The Meaning Behind “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears and How Don Henley Inspired It

While Tears for Fears worked on their second album Songs from the Big Chair, they found inspiration from an unlikely source.

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Though their debut The Hurting topped the UK charts, the audience in the U.S. was less enthusiastic. Feeling pressure from their record label, the English group needed a song to break through in the world’s biggest market.  

Before writing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” the group scoured American radio to understand what the Yankees wanted.  

Enter Don Henley.

American Radio

Bassist and vocalist Curt Smith said the band examined what makes an American song. Smith said, “Driving songs are American.” Then he thought of a driving song he knew.

Don Henley’s hit “The Boys of Summer,” came to mind and influenced Tears for Fears’ approach to “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

Henley co-wrote his single with Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Both Henley and Campbell have experience with American radio hits as their primary bands helped write their generation’s soundtrack.

The upbeat Tears for Fears single departs from the album’s angular, synth-pop sound. Its shuffling beat and wailing guitar solos stand apart from the rigid programming on their other anthem, “Shout.”

The Struggle for Power

“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is about the struggle for power and the human instinct to pursue it. The song addresses authoritarianism, the environment, and the Berlin Wall, while noting the shortsightedness of greed.

Welcome to your life
There’s no turning back
Even while we sleep
We will find you

Acting on your best behavior
Turn your back on Mother Nature
Everybody wants to rule the world

The title is thought to be taken from a line in “Charlie Don’t Surf” by The Clash.

Joe Strummer said he approached Tears for Fears vocalist/guitarist Roland Orzabal in a restaurant and said, “You owe me a fiver” for lifting the title. Strummer said Orzabal reached into his pocket and gave him a five-pound note for pinching the lyric.  

Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world

An Afterthought Becomes a Hit

While the band worked to finish “Shout,” Orzabal began playing two chords on an acoustic guitar, which became the foundation for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Producer Chris Hughes said the song developed quickly, and the process was effortless, with him, Orzabal, and Ian Stanley completing it in a week.

Said Orzabal, “The shuffle beat was alien to our normal way of doing things. It was jolly rather than square and rigid in the manner of ‘Shout,’ but it continued the process of becoming more extrovert.” It was the last track recorded for the album.

Like “Shout,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Songs from the Big Chair also topped the U.S. albums chart and became the group’s biggest seller.  

Don Henley Approved

In the early 2000s, Henley began covering “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” During his 2016 tour, he covered it again to address his exhaustion from the U.S. presidential election.

He completed the circle in 2017 when he performed it back-to-back with “The Boys of Summer.” But his cover version was only one of many.  

Gloria Gaynor, famous for the disco hit “I Will Survive,” recorded her version in 2001.  

In 2013, Lorde covered “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” for the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Lorde’s version mirrors the film’s dystopia and reflects the song’s stark political theme.

Then Weezer recorded a version on their 2019 covers collection, a self-titled release known as the Teal Album. Their rendition dials up the summery guitars, focusing on the vivid colors of 1980s pop hits.   

Orzabal talked about the song’s popularity and the multitude of cover versions: “I mean, that track has just got a life of its own,” he said. “It’s crazy, I mean, it was always popular, but then I did an interview with Reuters … with this lady who went on Spotify and worked out that there are about 140 cover versions of that song. I mean, from Don Henley to Patti Smith, to Weezer, to Lorde, obviously. It’s crazy; it’s one of those songs, isn’t it?”

Mad World

Though Tears for Fears’ breakthrough hit sounds like an upbeat summer jam, its overarching theme is serious. In “The Boys of Summer,” Don Henley wrote a feel-good anthem about fading youth. But his song, too, wasn’t optimistic. Its most famous line came from a Grateful Dead sticker he saw on the bumper of an expensive car. A symbol of his generation selling out, he lamented fading memories and forgotten ideals.

Meanwhile, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” endures as the world grapples with the same power issues Tears for Fears wrote about in 1985.

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Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for CBS Radio

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