This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song # 284: Mad World by Tears for Fears (+) Gary Jules from the Original Motion PIcture Soundtrack to the movie, Donnie Darko.”
Tears for Fears consisted of two men, Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal. They formed in 1981, just in time to be swept up in the phenomenom that were music videos and the stations they were played on, such as Much Music and MTV. Tears for Fears were primarily a Synth-Pop band to start but they managed to separate themselves from the rest of the “New Wave” acts coming out of the UK at the time because of the soulfulness of their singing voices and the intelligence and sophistication of their lyrics/song topics. They had three consecutive Gold and Platinum albums called, “The Hurting”, “Songs from the Big Chair” *(Which I owned and loved. It was one of the cds I bought with my Columbia CD Club harvest) and “Sowing the Seeds of Love”. From those albums, they produced hit and for awhile as the 1980s rolled along, they became one of the biggest bands in the world. Their hits included, “Change”, “Pale Shelter”, “Shout”, “Everybody Wants To Rule the World”, “Head Over Heels”, “Mothers Talk”, “I Believe”, the gorgeous, “Woman in Chains (featuring Oleta Adams)”, “Sowing the Seeds of Love”, “Advice for the Young at Heart” and, of course, the subject of today’s post, “Mad World”.
As mentioned, Tears for Fears were quite literate and well-read and, as such, the subject matter behind some of their songs could be quite weighty, despite the Pop-sensibilities their songs gave off. The song, “Mad World” is based upon theories of psychologist, Arthur Janov, who wrote a book called, “Primal Scream”. Themes of mental illness and altered states of reality and perception coloured many of Tears for Fears’ songs. For instance, in “Mad World”, the line “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” sounds like a throw-away line to most people who happily sing along at concerts but, in reality, that line touches on one of the foundational aspects of Janov’s philosophy. That philosophy states that in order to relieve anxiety and emotional distress, a person must first approach the brink of life-altering moments (such as death) and the emotional intensity they encompass. “Mad World” is a commentary by “Tears for Fears” of the often irrational nature of the world we live in and that search for an oasis of calm and reason amid the noise.
Tears for Fears second album, “Songs From the Big Chair” is another example of the band’s fixation with mental illness and psychology. The album title comes from the story of a woman named Sybil, who suffered from multiple personality disorder and who only ever found comfort when she was in the company of her psychiatrist, sitting in his “big chair”. The movie, “Sybil” is about her story and helped inspire Tears for Fears to create the album. Despite how serious the roots of some of their songs may sound, Tears for Fears went on to become one of the great Synth-Pop bands of the 1980s. They split up for awhile but reunited later in the 2000s and currently tour the world on the “Retro circuit”, singing their hits to adoring audiences.
This brings us to one of my all-time favourite movies (and a sleeper-hit, worldwide), “Donnie Darko”. This movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal, his sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze, Seth Rogen, Drew Barrymore and Noah Wylie, among many others. It is one of the most original and unusual movies I have ever seen. Without giving too much away, the movie opens with Jake Gyllenhaal’s character (a teenage boy), sleep walking and waking up in strange places, like golf courses, during the night. During one of his wanderings, a jet engine falls from the sky, smashing into his house, destroying his bedroom. Authorities cannot determine where the engine came from, as no plane reported mechanical issues that night. As a result of his near-death experience, Donnie Darko starts to see a life-sized rabbit (!) who encourages him to seek revenge on those who have done him wrong in life. The movie unfolds from there.
One of the reasons I adore this movie is because it manages to be several things all at the same time. Is this movie a Science Fiction treatise on time travel and altered realities? Is “Donnie Darko” a look inside the mind of a schizophrenic personality, where voices are heard and chaos reigns within someone’s mind and reality is illusive? Is this movie just a typical teen, coming of age movie, dressed in philosophical clothing? I have watched “Donnie Darko” a couple of times and I still can’t definitively say, one way or the other, what the core message or theme is of this movie. All that I know is that, unlike most movies, this one kept me guessing the whole way through and those types of movies tend to be the ones that leave a lasting impression with me.
It is not surprisingly then, that a song about madness and the search for reason amid the chaos, should be one that has come to symbolize everything about this movie. When a man named MIchael Andrews was tasked with composing the soundtrack to “Donnie Darko”, he immediately thought of the song, “Mad World”. However, the Tears for Fears version was too bright for such a dark movie. Andrews brought in a singer named Gary Jules and, together, they re-structured the musical elements of the song, stripping it down, slowing it down and making it almost exclusively a slow piano ballad. Their version of “Mad World” seemed to perfectly capture the emotional turmoil that the original song lyrics were intended to convey. The “Gary Jules cover”, as it has came to be known, became a big hit and went to the top of the charts, giving the song a new life.
Sometimes, the measure of a song can be seen in the ability of various artists to mold it in their own image and still have it sound wonderful. Both versions of “Mad World” have their champions in the listening audience and, in both cases, those audiences are correct. Both Tears for Fears and the Andrews/Jules collaboration produced unique versions of a song that is more complex and powerful than it appears at first blush. I will play both videos below. For those who haven’t watched, “Donnie Darko” and may wish to, after reading this post, I will leave the trailer down below, as well. In any case, here are two terrific versions of one great song that, in addition to just being a great song, went on to inspire one of the most inventive and original movies of all-time, “Donnie Darko”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Mad World” by Tears For Fears, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Mad World” by Gary Jules, from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the movie, “Donnie Darko”, can be found here.
The link to the trailer for the movie, “Donnie Darko”, can be found here.
The link to the video of Tears For Fears original member, Curt Smith singing “Mad World” with his daughter during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Tears For Fears can be found here.
The link to the official website for Gary Jules can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their website can be found here.