Although it is jolting to consider that rock 'n’ roll is 50 years old and that the Beatles first came to America 40 years ago, for me it is almost impossible to believe that the new wave era was 20 years ago — far enough down the misty road to antiquity to now be called “classic,” or as Michael Keaton put it in “Beetlejuice”: “dead, dead, deadski.” Where did the time go?
But ever-churning popular culture is only willing to let the marketable dear-departed rest in peace for so long: the ‘80s are now old enough to be new again, and besides, recycling is energy efficient. As a result, a number of key artists of the period are now returning to the public eye and ear. Some are ghosts summoned by VH1’s “Bands Reunited” series, which forcibly exhumed such “wavers” as Kajagoogoo, Romeo Void, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and the Alarm — all of whom are featured in a series marathon on Saturday, March 13.
(Down a fascinating side street, the reunited Alarm just released a punkish single in the U.K. under the assumed name “The Poppyfields,” accompanied by a video with an unknown teenage band lip-syncing the song, “45 RPM.” It’s a hit. Would fashion-conscious music fans have received the song differently had they known it was recorded by the 40-something Welsh rockers? Probably.)
And while some '80s bands have needed a push to let bygones be bygones and rejoin their collective voices in song, others have decided for themselves that they are not content with — to paraphrase another reunited era icon Blondie — dying young and staying pretty.
2004 will see activity by a number of '80s heroes, including the original lineup of Duran Duran, who only recorded three albums together (1981’s “Duran Duran,” 1982’s “Rio,” and 1983’s “Seven And The Ragged Tiger”), but those three included their great hits “Girls On Film,” “Hungry Like the Wolf, “Rio,” “The Reflex” and “Save a Prayer.” Last year the Duranies (three unrelated Taylors, a Rhodes and a Le Bon) reconvened for a rapturously-received brief tour of the U.S. (their lone U.K. show sold out in four minutes), and they have an album of new material due out this year.
Modern rock legends the Cure, though only broken up for the last few years, have a new collection out, “Join the Dots: B-sides and Rarities, 1978-2001,” and a three-record deal for new material with Artist Direct Records. The Smiths, named “most influential band of the last 50 years” by Britain’s New Musical Express mag in 2002, are apparently not reuniting. Brooding lead singer Morrissey has a new album, “You Are the Quarry,” coming out in April, but both he and erstwhile Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr deny rumors of a band reunion.
American noise-pop pioneers the Pixies, whose '89 record “Doolittle” was named “second best album ever” (and that’s a long time) by NME, also have fans atwitter over a spring and summer reunion tour of North America and Europe, a new DVD package and a new “best of” CD collection.
Tears For Fears — much bigger than the sum of its parts
The biggest '80s-related news of all, though, is the triumphant return of Tears For Fears — the formerly battling duo of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith — for a brilliant, expansive new album, “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending,” due in stores in April from Arista Records.
In 1982, childhood friends and Bath, England, natives Orzabal (guitar, keyboards, vocals), and Smith (bass, keyboards, vocals) left the ska group Graduate to form Tears for Fears, an ambitious blend of synth-pop and primal scream psychology. Their first single was “Mad World,” an indelible song with odd, syncopated percussion, moody synths and Smith’s haunted vocals on precociously wise, perceptive lyrics:
“And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had”
A most remarkable beginning. (A mellow remake of “Mad World” by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews, which originally appeared on the “Donnie Darko” soundtrack, topped the U.K singles chart over the ‘03 Christmas holiday.)
In addition to “Mad World,” the duo’s debut '83 album “The Hurting” included two more classics: the rolling and thumping alterna-soul of “Change,” and the sweeping synth-and-acoustic guitar-based “Pale Shelter,” one of the best-sounding songs of the entire new wave era with Smith’s soaring vocal reaching ethereal heights above the instrumental swirl.
Producer Chris Hughes helped push the band into a more organic sound, widening their emotional palette and encouraging primary songwriter Orzabal to sing more — the result was the five-times-platinum “Songs From The Big Chair.” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is among the most perfect singles of the last 20 years: riding on a propulsive, circular beat, strong dual vocals from Smith and Orzabal convey a superior melody augmented by tinkling keyboard filigrees and tough, bristling guitar work from Orzabal and Neil Taylor. “Head Over Heels” and “Shout” were also deservedly huge hits — enticing vocals singing emblematic words perched atop mid-tempo, majestic ocean liners of sound.
Despite, or perhaps because of the success, the duo drifted apart personally and musically: the push to bring Orzabal out of his shell ended up pushing Smith to the sidelines and the yin/yang balance that created magic eked away.
By the time “Seeds of Love” was released in '89, Orzabal essentially was TFF — Smith appeared only on the title track, which he also co-wrote with Orzabal. But what a title track it was: a neo-hippie psychedelic-pop masterwork of varied melodic movements seamlessly joined, intricate interplay between Orzabal’s thicker, Lennon-esque voice, and Smith’s high, clear McCartney-like singing — all lovingly produced by the duo and Dave Bascombe in a style reminiscent of both the Beatles of “Sgt. Pepper’s” and the Beach Boys of “Good Vibrations.” If you have to go out, that’s a pretty good way to go!
The album’s other highlight, “Woman In Chains,” demonstrated Orzabal’s affinity for melodic, moody soul, with Oleta Adams replacing Smith as his vocal sparring partner. By '92 Smith was officially gone, and as is not untypical, the whole did prove to be greater than the parts: Smith released pleasant but nondescript solo records, and Orzabal’s two Smith-less TFF albums, “Elemental” and “Raoul and the Kings of Spain” were serviceable but devoid of magic.
Very Happy Ending
The story, though, has a wonderfully happy ending (pun intended) or new beginning, as the case may be. As Orzabal and Smith cheerfully told me in a recent phone interview from their new base of operation Los Angeles, the call of lifelong friendship and musical compatibility “ended the longest sulk in history” and the pair quietly began working together on new material three years ago, comfortable with their new maturity and energized by a sense of balance between career and, as Smith (now a yoga devotee) said, “mental and physical health.”
Also facilitating the new music was engineer and co-producer Charlton Pettus, whose technical acumen allowed Orzabal and Smith to concentrate on “writing and playing together” so that they could truly create a new Tears For Fears album and not “two concurrent solo albums,” as Orzabal put it. Pettus served as a bit of a mediator as well, and the result is, as they said in unison, “the best album we have ever made.” That it is.
“Everybody Loves a Happy Ending” is an exceptional and logical extension of the Beatle-esque, soul and alternative rock elements of the band’s earlier sound, with sing-along melodies, fascinating and varied production, and most important, magic.
The opening title track somehow draws “Lady Madonna,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and the Mothers of Invention together under the same tent and comes out the stronger on the other end. The duo’s voices and secure, quirky melodic sense have only grown in width and depth over their time apart.
“Closest Thing to Heaven” is the album’s first single and the first song the reunited duo wrote together. Released on February 9, the rhythmic, mid-tempo tune is a great ‘70s-type Euro-soul number and is already doing very well on AAA (Adult Album Alternative) and AC (Adult Contemporary) radio. “Call Me Mellow” is beautiful jangly rock that stretches in an unbroken chain back through the La’s, early R.E.M., to the Beatles and the Byrds.
“Who Killed Tangerine?” is more Fab Four-inspired brilliance, with mysterious quiet verses that give way to a rousing chorus and even more rousing secondary chorus — this could easily be another single. “Quiet Ones” has a forceful ringing guitar figure that U2 would be happy to claim, and beguiling phased vocals from Orzabal on the verses, and sweet falsetto dual-vocal choruses. “Secret World” is orchestral, poppy perfection; “Killing With Kindness” has an appealing rough edge amidst the lilting melodicism; and “Last Days On Earth” concludes what could easily end up being the adult-rock album of the year with a gently funky groove and a lovely, spacey keyboard figure.
Welcome back, gentlemen — the wait has been worth it.
Eric Olsen is the editor of Blogcritics.org and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.