Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Everybody Wants to Rule the World" - Tears For Fears (Songs from the Big Chair)

We continue in the quasi-theme of huge 80's hits that weren't written to be singles with this epic ditty. First of all, I don't remember this video at all. Second, Curt Smith is the lead singer on this song? Really? Curt, oh Curt, can we talk about your hair? Can we? CAN WE??? Third, is the reason that I don't remember this video due to the fact that I've blocked it out because of the dancing black dudes at the gas station? Should I be offended by that? I have no idea. I'm not even going to get into how much of a freak the drummer is.

This song was born when Roland Orzabal came into the studio with a two-chord progression that he had in his head--the producer thought it was cool, and told him he should write a song around it. It was the last track of the album that they recorded, they were burned out on recording, and essentially just put their first ideas to tape and went with it. They had already decided that "Shout" and "Head Over Heels" were the big singles off of the album (which, in fairness, they were--just not as big as this song). Lesson: well, what is the lesson? 99.9% of the time stuff you dash off without really putting effort into it or thinking about it sounds exactly that way--like tossed off crap. Somewhere there is some magic in just "letting go" of something, for some definition of "letting go," which nobody actually knows. Finding that magic: hard.

Actually, I do have a larger lesson here. It's somewhat long, and in two parts. Bear with me for a bit. I have read that Roland Orzabal was off-the-hook OCD about the way his music sounded. For instance, he apparently spent six weeks getting the drum track for "Badman's Song" (The Seeds of Love) just right. Now, I love "Badman's Song"--it's probably on my all-time top 20 something-or-other list--and, no mistake, the drums on this track are incredible. But I'm about 94.6% sure that in the alternate universe where they only spent a couple of days on that drum track, I like the song just as much (the other 5.4% of me thinks that I'm wrong about everything and I'm wasting my time doing this analysis and recording music in general, and should just stick to my day job). I would venture to say, in fact, that the only people who listen to that song and hear the six weeks of effort are 1) Roland Orzabal, and 2) the drummer that he tortured for 6 weeks (possibly also 3) the recording engineer, 4) the producer, 5) Curt Smith). I'm a huge (HUGE) believer in the idea that the only person you can ever satisfy is yourself, and so you should do what's necessary until you're satisfied with your efforts. I'm also a huge believer in the idea that if it takes you six weeks to record one track for one song on one album, you need to re-evaluate your criteria for satisfaction.

That was the first part. The second part is related to a recent experience I had doing a song for this forthcoming tribute album. I recorded it and spent a week or so mixing it, and then sent it off to the guy who owns the record label. He said: great song, the mix is a little fuzzy ("woolen" was the word he used), we can probably fix that in mastering, but maybe take another crack at it? So I went back to it, and I worked on the mix off and on for the next two weeks. I was never quite happy with it, and the average listener wouldn't have noticed a lick of difference between my first mix and my second, and it's as likely as not I made it worse. I sent it back to the label anyway, label said great job, let's get it mastered. A couple of days later the engineer sent me a copy of the mastered version and it sounded like a different song. It was all bright and shiny and sounded like something on the radio. Lesson: while your piece of art could always be better, sometimes you reach the limits of where you can take it and have to let it go or hand it off to somebody who knows more than you.

Anyway, this song. Nice beat that shuffles and drives at the same time (they stole it from a Simple Minds song, according to Wikipedia). On the verse the two-chord structure leaves a space for the singer, like they're taking turns: synth plays two chords, singer sings "welcome to your life," synth plays two chords again, singer sings, "there's no turning back," and so on. You don't really get anything concrete out of the lyrics other than, "everybody wants to rule the world." I never thought of that as a universal sentiment myself, but it's catchy. Also on Wikipedia I read this:
Originally the song was called "Everybody Wants to Go to War"
I might be wrong, but I don't think that a song with everything exactly the same except that the they sing "Everybody wants to go to war" instead of "Everybody wants to rule the world," is a hit song. Is that true? It just seems like it changes everything about it. This should tell us something, but I'm not quite sure what it is.


fronesis said...

As you can see, I am *totally* hooked on this new version of the blog, and if I were somehow representative of the average blog reader or web surfer, then you would quickly and easily be able to get rich of of ad revenue here. Alas, I am not.

A few comments:

1. It's a close call, but I think the guys dancing at the gas pumps during the bridge IS offensive. It's not *that* there are two black guys dancing, it's HOW they are dressed, HOW they are dancing, and the fact that the gas pumps are from the 1950s, coupled with the strange amused-by-little-kids looks on the faces of Curt and Roland that pushes it over the edge.

2. I can see, aided by your insightful analysis, why this was a huge hit song. But can you tell me this: why did I hate Tears for Fears with such a blind passion at the time? So much so that I still have this lingering hatred for them today. I can't really listen to the song with anything bordering on objectivity, because my hatred for them then still informs my viewing of them now. Hated this song back then. Hated Shout more. And it's not that I'm some sort of snob - I loved most 80s hits. But Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, and Powerstation - all caused a negative and visceral reaction.

Transient Gadfly said...

If you were representative of the public at large, I would already be a rock star and Firefly would be in its sixth hit season. Also, U2 would be the hugest rock band on earth. Wait a minute....

I would imagine that you probably wouldn't like the guys in Tears for Fears as, you know, actual people if you met them. I think they're kind of prima donnas in that way that you hate. I have a (yet other) theory about art being a method of expressing the artist's own humanity, and that if, you know, you find that humanity to be ugly in some way, you'll reject his or her art. A topic for another post, I guess.

fronesis said...

Hmmm...yes, I intuitively buy this.

sageblue said...

I believe that tg was with me (and my girlfriend at the time) when Roland eviscerated Radiohead at the Universal Amphitheater in November 1993 for being shlock artists. Shows what he knows.

I don't like Roland, and obviously Curt is useless.

However, Songs from the Big Chair has "Mothers Talk" and "Head Over Heels," The Seeds of Love has song after song of love (the rare album in my iTunes library with no song under 3 stars), and even Elemental has "Break It Down Again" and "Goodnight Song." I'd recommend re-visiting them, despite their bastardry.

Transient Gadfly said...

I was in Oxford in November of 1993 (though Tears for Fears came through Oxford on that same tour the day after I left--Heidi, Karrie, and Janet went to see them). I was with you and Sara Cohen to see Crowded House on the Together Alone tour that spring.