NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely. In fact, this week I know for a fact it doesn’t, so calm yourself down.
Welcome back! It’s the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m a dad, so I have to own my hokey humor. I’m not mad at you for thinking that, though.
Anyway, don’t forget to check out the website, and the Twitter thing, and now I’ve got the Instagram thing, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, How Good It Is Pod.
I have a fine trivia question for ye today! And if you follow any of the show’s social media outlets, then you’ll know the answer to this one. Linda Ronstadt had lots and lots of songs get into the Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between the 1960s and the 1980s. But only one of them went all the way to Number One. What song was that? I’ll have the answer later on.
Tears for Fears is the band we’re looking at today. The core of the band is Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, who met when they were teenagers in Bath, Somerset, England.
[ELVIS SHOULD PLAY SKA]
Musically they started out as session players for the band Neon, but their own debut came with their first band, Graduate. Graduate had kind of a mod-slash-ska kind of sound but definitely with an early New Wave flavor to it. They released an album in 1980 titled Acting My Age, and their first single was this one, titled “Elvis Should Play Ska”. Elvis in this case would be Costello, not Presley.
The single did well in some European countries but missed the Top 100 in the UK. In the meantime, however, they were feeling the influence of other artists like Talking Heads, Brian Eno and Naked Eyes. In fact, they’d worked with some of the members of Naked Eyes when they were still working with Neon. They changed their name briefly to History of Headaches, but changed it to Tears for Fears, which is a phrase that derives from Primal Therapy, which was a rather popular form of psychotherapy around then. In fact, many of the songs on Tears for Fears’ first album revolves around primal therapy.
Tears for Fears released their first album, The Hurting, in 1983, but it wasn’t until their third single, “Mad World” that they realized any real success. The song went to Number Three in the UK, and the album was huge over there. It got some attention on this side of the Atlantic, largely on the college radio stations, which were still almost the only ones playing New Wave music. In fact, I got to meet Curt Smith in 1990 when he was doing a publicity appearance to support their third album, and he seemed a little surprised that I even knew The Hurting existed.
1984 was the year that Tears for Fears really broke out worldwide, with the release of their second album, Songs From the Big Chair, which came out in February of that year. The album was a stylistic departure from the synthetic feel, moving into more of a traditional pop sound but still retaining some of the New Wave elements. The album’s title came from a book and TV miniseries called Sybil, which was about a woman with multiple personality disorder, who felt comfortable only when she was in the analyst’s “Big Chair”. Their rationale was that each song had a personality of its own. And in fact there was a title track called “Big Chair” that didn’t make it to the album, but was released as the B-side of “Shout” and can be found as a bonus track on some editions of the CD.
“Shout” was the first single off the album, but we’re here to talk about the third single, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. Having said that, there’s an interesting twist about those singles, that I’ll come to in a minute.
The song was written by Ian Stanley, Chris Hughes and Roland Orzabal and, like so many songs I’ve covered in this space, was a last-minute addition to the album. Orzabal brought two chords to Chris Hughes and they originally put something together with the lyric “everybody wants to go to war”, which Orzabal didn’t really like. At some point they changed it to “everybody wants to rule the world,” and the story goes that this was the trigger that got the entire song to fall into place. Some people think that the line was cribbed from a 1980 song by The Clash, called “Charlie Don’t Surf”…
[CHARLIE DON’T SURF CLIP]
So did Tears for Fears steal the line? Well. Joe Strummer told Musician Magazine that he once confronted Orzabal about it in a restaurant, telling him, “You owe me a fiver.” Strummer says that Orzabal reached in his pocket and pulled out a five-pound note, supposedly as compensation for the line.
But the thing that struck me wasn’t so much the title and its similarity to The Clash, but rather that two-chord thing, because it reminds me a lot of a song by The Fixx, which came out the previous year. Here’s the two-chord pattern from Tears for Fears…
…and here it is from The Fixx’ 1982 song “Stand or Fall”…
Do I think that Orzabal stole that? Nah, not really. But they’re similar enough to me that it’s interesting. The other important thing is that, in “Stand or Fall,” those chords are the heart of the entire record, whereas in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” they appear throughout but when you hear them clearly they’re used as little more than the lead-in to the verse that follows. It’s that happy little synth that really carries the song.
[EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD]
Now, I mentioned earlier that there was something to discuss about the singles off the album. “Shout” was the first single from Songs From the Big Chair everywhere in the world, but it wasn’t the band’s first US single from that album. Mercury Records was the band’s US label, and they thought that “Shout” wouldn’t be a good debut single for the band, so they elected to wait for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, and then released “Shout” and “Something Happens” afterward. In retrospect, Curt Smith said in an interview that it was one of those times when the record company was right and they were wrong. I’m pretty sure the video being put in heavy rotation on MTV didn’t hurt, either.
The song went to Number One in the US as their first single to chart, and it went to the Top Five in several other countries as well.
I think—and this is my opinion—that part of the appeal of the song is that from a lyrics standpoint, it’s a little bit of a Rorschach Test. Some people think it’s about achieving financial success, some think it’s about the Cold War, and still others think that it’s about the environment, because of the line “turn your back on Mother Nature.” All of which are fine, and I think that’s why the song endures, not only through multiple covers, but through multiple styles.
In 2013 Lorde covered the song for the soundtrack of one of the Hunger Games movies and gave it a much darker sound but a bigger climax.
Patti Smith retains the shuffling beat but still adds an overlay of folksy rock to it in her 2007 cover. And check out this 2001 version, by the rapper Nas:
He’s kept the chords and the guitar shuffle but he’s also added some lyrics to make it a more personal piece.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question! Back on Page Two I asked you to identify Linda Ronstadt’s one-and-only Number One record on the Billboard Hot 100.
[YOU’RE NO GOOD]
That would be this song, “You’re No Good”, from 1975. Several of her songs have gone to Number One on the Adult Contemporary or the Country chart, or reached the top spot in Canada, but only “You’re No Good” made it to Number One on the Hot 100, and it happened the week of February 15, 1975. In fact, the song only spent the one week there before dropping to Number Eight the following week. I’m thinking that part of the song’s success came from the fact that she’d been singing it as the closing number to her concerts for a couple of years at that point, so there were a lot of fans who were finally able to get their hands on a copy. And oddly enough, Ronstadt herself has said in interviews that she wasn’t especially happy with her performance on that record.
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Next time around, we’re going to stick with Linda Ronstadt, and find out How Good It Is when she’s playing a Different Drum.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.