This song is about the quest for power, and how it can have unfortunate consequences. In an interview with Mix magazine, the band's producer Chris Hughes explained that they spent months working on "Shout," and near the end of the sessions, Roland Orzabal came into the studio and played two simple chords on his acoustic guitar, which became the basis for the song. Said Hughes: "'Everybody Wants to Rule the World' was so simple and went down so quickly, it was effortless, really. In fact, as a piece of recording history, it's bland as hell."
This was the first US #1 hit for Tears for Fears. "Shout" went to #1 two months later.
"Everybody Wants To Rule The World" is a line from the 1980 Clash song "Charlie Don't Surf." Did Tears for Fears lift it? Joe Strummer of The Clash thought so. He recounted a story to Musician magazine about confronting Roland Orzabal in a restaurant, informing Orzabal that "you owe me a fiver." Strummer said that Roland reached in his pocket and produced a five pound note, ostensibly as compensation for poaching the line for his hit title.
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