Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Back To The Egg Revisited

After nearly eighteen months, and nigh on 500 posts, I’ve made the difficult decision to draw the curtain down on Retro Universe. A few months ago I nearly did likewise, but gained sufficient second wind to propel my enthusiasm to this point. However, my heart isn’t in it anymore, and though there are somewhere in the vicinity of 300-400 more artists that I’d like to write about, for now at least, I don’t feel I can do the blog, the artists, or myself justice in writing about them. I’d like to express a word of thanks to regular readers, and casual passers by, of Retro Universe. The biggest motivating factor in my putting so much time and effort into this blog has been the knowledge that like minded enthusiasts of quality music from a bygone era, have found, at least in part, my literary meanderings to be somewhat interesting, informative, and mildly entertaining. But - as they say in the classics, never say never. So like a money spinning Hollywood sequel, one day in the future the curtain may be raised once more for a Retro Universe encore. Until then, I thought I’d sign off in style.

As with so many things in life, for this swansong post I thought I’d travel full circle, or back to the egg if you will, and revisit something I made reference to in my very first post. I posted the front cover to the 1979 Wings album ‘Back To The Egg’, and unashamedly declared it to be one of my all time favourite albums. I stand by that declaration, and shall take this opportunity to expand with unabashed enthusiasm my reasons for taking such a stance.

Back in the early 80s, I took my first tentative steps into the world of being a Beatle-head. It began with some second hand copies of original Beatle albums, including ‘Abbey Road’, and the gatefold edition of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. By 1983, my interest in the Beatles, both as a group and as solo artists, was gaining momentum, swiftly. I was chuffed to receive a cassette copy of Paul McCartney’s album ‘Pipes Of Peace’ for Christmas ‘83, and over the ensuing couple of years it was McCartney’s back catalogue that received the lions share of my attention (though in time Lennon, Harrison and even Starr would receive likewise). I began hunting down any and all album titles by McCartney as a solo artist, and with his post-Beatles’ group Wings. One of my earlier purchases was a vinyl copy of ‘Back To The Egg’, procured at one of those small time suburban record bars, now fewer and farther between than ever before (thanks to mega-chain stores). Eventually I owned three vinyl copies of the album, which featured a different centre label on each side (one for ‘over easy’, the other for ‘sunny side up’). As I wore out one copy, I’d buy another, and I picked up a cassette copy just in case. This was during the formative chapters of the CD format, and who knew when or even if a back catalogue title would be released on the pristine digital mode. Several years later I finally did obtain ‘Back To The Egg’ on CD, and within a few months I’d purchased a second ‘back-up’ copy (this was well before the days of being able to burn a quick copy on your PC). In truth, one reason I purchased a second copy on CD was that the first copy had been the Parlophone release, and several months later I came upon the Columbia Records release (well, by that time repackaged under the Capitol banner). Exactly the same album, and track listing , but different CD label, and slightly altered layout and design on the back cover. Yes I know, my Beatles-tendencies were reaching, let’s say, unhealthily obsessive levels at that stage. In subsequent years I’ve kerbed my buying habits to a more casual level (and my bank balance thanks me). There was a reason for the ‘Back To The Egg’ album being released on two separate labels (one U.K., the other U.S. based), and it wasn’t an altogether unusual practice, but I’ll expand on that a little in the next paragraph or two. ‘Back To The Egg’ was also released on ‘video-disc’ format (which I guess equated to the relatively new video cassette format - it was also broadcast on television at the time), which for a year or two back in the late 70s/early 80s, became a bit of a fad with those artists who could afford to produce music videos for all the tracks on an album. Electric Light Orchestra did likewise for their 1979 album ‘Discovery’, which I have on DVD, but to my knowledge ‘Back To The Egg’ hasn’t been released in video-DVD format. I have a copy of ‘Rockestra Theme’, and snippets of ‘Winter Rose’ and ‘Love Awake’, which were included as a bonus on the ‘Wingspan’ DVD, and the video for ‘Baby’s Request’ (and ‘Goodnight Tonight’) was included on the DVD ‘McCartney Years’, but aside from some video tape copies of ‘Getting Closer’ and ‘Old Siam, Sir’, it’s a yawning gap in my Beatles’ related catalogue (if anyone who reads this has knowledge of a legit and available copy of the video version of ‘Back To The Egg’, please, please (let) me know).

Firstly, a little background to the ‘Back To The Egg’ tale. Arguably at their commercial and creative peak, 1978 saw the recording and release of Wings’ ‘London Town’ (UK#4/OZ#3/US#2) set, which oscillated between the mellowness of the title track, and the rollicking rock and roll of ‘I’ve Had Enough’, the latter title being incidentally what affiliate members Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English declared during that period. The album was released under the Wings banner, which had been clipped to the core trio of Paul and Linda McCartney, and long serving lieutenant Denny Laine. During promotions for the singles ‘With A Little Luck’, and ‘I’ve Had Enough’, former Elton John drummer Steve Holly hooked up with the band, and in the months following, respected session guitarist Laurence Juber completed the newest incarnation of the Wings’ squadron (the seventh in all, if you count the trio periods). With a new roster of players in place, and a newly released greatest hits album riding high in the charts, McCartney took his new recruits and retired to his own Spirit Of Ranachan studios, located on his farm in Scotland, determined to record an album that would resist the onslaught of the post-punk/new wave scene. Both Holly and Juber promised to add a sharpness that had arguably been lacking in the band’s chemistry of late, and McCartney no doubt felt he had both a talented, and potentially stable, crew under his command.

Meanwhile, the release of the ‘Wings Greatest’ package brought to a conclusion McCartney’s contract with the U.S. label Capitol Records (he was still betrothed to EMI/Parlophone elsewhere). Needless to say, an ex-Beatle who was now fronting one of the biggest selling acts on the planet in their own right, that is Wings, could command his own ticket price, and there were plenty of record labels courting him for that much prized signature on the dotted line. Columbia Records (CBS) eventually offered up the biggest dowry, and a deal was struck that was acknowledged as one of the richest paying in pop music history to that time. Details were never fully disclosed, but the full package of deferments, incentive clauses, buybacks, payouts, release windows, tour support et al, was rumoured to be in the vicinity of US$20M - not bad circa 1979. Reputedly one of the sweeteners that clinched the deal for Columbia, was signing over Frank Music to McCartney, home to the publishing rights of many high profile musicals, including ‘Guys And Dolls’ - for the catalogue hungry McCartney, it was too much to resist. To top things off, McCartney would also earn an almost unparalleled 20% royalty rate for every album sold. About the only upside for Columbia was they assumed control of his McCartney’s back catalogue - but only whilst he remained with them.

Doubtless, there were some nail biting label execs nervously awaiting the reception for Wings’ new single, ‘Goodnight Tonight’, released in March of ‘79. Initially, they must have breathed a collective sigh of relief, as the catchy, pseudo-retro, disco-tinged track was added to playlists immediately, and soon made a strong debut on the charts. The song had begun life in 1978 as an instrumental backing track. Pressured by Columbia for an advance single for the forthcoming album, McCartney reworked ‘Goodnight Tonight’ with the new Wings line-up, and produced one of the finest songs of his post-Beatles work. ‘Goodnight Tonight’ was pristine, and polished to damn near pop perfection. Stylistically it was eclectic, yet mercurially cohesive, seamlessly weaving strands of contemporary pop-rock, with splashes of flamenco guitar. It was captivating in its balance of pseudo old-world charm and romance, against spirited disco inflected pop. McCartney also served up one of the most infectious bass lines ever recorded - only marginally short of Bernard Edwards on Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ (see previous post). The single’s profile was boosted immeasurably by the no expense spared promotional video, produced by McCartney’s own MPL company, and shot at the scrupulously preserved Hammersmith Palais Ballroom, in London. McCartney and his Wings donned elegant 1920s style formal attire, complete with slick backed hair (except for Linda). Paul stepped up to the old style microphone to deliver his vocals in best Rudy Vallee style. During the more contemporary, disco-inflected breaks in the song, the video cut away to the band in contemporary garb, wailing away on bongoes and maracas and such. ‘Goodnight Tonight’ eventually did say goodnight to the charts, but not before cutting up the dance floor at #5 on both the U.S. and U.K. charts (OZ#6). The B-side to ‘Goodnight Tonight’ is worth taking a moment to mention. ‘Daytime Nighttime Suffering’ was later cited by both Paul and Linda as one of their favourite Wings’ songs, but it took until the CD release of ‘Back To The Egg’ for the song to make it to digital format. McCartney himself was prone on occasion to making generous promises (that for one reason or another weren’t always kept). It seems that the ex-Beatle experienced a momentary sensation of writer’s block when trying to come up with a B-side for the proposed single. He offered the other members of the band the opportunity to come up with a song over the weekend, that if deemed by him to be good enough, would be included on the single release, thus almost assuring its writer a generous slab of the royalties. By Monday though, it appeared that McCartney had recovered his fiscal senses, and song writing muse, and he declared that ‘Daytime Nighttime Suffering’ would suffice, putting an end to two days of daytime, nighttime suffering for Wings’ associates Laine, Juber, and Holly.

Whatever the financial restitution accrued from sales of ‘Goodnight Tonight’, it wasn’t enough to appease the suits at Columbia, who already saw the writing on the wall, and it was underwritten in red. Their hopes now rested on the reception offered Wings first album with the label.

I have a copy of a 1986 interview with Paul McCartney, in which he recalls encountering an ‘Aussie’ fellow on a train. McCartney told (in best imitation Australian accent) how this man informed him that his favourite Wings album was ‘Back To The Egg’. In the same interview McCartney went on to explain that the album was intended as a concept piece, but ended up being more of a ‘bombcept’ effort. A tad harsh from the man himself I have to say, but he did qualify that by saying that individually there were some good songs. Not to contradict Mr. McCartney, but in my humble view the album, though defined by its disparate elements, gels to form a thoroughly engaging and listenable whole - not unlike The Beatles’ ‘White’ album. As that album had done for The Beatles (not that they needed it), ‘Back To The Egg’ showcased McCartney’s diversity and consummate skill as both writer and performer, across a gamut of musical styles.

Production on ‘Back To The Egg’ had commenced back in June of ‘78, in Paul’s own studios in Scotland, laying down the basic guide tracks. The plan had been to complete the bulk of production at Abbey Road’s famed Studio No.2, but it appeared that Cliff Richard had gotten in first, and booked the studio indefinitely (presumably to record his ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Juvenile’ album). Never one to accept second best, McCartney ordered the construction of an exact replica of Studio No.2 be built in the basement of his MPL office building in Soho Square. When the studio was finished it featured only a mural in place of a real clock on the wall - McCartney wanted a real clock - so one was duly installed. He must have become comfortable with the layout in his newly dubbed Replica Studio, as the bulk of ‘Back To The Egg’ was recorded there over the ensuing months. Apparently, McCartney so liked the atmosphere there, that he briefly pondered the idea of converting it into a little café/club for punters, not unlike the old Cavern days. The balance of work for ‘Back To The Egg’ was completed at Lympne Castle in Kent, and EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London - under the production auspices of McCartney, with former Apple engineer turned producer Chris Thomas (worked with Pink Floyd, Elton John, Roxy Music), and aided by engineer Phil McDonald (of the curly wig and brandy barrel - per the album sleeve notes).

With much hype and fanfare, ‘Back To The Egg’ was hatched during June of 1979. Much to the chagrin of Columbia execs, McCartney had refused to include the recent hit single ‘Goodnight Tonight’ on the album, leaving them solely reliant on the new single releases, ‘Old Siam, Sir’ (UK#35), and ‘Getting Closer’ (US#20/UK#60/OZ#57) to generate interest, and sales. McCartney himself was quietly confident that ‘Back To The Egg’ would reaffirm Wings’ standing as one of the pre-eminent pop-rock acts on the planet, and that their back to basics approach would gel well with the new wave scene. It didn’t quite turn out that way. The album was almost universally lambasted by critics, but hey, what do they know. Sales, at least in the context of a regular artist, were more than respectable (UK#6/US#8/OZ#3), but still fell short of the desperately high hopes of the label suits. The single ‘Arrow Through Me’ (US#29) became Wings’ final foray into the singles charts (if you discount the live Glasgow recording of ‘Coming Up’ - which I know technically I shouldn’t since it was performed by the band, but since it charted in mid 1980, I consider it a post-Wings release. But hey look, if you‘re willing to argue the point, I’ll gladly entertain the notion that it was indeed the last single to chart under the Wings banner, albeit Paul McCartney & Wings). But I seriously digress in parentheses, as has been my want to do on occasion. I recall ‘Arrow Through Me’ featuring over the end credits to the romantic comedy ‘Oh Heavenly Dog’, starring Chevy Chase and Jane Seymour, which though a charming enough film, wouldn’t rate highly in my memory banks otherwise.

What the critics labelled as uninspired, sporadic, fragmented, and directionless, I would label as sheer brilliance, and Wings’ finest hour on record (or 42 minutes at any rate). So just what treasures are revealed in that 42 minute soundscape? The opening crackle of ‘Reception’ announces that here is a concept record - OK, we’ve established that. The track is an intriguing montage of sound bytes, woven together by a funky bass line. The fade-out leads directly to a slap-in-the-face crack of guitar, that announces the pulsating pop-rock of ‘Getting Closer’. Now that the pyrotechnic welcome is out of the way, the gentle acoustic guitar of ‘We’re Open Tonight’ invites you inside for the show proper, lulling you into a reclined state of consciousness, only to be jolted back into life by the manic frenzy of ‘Spin It On’ (I’m not sure of the songs B.P.M. rating, but Steve Holly must have been redlining behind the drum kit). Such a ferocious pace is unreasonable to sustain, so next up listeners are invited to kick back with some bluesy, down home country-rock, courtesy of ‘Again And Again’ (Denny Laine’s moment in the spotlight). That leads into one of my personal highlights, the brilliant ‘Old Siam, Sir’, laced with captivating lyrical characters, quirky oriental style synth, and layers of intricately meshed guitar work, including one of the most memorable riffs McCartney has ever penned (reportedly the track originated as an instrumental called ‘Super Big Heatwave’ - the eventual title has infinitely more cache). Side-A (we are talking pre-CD here) is rounded out by the silky smooth and sultry R&B of ‘Arrow Through Me’.

And now that you’ve had a chance to regain your breath whilst flipping the album over to Side-B, its time to have your socks knocked off by the raucous powerhouse of the opening salvo, ‘Rockestra Theme’. The largely instrumental track (aside from the cry of ‘I have not had any dinner’), was one of two recorded during a specially convened session at the Abbey Road Studios, on October 3, 1978. Invited to contribute was a virtual royal roster of rock’s finest. Among the elite all-star line-up were: John Paul Jones, John Bonham, Pete Townshend, Kenney Jones (who took Keith Moon’s place), Gary Brooker, Ronnie Lane, Ray Cooper, Tony Ashton, Dave Gilmour, Hank B. Marvin, and the classic Wings horn section (and regular Wings members Denny Laine, Linda McCartney, Steve Holly, and Laurence Juber). Hats off to the production and technical crew on hand for getting that lot to meld so magnificently together - McCartney no doubt has to take some of the kudos. The über-super group played one rehearsal, then five takes were captured in all, and it was worth the effort (‘Rockestra Theme’ won the Grammy Award for ‘Best Rock Instrumental Performance’). With the superstar ensemble off to the pub to enjoy a pint in celebration of their collective greatness, time to return to some rock roots, with the stripped down, punk-esque honesty of ‘To You’. This leads into the album’s conceptual heart, with the atmospheric medleys ‘After The Ball/Million Miles’, and ‘Winter Rose/Love Awake’ (featuring the Black Dyke Mills Band - “who were returned virtually intact” according to the liner notes), the ambient interlude serving to calm proceedings through its mellow charms. The sublime spoken word ‘The Broadcast’ acts as a curious intermission from regular programming, and features excerpts from ‘The Sport Of Kings’ by Ian Hay, and ‘The Little Man’ by John Galsworthy - the hypnotic piano backing deserves to be much more than a seemingly throwaway accompaniment (it’s as affecting as ‘Believe Me Now’ from E.L.O.’s ‘Out Of The Blue’ set). The energy levels are then ramped up to fever pitch by the surging ‘So Glad To See You Here’, the second track recorded by the expanded über-super group Wings roster. The album is then stylishly closed out with the seductive nightcap ‘Baby’s Request’.

Even for an ex-Beatle, the harsh criticism and less than anticipated sales for ‘Back To The Egg’ (that was expected to be a blockbuster success) must have proved a bitter pill to swallow. With no immediate plans to tour, McCartney retreated to his farm in Scotland, and began working on some songs, that would eventually be realised via his first post-Wings album, ‘McCartney II’ (1980). One of the tracks he recorded was the syrupy, though admittedly catchy, holiday treat ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ (UK#6/OZ#61), released under the Paul McCartney banner in time for Christmas 1979 (though in the cobbled together promo video, Wings alumni are clearly present at the festivities held at The Fountain Pub in Ashhurst, Horsham). By mid November ‘79, McCartney had reassembled Wings to take flight on a nineteen date tour of the U.K., mainly taking in smaller venues, and leading up to the Christmas break (it included the Apollo Theatre gig in Glasgow, at which the live single version of ‘Coming Up’ was captured). The tour was in essence a warm-up for a proposed world tour, scheduled to kick-off in Japan in during January, 1980. Wings had one last flurry of fervent live gigging with a series of dates at the Hammersmith Odeon, from December 26 to December 29, 1979, billed as the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (and UNICEF). Joining McCartney and Wings on the bill were Pretenders, Queen, Elvis Costello, Rockpile, Robert Plant, The Who, The Clash, Matumbi, The Specials, and Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Each show climaxed with an ever evolving über-super group of musicians performing ‘Rockestra Theme’.

On a high (so to speak) from the series of high profile, post Christmas gigs, McCartney had every reason to feel optimistic about the new year, and the new decade. He left London on January 12, and following a brief stop over in New York (where rumour has it he made another vain attempt to meet up with John Lennon), he arrived at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport on January 16, 1980. A customs agent made a v-line to McCartney’s carry bag, and viola - half a pound of premium grade pot. The ensuing events are well documented, and were captured by local press for all to see. Much rumour and innuendo abounds regarding McCartney’s arrest and subsequent incarceration, but that’s for more qualified scribes than I to speculate about in more voluminous surroundings. After a nine day stint in the slammer, McCartney was released and summarily deported from Japan. Wings’ tour plans were in tatters - and for all intents and purposes so was the band. McCartney and his crew continued in fits and splutters over the course of 1980, recording sporadically in-studio, but with the release (and success) of the ‘McCartney II’ album, it was apparent that Wings were permanently grounded. During 1981, McCartney steered the proposed Wings album into a solo project, and dedication to his fallen former bandmate, John Lennon (1982’s ‘Tug Of War’ album). One by one, McCartney’s ‘wingmen’, signed off from the band, with the ever loyal Laine the last to leave in April of ‘81, with an announcement that Wings had formally split coming at the same time.

It’s worth noting, that at the time of Wings’ disbandment, the group had racked up global record sales over and above that of The Beatles (to that point anyway), and rated as one of the biggest selling artists of the 1970s. Paul McCartney had certainly proven his point.

And on that note, I shall wish you all peace and happiness, and bid you a ‘Goodnight Tonight’ from Retro Universe.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Tears For Fears Reap A New Harvest Of Gold

If eight months seemed an exorbitantly long period of time to record ‘Songs From The Big Chair’, it took a marathon four years for its follow up to finally surface, during which time people could have been forgiven for thinking Tears For Fears had left the building. One factor behind the lengthy wait, was the personal angst experienced by Curt Smith over the breakdown of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart. Both Orzabal and Smith must have also felt an inordinate amount of pressure to produce something at least vaguely comparable in quality to their previous set, but a delay of four years between album releases posed somewhat of a career risk. Curt Smith took more of a backseat in the writing, creative direction, and even performance departments, leaving Orzabal to take up the reins as the creative and stylistic mastermind behind proceedings. Keyboardist Ian Stanley also largely withdrew from the scene after creative differences came to a head, and the initial recording sessions were all but scrapped (he went on to much success as a producer with A-Ha, Howard Jones). That same breakdown in proceedings resulted in the departure of producer Chris Hughes, with Orzabal resolving to take control of the production side of things, in partnership with engineer David Bascombe. Touring keyboardist Nicky Holland had also taken on the role as Orzabal’s principal song writing cohort, and co-wrote five of the album’s eventual eight tracks. Orzabal penned another two tracks by himself, but the album’s lead out single was the only track co-written by Orzabal and Smith (and ironically featured contributions from both Stanley and Hughes).

‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ was an unabashed pastiche of psychedelic era Beatles, effectively contemporizing the intricate and quirky arrangements that defined the ‘Sgt. Pepper’, ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ era genius of the Fab Four. The song is nothing if not grandiose in scale, and ambitious in style, hypnotic in its intricate arrangements, twists and turns of melody, and playfully arcane lyrical games. It’s a stand out track, as much for its daring, as for the fact that, stylistically, its positioned at odds with the balance of its source album. No expense was spared on the accompanying promo video, which pushed the boundaries of computer generated effects to their 1989 limits (and won two MTV Music Video Awards). That opening shot of the face carved into a mountain wall always reminds of ‘The Never Ending Story’. ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ reaped a considerable harvest on the charts (US#2/UK#5/ OZ#14), and reminded the world that Tears For Fears were still an artistic force to be reckoned with.

The eagerly awaited album, ‘The Seeds Of Love’, was finally planted in stores during September of ‘89, and took root at #1 on the British charts first week in (US#8/OZ#23). Released on the Fontana label (through Polygram), the record label execs knew there was much riding on the reception for the album, which by then had racked up a reported production debt of over a million quid. No doubt the success of the lead out single, and the high chart debut for the album, alleviated some of the concerns, but longevity of shelf life would also be needed to recoup the staggering costs. Tears For Fears served up just eight tracks on ‘The Seeds Of Love’, but quality will always win out over quantity, and there was supreme quality in abundance throughout the album. Orzabal and co. had elevated pop sophistication to a new high, incorporating an epic scope of styles and influences into the mix. The songs offered expansive and blatantly accessible hooks, but retained an emotive resonance throughout. Elements of late night, city streets jazz-rock simmered below the surface of ‘Standing On The Corner Of The Third World’ (which featured the talents of virtuoso trumpeter Jon Hassell), ‘Swords And Knives’ oscillated between dripping restraint, and funk-edged soul, whilst the epic (8 minute plus) ‘Badman’s Song’ delved deep into jazz and soul streams to feed fountains of funk-laced rock.

In terms of a track with heart and soul, the album’s second single possessed a purity of both. ‘Woman In Chains’ confirmed, if any still doubted, that Tears For Fears had progressed well beyond the boundaries of a mere pop band. Orzabal and Smith kept their promise to invite R&B vocalist Oleta Adams to contribute to the album, and ‘Woman In Chains’ was her moment to shine brightest. The spiritually rich song was drenched in slow burning atmosphere, with a soothing one minute instrumental intro, acting as a precursor to Orzabal and Adams trading impassioned lead vocal lines. The song builds a slow and steady momentum, tinged with soulful, even gospel like vocals, and works to an emotive crescendo as one Phil Collins unleashes on the drums. Oleta Adams’ contribution can’t be understated, and her sultry, poignant vocal style added a welcoming hue to the Tears For Fears pop palette. I know I wax lyrical about certain songs at times, but ‘Woman In Chains’ really is one of those rare examples of a flawless piece of music. Lyrically, Orzabal explained that the theme behind ‘Woman In Chains’ related to issues of feminism, and the complexities of individual and social dynamics between the genders. The accompanying promo video was an especially effective one, focussing on the troubled, but ultimately loving relationship between a man (who is a struggling boxer) and woman (an exotic dancer), and featured much evocative symbolism throughout. Regardless of its inherent splendour, ‘Woman In Chains’ wasn’t able to achieve the freedom it deserved on the charts, and peaked highest in Britain (#26, US#36/OZ#44), late in ‘89.

Meanwhile, in an effort to further redress the haemorrhaging balance sheets, Tears For Fears hit the road for yet another colossal tour, this time sponsored by Philips (ah corporate sponsorship, you gotta love it). The tour was captured in the video release, ‘Going To California’, filmed at the band’s May 1990 gig in Santa Barbara (Oleta Adams also toured with the band). Virgin also released a 64 page book by way of companion to the ‘Seeds Of Love’ tour, with much on offer to dedicated Tears For Fears’ fans. As the band was traversing the globe on their latest revenue raising jaunt, the third single was released from ‘The Seeds Of Love’. ‘Advice For The Young At Heart’, co-written by Orzabal and Holland, was another shimmering ray of soul-infused pop sunshine. It was also the only track from the album on which Curt Smith handled all the lead vocal duties. The song always feels quite caressing to me, almost soothing in its honesty, not just musically, but lyrically. As middle age looms ever closer to me (some might argue it’s already arrived), the notion of time being wasted on youth seems more resonant than ever. “Advice for the young at heart, soon we will be older, when we gonna make it work”, surely must ring true for anyone over thirty. How about dispensing with the stuff that doesn’t matter, and doing something about the stuff that does - or at least that’s the message I take from it. The line “Love is a promise, love is a souvenir, once given, never forgotten, never let it disappear” was a quote borrowed from John Lennon. The fact that such a powerful life memo is delivered in such an exquisite pop morsel, is all the better. It’s worth noting that one Robbie McIntosh (Pretenders, Paul McCartney) dropped by to deliver a stellar performance on lead guitar. The promo video (filmed in Florida) is a sweet, and understated affair, embodying the song’s underlying themes - but not in a preachy way, more a how about giving it a moment’s reflective thought. For all its great qualities, it seemed few were listening to ‘Advice For The Young At Heart’, as it only reached enough of an audience to peak at #36 on the British charts early in 1990 (US#89). The fourth single, ‘Famous Last Words’, proved strangely portentous, but less than lucrative on the charts.

‘The Seeds Of Love’ was positioned a world away from ‘The Hurting’, and though the transformation in Tears For Fears had taken seven years to complete, it was expressed within the space of just eighteen album tracks. But it was apparent that through their reincarnation, Orzabal had evolved down a distinctly different musical path to Smith, and in hindsight Curt Smith’s backseat role to that of Roland Orzabal’s creative driver could only be sustained for so long. By 1991, the pair had reached an irreconcilable point, and parted ways in acrimonious fashion, resorting to taking covert snipes at each other. Orzabal’s reputed perfectionist approach to production, combined with Smith’s desire to slow the pace of things, were both cited as other extenuating factors in the partnership breakdown. Curt Smith relocated to New York and recorded the disastrous 1993 solo album, ‘Soul On Board’, a project he’s been distancing himself from ever since. During the balance of the 90s he continued to pen music with writer/producer Charles Pettus, and for a brief stint recorded and toured under the name Mayfield.

Meanwhile, Roland Orzabal had retained the Tears For Fears band brand, and in March 1992 the compilation ‘Tears Roll Down (Greatest Hits 1981/1992)’ was released (UK#2/OZ#51/ US#53). It had been preceded by the single, and only new track included, ‘Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)’ (UK#17). I’ve always found the track a bit jarring, and it definitely projected a bit of a manic, edgy feel. With Smith now off the scene, ‘Laid So Low’ represented the first chapter of the new ‘solo’ version of Tears For Fears. Orzabal wasn’t the only one man band of that era - Iva Davies with Icehouse, Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera, and Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners come to mind (I know there were additional players recruited, but essentially the creative drive was down to one person). I made a point of purchasing the accompanying video collection (and later DVD) for the ‘Tears Roll Down’ compilation.

Orzabal had also found time to refine his production skills, helming Oleta Adams’ debut album, ‘Circle Of One’, which took her to a richly deserved #1 on the British charts. By 1993, Orzabal had prepared an album of new material to be released under the Tears For Fears moniker. The lead out single, ‘Break It Down Again’, penned by Orzabal and new song writing partner Alan Griffiths, was a funky little up-tempo pop-rock piece that proved appealing enough to crack #20 on the British charts, and #25 Stateside (#1 ‘modern rock hit’), and featured songstress Gail Ann Dorsey on backing vocals. Shortly after, the album ‘Elemental’ hit stores, and almost immediately hit #5 in Britain (though arguably on an initial wave of anticipation, given yet another four year pause between full studio albums). The U.S. proved more circumspect in their reception (#45), reserving judgement until a major hit single emerged - which sadly - didn’t. Orzabal took a back to roots approach across many of the tracks, and dispensed with some of the elaborate arrangements that had characterised ‘The Seeds Of Love’. The title track packed a funky, dance inducing punch to open the set, whilst the atmospheric and soulful ‘Cold’ allayed any fears that Orzabal had forgotten how to write and record quality material. But once more, when released as the follow up single, ‘Cold’ (UK#72) was frozen out of any significant chart action.

Long time, and ever patient, fans of Tears For Fears only had to endure a two year wait for the next album, 1995’s ‘Raoul And The Kings Of Spain’ (UK#41/US#79), with Orzabal retaining the song writing and production team of Alan Griffiths and Tim Palmer (though shifting to the Epic/Sony label, which delayed the album release almost a year). The album was dedicated to Orzabal’s father, and more widely to his Spanish heritage. There was a strongly introspective aspect to the songs, which in and of itself wasn’t unusual for the Tears For Fears songbook, and Orzabal infused the album in parts with Latin music influences. I haven’t heard the album in full, but Tom Demalon at All Music Guide referred to the album as “treading water” and “lacking new ideas”, but on the upside it contained some “genuinely pretty music”. One of the few tracks I’ve heard in full is the beautifully crafted ballad ‘Secrets’, which sadly is something the album and associated singles remained to the public at large (Oleta Adams also reunited with Orzabal on the track ‘Me And My Big Ideas’). The very Simple Minds’ sounding title track achieved a respectable #31 on the British charts, but the rather bland guitar-pop of ‘God’s Mistake’ (UK#61) represented Tears For Fears’ last foray into the singles charts for almost a decade. During late ‘95/early ‘96, Orzabal had taken Tears For Fears on the road in support of the ‘Raoul’ album, with Latin America a key focus, though curiously the U.K. only witnessed one show.

The next few years were mostly sans tears and fears, at least in the band sense. Orzabal (and producer Chris Hughes) gave their seal of approval to the 1996 release ‘Saturnine, Martial & Lunatic’, a collection of B-sides and rarities from the band’s Mercury years. In 1999, Hughes oversaw the remastering of Tears For Fears’ first three albums, adding new lustre to some already glistening gems of 80s pop-rock. Orzabal kept himself occupied with production work for Icelandic singer/songwriter Emiliana Torrini, and took time to release his first official ‘solo’ album, ‘Tomcats Screaming Outside’, in April of 2001. A year previous, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith took the first tentative steps in reconciling their badly fractured friendship. Over the next couple of years, the pair began writing together (along with Smith’s song writing partner Charles Pettus). Following yet another delay due to record label politics, the album ‘Everybody Loves A Happy Ending’ hit stores in the U.S. in late 2004 (#46), with Orzabal and Smith hitting the road in support, once more under the united Tears For Fears banner. Oleta Adams made a guest appearance on stage at the band’s Kansas City show, performing ‘Woman In Chains’. The album received a U.K. release a few months later (#45), and the associated single, ‘Closest Thing To Heaven’, elevated Tears For Fears into the top forty for the first time in a decade. The uplifting track borrowed heavily from the band’s former hit ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’, but if anyone was qualified to pull off an impressive imitation, Tears For Fears were. The accompanying promo video was nothing short of breathtaking, and featured actress Brittany Murphy riding in a hot air balloon. If Tears For Fears had dipped into the Beatles paintbox for inspiration on their previous work, they smothered the stylistic canvas liberally with colourful, Beatlesque influences on the album ‘Everybody Loves A Happy Ending’, no more so than with the opening title track, which positively bursts at the seams with catchy hooks, and clever, quirky detours into pop-rock fantasy. On the band’s official website, Roland Orzabal stated that ‘Everybody Loves A Happy Ending’ should have been the album that followed ‘The Seeds Of Love’, but better late than never, and eventually fans of the band got the happy ending they desired, with the bonus of a promising new beginning to boot.

Almost 25 years on from their first expression of deep, affecting individuality through song, Tears For Fears remain unapologetically on their own trajectory of musical expression. Enigmatic in their paradoxical balancing of the simple and complex, their music continues to be woven intricately into a tapestry of sheer pop wizardry.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tears For Fears Rule The World

With ‘Mothers Talk’ having wet the appetite, Tears For Fears decided to up the ante and ‘Shout’ for their next single. The song had been penned by Roland Orzabal and keyboardist Ian Stanley, with Orzabal initially penning the anthemic, mantra-like chorus using a small synthesizer and drum machine (Stanley helped construct the verse structure). He felt the song was more suited to being an album track, but producer Chris Hughes heard a hit single. What began as a relatively simple song structure evolved into complex instrumentation and vocal arrangements, and took the best part of four months to complete (out of the eight months of total recording time afforded the new album). The finished product was worth agonizing over, and when released in the U.K. during November of ‘84, ‘Shout’ made itself heard almost immediately on the charts. The song was more than just a catchy, infectious chorus chant. It announced the arrival of a more mature Tears For Fears soundscape, complex in its arrangements, rich in its textures, and polished in its performance. But for all its technical refinement, ‘Shout’ packed an emotionally resonant punch, and effectively conveyed the dramatic clout that Tears For Fears had become known for - but on a wider, broader, deeper scale, enveloping listeners with its relentless, impassioned march. The track was dripping with searing power chords, explosive drum fills, and Roland Orzabal served up an epic guitar solo (which required nothing less than standing on a cliff top to deliver). Lyrically, some mistook ‘Shout’s theme as continuing the primal scream doctrine of connecting with your pain, then letting it out verbally, but as Orzabal told Billboard Magazine, the song was more concerned with the individual making their opinions known, more specifically about bigger picture social and political issues (basically encouraging people to protest if they felt the need). Orzabal handled the lead vocals (with Curt Smith joining him on chorus), and it was becoming the norm for the pair to trade lead vocal duties. The promo video for ‘Shout’ was directed by Nigel Dick (fresh from directing the video for Band Aid). It was a relatively straight forward affair, shot on two locales - an area called Durdle Door near Dorset, on the south-west coast of England, and an in-studio session featuring the full band, with a cast of family and friends in support to belt out the chorus. ‘Shout’ made its voice heard loud and clear at #4 on the British charts early in ‘85, peaked at #1 in Australia (during March), and eventually bellowed its way into the top ten in more than 25 countries worldwide. However, Tears For Fears would have to wait another six months before ‘Shout’ would make itself heard Stateside (well it had all that water to cross - actually given the speed of sound it should have only taken a few hours).

Coinciding with the release of their sophomore album, ‘Songs From The Big Chair’, Tears For Fears unleashed the third single to feature on the album, the majestic pop-rock gem ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’. In the closing chapters of recording the album, Tears For Fears realised they needed one more song to round out the track listing. They had three candidates, one of which was a half-finished song which Roland Orzabal had been tinkering with. At the time Orzabal was a bit dismissive of the song, thinking it too lightweight a pop piece for the Tears For Fears songbook, but producer Chris Hughes heard potential in the song, and encouraged Orzabal to flesh out the lyrics, and polish the guitar line. Ian Stanley chipped in, and three days later Tears For Fears had recorded their first U.S. #1 - ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’. Both band and record label chose the track as the first single release for the American market, and their decision was proven to be justified, as ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ invaded the U.S. Hot 100 during March of ‘85, and cruised to a two week stint ruling the charts during June. The song’s overtly commercial nature drove it to the top of radio playlists the world over, and to #2 in both Britain and Australia. The opening guitar chord serves as a fresh awakening from an especially heavy slumber - it just energises the senses instantly, and screams freedom. If ‘Mad World’ had an oppressive, gloomy, suffocating atmosphere, ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ was its breezy, dreamy, sunny-side up antithesis. Curt Smith stepped up to the lead vocals microphone for this one, whilst Orzabal, Stanley and Elias served up lush layers of instrumental support. Despite a serious lyrical message (of world domination and the military machine), musically the song breaks free of any pretentiousness, relying solely on its engaging pop-rock charms. The promo video reflected the songs feel of warmth and breeziness, with much open road adventure for Curt Smith in a nifty little green Austin-Healey 3000 sports car, winding his way around Southern Californian highways and byways. ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ not only ruled the charts, but earned Tears For Fears a Brit Award for ‘Best Single’.

The runaway success of ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ Stateside, opened the gateway for Tears For Fears to take a deep breath and unleash ‘Shout’ on the U.S. market. With their profile at an all time high, ‘Shout’ was a sure fire commercial hit, and by August of ‘85 Tears For Fears had ascended to the summit of the U.S. Hot 100 for the second time within two months (this time for a three week stint). By this time, the source album, ‘Songs From The Big Chair’, was riding high on charts across the world (UK#2/OZ#5), including a five week sabbatical at the top of the U.S. charts. Produced by Chris Hughes, the album confirmed the arrival of Tears For Fears as a more mature, accomplished band. Whilst the band took a step back from some of the more lyrically confronting themes associated with primal therapy, the album’s title did take some inspiration from related material. It referenced an NBC-TV miniseries called ‘Sybil’, about a girl with multiple personalities. The girls analyst had a very large chair, which she sat in during regression therapy - a place of safety and comfort. Tears For Fears may have explored and confronted their own demons on ‘The Hurting’, but ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ banished said demons to the netherworld, and served as a thematic reawakening of the psyche to its own potential for freedom and emotional clarity. As Stanton Swihart wrote in his All Music Guide review of the album - it “marks the progression towards emotional healing” - a kind of emotional and musical catharsis. Curt Smith noticeably assumed a lesser role in the writing stakes, with Ian Stanley partnering up with Orzabal on most of the album’s ten tracks. The arrangements were technically savvy, and production values flawless, with the result being a more refined, textured feel. The previous ruling order of structured synth-pop gave way largely to a more organic (though no less precise) layering of influences, from soul, R&B, guitar pop - all bursting at the seams with catchy hooks and melodic titbits. Orzabal and Smith were both quoted at the time as saying they approached some of the songs in a deliberately commercial way, working meticulously to craft them to a point of absolute pop accessibility. All the more reason to marvel at the magnificence of the result, which in no way comes across as a sell out to commercial aspirations.

The ensuing single encapsulated the notion of marrying perfectly crafted song structure with commercial appeal. The shimmering pop jewel ‘Head Over Heels’ knocked me off my feet from the very first time I heard it. The crisp piano intro melts into intricately woven guitar, drawing you into a world of pristine pop patina, populated with finely crafted layers of glistening guitars (with splashes of jangle-pop), velvety vocal harmonies, sparkling synths, and meticulously melded rhythm tracks, all cascading down in waves. The song’s ornate and lavish production values didn’t weigh down on its innately ebullient pop splendour. ‘Head Over Heels’ was in no need of a four leaf clover to aid it on its trajectory to #3 on the U.S. charts (UK#12/OZ#21). The song’s history pre-dated work on ‘Songs From The Big Chair’, as it was originally part of a segue with the song ‘Broken’, a B-side to ‘Pale Shelter’. The reworked and re-recorded single was backed by one of the most eye catching promo videos of the era - Tears For Fears had quickly become the darlings of the MTV set. The song’s essentially romantic theme was played out with Roland Orzabal in the role of a love lorn lad lusting after a librarian. Curt Smith played a cleaner, whilst Ian Stanley and Manny Elias finally received more prominent roles in the cast. It’s a feel good, and slightly quirky affair, in keeping with the feel of the song itself, and reflective of Tears For Fears metamorphosis from po-faced synth-pop practitioners to more accessible music artists. There was even a hint of the absurd about the promo video, which reiterated the band’s willingness to cast off the self-conscious shackles of the past. Further enhancing their newly declared openness, Tears For Fears released the video ‘Scenes From The Big Chair’, a 75 minute collection of interviews, music videos, live performances, and behind the scenes footage of the band.

The album ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ yielded one more single, with the languid, soulful ‘I Believe’ (UK#23), a more stripped down affair with promo video to suit. On the back of such monumental commercial and critical acclaim, ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ went on to sell in excess of eight million copies (won multiple platinum accreditations), and established itself as one of the major mileage markers on the 80s pop-rock highway. At the height of hysteria surrounding the album, Tears For Fears were scheduled to perform at the Philadelphia leg of the Live Aid concerts, but a last minute withdrawal caused some consternation from organisers. Officially the reason given related to some of the band’s backing musicians having quit due to an expiration of their contract. Those backing musos in question were guitarist Andrew Saunders, and saxophonist Will Gregory (keyboardist Nicky Holland also toured with them during this period). I recall the band copping some flack from the media at the time, but in an effort to save face, Tears For Fears offered up proceeds from selected venues on their mammoth world tour. During that same year long tour, Orzabal and Smith came across the vocal talents of Oleta Adams, who was performing in a Kansas City hotel bar at the time. They extended an invitation for Adams to contribute to their next album, an invitation which in time would reap rewards for both the band and Adams. At the conclusion of the ‘Big Chair’ world tour, drummer Manny Elias left the group (he went on to work with Peter Gabriel, Julian Lennon), and for a period Tears For Fears was put on hiatus.

During 1986, Roland Orzabal and Ian Stanley collaborated on a side project dubbed Mancrab. The duo released just the one single, ‘Fish For Life’, which also featured on the soundtrack to the motion picture ‘The Karate Kid, Part II’. Perhaps Bob Geldof once again reminded the band of their Live Aid no show, as in May of ‘86, Tears For Fears released a slightly modified version of their #1 ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’, retagged as ‘Everybody Wants To Run The World’. The single was released to support Geldof’s new initiative Sport Aid’s Race Against Time, a worldwide running event held to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief, and proved the song had considerable endurance, peaking at #5 on the British charts.