I think one of the big emotions I didn’t consciously notice in 1980s music which I’ve only really just started to appreciate on relistening, is an incredible sense of melancholy and anxiety.
Today, for example, I’ve been listening to the Tears for Fears album Songs From The Big Chair, and there is a lot of sadness and foreboding right through it – not just in the lyrics, which are often about confusion at being alive or being in the grip of events beyond your control – but also a sadness in the very structure of the melodies.
Even that classic tune Everybody Wants To Rule The World is essentially a warning to a newborn or newly conscious person about the madness s/he is about to encounter and the transient and ever-changing nature of existence.
If you consider the period it was written, the world was in the grip of a nuclear arms build-up, lyrics such as:
Help me make the most
Of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world
take on a dark meaning.
And do these lines below echo the run for the nuclear shelter…
There’s a room where the light won’t find you
Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down
When they do I’ll be right behind you
So glad we’ve almost made it
So sad they had to fade it
Everybody wants to rule the world
…or are they about escaping to a new freedom from a dark space where the confining walls are at last knocked down? If so, is there an Orphean resonance? Is the singer’s attempt to save Eurydice who says she is right behind you doomed to failure?
The fact is, the lyrics are vague enough to be ambiguous, and for this reason there remains something in them that is deeply unsettling. It is a far cry from a love song, or even a song of grief or joy. It’s something else, darker and more confusing, despite its assured and steady, if not eaxctly upbeat tune.
For me, this is one of the realities of much of the popular music from this era. Beneath the surface there is much that is unsettled, uncertain and lost.
The album Songs From The Big Chair viewed in its entirety contains more of that uncertainty. From the experimental sampling tracks such as The Big Chair, with its child’s voice and what sounds like a knife being whetted or a sword drawn, to tunes with titles such as Broken, Shout, Everybody Wants To Rule the World and Empire Building, the whole album is far more unsettling than you might expect from what is usually regarded as a pop album.
Now I consider it anew, Songs From The Big Chair is a lightning rod for the fears and indeed tears that for me were always bubbling below the surface as a teen growing up in the 1980s.
It’s taken me this long to realise.
What an interesting observation Matt! Being an ‘oldie’ I, with husband, was running a small hotel in the 80s so – although I’ve always loved music – we mostly stuck to the familiar via our music system: jazz, classical and the brilliant, clearer….crooners of the 50s and 60s; Sinatra,Fitzgerald, et al. Such songs as ‘Accentuate the Positive,’ ‘Don’t Fence me in’ and a plethora of upbeat songs from the musicals were around then.All penned as a relief from the bondage of World War 2…And, during the war, there was an upsurge of comical songs, such as ‘Kiss me Goodnight Sergeant Major’ and ‘Hang out the Washing on the Seigfreid Line’…Of course, we have to live in Hope, but technology seems to be out-running humanity and greed is rife. A mega dose of Common Sense is overdue and a return to the things which matter, like love and truth. We don’t need divisions just kindness and understanding. Thanks, Matt..