In stark contrast to the last entry, I can tell you exactly where and when I bought this album (and make a stab at why, as well), and you may be sure I’m going to do exactly that. It’s not, however, a nostalgic tale of the record shops of my youth (I was about to turn 27; I don’t think I considered it my youth at that point, but is sure feels like it from this vantage point).
Our period of real struggle, alluded to in the last couple of posts, came to an end when I finally secured a job working for the Italian confectionery giant, Ferrero. The job initially was not to dissimilar to what I had been doing for Bookwise, but it felt like there might be more options for me in a company which had big plans to expand in the UK, and in any case, they were the only ones to say yes, and I really needed a job by September of 1989.
As I say, I can clearly remember buying this album, and I’m coming to that, but it was only an hour or so ago that I remembered all the logistics of that week. Ferrero were based just outside Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire; I was still living in Perth, and had no car. Once the offer had been made and accepted, they paid for a flight ticket for me from Edinburgh to Heathrow, but the whole ‘getting to Edinburgh without a car’ thing was down to me.
Fortunately, my friend Andrew was keen on me going hillwalking (mountain climbing, technically) with him, so I inveigled him into picking me up, climbing a couple of Munros (somewhere in Angus, I think) and then staying over at his fancy new Edinburgh flat before I set off on the bus to the airport at ridiculous o’clock on the Monday morning.
By the end of the week, I was trained in my new responsibilities, and with my new, temporary, car, set out to drive back to Perth. It was Friday lunchtime, and the plan was just to do the journey in one go, but it only occurred to me about the time I hit the M1 at Watford that I had no music to play in the new car. The radio would sustain me for a while, but I’d likely be driving for eight hours or more and reception wasn’t guaranteed, especially through the more remote patches where I’d probably be tired and in need of something to sing along to.
So, less than half an hour after setting off, I pulled in to Toddington services in search of music.
And snacks, I imagine.
There was no CD player in the car – it was a stopgap one before my actual car arrived – but it did, of course, have the facility to play tapes, so I headed for the cassette section of the shop.
Now, service stations in the 1980s weren’t dramatically different from the service stations of the 1950s, and the music selection was definitely aimed at an older demographic. The assumption being, I suppose, that musical trendsetters like me would have planned ahead and bought all their cassettes at the local independent record shop before setting off.
Had I known about Strawberry Fields records in Rickmansworth, and been able to plan ahead, I would likely have done that, and almost certainly not bought this album.
Here I was, however, faced with a spinner full of Mantovani and James Last, with a smattering of recent releases down at the bottom, where they wouldn’t frighten the regulars. I don’t remember what else was available, but I pulled The Seeds of Love out of the rack and stared at it for some time. It was brand new – I’m almost certain that it had been released during the week I’d been learning how to fill out my expenses – but I had heard, and enjoyed, the single, and nothing else there grabbed me.
I also was probably budgeting furiously in my head, as I hadn’t been paid yet. One cassette would have been my limit, and I plumped for this one.
Therefore, I am as certain as I have been about anything else in the first forty of these, that I bought Tears for Fears’ The Seeds of Love album from Toddington services on the M1 about 3pm in the afternoon of Friday, September 29th, 1989.
And, as I had nothing but the radio for company for the rest of the day, I probably listened to it seven or eight times on the way home.
Now, listening to new music in the car is far from ideal, and I was driving a late 1980s Ford Escort, hardly the last word in either road noise suppression or high fidelity sound reproduction. Despite that, when I woke on the Saturday morning (I’m guessing around lunchtime, given the previous day), I went and fished it out of the car so I could listen to it properly – it made a mark on me that first day which has never quite faded. To this day, I can’t listen to it just once; whenever I play it, I find myself flipping it back over and playing it again, and keeping it on the turntable for the rest of the week. There’s something undefinable about it which makes me convinced I’m listening to one of the greatest albums of all time whenever I’m listening to it.
I can’t have it as background music, as I find it demands my attention every time. It’s an album I have played hundreds of times, perhaps more than all but a handful of the others on this list, and I’ve never quite been able to understand why. It’s not that Tears For Fears are or ever were my favourite band; I don’t own any other album of theirs (although I’m tempted to seek out the new one), and it’s not that it’s genre-defining for my favourite genre – in fact, I’m hard pushed to fit it in any genre. In the end, it’s just there. Maybe you had to be there; it’s a product of a specific time in my life, and resonates because of that, or maybe it’s something else I haven’t ever been able to figure out.
(Or maybe it’s something I kind of suspect, but I’m keeping under my hat until I listen to it again).
For years, all I had was that original tape copy, then I did buy it on CD around the time I was enjoying my long commutes to work (I’m sure we’ll be meeting that period in my life soon enough). The one I own now, however, is surely the way it was intended to be seen and heard; a sumptuous vinyl copy in a shiny gatefold sleeve, with a properly old-fashioned looking Fontana label, and the lyrics and sleevenotes all big enough to be read comfortably.
I bought that here in Victoria a couple of years ago, and discovered to my delight that it still has the same effect on me – having played it once, I just couldn’t imagine listening to anything else all week.
As soon as the needle drops, I think my suspicions are going to be confirmed – even after more than thirty years, the thing I notice above all else is how well produced and mixed this is. There were certain sounds and – for want of a better word – tropes we had come to expect form the technological advances of the 1980s, but you can’t hear any of them here – everything is in service of the song. It’s not flat electronics, neither is it ‘everything louder than everything else’; you can clearly hear all the elements and how they play against each other.
A rare nod here from me to Phil Collins, whose drumming is subtly understated for the majority of the song, and only breaks out when it’s appropriate. No gated reverb, either, which is a bonus.
So, if it’s all in service of the song, and given that the first time I heard it I missed all these subtelties, what about the song? Famously (in my head anyway) written off by the reviewer in Q as He’s Having Her Period, Woman in Chains is – of course – a delightful melody and a lyric you couldn’t (and still can’t) disagree with, and is saved from being somewhat patronising by the presence of Oleta Adams, whose pure and true voice gives it genuine resonance.
As does her captivating jazz piano at the start of Badman’s Song. A sprawling epic of a song which really shouldn’t work – who knows what it’s about – it swings from late-night jazz to full-throated gospel, propelled by the mesmerising drums of Manu Katche and Adams’ irresistible vocals, but never loses its grip on your attention over more than eight minutes of glorious music-making.
It’s in the instrumental break in the middle that you can really hear how the production works – the tempo drops, and there are random handclaps and noises off to contend with as the musicians draw breath before plunging back in, but it’s all consistent and controlled with everyone sure of their role. Yet it sounds so loose and almost improvised at the same time. I know it divided opinion at the time, but put me down firmly on the side of those who think it’s a work of genius.
As is the title track, and the single – the only song I’d heard before buying the album. I don’t know that I made the connection explicitly at the time, but it’s clearly an affectionate and carefully constructed Beatles tribute – somewhere around I Am The Walrus in feel and ambition. It’s also an absolutely glorious melody, with enough going on to keep someone like me coming back again and again to hear what else is going on.
The hairs on my arms stand up at the part where we are counted in to the ‘chorus..’ but instead get a trumpet solo. That’s happened every single time I’ve heard it since 1989, and that must be in the hundreds by now. It never gets old, never loses its power to render me speechless, and yet it’s just a pop song.
It’s a lot of other things, too, though.
Advice for the Young at Heart is calmer, and sounds more like 1980s Tears For Fears. It relies less on the complex tapestry of instrumentation which has supported the first three songs, and instead is carried along on an easy groove which draws attention to the vocals and the words.
I’ve given the words little attention so far, and while there are some striking images and phrases in all of the songs, it’s also true that the words serve the sound and feel of the music rather than making their own point. This song is no different – the ‘advice’ is mainly platitudes and truisms (‘soon we will be older’, anyone?), but they fit the feel of the song perfectly. Not every album can be a call to arms or a philosophical treatise; sometimes they’re just perfect slices of pop music.
The second side starts with some treated trumpet sounds, and lopes into Standing on the Corner of the Third World, another title which does as much of the work as the lyrics themselves, which are vaguely anti-colonialist without really making any hard point about anything. That doesn’t matter, though, as the song swells and fades in intriguing ways, with the impeccable bass of Pino Palladino catching the ear, and pulling the attention in all sorts of directions while the song floats off into the distance.
Swords and Knives begins, unusually for this album, in much the same idiom and feel as its predecessor. Once the introductions have been made, however, it picks up the pace, and opens out from its simple acoustic opening into a fuller sound with a neat duetted vocal. As more and more instrumentation joins in, the simple start is forgotten; guitars threaten to break out into a full distorted rock-out but pull back to allow the middle section some space to breathe before the ending folds back to the start, but with some restlessness still evident. Something is brewing…
And what’s brewing is the faux-live explosion of Year of the Knife, which might just be my favourite song on here. It’s a full-on rock anthem, but still shot through with all the elements which have caused the album to stand out so clearly from its peers. You can still hear the Beatles influences, the gospel backing vocals, the full and carefully layered instrumentation while the band go all Springsteen up front.
And, of course, where an actual rock anthem would have a soaring guitar solo, there’s a cello sawing away mournfully, and a breakdown which allows for the inevitable explosion back into the verse, complete with over the top screaming and now here’s the guitar doing all the things that it was supposed to do in the solo. There’s a rainstorm and a breathless singalong with the whole band at full throttle before it sticks the landing and falls away into the calm after the storm.
Final track Famous Last Words probably wasn’t designed as an epitaph, but works that way – Tears For Fears didn’t release any new music together for another ten years after this, totally failing to capitalise on the momentum this surely had given them. For the nit-picky among you, there were Tears For Fears albums in that time, but they were essentially Roland Orzabal solo albums.
It’s sparsely arranged at first, but this album was never going to slope off quietly into the sunset, and when it finally opens up and allows everyone to express themselves, it feels like a genuine catharsis, only to rein everything back in and end on a quietly hopeful note.
And, yes, it’s done that thing again where the next thing I want to do is turn it over again and start from the top, so it’s worth examining why that is.
There is, I think, an element of that first time I heard it, when it was all I had in the car, and it would just autoreverse and start again – I didn’t see any reason not to allow it to do that, so the end of Famous Last Words is, in my mind, followed by the beginning of Woman in Chains anyway. But more than that, I think this album, more than most on this list, and more than most I’ve heard, succeeds in creating an atmosphere; a place you want to linger in and savour, and it does that not only because of terrific songwriting and performances, but also by very careful and thought through production. Everything, as someone else said, in its right place. The feel of an album is not something I’ve spent a lot of time pondering, but it’s important here.
I didn’t know how to categorise it back then, and – as you probably noticed – I shied away from doing it now, but if pushed, I’d say it somehow took me back to my Prog roots. Not in the full-on way of an early Yes album, but I think The Seeds of Love is a concept album of a different kind – the concept is in the sound, the way it’s made, the overall feel of the thing, and – just like the best of the early 1970s albums, it’s that which makes you want to flip it over and start again; to hear those songs again and again, and to feel the hairs on my arm stand up again, just as I knew they would, and have done since I first felt it while thrashing my way up the M1 back to Scotland that Friday afternoon.
I still don’t exactly know why, but I love this album easily as much as I love any of the other 59.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
The Hurting and Songs From the Big Chair is the standard answer to this, I’d imagine. As I say, I’ve never owned any of them, but I do know they contain some tremendous 1980s pop music. I hear good things about the new one, The Tipping Point, too.
Compilations to consider?
I have no idea. Let’s look. I’d say the relatively recent Rule The World should hit the spot.
There’s one which was released in France only, but nothing substantial. I can imagine a full multimedia extravaganza following this year’s tour, as seems to be the way of things now, so maybe hang on for that.
Well, you have seen Donnie Darko, haven’t you?