It’s a… Mad World

ROLAND ORZABAL: “Mad World” was a shock. It was supposed to be the B-side of “Pale Shelter.” But when I played it to Dave Bates, he said, “That’s a single.” Thank God. I never particularly liked “Mad World” very much. But that’s why I mucked about with it so much in the studio—programmed it up, spent a long time getting it into the state that it ended up in on The Hurting. I couldn’t sing it. I still can’t sing it—it just doesn’t work. I did a quick double track and hated it. I said to Curt, “You sing it.” And it was much, much better. He’s got a soft resonance to his voice. “Mad World” is, I think, the best vocal he’s ever done. It was recorded brilliantly, and it’s just incredibly haunting. In the early days, I’d just write the songs, and if I couldn’t think of some lyrics, I’d ask Curt to do them. When we started off, it was very much Curt as frontman and me as studio boffin. It was like that until “Shout.” Because it was such a big hit, when we got to America, people saw us more as cofrontmen. Certainly, in the early days in England, Curt was the pop star, and I was in the background.

CURT SMITH: The recording of “Mad World” took a while, but writing it took an afternoon. We were sitting on the second floor of the Bath flat that Roland used to live in, looking down on people dressed in suits going to work, coming back from work, thinking, What a mundane life these people must live. Although since then, I’ve longed for that.

After the [1983] release of The Hurting, we toured the world for a year. That widens your musical horizons and changes you. The only place I’d been outside England prior to us having a band was Spain: a holiday in Torremolinos, full of bad English people. We were 20 when that song came out, so we had a lot of screaming girls, but we also had a lot of shoegazers. Half the audience wouldn’t make eye contact; the other half were trying to rip our shirts off. The Hurting was big everywhere apart from America. When we came back to England, we felt like we wanted to make something bigger. We’d grown up a lot and weren’t just concentrating on primal theory. The last thing we wanted to do was The Hurting, Part 2. We started listening to different stuff, thanks to our producer, Chris Hughes. We were introduced to people like Steely Dan and Lynyrd Skynyrd. We listened to a lot more Frank Zappa. But it wasn’t a conscious decision to sound American. The only conscious part was that we never wanted to make the same album twice.

ORZABAL: Everything changed between The Hurting and Songs from the Big Chair. It was an incredibly difficult album to make. We were working every day, seven days a week, mainly at Abbey Road’s Penthouse studio. We would be working until two in the morning. We would be doing vocals over and over and over again. These are the days before Auto-Tune. I remember Curt being in tears in the toilet. There was this new kind of ambition around the band. It was like, “No, you’re not going to be introspective anymore.” And there was a push for, as Dave calls it, the drive-time single.*

*DAVE BATES: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” was not originally on Songs from the Big Chair. We had “Mother’s Talk,” “Shout,” “Head Over Heels,” “I Believe.” We were getting close to finishing the album, and it was already great, but we missed what I called the American drive-time single. I explained to them what the American drive-time single was—sun roof off, driving through the desert or driving home during rush hour with a tune coming out the radio and your arm stuck out the window—and Roland replied, “I know the kind of thing you need,” and he played this riff. I went, “That’s it! That’s the one!” And he said, “Well, I ain’t doing it.” What Roland didn’t realize was Dave Bascombe, the engineer, recorded him playing that riff. When Roland went home, [producer] Chris Hughes, [keyboard player] Ian Stanley, and Bascombe put a loop together using that riff; they put the drumbeat together and keyboards over it. When Roland came back, we said, “Check this out.” We pressed the button, and there was the basis of a song. Roland could see the possibilities of it. In the end, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” went on the album. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” was about me putting pressure on them to be the biggest group in the world, and the whole idea of world domination and them becoming huge. I believe “Shout” is also about me, because I used to shout a lot. I don’t care. It’s fine. I just wanted them to be incredibly successful.

ORZABAL: Our manager went bankrupt during the Seeds of Love tour. We were no longer a unit. Also, the relationship with Bates became strained. And then there was a change of personalities at the U.S. record company [Mercury Records]. Our success in America has an awful lot to do with Dave Bates and his relationship with the U.S. company, and with a change of personnel, it was no longer there for Seeds of Love. We spent too long touring Songs from the Big Chair. In hindsight, we should have done a short tour and pretty much gone straight back in the studio. I think we would’ve been happier. I think it would have been far more successful. There was such a loathing of going out into the world and doing the same songs over and over again. We never changed a set on the Big Chair tour. Personally, I wanted to reinvent Tears for Fears after Big Chair, hence coming back with a completely different sound—Seeds of Love sounding like the Beatles. I had absolutely no sense—no commercial sense and no business sense—and no one was really arguing with me. So we drifted for four years making Seeds of Love. I think everyone expected Seeds of Love to be as big as Big Chair.

SMITH: “Mad World” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” have lasted because of the emotion. You see that in Gary Jules’s version of “Mad World” and in Adam Lambert’s. He sold it, and Gary did as well. It’s one of those lyrics you can get your teeth into. Although sometimes those songs are hard for us to do live because we’re not miserable adolescents anymore. We’re cranky old men.

ORZABAL: In some ways, “Mad World” has been more successful as a cover version, especially the Michael Andrews–Gary Jules rerecord, which was never how I saw the song. I always saw it as an upbeat song. When they slowed it right down and made it heart-wrenching, the lyrics all of a sudden popped out at me, and I realized for the first time that they were pretty good lyrics. The first time I heard it, my friend had brought a copy of the Donnie Darko soundtrack from America and played it in the kitchen. My son at the time was six years old, and he started singing along to the lyrics: “Children waiting for the day they feel good / Happy birthday, happy birthday.” And it was like, Oh my God! Suddenly I knew what it was like to be a father instead of a child. When Curt and I first started, we had embraced Arthur Janov and primal scream therapy; our idea was to get rich, get famous, and get therapy. Having both come from difficult childhoods, it was very easy for us to sing from what I now call the woe-is-me area. Parents were to blame, the establishment was to blame, children were innocent. Of course, I don’t believe that now. I went through primal therapy in my mid- to late 20s, and when my first child was born, he came out, and it was like everything that I had believed was clearly not true. Because here was someone with a soul, with a character, already, at day one. So I don’t believe those things anymore. I don’t believe the child is a victim. I think the character of the child is predetermined.

SMITH: We toured South America last year, two weeks in Brazil. Our audience was from 18 years old up to 45. The younger demographic, it’s all people discovering The Hurting now and relating to it because it’s what they’re going through. It means the same to those 18-year-olds as it did to us when we wrote it. I hear people saying, “Music’s not what it used to be,” and I’m like, “Yeah, it is. Don’t you remember back then?” The majority of the stuff we listened to sucked. What you take with you is the really good stuff. But there was a ton of shit in the eighties. For every one of us, there was a Flock of Seagulls.*

*MIKE SCORE, A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS: The one word that springs to mind is jealousy. Maybe they didn’t see a band like us coming up beside them? Tears for Fears I don’t think wrote great songs; they were helped along by a brilliant producer , Chris Hughes. He took the little things that they had and turned them into absolute works of art, little bits of genius. Kind of like the Beatles wrote incredible songs, but I don’t think the Beatles would’ve been anything like they were if it hadn’t been for George Martin. I’m not going to slag Tears for Fears. Songs from the Big Chair was one of the best albums I’d ever heard. The Hurting was good too, but it just showed you where they could be. The thing is, where did they go after that, you know? I think they went kind of downhill. Like I said, I don’t want to slag them, because I really did enjoy their stuff, but Curt Smith may be living in a little fantasyland that Tears for Fears was something spectacular.

Mad World: an Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs that Defined the 80s, Lori Majewski & Jonathan Bernstein, 2014 (Abrams Image)

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