(#397: 7 October 1989, 1 week)
Track listing: Woman In Chains/Badman’s Song/Sowing The Seeds Of Love/Advice For The Young At Heart/Standing On The Corner Of The Third World/Swords And Knives/Year Of The Knife/Famous Last Words
“Whatever the dream, I unearth, by work, taxing work, and even by a kind of prayer, I am sure to find a thumbprint in the corner, a malicious detail to the right of centre, a bodiless midair Cheshire cat grin, which shows the whole work to be gotten up by the genius of Johnny Panic, and him alone. He’s sly, he’s subtle, he’s sudden as thunder, but he gives himself away only too often. He simply can’t resist melodrama. Melodrama of the oldest, most obvious variety.”
(Sylvia Plath, “Johnny Panic and the Bible Of Dreams”)
(Sylvia Plath, “Johnny Panic and the Bible Of Dreams”)
Songs From The Big Chair doesn’t appear in this tale because it was kept at number two by No Jacket Required. Four years, four producers and nine studios later who should be playing drums on “Woman In Chains” but Phil Collins. It is best not to dwell on this or many of the other attendant ironies surrounding this irritatingly unsatisfactory record. “Irritatingly” because I know, appreciate and understand what Tears For Fears were trying to pull off, but for me it just doesn’t work.
I rather liked the first two Tears For Fears albums, despite (or because of?) being told by the music press that they were terminally unhip; I don’t think the British music press in particular have ever forgiven them for not being Julian Cope (still, when you put The Seeds Of Love up against the vaudeville acid baths of the contemporaneous Skellington, I know which I prefer to listen to). I applauded their urge to fix Joy Division and Robert Wyatt as two interdependent stars in a unique constellation and the songs spoke to me in ways that Prince Charles and the City Beat Band and Jason and the Scorchers didn’t (nothing against those two, by the way; it’s just the way it was).
You have already heard from Lena about what an impact The Hurting made on the disenfranchised young Americans of the early eighties who would eventually become Generation X; here we generally took it as a post-Closer variant on the old Bobby Rydell nobody-understands-me pop angst which has appealed to multiple generations. It is also not farfetched to suggest that the Beatles’ “Help!” leads eventually to “Shout”; if nobody’s going to answer us, we have to figure out the answer and scream it ourselves.
But with The Seeds Of Love I suspect that this meant infinitely more to American audiences than it did to British ones. The sort-of-title song and lead single did better there (number two on Billboard) than here (a rather grudging number five; as far as this song’s ambitions are concerned, it might as well have peaked at number ninety-five) and it is down to American voices, be they Oleta Adams or Jon Hassell, to electrify the album.
Again, I have to take my hat off to the duo for earnestly not wanting to repeat their earlier work, though fear that “earnestly” is the fatal adverb here. From the Prince-as-Selfridge’s-window-display cover in, I remember wanting this record to be great, a knockout, fuck-you-hipsters masterpiece.
Above all, I wanted “Sowing The Seeds Of Love” to be a phenomenally great pop single. But it falls short, so much so that its failure in itself makes it almost admirable. A dissonant anti-Thatcher rant set against an all-stops-pulled-out attempt to bring 1967 back, a song which draws some subtle lines between the utopia of then and the devil-take-the-hindmost spivvery of 1989 now (the subtext being that the Acid/rave “industry” was at bottom line Thatcherism taken to its logically illegal conclusion)? What could go wrong?
It didn’t help of course that British radio was still commanded by a bunch of people – and also perhaps their audience - desperate to wind the clock back twenty-two years and who saw “Sowing” as manna from Penny Lane. But it isn’t just the fact that at this point we had people like Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, kids going Radio Rentals to “I Am The Resurrection” (and “Elizabeth My Dear” is a far more pointed and menacing attack on the Establishment), in which context the returning TFF seemed almost laughingly old hat.
Given the involvement of people like Richard Niles and the opera soprano samples, one could even draw a line between this song and “Left To My Own Devices.” But the Pet Shop Boys have always sounded like naturals. On “Sowing” you can sense the duo pulling every sinew, huffing and puffing in the effort to make it work. But things like the Dukes of Stratosphear don’t sound effortful; songs like “25 O’Clock” and “You’re A Good Man Albert Brown” simply do the retro-psychedelic thing better. Likewise, although I know that Nick Nicely sweated and strained for many months to get “Hilly Fields (1892)” right, on listening to the record he sounds like he’s being psychedelic without even having to think about it.
Still, this is the only one of eight songs which sticks in the mind, and I note it’s also the only one of eight songs in which Curt Smith gets a co-writing credit, as opposed to five songs co-written by Roland Orzabal with former Ravishing Beauties keyboard player Nicky Holland. Despite the cover, one frequently forgets that Curt is on the record at all, whereas its two predecessors were clearly products of two minds working together.
Despite the alleged urge to make a “small”-sounding album, The Seeds Of Love sounds big in all the wrong ways; big as in pretentious, over-embellished, laborious, oxygen squeezed out. The listener may wonder at the supporting cast, most of whom seem to be drawn from the floating crap game of session players used on so many of this decade’s number ones – Manu Katché, Robbie McIntosh, Pino Palladino – with the odd wild card (Peter Hope-Evans, half of Medicine Head, one of TFF’s true if far less stressed predecessors, turns up playing harmonica on “Third World”), and the accompanying sub-Gabriel gloss – side two really is a dull listen – and question whether this is all covering up an absence.
Oleta Adams, who supposedly represented everything TFF wanted to return or change to, does strikingly well – her entry on “Woman In Chains” frankly makes you wonder why Orzabal bothered to start singing the song, and her jazz piano coda to “Badman’s Song” is musically the album’s best moment – but she’s not there all the time. Elsewhere, things like “Advice For The Young At Heart” at best got me thinking how much the music sounded like Nick Heyward’s North Of A Miracle, but generally this is a grievously over-produced stew.
The preponderance of swords and knives on side two also got us thinking; Lena reminded me of the Mahjong card game strategy where, if you pulled a knot followed by a sword or knife, it implied that the knot would be cut. And so it seems to me that the last three songs of Seeds in particular are less about the state of the world and much more about a connection being cut, namely that between Roland and Curt. I note the choreographed staging of peaks in “Year Of The Knife” – all the better for large stadium crowds, although annoyingly the closing drum eruption is uncredited – following which “Famous Last Words” slowly dwindles to a faintly ominous drone as Orzabal sings about the depletion of the ozone layer, saints marching in, etc. (Hassell briefly reappears, but this is no “Brilliant Trees”), and then the decade, or the world, or Tears For Fears, ends for good.
Now, I am fully aware that there were young minds, particularly in late eighties America, who took this deadly seriously and came to prominence in the following decades. I am aware that influence is not a simple one-lane highway, that music trends tend to boomerang back into contention with each subsequent generation; hence the ridiculous suggestion of Danny Kelly – was that man ever right about anything? – in his NME review of Big Chair that this was an expensive folly that would be swept away by an unspecified oncoming tidal wave of musical revolution (his comparison with 10cc’s The Original Soundtrack, which certainly has never been swept away or been forgotten, makes his assertion all the more ludicrous) can be quickly dismissed.
But it isn’t just that Seeds is over-earnest and over-prepared, that it lacks sparkle or humour of any kind. Its central problem lies with the fourth of the four bonus tracks appended to the album’s 1999 CD reissue. This is “Johnny Panic And The Bible Of Dreams,” originally a B-side to the “Advice For The Young At Heart” single – and suddenly the album springs into mischievous life. Featuring a distressed-sounding gospel refrain and the lyrics rapped by one Biti Strauchn, it actually provides the album with its raison d’etre, since it very cleverly draws a line between ’67 and ’89 ways of hearing and feeling, suggesting that one approach is as valid as the other, not to mention confirming that Orzabal actually knew damn well what time it was. It sounds as if it had been cobbled together in five minutes and it is genius. Why it didn’t go on the end of the original album, or why the original album wasn’t more like this, is not explicable. But then we must remember that the Plath story in the first instance was about somebody who is driven mad by obsession with detail, by prioritising the dream over the dreamer.
Next: the second coming of consciousness, or conscience?