Primal suspects: The psychology of Tears for Fears

Because I am both a psychologist and self-confessed music obsessive, one of the questions I am often asked by my friends is ‘Who is the most psychologically influenced band?’ Based on my own musical tastes, I would have to say Tears for Fears (one of many bands named after something psychological – other contenders based on name alone include Pavlov’s Dog, Therapy?, Primal Scream, Madness, and The Mindbenders, to name a few).

Tears For Fears (TFF) were one of my favourite bands as a teenager and (if my memory serves me) I saw them support The Thompson Twins just as their third single (‘Mad World’) became their first British hit single. TFF were formed in 1981 by Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith after they left the Bath-based band Graduate (mostly remembered for their single ‘Elvis Should Play Ska’ from their debut – and only – LP Acting My Age). They briefly called the band ‘History of Headaches’ but eventually settled on TFF.

TFF’s name was inspired by primal therapy (as was the band Primal Scream). Even from a young age I was well aware of primal therapy as I was – and still am – a massive fan of The Beatles and John Lennon. Lennon underwent primal therapy in 1970 with its’ developer (US psychotherapist Dr. Arthur Janov). In fact, one of the reasons I chose to study psychology at university was because I had read Janov’s first book (The Primal Scream) just because of my love of Lennon’s work. As the Wikipedia entry on primal therapy notes:

“Primal therapy is a trauma-based psychotherapy trauma-based created by Arthur Janov, who argues that neurosis is caused by the repressed pain of childhood trauma. Janov argues that repressed pain can be sequentially brought to conscious awareness and resolved through re-experiencing the incident and fully expressing the resulting pain during therapy. Primal therapy was developed as a means of eliciting the repressed pain; the term Pain is capitalized in discussions of primal therapy when referring to any repressed emotional distress and its purported long-lasting psychological effects. Janov criticizes the talking therapies as they deal primarily with the cerebral cortex and higher-reasoning areas and do not access the source of Pain within the more basic parts of the central nervous system. Primal therapy is used to re-experience childhood pain – i.e., felt rather than conceptual memories – in an attempt to resolve the pain through complete processing and integration, becoming ‘real’. An intended objective of the therapy is to lessen or eliminate the hold early trauma exerts on adult life”.

The Primal Scream book recounts the primal therapy experiences that Janov had with 63 clients during a year-and-a-half period in the late 1960s (and who he claimed were all successfully ‘cured’ using his newly developed therapy). Unlike John Lennon, TFF never underwent primal therapy themselves (but read Janov’s work). It was actually Dr. Janov’s 1980 book Prisoners of Pain (Unlocking The Power Of The Mind To End Suffering) where he claimed “tears as a replacement for fears” (and hence the band’s chosen name). In a 2004 television interview, both Smith and Orzabal said they were disillusioned when they met Janov in the mid-1980s (claiming Janov had become quite “Hollywood” and asking TFF to write a musical based on his work).

Both Smith and Orzabal claimed to have had unhappy childhoods that led them to the work of Dr. Janov (they were too poor – unlike Lennon – to actually have primal therapy and described having such therapy as “an aspiration”). Most of their songs directly or indirectly referenced primal therapy. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the whole of their first album The Hurting was a concept LP. Orzabal claimed that “writing the title track was a strange piece of psychic osmosis…I had an acoustic guitar in my hand at the time and played [Curt] what he was describing: that’s how ‘The Hurting’ was written, and we knew for a long time it was the right name for our first album”.

A quick look at the album’s song titles shows how influenced they had been by primal therapy (such as the title track, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Mad World’, Ideas As Opiates’, ‘Watch Me Bleed’, ‘Memories Fade’, ‘Start Of The Breakdown’, ‘Pale Shelter (You Don’t Give Me Love’, and ‘Change’). As Paul Sinclair notes in his sleeve notes for the latest box-set reissue:

“Like all great art, ‘The Hurting’ connects. The emotion grabs hold of your heart and gives it a squeeze. The Primal Therapy and Janov influence provide a satisfying consistency, and the band are comfortable in using the ‘C’ word [concept] in reference to ‘The Hurting’…[Orzabal adds] It’s a very consistent album with its own personality. There’s a strong message running through it and some of the song titles were taken from Janov’s writing”.

A number of commentators (including Sinclair) have made the observation that the whole album is about the transition between childhood and adulthood. Maybe that’s why I bought it as a teenager. In contrast to lyrics in The Smiths’ ‘Panic’ (“It says nothing to me about my life”), The Hurting “said something to me about my life”. Sinclair also notes:

“Deep analysis of the songs and navel gazing is not a condition of entry. The genius of ‘The Hurting’ is that on one level, it is just an album of great, melodic, hook-filled pop songs…In the end. ‘The Hurting’ was the album that the band needed to make. There was never going to be an alternative debut. The basic idea behind Janov’s Primal Therapy – the impact that the trauma of childhood had on your character as an adult – was the blood running through the veins of the record”.

Of course, TFF haven’t been the only band to have songs and/or an album influenced by psychologists and/or psychological theory (and of course Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were both on the cover of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Arguably the most well known LP inspired by Dr. Janov’s therapy was John Lennon’s first ‘proper’ 1970 solo LP (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band). Other artists have had direct inspiration from Freud (Freudiana by the Alan Parsons Project, the song ‘Psychotherapy’ by Melanie), Jung (Synchronicity by The Police) and Wilhelm Reich (Kate Bush’s single ‘Cloudbusting’ and Patti Smith’s ‘Birdland’). However, I would still contend that TFF were more psychologically influenced as primal therapy was their life philosophy (at least for a number of years).

Most people would probably argue that it was only The Hurting LP that was influenced by Dr. Janov but their later singles off their second LP Songs From The Big Chair are arguably primal therapy-related including ‘Mother’s Talk’ and ‘Shout’ (“Shout, shout, let it all out” could be the mission statement of primal therapy). However, Roland Orzabal claimed that neither were rooted in primal therapy:

“A lot of people think that ‘Shout’ is just another song about primal scream theory continuing the themes of the first album. It is actually more concerned with political protest. It came out in 1984 when a lot of people were still worried about the aftermath of The Cold War and it was basically an encouragement to protest…The song [Mothers Talk] stems from two ideas. One is something that mothers say to their children about pulling faces. They say the child will stay like that when the wind changes. The other idea is inspired by the anti-nuclear cartoon book ‘When The Wind Blows‘ by Raymond Briggs”.

However, ‘The Big Chair’ (B-side to ‘Shout’ and the inspiration for the title of the band’s second LP Songs From The Big Chair) has undeniable psychological roots. The song was inspired by the 1976 film Sybil (based on the 1973 non-fiction book by of the same name by Flora Rheta Schreiber). Sybil is about US psychiatric patient Sybil Dorsett (actually a pseudonym for Shirley Ardell Mason) who was treated for multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder) by her psychoanalyst (Dr. Cornelia Wilbur). ‘The Big Chair’ was in the therapist’s office where Sybil was treated and where she felt safest when talking about her traumatic childhood. Other songs hidden away on TFF B-sides cover aspects of traumatic psychology (‘My Life In The Suicide Ranks’) as well as ‘anti-science’ songs (‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ and ‘Déjà Vu & The Sins of Science’). However, like Christian historian Nathan Albright, I too believe the second LP and later 1986 single ‘Laid So Low’ are psychologically-based:

“Nor did the interest in psychology stop [with ‘The Hurting’]. Tears For Fears’ second album, “Songs From The Big Chair,” are a self-aware “multiple personality” exploration, a conceptual connection that is often forgotten because the hit singles from the album were so successful…Clearly, the musings about power and anger and memory that inform the work of Tears For Fears, the melancholy underpinnings of songs like ‘Watch Me Bleed’ and ‘Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)’ are fairly easy to recognize, and draw greater meaning the more one knows about the band and its personal histories”.

As the years have passed, TFF’s songs have been less psychological but we are a product of our pasts and I would argue that the band’s output is still likely to be shaped by both their conscious and unconscious ideology. Smith was recently interviewed and he admitted that he still had an interest in various psychologies but that he no longer believed in primal therapy:

“Primal theory blames everything on your parents. So that teenage angst we were going through at the time. Since then, I think I’ve moved on to various different psychologies, but it’s something we’re both interested in. Since then, certainly, I’m not a huge believer in primal theory anymore, but I think that comes from having children”.

Maybe their most recent album (Everybody Loves A Happy Ending) has at last brought the band’s traumatic past to rest. Maybe the music itself became a kind of psychological therapy. As Nathan Albright concluded:

“The fact that [Tears For Fears] have a popular and critically acclaimed body of musical work is itself remarkable, but the fact that their work is heavily influenced by psychology, serving as therapy, serves as an inspiration. Rather than self-medication through drugs or alcohol, the two chose music as therapy, turning their lives into the inspiration for hauntingly beautiful songs in their debut concept album, ‘The Hurting’…And that is the most powerful legacy of Tears For Fears, in providing a way for both commercial viability as well as personal therapy. Many creative people [use] creativity as a way to wrestle with our own demons, and the fact that Tears For Fears were able to do it openly and honestly and sincerely, and successfully gives hope to the rest of us who have chosen to deal with our issues in the light, rather than engaging in false pretense”.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Albright, N. (2012). Suffer the children: Tears For Fears and musical therapy. Edge Induced Cohesion, May 2. Located at:

Comaretta, L. (2014). Tears For Fears’ Curt Smith: Back in The Big Chair. Consequence of Sound, November 6. Located at:

Janov, A. (1970). The Primal Scream. New York: Dell Books.

Janov A (1977). Towards a new consciousness. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 21, 333–339.

Janov, A. (1980). Prisoners of Pain: Unlocking The Power Of The Mind To End Suffering. New York: Anchor Books.

Sinclair, P. (2013). Tears For Fears: The Hurting. (Booklet in the Deluxe Reissue of ‘The Hurting’).

Wikipedia (2015). Arthur Janov. Located at:

Wikipedia (2015). Primal therapy. Located at:

Wikipedia (2015). Tears For Fears. Located at:

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on January 15, 2015, in Adolescence, Case Studies, Pain, Popular Culture, Psychological disorders, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Good blog, this morning Mark. I hadn’t realised they’d been influenced in this way or so strongly.

    I have everybody wants to rule the world on a head loop now. “… So sad they had ti fade it…”


    Sent on the move

  2. Tim Conroy-Stocker

    Thanks Mark TFF said something to me about my life too!

    *Tim Conroy-Stocker*


    *BA Hons, PGCE, MEd, AFBPsS, CPsychol*


    English Schools Foundation


    Educational Psychologist / Wellbeing Advisor


    *t.* +852 3572 8500

  3. I started a blog that relates recent scientific research to the tenets of Dr. Arthur Janovs Primal Therapy. Let me know what you think.

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