Listen to this track by emotive pop song chart bothering duo from Bath England, Tears For Fears. It’s “The Working Hour”, a deep cut off of the otherwise hit single-laden 1985 album Songs From The Big Chair. That album was the much-awaited follow-up to their modestly successful debut record The Hurting from two years previous, with this new record being their breakthrough into the mainstream and outside of their alternative fanbase.
The songs on the album showed some of the same lyrical and musical DNA from their début. But, with this follow-up their sound seemed to be on a larger scale. If The Hurting was a precisely realized and eloquent little indie film, then Songs From The Big Chair had the sheen of a major studio, still dealing in similar themes of inner turmoil and alienation, but doing so with a bit more gloss. Hit singles “Shout”, “Head Over Heels”, and particularly “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” were ready for the red carpet, contrasted to their previous singles that were too emotionally insular to fit that kind of overt mainstream fanfare.
This had more to do with the tone of each release than it did with quality. As a major fan of The Hurting, even I noticed that, and was OK with it. Maybe that’s in part because of this song, “The Working Hour” that is one of the songs on the record that best bridges the gap between the moody and contemplative pop outfit they’d been, and the anthemic stadia-ready band they were seeking to become.
By the time this song and the album came out, the musical landscape had shifted some away from new wave and new romantic of the early eighties and toward a bigger and more widely-based rock sound that retained the serrated guitars and burbling synths of the past, but with a grander sense of scale designed to clear the hurdles laid out between the clear stylistic musical divides of the time. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith knew well enough to shift the tone and approach accordingly in a more soulful and muscular rock-oriented direction. Initially, their work was aimed at the moody kids wearing overcoats in the corner more so than at the football team and cheerleader set. By the mid-eighties, a lot of post-punk influenced bands were faced with having to strike this same balance between artfulness as a niche band, and mass appeal of a wider musical base commercially speaking.
U2, Simple Minds, and OMD were only three of the examples of those bands who built up similar kinds of niche fanbases at the beginning of the decade, only to fill out their sounds and their musical scope in terms of production and arrangement in order to go beyond those niches successfully by the middle of the decade. This was particularly true for those with the most momentum, looking for more exposure in the US. But, these same bands also knew well enough to stick to their same thematic wheelhouse that allowed those moody kids to continue to ride along with them. Tears For Fears did this better than most by 1985. Even the cover of the record depicting the two principles looking decidedly pleased with themselves is an indication of what’s inside. It was one of the key examples of a band getting that balance right during an era when rock and pop fanbases were very separated into strict camps. Most of their original fans applauded their change in direction and the success which followed rather than be resentful of it. The early-to-mid eighties was a strange time for this kind of thing. We didn’t want to give our bands away to everyone then. In a time of musical tribalism among fans with some pretty hardline divisions, we wanted them for ourselves.
As to the continued success of Tears For Fears and their move into a higher tier in terms of popularity, Chris Hughes as producer who had also helmed The Hurting, and keyboardist Ian Stanley who had also played on that earlier record had a lot to do with how effective this move was. Their work allowed a certain sense of sonic continuity, even if things had changed in terms of the overall presentation, writing, and arranging. Again, this song is perhaps the best example of this, taking Orzabal’s stark lyrics that centered around psychological self-exploration and matching them with contrasting textures that make the record a fuller version of their earlier post-punk and synthpop-based efforts, most notably Will Gregory’s (later of Goldfrapp fame by the two-thousands) agile and emotive saxophone part, and the Ryuichi Sakamoto-like instrumental intro.
Because they were able to recontextualize what early fans had loved about their first album so well while also being in line with the expectations for bigger and glossier pop music by the mid-eighties, it’s no wonder the new album was such a hit. This song wasn’t a single like “Shout”, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and “Head Over Heels” were. But, it serves the record as the connective tissue from one body of work to another, carrying that same spirit of the first record, with all of the production gloss of the one in which it is included. It’s a vital component to why the album isn’t just a nesting ground for the hits or some calculated bid for popularity. This song kept me engaged as a fan at the time, while also drawing me in with those radio hits along with many of my friends who weren’t yet fans of the band.
“The Working Hour” can be easily traced to the basic seed of why I loved the band in the first place; the thematic acknowledgement in their work that within every person there is a struggle going on, but that same acknowledgement also being a reminder that in our quiet struggles, we are not alone. Even with all of the mainstream glitz, Grammies, and Brit Awards that would follow later in the year the album was released, this song was an anchor for what made them a singular band in an era not always known for thematic depth and lasting quality outside of that era.
Amazingly, this year of 2015 marks the thirtieth (!) anniversary of the release of Songs From The Big Chair. For more information about the making of the record, a view on it these many years later, and about the newest band-abetted four-disc thirtieth anniversary edition, have a read of this interview with bassist and vocalist Curt Smith.
Otherwise, check out tearsforfears.com for updates and other things, including more news about the Songs From The Big Chair re-issue overseen in part from the band themselves.