For a long time I have been at least a casual fan of Tears For Fears. Their hit songs “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” “Shout,” and “Head Over Heels” were played constantly on the radio when I was growing up, and even though it is only recently I have become more familiar with their larger work, their biggest hits (aside from “Sowing The Seeds Of Love”) were all very familiar to me from childhood. Nonetheless, it was not until an idle wikipedia search led me to explore their music and story a little deeper that I became aware of their much more personal link as well as the reason why so many of their songs resonate so personally with me. It is to that story we now turn.
Before becoming the core members of Tears For Fears, one of the most daring pop bands of the 1980’s, and selling more than 25 million copies worldwide , Roland Orzobal  and Curt Smith paid their dues as part of the band Graduate and shared an enthusiasm for Primal Scream therapy as they bonded over their rough childhoods. Orzobal, for example, grew up in a household where his father ran an entertainment business and his mother was some kind of dancer, with a home full of entertainers (which sounds as if it could be a bit traumatizing). Shared trauma and a shared approach to overcoming it led the two to team up in what amounted to one of the most successful examples of musical therapy in pop music history.
With Orzobal’s gift of esoteric but meaningful lyrics and Smith’s gift for great pop hooks, the two teamed up to make three enduringly popular albums: The Hurting (which deals very personally with the lack of bonding between Smith and Orzobal and their parents, more on this later), Songs From The Big Chair (which gave them three US top 5 hits, and two #1 hits), and The Seeds Of Love, before an acrimonious split. After both had less than amazingly popular solo careers (that of Orzobal under the Tears For Fears name), they rejoined in 2000, and three years later made the aptly titled comeback album “Everybody Loves A Happy Ending.” They now tour regularly and their music has endured far better than most of their contemporaries.
The fact that they have a popular and critically acclaimed body of musical work is itself remarkable, but the fact that their work is heavily influenced by psychology, serving as therapy, serves as an inspiration. Rather than self-medication through drugs or alcohol, the two chose music as therapy, turning their lives into the inspiration for hauntingly beautiful songs in their debut concept album, The Hurting, ranging from their first single, the biblically inspired “Suffer The Children” to “Pale Shelter,” describing the lack of love from parents (I know this personally all too well), to “Mad World,” their first hit. All of these songs (and the rest of the album) focus on Primal Scream Therapy, which was brought to the attention of the musical world by John Lennon in the 1970’s, but not as daringly as Tears For Fears did it .
Nor did the interest in psychology stop there. Tears For Fears’ second album, “Songs From The Big Chair,” are a self-aware “multiple personality” exploration, a conceptual connection that is often forgotten because the hit singles from the album were so successful. Clearly, Tears For Fears had major artistic ambitions even given the success of their work on a material level. Their songs resonated with a great many people, many of whom (like myself as a child) who were unaware of the biography of the band members themselves. Clearly, the musings about power and anger and memory that inform the work of Tears For Fears, the melancholy underpinnings of songs like “Watch Me Bleed” and “Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)” are fairly easy to recognize, and draw greater meaning the more one knows about the band and its personal histories.
And that is the most powerful legacy of Tears For Fears, in providing a way for both commercial viability as well as personal therapy. Many creative people (myself included) use our creativity as a way to wrestle with our own demons, and the fact that Tears For Fears were able to do it openly and honestly and sincerely, and successfully gives hope to the rest of us who have chosen to deal with our issues in the light, rather than engaging in false pretense. It is revealing, and a bit sad, that the psychologist responsible for Primal Scream Therapy in the first place had gone “Hollywood” in the 1980s and was no longer able to inspire people himself. But Tears For Fears did show through their music a commitment to wrestling with their lives and making beautiful and meaningful music that has stood the test of time and provided a template for others, even as they have served to help the careers of other musicians, like Oleta Adams (best known for her hit song “Get Here” and her duet with Tears For Fears on “Woman In Chains”). By a refusal to follow “the politics of greed,” Tears For Fears opened up a road to redemption as a pop musician, a road to success and healing that remains open for those who are willing to follow it. For that we owe them a debt of gratitude.