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.
There is great power in simply saying fuck this shit. The sentiment doesn’t have to be any more nuanced or focused than that. It doesn’t have to have a specific target. It doesn’t have to have a solution. It can just be a feeling, and that feeling can be enough to fuel you, to help you feel like you have some kind of power. When enough people decide, at the same time, that this shit needs to get fucked, the world changes. “Shout,” Tears For Fears’ second American #1 hit, is a great moment for the fuck this shit sentiment — a rare moment where fuck this shit is the entire message of a big pop song.
Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, the two leaders of Tears For Fears, were both great admirers of Arthur Janov and of primal scream therapy. They took their band name and many of their ideas from psychological theory. But they’ve also said that “Shout” isn’t a song about primal scream. Instead, it’s their idea of a protest song — one driven particularly by the governmental policies of the late Cold War, especially by the American nuclear weapons that were installed in the UK.
But “Shout” never tells you what it’s about. Instead, the song is built around one big, repetitive, mantra-like hook: “Shout! Shout! Let it all out! These are the things I can do without!” Orzabal and Smith never specify what these things are. Everyone has their own things that they can do without. So “Shout” is a liquid protest song, one that can adapt to any environment.
I have problems with “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” Tears For Fears’ previous #1 hit, because it’s so fuzzy and indistinct. On that one, the group seems to be singing about the nature of power, but they offer no examples, no specificity. I’ve never had that issue with “Shout,” even though it’s just as vague. “Shout” never presents itself as a philosophical argument or a statement on how the world is. Instead, “Shout” merely says: Fuck this shit. And I agree. Fuck this shit.
It took months for Tears For Fears to finish recording “Shout.” Orzabal came up with the chorus and the idea for the song while working with a cheap keyboard and a drum machine in his room. Orzabal has said he took the beat from a song on the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, though he hasn’t said which one. (I’m guessing it’s “Seen And Not Seen,” though I guess it could be “Crosseyed And Painless.” Talking Heads’ highest-charting single is 1983’s “Burning Down The House,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 9.) Orzabal didn’t think much of what he’d written, but keyboardist Ian Stanley and producer Chris Hughes loved it, and they thought it could be huge. So the group spent forever on the track, tweaking and fine-tuning it. Stanley added enough to the song that he got co-writing credit.
I love the idea of the group taking months to tinker with this hook that Roland Orzabal made up in five seconds. The skeleton of “Shout” really is that hook. In its album version, “Shout” is six and a half minutes long, and it only barely even has any verses. Instead, we hear the hook again and again. That chorus becomes a sort of koan. Tears For Fears surround that hook with enough cool little riffs and effects that it sounds colossal.
A desolate John Carpenter-esque synth-drone runs all through “Shout.” The drums thunder. The band piles on more little ideas: The gasping keyboard riff, the Edge-style layers of echoed-out guitar, the fluttery synth-flute. The drum breakdown sounds tremendous — a programmed apocalypse. The chorus and the groove serve each other, to the point where they become a part of one another. “Shout” is too simple to work as a pop song, so that’s not how Tears For Fears record it. Instead, they make it sound like a spaceship taking off.
In the UK, “Shout” came out in November of 1984, months before Tears For Fears’ album Songs From The Big Chair. Tears For Fears were trying to make something commercial after their artsier 1983 single “The Way You Are” had been a relative commercial failure. “Shout” was a case of the band pushing themselves outside their comfort zone, making something bigger and more extroverted than they’d ever attempted. It worked well enough to peak at #4 in the UK, and it did even better in the US, where it came out as the follow-up to the “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” breakthrough.
Tears For Fears had shot a cheap “Shout” video with director Nigel Dick, who also made the “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” video. Dick filmed Smith and Orbazal on the cliffs of Dorset, and then he’d shot the band playing for a crowd of friends and family in a studio. The clip doesn’t look even remotely glamorous, and Orbazal and Smith seem faintly ridiculous when they screw their faces up and attempt to project anger. The group thought about filming a whole new video, something more professional, for the US market. But MTV still played the cheap video. Even without much a video, the fuck this shit sentiment was powerful.
“Shout” is a grand and vicious piece of work, and it’s catchy, too. (While I was working on this column, my daughter busted into my office, dancing and singing along. That never happens.) “Shout” doesn’t need a classic song-structure to get into your head, to sink its fangs in. Instead, Tears For Fears do everything necessary to support that chorus, to put it in the best possible position to succeed.
“Shout” got play on rock radio, and it even made some headway on the R&B chart. But more than anything else, “Shout” was a club song. It operates according to club-music logic. “Shout” has verses and a chorus, but it’s not a verse-chorus-verse song. Instead, it’s a gigantic groove that’s full of cool variations and new layers. It’s a track, not a song. In “Shout,” I hear echoes of the house, techno, and industrial that were still in their infancy in that moment.
When “Shout” hit #1, Tears For Fears were quite possibly the biggest band in America. Songs From The Big Chair spent most of that July and August on the top of the Billboard album charts, and Tears For Fears had been announced as part of the Live Aid bill before they’d even agreed to play the show. (They never ended up playing Live Aid, since a couple of touring musicians quit shortly before it. At the Philadelphia show, local heroes George Thorogood And The Destroyers — whose highest-charting single, 1985’s “Willie And The Hand Jive,” peaked at #63 — replaced them.)
Tears For Fears never made it back to #1 after “Shout,” though they came close a couple of times. Their follow-up single “Head Over Heels” peaked at #3. (It’s a 9.) The group didn’t release another album for another four years, but “Sowing The Seeds Of Love,” the lead single from 1989’s The Seeds Of Love, reached #2. (It’s a 5.) Shortly thereafter, though, Smith and Orzabal split bitterly from one another, and Orzabal kept Tears For Fears going as a solo project.
The Orzabal-only version of Tears For Fears continued to work pretty slowly, and they didn’t come out with another album until 1993’s Elemental. “Break It Down Again,” the lead single from that one, only made it to #25. In the ’90s, Tears For Fears’ only real impact on the pop charts came in the form of Oleta Adams, an R&B singer who the group had discovered singing at a Kansas City hotel bar when they were touring behind Songs From The Big Chair. The group brought her in to sing on the 1989 single “Woman In Chains,” which peaked at #36. Later on, Adams went solo, and Orzabal co-produced her 1990 album Circle Of One. In 1991, Adams’ cover of the Brenda Russell song “Get Here” peaked at #5. (It’s a 7.)
Orzabal only released a couple of not-terribly-successful Tears For Fears albums on his own. But in 2000, he and Smith had to figure out some back-catalog business, and their conversations let to Smith rejoining Tears For Fears. In 2005, the reunited duo released the album Everybody Loves A Happy Ending. They’re still touring and putting out occasional singles now. These days, Tears For Fears are part of the lucrative ’80s-nostalgia circuit. But the fuck this shit feeling is forever.
BONUS BEATS: In 1993, Concrete Blonde went on MTV’s Jon Stewart Show to play their song “Heal It Up.” Then, over the show’s end credits, they covered “Shout.” Here’s that video:
(Concrete Blonde’s highest-charting single, 1990’s “Joey,” peaked at #19.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1995, Madonna and Massive Attack collaborated on a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” which originally came out on the Gaye tribute album Inner City Blues. On that song, Massive Attack sampled the tingly drum sound from “Shout.” Here’s the video for “I Want You”:
(Madonna has already appeared in this column a couple of times, and she’ll be here again. Massive Attack, on the other hand, have never had a Hot 100 single. Gaye’s original “I Want You” peaked at #15.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s André 3000 quoting “Shout” on OutKast’s gorgeous 1996 track “Wheelz Of Steel”:
(OutKast will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the ridiculous cover of “Shout” that the nu metal band Disturbed included on their 2000 debut album The Sickness:
(Disturbed’s highest-charting single, their 2015 cover of Simon And Garfunkel’s “The Sound Of Silence,” peaked at #29.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2010, Simon Cowell had the idea to record a new version of “Shout” as an unofficial World Cup anthem for England. That version of the song, credited to Shout For England, had vocals from (I swear to fucking god) James Corden and Dizzee Rascal. It went to #1 in the UK, a feat that no actual Tears For Fears single ever managed. As weird as American chart history might be, UK chart history is even weirder. Here’s that video:
(Dizzee Rascal has never had a Hot 100 hit as a lead artist, but he did guest on Shakira’s 2010 track “Loca,” which peaked at #32. Simon Cowell will eventually become a figure of some importance in this column.)
THE 10S: Bruce Springsteen’s anti-nostalgia stadium-bar-rock stomper “Glory Days” peaked at #5 behind “Shout.” When I feel like crying, I start laughing thinking ’bout “Glory Days.” It’s a 10.