Some songs change the world and top the charts. Other songs have more modest showings but still manage to become staple tracks for generations of musicians, mixers, engineers, and producers to follow. In 1989, Tears for Fears created one of these legacy examples – “Woman in Chains.” Not only is it a masterpiece of songwriting, mixing and production, it also carries a powerful, cultural significance. “Woman in Chains” has been hailed as a feminist anthem, and actively challenges the topics we’d expect to hear from our male songwriters.
Tears for Fears was formed in Bath, England in 1981. Founding members, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith had met as teenagers in Bath, and quickly connected to one another. Smith recalled, “We both come from broken homes. We were both brought up solely by our mothers, more or less.” The pair mutually loved Blue Öyster Cult and their sound, but their first group together, Graduate, had a more “mod-revival” sound. They had received a record deal, and released an album in 1980 called Acting My Age, with one single…. “Elvis should Play Ska.” Completely of its time, it referred to Elvis Costello, rather than Presley. However the song failed to chart, and the pair turned towards synth-centered music, forming a new group called Tears For Fears.
Smith explained to Vice in 2014 that they attribute their sonic change to the influence of Gary Numan. “It wasn’t even so much liking him, it’s that we were kids following trends, and trends in those days were really powerful. You’re acutely aware something is changing and then suddenly Gary Numan was number one.
We were familiar with the style, having listened to Bowie, but it was a shock that he was number one.” Tears for Fears had drawn their name from the work of psychologist Arthur Janov. Janov had pioneered Primal Therapy with his book The Primal Scream in 1970, and was brought to popular cultural awareness after John Lennon sought him out for treatment. Orzabal and Smith were both fascinated by Primal Therapy. Orzabal explained: “I think when you’re making that transition from childhood into adulthood and you’re leaving a lot of things behind, the world is a scary place…We’d previously been in a very lightweight mod band together, and then both of us had embraced Janov’s primal theory, and we discovered what we do best: stick out some messages, hidden, cleverly, in a whole bunch of electronica. And then we were off, because we had something to say.”
While Primal Therapy encompassed the majority of their fascination with Janov’s work, the pair looked to the more contemporary Prisoners of Pain (1980) book when choosing their band name. In it, Janov specifically referred to ‘tears’ as a replacement for ‘fears.’
Their first album was called The Hurting, and it took on deep human and psychological topics. A huge success, it hit Number 1 on the UK Album charts in just two weeks. Their second album, Songs from the Big Chair, was released in 1985. It hit Number 2 in the UK, and Number 1 in the US. It would be another 4 years before Tears for Fears released their third album – but what an album it was! The tracks on The Seeds of Love were largely written by Orzabal and keyboardist Nicky Holland. Two of the three singles from the album were massive hits… “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” written by Orzabal and Smith, and “Woman in Chains,” written by Orzabal.
With “Woman in Chains”, Orzabal chartered a new path in music for the average male songwriter: to directly address topics of feminism and femininity. Orzabal explained to the Washington Post, “When I sing ‘Woman in Chains,’ I’m singing about the oppression of women around the world, but I’m also singing about the repression of the female anima within myself, and I’m also singing about my mother. At the end when I sing, ‘Free her,’ I’m also saying, ‘Free me.'”
“Woman in Chains” kicks off The Seeds of Love album with a bass-heavy, electronic introduction. This atmospheric section lasts for a full minute before the vocals enter, and when they do, they are both haunting and deep. Orzabel duets with Oleta Adams, and credits inspiration for the entire album to her voice and artistry. In an interview with Paul Sinclair, Orzabel explained: “In a sense, the germ of Seeds of Love was the moment in August 1985 when I heard Oleta Adams playing at the piano with a bass player and a drummer in Kansas. That really was the point at which I realized how sick I was of what we were doing. This was our second trip across America playing the same set with the Revox [tape machine] on stage and there was this woman I’d never heard of singing in a bar in a hotel – admittedly with her own select audience.”
Smith, likewise, said that hearing Adams sing made the duo realize they couldn’t go back to what they had been doing before. They wanted to connect with their music again; the way they had when they witnessed her performance. This meant bringing in more traditional instrumentation, and writing songs with an increased emotional expression. Orzabel explained. “We were both knocked out by her emotional power, she just cut through the intellect and got straight to the heart. It made us realize that all the machinery and the complicatedness we were using were not allowing the expression to come through. It made me go back to the drawing board; it made me want to use real instruments and real soulful vocals.”
In the track, “Woman in Chains,” we still hear the ‘electronic’ sound they were known for, but it also employs more traditional instrumentation and playing. Orzabal programs the Fairlight, but he also plays both keyboards and guitar. Neil Taylor adds a guitar arpeggio on the track, and Curt Smith plays bass. The first half of the song features Manu Katché on drums, however, they also brought in Phil Collins to add that big, resounding drum sound. Collins explained, “Tears for Fears just wanted me to do that big drum thing from ‘In the Air Tonight’… ‘We want you to come in here in a big way.’” Interestingly, Bob Clearmountain explained in 2019 that Collin’s fill was actually made up of several different takes, all pieced together to get the sound that Orzabal had desired.
The instrumentation and production of the track, even without the lyrics, illustrates the emotional message of the song. It builds in texture and intensity over the length of the track. The kick drum and Smith bass, in addition to their individual grooves, come together in the second half of each bar – evoking a heartbeat pattern. This musical motive gives a steady, yet powerful pulse throughout the song. As the track progresses, it gains a fullness in its sound, and yet it still feels like the mix has space and room to breathe. There is a constant uplift and sense of empowerment to the song, even before you realize its message. The complementary nature of this musical sound and message has inspired songwriters, mixers, and producers since.
But of course, the powerful female voice and its ideas are equally important to the song’s impact on the world. “Woman in Chains” has been called a feminist anthem, and its origins may indicate that the connection was intentional. In an interview with Melody Maker, Orzabal explained that he was inspired, both by readings from feminist literature, and by his learning of matriarchal societies. Further, he believed that a patriarchal society not-only hurt women, it also hurt men; by forcing them to push aside any emotions and personality traits that might be deemed ‘too feminine.’ The lyrics highlight these ideas: Orzabal begins with the male voice singing: “You better love loving, you better behave.” Adams brings in a strong female resilience with lyrics like, “says she ’s fine, she’ll always cope.” The chorus ends with the lyrics: “well, it’s a world gone crazy, keeps a woman in chains.” Listeners have also pointed out that Orzabal may have been making a connection between the sins of sexism and those of racism. The first lyric from Adams, an African American woman, references a 1967 play by Howard Sackler, called “The Great White Hope” depicting American racial tensions through the story of a boxing match between an African American and a white boxer. In her opening vocal line, Adams sings “calls her man, the Great White Hope.”
The origins of the Seeds of Love album began in late 1986 at Orzabal’s new home studio. Located in Chalk Farm, London, this is where he and Nicky Holland wrote most of the songs. The whole team headed to a professional studio to begin recording, but after months passing with a recurring lineup of participants, they had nothing that they were truly pleased with. In February of 1988, they headed to London’s Townhouse studio with a new band, having told the record label that they intended to produce the album themselves. They ended up bringing in Dave Bascombe as a co-producer for the album, with Bob Clearmount mixing most of the tracks. “Woman in Chains”, in particular, shows a complete mastery of mixing and has remained a model for professionals in the industry since.
The Seeds of Love was released on September 29, 1989 by Fontana Records. The title track, “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” had been released as a single, about a month prior, and had hit Number 5 in the UK, Number 2 in the US and Number 1 in Canada. Listeners were excitedly anticipating the full album, and it didn’t disappoint. The record entered the UK charts at Number 1, and was certified platinum within 3 weeks. “Woman in Chains” was released as a single a couple of months later, on November 6, 1989. It made it to the Top 40 in the US and UK, and peaked at Number 11 in Canada. But the song has held much more significance than its chart showing. In the public sphere, its lyrical and emotional content has made it a powerful anthem for generations of listeners. And — for producers, mixers, and engineers — it remains a model track to which all others aspire.