hit. The lads hit the Iberian Peninsula to play before crowds of screaming girls keen for a taste of what Carnaby Street had to offer. It was an odd experience for them both. “It was sort of strange, you sit there thinking, ‘you don’t know me, why are you screaming?”

Wanting to work on recording music rather than playing it live to European teenagers, Graduate was packed up and Tears for Fears was born. “Leading into The Hurting, what changed our view of music was Gary Numan”, Smith says. “It wasn’t even so much liking him, it’s that we were kids following trends and trends in those days were really powerful”, counters Orzabal, recounting that they had gone from being parka-clad Mods, to dressing in all black and loving drum machines. “You’re acutely aware something is changing and then suddenly Gary Numan was number one. We were familiar with the style, having listened to Bowie, but it was a shock that he was number one.” At the same time, they were also listening to Peter Gabriel’s third self-titled album and Remain in Light by Talking Heads.

This avant-pop was applied to the prison of a traumatic childhood. It was something the post-punk movement was doing with different musical arrangements. “I wasn’t a massive Joy Division fan”, says Orzabal, “but they were one of the few bands contemplating feelings of suicide”, which made them an influence and also meant that the two bands were regularly compared to each other. For Smith, the making of The Hurting “was really a way to get it out of our system”, to take feelings of abandonment, rejection and anger and turn them into something active.

“We believed we were victims and that very much coloured our approach to The Hurting, thinking that we were born neutral beings and that our tough upbringing troubled us”, says Orzabal, though he adds that, “the way of releasing the trauma of my childhood was to do primal therapy, which I did for six years. It was really gimmicky and very Californian”. That gimmicky, Californian impression was confirmed when they met their hero Janov in LA. He took them to lunch and suggested that they write a Broadway musical about primal therapy. Janov’s offer was politely declined, leaving the world bereft of a song and dance number relating to unexpressed feelings of abandonment.

With its raw emotion, catchy hooks and unusual arrangements, The Hurting remains a classic. This is an album for anyone who’s ever felt imprisoned by their emotions, and the desperation that exists when you can’t escape certain memories, whether those are derived from childhood or not.

It’s also an album that beautifully nails the trials of being in your late teens or, as Orzabal points out, suffering from depression. “Writing for me, when I was a young boy was extremely personal, and now it’s not”, he says. “I think these feelings are more prevalent in your teenage years. You find it hard to deal with certain things and as you get older it becomes easier,” adds Smith. “I think people in their late teens and early 20s tend to relate to the album more than any other age group because they’re just finding themselves. They’ve just left home and are dealing with not having that family support anymore. For us, we never had the family support so it made no difference”.

“Mad World” was borne of this mindframe. “We were sitting in his flat”, says Smith, “and we were looking out of the window at people going to work, and existences we thought were pointless”. The bourgeois life of Bath rolled by them, the “Worn out faces / Bright and early for their daily races”, and the two outsiders looked down on them and wanted no part of it. They turned this into a hit, though the success of the track was a surprise. Smith remembers that, “We thought it was a really great, original track but we also thought there were songs on the album that were far more commercial. So we thought we’d release it first and that it would garner us some critical acclaim because it was interesting and different. None of us - including the record company - thought it would be a hit”.

Orzabal adds that it was going to be a B-side but that the band was persuaded that this was a mistake. “If you analyse the chorus, it’s two notes”, he says, which is probably one of the reasons it was so damn popular. It was also just right for the time, being a new wave pop song featuring an 808 drum machine - recorded at twice the speed and then slowed down, backing up a classic melody and some lyrics about the alienating nature of bourgeois life. Did somebody say “Thatcher anthem”?

Roland Orzabal is the only credited writer on the album but Smith “was seriously my partner-in-crime. He couldn’t articulate himself musically like I could, but we were of one mind. We had the same feelings then, which we probably don’t now”. This telepathy was put into practice one day when Smith told his partner-in-crime about a band he’d seen the night before. “I saw a band called ‘The Electric Guitars’, from Bristol. I described them to Roland, and he just started playing a riff on guitar and said, ‘Do they sound like this’? And they did”.

Though synths, drum machines and other electronics are all over the album, the songs were all written on an acoustic guitar, the one thing that acquainted Tears for Fears with all the hippies still noodling away in the west of England. Orzabal’s acoustic guitar was supplemented by their “rich kid” friend, Ian Stanley, who lived in a “big fuck off house outside of Bath”, equipped with an 8-track recorder and all the latest Roland equipment. They were happy as pigs wallowing in the JP-4 muck. This equipment enabled them to create groove-heavy music to underlay and offset the poetically relentless trauma of their lyrics.

The disparity, between music and lyrical themes, is something Orzabal points out: “You have songs that work almost regardless of the lyric. ‘Pale Shelter’, if you analyse it lyrically, is sensitive and emotional. But live, it’s so up-tempo. There’s a real dichotomy. It’s the same with ‘Mad World’.”

Thirty years on, this is something the band experiment with live. “Sometimes when you’re singing some of these songs, you have to change arrangements because you don’t feel the same way anymore”, says Smith. Both men are fathers now. They also seem happy, free from the traumas laid out on The Hurting. Both now believe that, contrary to what Janov thought, personality is to a large extent determined by nature and that it is possible to move on from a difficult childhood. As Orzabal puts it, “Things like depression and rage are quite natural. It’s just a question of getting them in context”.

Orzabal tells a story about the first time he listened to Gary Jules’ version of ‘Mad World’ which perfectly illustrates the distance travelled between troubled young man and reflective father. “A friend brought over the Donnie Darko soundtrack and put it on before I’d even seen the film. My son was about eight at the time and he started singing the lyrics to ‘Mad World’: ‘Children waiting for the day they feel good / happy birthday / happy birthday’. I thought; ‘Oh God, no, what have I forced upon him! I was joking, I didn’t feel like that!’” These days, the process of making music is far less fraught for Orzabal. In fact, he often sits in front of the football, his headphones plugged into his laptop, fiddling around with music programmes hundreds of times more powerful than his rich mate’s 8-track. Still, for both men, The Hurting seems to remain a touchstone. “I’m very proud of it. It doesn’t beat around the bush. It’s not being subtle in anyway so in that sense it’s probably the purest Tears for Fears record”, says Smith. “Memories fade but the scars still linger”, they once sang. Well, the memories are good now.