Completely in Command: ‘The Hurting’ by Tears for Fears, 1983

Reviews / November 30, 2017

The Hurting
By Tears for Fears
Mercury, 1983

ROBERTS: I first heard The Hurting in 1986. A girl in my high school—a girl I had a big crush on—taped it off her older brother’s LP and let me borrow it (older siblings were like our Spotify). She never got that tape back. I knew of Tears for Fears at the time—everybody did. Songs From the Big Chair had blown up in the US in the summer of 1985; “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” were all over the radio. I dug it, but by the time I started my freshman year, it was too “top 40.” My parents liked it, for Christ’s sake! The Hurting was a different animal. It was (and is) terribly sad, terribly catchy, and terribly unpredictable—at times, almost experimental. It was probably the only keyboard album (nobody said “synth-pop” back then) I admitted to liking for the remainder of high school. I’m still at a loss as to how these kids—20 years old when some of the songs were written—wrote one of the greatest, purest pop-rock albums of all time.

MCKENNA: My connection with The Hurting began with a crush too, except that mine was on Curt Smith. Something about the way “Mad World” sounded when I’d heard it in the top 40 rundown had already set a chord vibrating deep within me, but the first time I saw them playing it on Top of the Pops (a very different-looking band from the one we’d come to know, introduced by an uncharacteristically glowing John Peel), I felt as though I was drowning. Other male acquaintances had their sexual identities thrown into doubt by Prince or Marilyn or Boy George—in my case, it was Curt Smith: the unearthly face, those tortured eyes, and that voice that throbbed with childish fragility and adolescent aggro. The song was a headfuck too: those mocking, stentorian trumpets, the weird contrasts of mood, the way the lyrics seemed to inhabit the same world of childish fear and incomprehension I did—was it supposed to make you happy or sad? For an obedient child like me, not being told how I was supposed to respond to it all was unnerving, and “Mad World” offered no answer. To my 11-year-old mind, the whole thing was as confusing as fuck—and intense as fuck to boot.

The crush faded as soon as Smith chopped off the plaits (which might have contributed to my never paying Tears for Fears much attention post-Shout), but the memory of how intensely the songs from The Hurting carved their way into my consciousness is still fresh. At the time I was only aware of the singles: the idea that there was an LP from which The Hurting‘s three devastating hits came probably didn’t even occur to me, so I don’t think I’d have heard the whole thing until I was in my twenties. Even if it had just been “Mad World,” “Change,” and “Pale Shelter,” it would have been an album for the ages, but incredibly it’s more than that.

GRASSO: Well, this is another situation where I show my age, guys. I don’t really have a lot of in situ memories of The Hurting; I was far too young. Absolutely, it was impossible to avoid Tears For Fears during both the Songs From the Big Chair and The Seeds of Love (1989) eras. Like any kid who spent hours in front of MTV in the mid-’80s, the epic-length video for “Shout” and the silly-yet-charming video for “Head Over Heels” loomed large. And by 1989, I had developed my own burgeoning musical consciousness, helped along by the existence of 120 Minutes (debuted in 1986) on MTV. The hippie-throwback video for the explicitly Beatlesque “Sowing The Seeds of Love” featured prominently on 120 Minutes during my quite memorable musical summer of 1989; I was leaving junior high and heading to high school and everything was about to change, both in my life and in popular music.

I think, like a lot of people in my age category, I made an effort to rediscover Tears For Fears after seeing Donnie Darko in 2001. The Gary Jules cover of “Mad World” from the soundtrack was utterly impossible to avoid when that film came out; it has not aged anywhere close to as well as the original, in my opinion. (There’s also Richard Kelly’s masterful use of “Head Over Heels” in the film itself; visually reminiscent enough of Tears For Fears’ music video to summon an association, but original enough to be memorable on its own.) It really wasn’t until the 2010s, with the advent of Spotify, that I was able to revisit The Hurting as a cohesive album. Again, those big singles from the album—“Mad World,” “Change,” “Pale Shelter”—were everywhere on the local indie Boston radio station during my high school years. But revisiting The Hurting as a near-middle-aged adult who’d by then largely shed his love of “emo” music, I got to hear the songs with a more critical ear—and they hold up wonderfully. Probably the standout track for me is “Pale Shelter“; the way Roland Orzabal interweaves the cascading, pulsing synths with the shimmering acoustic guitars sounds original and fresh even today.

As Kelly mentions, the hits from Songs From the Big Chair made Tears For Fears into international superstars. The Hurting sounds so different, so immediate, so raw that I have to wonder what would have happened to Tears For Fears had they not made the turn to anthemic U2-style pop. In this alternate history, do Tears For Fears join The Cure and The Smiths as ’80s touchstones who toiled in the underground, relegated to college radio in the US, only to be deemed legends with the benefit of time and distance?

ROBERTS: That’s a fascinating way to put it, Mike, and maybe that’s one reason the album holds a certain kind of romance: it was so complete that they painted themselves into a corner; they had to change direction. I’m not going to get cute: “Mad World” is my favorite track, no matter how many times I hear it; there’s some Leonard Cohen-level shit going on here, and that’s why it works so well when you strip it down to just the vocals and a piano (or a guitar). In fact, you can take away the electronic layers on all of these songs and still have a collection of classics. As I said, the songs—all of them composed by Roland Orzabal—are preternaturally good, as are the arrangements. They get so many different sounds out of the synths—that bright, elemental riff on “Change,” the shimmering, foreboding undercurrent on “Memories Fade,” the threads weaving around the high-mix bass on “Start of the Breakdown”—and I love how the guitar sort of assumes the background role usually assigned to the keyboards; all of those stark, resounding chords—especially on “Memories Fade” and “Watch Me Bleed”—are so well-placed and gorgeous. And when the guitar does get the lead riff—“The Hurting,” “Watch Me Bleed”—it sounds just as good. Unlike Songs From the Big Chair, I keep coming back to The Hurting—for over 30 years now. It’s always new, always moving, always perfect.

MCKENNA: It makes sense that the two of them had joined forces in 2-Tone/mod revival band Graduate (their first band forming after Orzabal heard Smith singing along to Blue Öyster Cult‘s epic “Then Came The Last Days Of May”!), because, despite the anguish and melancholy, there’s a vaguely mod sensibility to the bounce and thrust to a lot of The Hurting—a drive towards the “progressive” and a distinctive, muscular momentum that’s a long way from the brittle clatterings of bands like, say, Joy Division, who the music papers and Peel initially saw as Tears for Fears’ peers. (Side note: discovering that Smith was a teenage BÖC fan has been one of the more gratifying parts of doing this piece.)

Their name and the idea for their first records came from the work of controversial (aren’t they all?) psychotherapist Arthur Janov. In books like 1970’s The Primal Scream and 1980’s Prisoners of Pain, (a line from which became “Tears for Fears”), Janov—who came on like a rock star, making wild claims about the efficacy of his method—outlined what he said was a revolutionary new treatment for mental illness: “primal therapy” suppposedly identified the root of neuroses, anxieties, and depression in repressed childhood traumas, and tackled them by having patients act them out. “Primal”—as I now discover its adherents refer to it—is very much of its time: a fast-working, one-size-fits-all insight (which to modern eyes looks a bit, “Well, yeah, obviously it’s partly that,” but presumably seemed revelatory back then) that instantly got up the noses of the traditionalists, who accused it of being a bullshit money-making machine run in a worryingly cultish way—even though it did cure James Earl Jones’s hemorrhoids.

It’s also probably no coincidence that Tears for Fears formed in a public housing estate in the British city of Bath, the beautiful Regency town which is second home to the BBC’s costume drama department as well as sundry rich bastards. Both of them alienated kids from not very well-off broken families, their issues were probably only exacerbated by living in what must have felt like a shithole in the outskirts of another kind of shithole—a provincial hive of ancient privilege and chocolate box elitism which is a strange enough place nowadays, so God alone knows how weird it was back in the ’70s.

GRASSO: Richard, thank you for covering the “broken family” and primal scream angles. I want to talk about the album’s focus on childhood and boyhood specifically. The cover illustration recalls other early-’80s groups—U2’s debut album Boy (1980) and their breakout third album War (1983) come to mind here—who use the innocence of boyhood to explore both larger political issues and their own tumultuous young adult years. Lyrical imagery throughout The Hurting centers on a child who is isolated, wounded, alone, very much like the one on the cover. Why all this hurting? Observe the absent parent of “Suffer The Children” (“He’s an only child in an only room/And he’s dependent on you…”), or the selfish, neglectful one on the title track (“Could you understand a child/When he cries in pain?/Could you give him all he needs/Or do you feel the same?”): they both result in the same Hurting. Roland Orzabal said “Pale Shelter” is “a kind of a love song, though more referring to one’s parents than to a girl.” A refrain saying “You don’t give me love” is certainly an odd type of love song: weird and codependent for an adult singing to his girlfriend but perfectly apposite for a child abandoned by his parents.

Of course, this set of issues—self-centered, “fully-actualized” Boomer parents and their neglected children—was current in the early ’80s on both sides of the Atlantic. Divorce rates had skyrocketed in the early 1970s in the UK as the “new permissiveness” helped remove the stigma of divorce. But the alternately abusive/absent parent figure hovering over The Hurting also is clearly evocative of the dual conservative revolutions that occurred in the UK and US in the early ’80s. A beneficent welfare state that had fostered its children and provided them with education, art, culture, sustenance, and safety, suddenly was wholly on the chopping block. The woman who’d made her first political impact literally stealing milk from children was now in control of the entire country.

The post-punk scene had grown up on this welfare state, depending on its cheap bedsits, practice spaces, and most importantly publicly-funded art schools to help foster the creativity of young artists. A huge number of the bands who emerged from the post-punk and new wave scenes came from working-class backgrounds. Tears For Fears’ cri de coeur of abandonment and childhood anxiety would, like the radicalism of so many other post-punk groups, dissolve as the go-go Eighties kicked into gear. The angry, hurt child of the Reagan-Thatcher decade would be flung from the creche to fend for himself in the Darwinian marketplace. The kind of lyrical complexity around pain and abandonment seen on The Hurting would be turned into the same kind of mantras their parents’ generation adopted: shout, shout, let it all out. It’s a perfect recuperation of Sixties spiritual radicalism, repackaged and commodified for the global marketplace. I honestly don’t blame the talented Orzabal and Smith for this; I blame the overall trends in corporate rock in the mid-’80s. This development arguably makes the raw immediacy of The Hurting all the more poignant: it’s a brief, strangled cry, a demand for adequate love and nurturing, before the hammer came down on all of us.

One thought on “Completely in Command: ‘The Hurting’ by Tears for Fears, 1983

  1. “Unlike Songs From the Big Chair, I keep coming back to The Hurting—for over 30 years now. It’s always new, always moving, always perfect.”

    Agreed. However, the Big Chair era single (B-side) “Pharaohs” is worth revisiting.

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