Orzabal and Smith met as teenagers in Bath, Somerset, England. The duo became session Musicians for the band Neon, where they first met Future Tears For Fears Drummer Manny Elias. Neon also featured Pete Byrne and Rob Fisher who went on to become Naked Eyes. Smith and Orzabal's professional debut came with the band Graduate, a mod revival/new wave act. In 1980, Graduate released an album, Acting My Age, and a single "Elvis Should Play Ska" (referring to Elvis Costello, not Presley). The single just missed the top 100 in the UK, though it performed well in Spain and in Switzerland.
As Tears for Fears, Orzabal and Smith intended to form the nucleus of the group and bring in surrounding Musicians to help them complete the picture. Around this time they met local musician Ian Stanley who offered them free use of his home 8-track studio. Stanley began working with the duo as their keyboard player and, after recording two demos, Tears for Fears were signed to Phonogram Records, UK in 1981 by A&R manager Dave Bates. Their first single, "Suffer the Children" (produced by David Lord), was released on that label in November 1981, followed by the first edition of "Pale Shelter" (produced by Mike Howlett) in March 1982, though neither of these releases were successful.
The band achieved their first taste of success with their third single, "Mad World", which reached no. 3 in the UK in November 1982. Their first album, The Hurting, was released in March 1983. For this album (and the next), keyboardist and Composer Ian Stanley and Drummer Manny Elias were considered full bandmembers, though Smith and Orzabal were still essentially the frontmen and public face[s] of the band.
Towards the end of 1983, the band released a new, slightly more experimental single, "The Way You Are", intended as a stopgap while they worked on their second album. The single was a top 30 hit in the UK, but did not come close to matching the success of their three previous hits, despite a national concert tour in December of that year (captured on the In My Mind's Eye live video release). The single, which heavily featured sampling and programmed rhythms, was a departure from Tears for Fears' previous musical approach. In the liner notes to their 1996 B-sides compilation album Saturnine Martial & Lunatic they wrote that "this was the point we realised we had to change direction", although the somewhat experimental style of the single continued to be reflected in their forthcoming B-sides.
As a further donation, the band also recorded a slightly rewritten version of one of their biggest hits and released it for the British fundraising initiative Sport Aid, a sister project of Band Aid in which people took part in running races of varying length and seriousness to raise more money for African famine relief projects. Sport Aid's slogan was "I Ran the World", therefore Tears for Fears released "Everybody Wants to Run the World" (no. 5 in the UK and no. 4 in Ireland). Indirectly, the band were involved in the earlier Band Aid single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" from 1984, which featured a slowed down sample from their song "The Hurting" in the introduction.
On 13 July 1985, Tears for Fears were scheduled to perform at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia for the Live Aid charity event. However, on the morning of the historic event, it was announced that the band (who had actually been billed to appear at the event before they had even agreed to do so) had pulled out of the show. They were replaced by blues rock group George Thorogood and the Destroyers, which has a strong Philadelphia-area following. The official reason given for their non-appearance was that two of their backing Musicians, Guitarist Andrew Saunders and Saxophonist Will Gregory, had quit due to the expiration of their contract; they were replaced by Alan Griffiths on guitar and Josephine Wells on saxophone for the remaining bulk of the 1985 world tour. In place of appearing, the band pledged to donate proceeds from their concerts played in Tokyo, Sydney, London and New York.
In February 1986, having completed the lengthy and exhausting Big Chair world tour, Tears for Fears were honoured at the 1986 Brit Awards in London where they won the Best British Single award for "Everybody Wants To Rule The World". The band was also nominated for Best British Group and Best British Album, and Chris Hughes was nominated for Best Producer. The band performed the song at the ceremony, which became the final public performance of Drummer Manny Elias who left the group shortly afterwards.
It was 1989 before the group released their third album, The Seeds of Love (on which Ian Stanley appeared for the last time as a member of Tears for Fears), at a reported production cost of over a million pounds. The album was written largely by Orzabal along with keyboardist Nicky Holland, who had toured with the band on their "Big Chair" world tour in 1985. Moving from various studios and using various sets of producers over many months, the band ultimately decided to scrap the recordings and take the reins themselves with assistance from Engineer Dave Bascombe. Much of the material was recorded in jam sessions and later edited down. The length of the production impacted on the band's management company, who had financially over-extended themselves in other Business matters and were hoping for an earlier release date to pay off their debts.
The songwriting sessions included Charlton Pettus (Smith's collaborator since the mid-1990s), and fourteen songs were written and recorded in less than six months. The ensuing album, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, was scheduled for release on Arista Records in late 2003, but a change in management at Arista prompted the band to opt out of their contract and switch to the New Door label (a new offshoot of Universal Music), and delayed the release until September 2004. Two US tours followed, and the 2004 tour included an unrehearsed guest appearance by Oleta Adams at the Kansas City show for a performance of "Woman in Chains". The song "Who Killed Tangerine?" was used in the movie Fever Pitch.
After The Seeds of Love, Orzabal and Smith had an acrimonious falling out and parted company in 1991. The split was blamed on Orzabal's intricate but frustrating approach to production and Smith's Desire to slow down the pace of their work (prior to the release of The Seeds of Love, Smith's marriage had also broken down).
Following Smith's departure, Orzabal kept the band name alive by releasing the 1992 hit single "Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)". The single was released to promote the band's greatest hits collection Tears Roll Down (Greatest Hits 82–92), which featured every single to reach the Top 20, either in the UK or internationally, apart from the Sport Aid fundraiser. The album peaked at no. 2 in the UK, where it was certified double platinum, and also reached the Top 10 in France and Italy.
In 1993, Orzabal (still under the name Tears for Fears) released the album Elemental together with longtime collaborator Alan Griffiths. Co-produced by Tim Palmer, it yielded the international hit "Break It Down Again" (top 20 in the UK, Canada, France, and Italy) and was supported with another successful world tour, including a college tour of the US where "Break It Down Again" reached no. 25.
Orzabal, still working with Griffiths and Palmer, released another Tears for Fears album, Raoul and the Kings of Spain, in 1995. This was a more contemplative work that delved into his own Spanish heritage and showcased a new Latin musical influence (Raoul was originally the name Orzabal's parents wanted to give him, and is also the name of his own first son). Orzabal stated that it was not a concept album but that there was a theme, namely that of familial relationships. The album also included a reunion with Oleta Adams who duetted with Orzabal on the track "Me and My Big Ideas".
In 1996 a B-sides collection, Saturnine Martial & Lunatic, was released on Mercury, which included B-sides and some rare tracks from the successful 1982–93 period. The liner notes, written by Orzabal and Chris Hughes, gave fans an insight into the songwriting process as well as a rare glimpse of self-deprecating humour regarding the tracks they would rather forget.
After undertaking production work and some songwriting for the Icelandic singer-songwriter Emilíana Torrini on her 1999 album Love in the Time of Science, Orzabal re-teamed with Alan Griffiths and released the album Tomcats Screaming Outside, released on Eagle Records as a solo project under his own name. Whereas Tears for Fears' work had become guitar-based, Tomcats Screaming Outside showcased a predominantly electronic style.
A live performance at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, recorded in June 2005, was released on CD and DVD in France and Benelux. Entitled Secret World – Live in Paris, it was released on the XIII Bis label in early 2006 and became a best-seller, with over 70,000 physical copies sold in addition to downloads. The CD contained the aforementioned new studio song, "Floating Down the River", and a remastered Curt Smith/Mayfield track, "What Are We Fighting For?". The relationship with XIII Bis proved so successful that Smith chose the comparatively small French label to release his 2007 solo album, Halfway, Pleased.
In 2006, Songs from the Big Chair was re-issued again by Universal Music, this time as a 2-disc Deluxe Edition with additional B-sides and rarities added, expanding further than the 1999 remastered version. The release did not include the lyrics as the band had intended with the original release, but came with a 24-page booklet including rare photographs and newly written liner notes. The 28-track set contained four sections, with the first disc containing the original album and various B-sides taken from the earlier 1999 remastered edition. It also included the rare piano version of "The Working Hour", which had previously only been available as a limited edition item. The second disc contained various 7" versions of the singles (including the aforementioned "The Way You Are", the re-recording of "I Believe" and the 1986 US remix of "Mothers Talk"), followed by various 12" remixes from the era.
In August 2009, the Raoul and the Kings of Spain album was also re-issued by Cherry Red Records, featuring seven bonus B-side tracks from the time of its original release.
In 2011 and 2012, they played dates in the US, Japan, South Korea, Manila and South America.
In May 2013, Smith confirmed that he was writing and recording new Tears for Fears material with Orzabal and Charlton Pettus. Several songs were worked on in the UK at Orzabal's home studio, Neptune's Kitchen, in April 2013, and continued in Los Angeles in July 2013. According to Orzabal, they have been producing more dark, dramatic pieces of music. "There's one track that's a combination of Portishead and Queen. It's just crazy," Orzabal stated. In August 2013, Tears For Fears released their first newly recorded material in nearly a decade, with a cover of Arcade Fire's "Ready to Start" made available on SoundCloud. In 2014, the track was included on a limited edition 3-track 10" vinyl EP from the band called Ready Boy & Girls?, released exclusively for Record Store Day, which also featured covers of Hot Chip's "Boy From School" and Animal Collective's "My Girls". All three songs were recorded as "kick-start" projects as the band commenced work on their seventh studio album. In an interview on BBC Radio Devon in October 2014, Orzabal stated that the band had now signed to Warner Music Group and that around five or six songs had so far been completed for the new album.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the band's debut album The Hurting, Universal Music reissued it in October 2013 in two Deluxe Editions (one a 2-disc set and the other a 4-disc set with a DVD of the 1983 In My Mind's Eye concert). Deluxe Editions of the band's second album, Songs From The Big Chair, were released on 10 November 2014 including a 6-disc set that features various rarities and two DVDs (one audio, one video). On 12 November 2014, Tears for Fears performed "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! TV programme. In mid 2015, the band began a series of live dates in the US and Canada.
In July 2016, the band played their first live dates in the UK in over ten years: the Newmarket Nights festival at Newmarket Racecourse on 29 July,; and a closing night headlining appearance at Camp Bestival at Lulworth Castle in Dorset on 31 July. The gigs marked the band's first UK festival appearances since Knebworth in 1990. The band again toured the US and Canada in September and October 2016.
On 26 October 2017, the band performed a 65-minute live set at the BBC Radio Theatre in London for the Radio 2 In Concert series, which was broadcast on both radio and television (via the BBC Red Button service). The following night, the band played their first full-length UK concert since 2005, at London's Royal Albert Hall. Prior to this, on 12 October, "I Love You But I'm Lost" was released as a single from a new 16-track Tears For Fears compilation album entitled Rule The World - The Greatest Hits. The compilation was released by Universal Music on 10 November 2017, and includes fourteen Top 40 hits from all six previous Tears For Fears albums along with two new tracks. In October 2017, the band announced an 11-date UK arena tour for April–May 2018, which should feature Alison Moyet as the support act. Entitled "Rule the World", the tour later added 7 dates in European countries: The Netherlands, Germany (2 dates), France, Belgium, Italy and another UK date (as part of The Bath Festivals).