One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.
You break something down to its most basic parts and people just react.–Michael Andrews, 2003
The Californian composer Michael Andrews and his childhood buddy Gary Jules scored the most unlikely UK Christmas #1 in history with their cover of “Mad World” in 2003. Listeners raised a lot more questions than glasses of eggnog. Where were the sleighbells, the snow allusions? Where was the Christian message of peace, à la Cliff Richard? The children’s choir? The cloying sentimentality? The song had none of these things. Instead, it had a stripped-back sound, a quiet mournfulness, and some distinctly unfestive lines laid bare. One was: “Went to school and I was very nervous / No one knew me, no one knew me.” Another was: “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.”
In fact, the song was basically about a depressed kid.
It wasn’t just about a depressed kid; it was even more about a depressed kid than the original. And this was likely the key to its greatness and, amazingly, its Yuletide success.
Andrews and Jules intensified the lyrics of a song that was already pretty intense on Tears for Fears’ 1982 original, in their preoccupation with the theme of troubled youth. Here was an English duo whose very name was inspired by Arthur Janov’s primal scream therapy, which advocated crying and hollering as a way to expunge the repressed pain of childhood trauma. Roland Orzabel, TFF’s chief songwriter, plumbed the depths of his anxiety-ridden boyhood in writing it, much of which came of an abusive father. He and singer Curt Smith then both touched upon their unhappy upbringings in performing it. This was towards a whole album, The Hurting, of stunning Janovian songs like “Suffer Little Children,” “Watch Me Bleed,” and “The Prisoner.”
Yet, for all the hurt Tears for Fears poured into “Mad World,” the theme hardly seemed to be its main selling point in the post-punk period. The downbeat lyrics were encased in an upbeat synthesizer sound, and it was largely the epic, cutting-edge magnificence of the Prophet 5 and the Roland CR-78 that made the song a Top 5 hit in the UK. That mighty drum-machine rhythm. The way those chiming keyboard effects offset the crashing guitars.
Orzabal and Smith, you see, had conspired with producer Chris Hughes to turn “Mad World” into a record with all the necessary electronic clout to outdo new-wave synth-lovers Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, the Human League, and Eurythmics. Which it very much did. Helped, of course, by Smith’s pin-up appeal, and a striking video in which Orzabel threw the most extraordinary and bizarre dance shapes in a garden.
While Tears for Fears went on to have a long and varied career as both the biggest rock act in the world in 1985 and a largely forgotten (and largely Smithless) rock act in the ’90s, “Mad World” evolved into a “synthpop classic.” It became a stalwart of garishly fonted 1980s synthpop compilations everywhere, usually placed between “Don’t You Want Me” and “Tainted Love.” It remained inherently 1982, as 1982 as the plaited and asymmetrical haircuts Orzabel and Smith sported on the picture sleeve for the single, as they gazed moodily out over a duck pond.
Or at least it remained that way until October 2001.
In an age of White Stripes, Strokes, and haircuts that were more symmetrical, Andrews and Jules dramatically reshaped “Mad World.” Anyone who went to see Donnie Darko at the theater will have witnessed its rebirth and exclaimed, “What WAS that song Michael Stipe was singing!?”
The movie, lest we forget, told the story of a deeply troubled 1980s youth, one who’d been in therapy and then become enthralled by the notion of wormholes through time and space, an alternate reality in the dreamworld, and a six-foot-high bunny named Frank, before seemingly dying from a jet engine falling through a wormhole onto his house. The song played out, in its barely recognizable state, over closing shots of Donnie’s bewildered family and loved ones, when it became apparent that the eponymous character might not have existed at all. It contributed, in other words, to one of the most confusingly poignant endings in movie history.
Andrews ensured Orzabel’s lyrics did all the heavy lifting in that final scene, having chosen “Mad World” to complement his instrumental score to the Richard Kelly film, and having brought in Jules to sing it. He got his cap-wearing friend to perform it as simply as possible, with the basic backing of a piano, and a mellotron, and the occasional aid of a vocoder. Nothing, therefore, to detract from lines that spoke volumes about Donnie’s plight and his journey back through time to meet his end. They were pregnant with meaning in the new context, particularly “Hide my head, I wanna drown my sorrow / No tomorrow, no tomorrow.” And there was potency in the Janovian line about dreams of our own death being the most beneficial for releasing psychological tension. Donnie Darko had actually died in a dream…hadn’t he? Maybe.
Whatever happened, Andrews and Jules soon realized the huge appeal of their sorrowful rendition of “Mad World,” which made the dark psychology of the lyrics more powerful in their raw state and their indelible connection to Donnie Darko. Not to mention more timeless. They saw its popularity grow in unison with the developing cult around the movie after its DVD release. They consequently issued it as a single in December 2003, when it sold in numbers way beyond what anyone could have imagined. Helped along by enthusiastic DJs, it climbed to the #1 position in the UK on December 21, staying at the top for three whole weeks.
The two musical friends were asked to explain the phenomenon of their unseasonal chart-topper at the time, especially when the US Billboard Hot 100 was headed up by Outcast’s “Hey Ya!”, a bona fide party anthem (albeit a heartbreaking one if you listen to the lyrics). Was the UK suffering some kind of mass depression? Was everybody, at this time of reflection, actually reflecting on their troubled youth? Or maybe they were just determined that the frankly horrible “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” by The Darkness should be held off the top spot by something…anything.
Anderson commented, “It’s a testament to the fact that people do like honest, simple music,” and that there’s “a demand for organic music that is not necessarily formulated and ruthlessly promoted.” Jules added, “I honestly think it’s one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard and the way it’s stripped down now just pins people.”
All of those things rang true.
But the love for the Andrews/Jules rendition didn’t just end in 2003. Despite the single’s relatively low profile stateside, US singer Adam Lambert went on to perform their version of the tune in 2012 on American Idol, with more histrionic vocals. US singer Demi Lovato also went on to cover their version in 2021, for her album, Dancing with the Devil… the Art of Starting Over. A French version by Chloé Stafler scored a haunting scene in the Amazon Prime series Three Pines. Hell, even Curt Smith performed it their way in 2020, a moving version with his daughter on acoustic guitar that suited the lockdown mood and went viral.
This was before Orzabel himself expressed his admiration of the cover in 2022, as part of a happily rejuvenated Tears for Fears, then promoting a glorious new album, The Tipping Point. He and Smith recorded it for BBC Radio 2 with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and it was like the synth version, brilliant as it undoubtedly was (and is), never existed.
The “Mad World” with the haunting piano chords and the tremulous voice will always be there, it seems, to evoke feelings of juvenile alienation, hopelessness, and depression in all of us. Just as it did in the deep winter of 2003. Happy Christmas.