wed 08/07/2020

Classic Albums: Tears for Fears, Songs From The Big Chair, BBC Four review - anatomy of an anthem | reviews, news & interviews

Classic Albums: Tears for Fears, Songs From The Big Chair, BBC Four review - anatomy of an anthem

Classic Albums: Tears for Fears, Songs From The Big Chair, BBC Four review - anatomy of an anthem

Latest BBC Classic Albums documentary hits the right notes, mostly

Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal: Revisiting the album that made Tears for Fears a household nameBBC Four

Roland Orzabal, co-founder and lead guitarist of Tears for Fears, laughs to himself often during this documentary — the latest in the BBC’s often-excellent, always-forensic Classic Albums series. “I agree, I agree, it sounds great,” says Orzabal. He’s listening to “Shout,” the band’s 1984 Billboard No. 1 hit. “There’s something about it,” he chuckles, “I believed it.” The documentary focuses on Orzabal and Curt Smith, Tears for Fears’ founders and frontmen, and the development of their album-topping record Songs From The Big Chair (1985). It tells the somewhat unlikely tale of how a cathartic, meticulous synth-pop album (the band’s name and the album’s name are both references to psychotherapy) became an international platinum hit.

This is a solid, straightforward documentary, providing context and colour to an absolutely anthemic album — alongside "Shout," Songs From The Big Chair included chart-toppers "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and "Head Over Heels." It traces the band’s development from Smith's and Orzabal’s adolescence, through to their successful first album The Hurting (1983), the production of their second album, and ultimately their massive mainstream success across the UK and the US. In the traditional Classic Albums style, it includes interviews with the core band as well as their nearest and dearest on the album: collaborator and keyboardist Ian Stanley, producer Chris Hughes and engineer Dave Bascombe. There are also interludes with talking heads and footage from past performances. This includes recent clips — after a split in the early nineties, Tears for Fears reformed and have been reperforming since.

The documentary’s main theme is interpreting and explaining the band's influences, experiments and their rapid, rare success. Right music, right time, seems to be the message from the band. They talk about the advent of MTV and the magnetism of psychologist Arthur Janov’s ‘primal scream’ theory — the ideology that lay behind their lyrics, but was glossed-up and glossed-over by their style. “We managed to combine uptempo, upbeat pop with dark lyrics,” Orzabal says, as if it were a trick. A damn good trick — apparently the album has sold over 20 million copies. Why? It was infectious and at the same time “unbelievably haunting,” as their producer Chris Hughes describes it.

There is some new material here — the in-studio interview with Hughes and Gascombe may be particularly interesting to fans. They reflect on the experimental production process and play bonus clips from the songs, such as an unheard intro and extraordinarily dramatic vocal track that were ultimately shaved from “Shout." Given the themes of their early work, Smith and Orzabal also speak openly about their early lives. Their reflections on Janov’s teachings are thought-provoking: Smith, for example, notes that he no longer believes in the very theories that underlie their body of work.

As a documentary, the narrative can be a little scattered. The episode jumps from interview to interview, song to song, in a way that is sometimes non-linear and — unless you’re a dedicated fan — occasionally hard to follow. Interviews with gospel singer Oleta Adams (core collaborator on The Seeds of Love) are spliced in strangely, so the documentary can quickly cover the band’s third album before it finishes its focus on the main event. But the show is saved by some probing insights into the creative process, and by the music itself: the documentary’s brooding, dreamy, invigorating soundtrack.

Orzabal looms large in this documentary, as the apparent gatekeeper of Tears for Fears’ legacy. Occasionally, there’s a touch too much self-regard in his interviews, in which he accurately but excessively confirms, then confirms again, their success. Still, who can blame him? Especially given the evident catharsis and therapy and self-revelation that went into gifting us with the music. Reflecting on the suggestion that Songs From The Big Chair is an ‘era-defining’ album, Orzabal says, “It’s not for us to say… well, it is for us to say.” He laughs to Smith as they sit side-by-side in a studio. Smith reminds him, with a little irony, that it is categorically not for them to say — because why bother? Other people already say it for them.

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