In hindsight, 1983 was a groundbreaking year for music. The blockbuster album era began, as Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and the Police's "Synchronicity" dominated the No. 1 slots on the U.S. Billboard charts. Future stars such as Madonna, R.E.M., Violent Femmes and Wham! released their debut albums.
And the new British Invasion, which had been percolating for several years, exploded thanks to the success of bands like Duran Duran, Culture Club, Eurythmics and Tears for Fears.
"The Hurting" — which was famously inspired by the philosophy espoused in Arthur Janov's book "Primal Scream" — managed to be both deeply meaningful and a commercial success.
The last weren't necessarily the most obvious hitmakers. Formed by childhood friends Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith — who had most recently played together in a ska-leaning band called Graduate that had only very minor success — the duo favored dark and moody music that seemed at odds with the colorful, danceable music dominating the charts.
That was exactly the point, Smith said in 2013. "We honestly weren't trying to be commercial at that age, we were trying to convey a message."
However, Tears for Fears' debut album, "The Hurting" — which was famously inspired by the philosophy espoused in Arthur Janov's book "Primal Scream" — managed to be both deeply meaningful and a commercial success. Released March 7, 1983, the album debuted at No. 2 in the UK and ascended to the top spot of charts the following week, and also eventually produced three Top 5 UK hits.
English Alternative and Pop musicians Roland Orzabal (left) and Curt Smith, both of the group Tears For Fears as they sit on a low stage during an interview at MTV Studios, New York, New York, May 25, 1983. (Gary Gershoff/Getty Images)
"The Hurting" accomplished this with vulnerable, frank lyrics that often pose questions rather than assert knowledge. "Could you ease my load? Could you see my pain?" the band asks on the title track, before expanding into broader terms: "Could you understand a child/When he cries in pain?/Could you give him all he needs/Or do you feel the same?" On "Pale Shelter," meanwhile, Smith unleashes a tongue-twisting query ("How can I be sure/When your intrusion's my illusion?") that hints at personal discord, while the hit single "Change" also points to separation: "Where does the end of me/Become the start of you?"
As "Change" implies, the idea of disconnection, isolation and even alienation permeates the album. "Watch Me Bleed" meditates on the idea of suppressing and internalizing discomfort ("I'll make no noise, I'll hide my pain/I'll close my eyes, I won't complain/I'll lie right back and take the blame") while "Suffer the Children" describes loneliness and a lack of (presumably parental) affection. And the stunning album-closer "Start of the Breakdown" is wrecked with grief and confusion over wires being crossed, driven by the agony-riddled lyric: "Is this the start of the breakdown?/I can't understand you."
Musically, that last song is also a triumph, with doppler-like synth notes careening around lonely piano and then giving way to clattering drums. Clearly, the jumpy, anxious music amplifies any thematic angst. That's also true on "The Prisoner," which boasts four-alarm-fire keyboards and roiling programming, and the propulsive breakdown of "Change." It's no accident these songs are near the end of the album: In a genius bit of sequencing, "The Hurting" grows more restless and distraught-sounding as it progresses, as if to represent someone's emotional deterioration.
In a genius bit of sequencing, "The Hurting" grows more restless and distraught-sounding as it progresses, as if to represent someone's emotional deterioration.
Fittingly, Orzabal said in 2013 that "The Hurting" had its roots in Peter Gabriel's dark, third self-titled album, known colloquially as "Melt" because the cover features his face half-melting. "We were pretty adamant about the no hi-hats, no cymbals rule, plus we wanted that ambient drum sound," he explained. "Add to that our use of the Roland CR78 drum machine (thanks to Ian [Stanley]) and you have pretty much the sound."
This context helps better explain the darkness of "The Hurting." However, the album is also surprisingly pop-leaning; despite their names, the foundation of tracks like "Suffer the Children" and "Watch Me Bleed" have more in common with bubbly synth-pop singles than more macabre fare. Smith and Orzabal also possess lovely, melodic voices, with the former's tone hewing more toward R&B and soul, the latter's being more Bowie-esque in its chameleonic majesty.
"Mad World" also sprang from a surprisingly commercial place. "I was listening to Radio 1 on this tinny radio, and Duran Duran's 'Girls on Film' came on," Orzabal told The Guardian. "I just thought: 'I'm going to have a crack at something like that.' I did and ended up with 'Mad World.'" Lyrically, however, the song's indelible lyrics ("The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had") is "from Janov's idea that nightmares can be good because they release tension," he added.
"Mad World" was the biggest hit from the album, reaching No. 3 in late 1982. However, the album's long tail is even more impressive. Songs have been sampled countless times—including by Drake, The Weeknd and Kanye West, as well as on Band Aid's juggernaut "Do They Know It's Christmas?"—while a high-profile cover of "Mad World" by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews hit No. 1 in the UK. Forty years later, Tears for Fears still play the hits from "The Hurting" live, with songs like "Change" especially dazzling when given a modern synth-pop makeover.
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Tears for Fears tapped into something instinctual and true about being human and finding space to become who you're meant to be.
In the end, "The Hurting" works so well because of the way it fearlessly arranges contrasting sounds and ideas — heartbeat-like drums and funereal piano giving way to fuzzy saxophone on "Ideas as Opiates" or the syncopated, shutter-like sounds of the title track blooming into earnest harmonies. The music is messy and honest, embraces the challenges of growing up and forging through them with bold naïveté. As it turns out, Tears for Fears tapped into something instinctual and true about being human and finding space to become who you're meant to be.
"We wrote and made 'The Hurting' when we were still adolescents," Orzabal told me in 2022. "We were struggling in that passage from childhood to adulthood, leaving your parents behind and becoming more self-sufficient, becoming an individual. That's a universal period of turmoil."
"And so I think that a lot of the feelings that were expressed on that album, with the song 'Mad World' especially . . . I'm sure that pretty much everyone at any time of your life is going to look out the window or look at the TV and go, 'Oh my God, it is indeed a mad world.'"
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