The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Tears For Fears – “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”

HIT #1: June 8, 1985

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

At a certain point in the ’80s, every big pop record began to sound like every other big pop record. Genre distinctions melted away. The would-be teen idols, the party-funk touring machines, the astral explorers of ’70s prog, the arena-rock screamers, the boomer icons suddenly attempting to make sense of the aging process — all of them were playing around in the same sandbox. All of them were using preset beats and thundering gated drums and echoey processed-to-death guitar solos and gleaming Fairlight synthesizers. Those sounds became the building blocks of that particular moment’s universal pop language.

All of a sudden, the question was who was best at playing around with those big, blocky, expensive coke-rush sounds. Phil Collins was firmly at home in that sonic environment; it’s part of the reason that such an unassuming figure was able to achieve superstar status. Bruce Springsteen turned out to be shockingly adept at it; he wove synth textures into his shout-along stadium anthems with a strange sort of grace. The truly transcendent stars of mid-’80s pop — the Michael Jacksons and Princes and Madonnas of the world — were able to use that sonic signature as a method of blasting their personalities out into the world.

The UK duo Tears For Fears spoke that language, too. By 1985, the Second British Invasion — the cascade of twitchy synthpop kids who blew up on MTV — had started to fade. The sound of an arch art-school voice declaiming cryptic nothings over beeping keyboards no longer seemed like the future. When they debuted, Tears For Fears got lost in that moment; they made big hits at home but struggled to connect in America. On their second album, though, Tears For Fears tapped right into the sonic maximalism of their era, and they made a blockbuster. With “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” the duo set out explicitly to conquer America. For a little while, that’s exactly what they did.

All the dominoes had to fall just right for Tears For Fears to become pop stars in the US. Think of it: Here were two pasty, floppy-haired, potato-faced gearheads with overwhelmed-gasp voices. They made dramatic, swoony wilting-wallflower keyboard anthems about their obsessions with psychiatric theory. They were dorks. And for a good long stretch of the summer of 1985, these dorks were ruling the Billboard album charts, outselling Bryan Adams and Prince and Phil Collins and the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. They figured something out.

Those two dorks’ story starts a few years earlier in Bath, a small and picturesque English town where I once lived for about a month. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith met when they were both teenagers. (Smith and Orzabal are a couple of months apart in age. The #1 single in America when Smith was born was Pat Boone’s “Moody River.” For Orzabal, it was Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ And Turnin’.”) For a little while, Orzabal and Smith played in a ska band called Graduate that released one album in 1980. Both of them were also backing musicians for Neon, a Bath-based new wave band whose two leaders, Pete Byrne and Rob Fisher, would soon become Naked Eyes. (Naked Eyes’ highest-charting US single, a 1983 cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David oldie “Always Something There To Remind Me,” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.)

Orzabal and Smith broke away from Graduate and Neon in 1981, and they started their own group called History Of Headaches. Pretty soon, they changed their name to Tears For Fears, influenced by the primal therapy pioneer and John Lennon guru Arthur Janov. Orzabal and Smith both read Janov’s book The Primal Scream and got really into the idea of childhood trauma affecting your life all through adulthood. Together, they found a gloomy, moody synthpop sound, backing up their rich melodies with saxophone tootles and echoing drum machines.

Tears For Fears’ 1983 debut album The Hurting made them stars at home. Three of their singles went top-five in the UK, and one of them, “Mad World,” is now a universally-acknowledged classic. But things were different in the US, where only one of the singles from The Hurting even made the Hot 100. (“Change” peaked at #73.) So Tears For Fears intentionally set out to broaden their appeal. Already influenced by UK prog, they started listening to stuff that had been popular in North America and that didn’t necessarily speak to them instinctively: Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams. You can’t necessarily hear those influences on 1985’s Songs From The Big Chair, but you can hear that Tears For Fears are going for it.

Tears For Fears spent months working on Songs From The Big Chair. The group named the album in honor of Sybil, a 1976 miniseries where Sally Field plays a woman with multiple personality disorder. Field’s character only feels safe in her therapist’s chair. As big as they were in the UK, Tears For Fears didn’t get much love from critics, so they decided to make their own chair, to feel comfortable in whatever they were doing. Or that’s what they say, anyway. I don’t get how any of that connects to their music, but I’ve never seen Sybil or read Arthur Janov or been character-assassinated by the UK music press. The title made sense to them, anyway. They worked on the album with Chris Hughes, the former Adam And The Ants drummer who’d also produced The Hurting, and they obsessively fussed over every little sound.

Most of Songs From The Big Chair is labored, maximal big-’80s pop music. “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” is a little different. The group’s big American breakout came together in a few days, based on a two-chord guitar figure that Roland Orzabal had come up with. Orzabal co-write the song with Hughes and keyboardist Ian Stanley, and he used it to make some points about the human hunger for power. The original title was “Everybody Wants To Go To War.”

At first, Tears For Fears weren’t sure about the song they’d written. The big, clomping shuffle beat didn’t come naturally to them, and they thought it sounded too happy. For a while, they weren’t even sure if they wanted the song on the album. Shortly after the track hit, Smith admitted to USA Today that they only included the song “to get an American hit.” Smith also said that the song “sounded American because it’s, like, drive music, and a lot of Americans love that.” We sure do!

I don’t hear “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” as being an especially American song, or even as drive music. But Tears For Fears did come out with the track at a sort of apex of Reagan/Thatcher imperial power, and the track speaks a little bit to that. The song’s lyrics are vague enough that you can read all sorts of things into it. Maybe it’s about the environment: “Acting on your best behavior, turn your back on mother nature.” Maybe it’s about the fleeting nature of success: “Help me make the most of freedom and pleasure/ Nothing ever lasts forever.” Maybe it’s about not trusting the media: “On a headline, why believe it?”

Honestly, the fake profundity on display here drives me nuts. “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” is one of those songs that sounds like it’s taking a stand on one issue or another but that never makes its points explicit. There’s a general thesis in there — people want power — but there’s no concrete attempt to explore what that drive might mean, or how it might fuck things up. Dennis Miller, king of ’80s and ’90s smarm, used “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” as his talk show’s end-credits music for years, and then Miller went full right-wing ghoul. That’s not Tears For Fears’ fault, but I’m going to judge them for it anyway.

Based on the comments I’ve seen on this column, a whole lot of people love “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” but I’ve never been able to connect with the song in any kind of instinctive way. Part of it is those nodding-toward-depth lyrics, but part of it is also the central hook, a naggingly catchy melody that I’ve always found pretty flimsy. It’s the kind of song that I get stuck in my head, but it’s not the kind of song that I’m happy to have stuck in my head.

Still, I can’t deny that “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” is an impressive piece of craftsmanship. The track has a lot going on, all these sharp little riffs and hooks that disappear and reappear. The central guitar figure sparkles and glides. The shuffle beat is clompy and ungainly, but it’s got a bit of the force of the industrial music that was just starting to become its own genre. The drums sound huge. Tiny synth melodies flit through. I like how the guitars surge upwards on the bridge and how Smith and Orzabal’s weedy voices suddenly find some muscle. And I like how all the little ideas on the song never overwhelm the melody or the groove. It’s clearly a smart and well-realized vision. It just doesn’t speak to me.

The video is a smart and well-realized vision, too. Director Nigel Dick, who had already directed the “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” video and whose work will appear in this column a great many times, filmed Smith driving a beautiful old convertible around Southern California and Nevada. There’s no central narrative; it’s just an Englishman adrift in an American landscape. We get some gorgeous shots of Smith standing in the golden-hour desert light while dirtbikes vroom all around him, and we also get some racially weird moments where two Black men in tuxedos do some kind of vaudeville dance routine at a gas station. I don’t know what the fuck is going on with that, but it’s a hazy, pretty, inviting video, and I can see why it would’ve pulled in the kids who caught it in MTV.

Still, it’s a little surprising to learn just how big Tears For Fears were that summer. “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” was only the second Tears For Fears single to hit the American charts, and it made Tears For Fears into something huge. Songs From The Big Chair sold five million copies in America, and the album spent five weeks atop the Billboard album charts. Tears For Fears will soon be back in this column.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” soundtracking the end of the cultishly beloved 1985 film Real Genius:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Producers the Trackmasters sampled “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” for Nas’ 2001 single “Rule.” On the hook, Amerie sang Tears For Fears’ chorus. Here’s “Rule”:

(Nas’ highest-charting single, 2003’s “I Can,” peaked at #12. Amerie’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “1 Thing,” peaked at 8. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the surprisingly sedate version of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” that Patti Smith included on her 2007 all-covers album Twelve:

(Patti Smith’s highest-charting single is 1978’s “Because The Night,” which peaked at #13.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lorde’s churning, ominous cover of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” recorded for the soundtrack of the 2013 movie The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:

(Lorde will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On Kanye West’s remix of his 2016 single “Black Skinhead,” Miley Cyrus sings the “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” hook. Here’s that remix, which also features Travis Scott:

(“Black Skinhead” peaked at #69. Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, and Travis Scott will all appear in this column eventually.)

THE 10S: Katrina And The Waves’ dizzy new-wave endorphin bomb “Walking On Sunshine” peaked at #9 behind “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” and hey! All right now! It’s a 10!