Mad World History
Mad World from the movie Donnie Darko is a cover version of Roland Orzabal’s Tears for Fears 1982 single release (which Orzabal wrote at the ripe old age of 20). The 2001 cover version, sung by Gary Jules and arranged/played by Michael Andrews, a young television and film score composer, is a heartfelt piece of contemporary music that some describe as haunting.
Andrews, a string player, wanted to do Mad World on the guitar but the director of Darko insisted on a guitar and drum ban for the film, so Andrews taught himself to play the piano to use Mad World during the film’s ending; partly to avoid paying another musician, and partly because he could. He then called up his childhood friend, Jules, who lived down the street to provide the vocals, and the result was something just a bit extraordinary.
If you listen to the Tear for Fears version, the heart-tugging lyrics get lost in the pop-bubblegum synth dance track that accompanied the vocals. Bassist Curt Smith, who sang on the single, has a full and deep voice. I am willing to bet, if he sung without a mic, he could fill whatever room he was in with music. Parried together, the song is powerful (if you are into dance tracks) but ultimately off the mark, as if they were reaching out for something but just couldn’t connect with their vision.
Still a hit with fans, the single hit the UK charts at #3 and shortly saw release on their first album. Tears for Fears went on to become an international hit and you would have had to be leaving under a rock growing up in the 1980’s to not recognize the popular songs released on their album Songs from the Big Chair.
Andrew simplified Mad World’s arrangement into a piano accompaniment to Jule’s melancholy voice, with a cello adding a simple underscore during the second go-around. Rather than lyrics lost in bright and sharp instrumentation and Smith’s belting out of notes, they zing right strait into your brain. Re-released in the UK both on Darko’s sound track and Jules’ album, the single not so much crawled to the top as obliterated all the other pop songs out to become #1 for the 2003 UK Christmas Chart. Darko itself released in the fall of 2001 in the US, unfortunately not a great time for any film or other media. But the film was popular in the UK, making more money overseas in theaters than in the US.
Not entirely as popular in the US than the UK, the song made US resurgence as a #1 download for iTunes when the epic and popular trailer for the video game Gears of War released in 2006. It can be argued, the Gears of War trailer stands alone in the best video game trailer ever released, and the music highlighting just how awesome the graphics of the game actually was.
Why does Mad World connect with so many people? Much credit falls on Andrews and his raw music talent. Donnie Darko was a movie set in the 80’s, and giving the theme of the movie, Andrews picked a song from his youth which, if one didn’t know any better, was written specifically for the movie. He transcribed the original music from D Major to E-Flat Major, but arranged it in the Dorian mode from F to F rather than E-Flat to E-Flat.
The result is equivalent to a natural minor scale, but with the sixth degree raised. This is somewhat disturbing (in addition to not being standard pop fair) when paired with the chords starting in measure 20, which alternate from B-Flat to F-minor to the end of the song, never to properly resolve. This is also non-standard and the combination is unusual as it is vaguely unsettling. I am not familiar with all of Andrews’ work, but for someone who picked up the piano just to place this song at the end of a movie was the musical equivalent of winning a golf tournament by making a hole-in-one on a Par 3 18th hole.
Gary Jules’ vocals are pure melancholy and sung with honest feeling readily apparent to even the non-pop music fan. Coupled with Andrews’ arrangement of simple piano chords accompanied by the cello halfway through, the result is not so much a sad song as it is haunting. The lyrics speak out as poetry of the heart, a feeling that the rat race, which starts when we are just children, might not be a race worth finishing. Perhaps, as the song hints at the very end, we need to look beyond the race.
Follow the Money
Apparently, Michael Andrews didn’t make a lot of money off of Mad World as just an arranger. But the song was an unstoppable force.
Fans extensively downloaded Andrews’ version illegally in England until it was made available for sale in 2003, then it made a good of money as people bought legitimate copies. When the sheet music became available for printing via downloading, it shot up to #10 most download sheet music, and then hovered around there for weeks and weeks, apparently making a lot of money there too.
However, most of the funds went to the original composer Orzabal. Wealthy from dominating the 80s with his angst band, he got a very large infusion of cash starting in 2003 which flows to this day mainly from iTunes as a digital download (indeed, this is where I originally got it) and sheet music downloads (in addition to classic print). Andrews’ cover makes its way to TV shows on occasion, making more money.
Not too bad for a 20 year-old Orzabal, who looked out the window and had a sudden lyrical epiphany.
Andrews cannot be too bitter, however. The Donnie Darko soundtrack is all him and three other musicians, published under an independent label. Darko has a cult following to this day that grows over time in the US, and Andrews gets a small percentage. For a movie released in September 2001, especially a low-budget art film about a teenager and a giant rabbit named Frank (oh, and time travel), that’s pretty good.
The moral of this story: illegal downloads created a huge buzz and made Orzabal a lot of money.
Andrews’ Mad Word is a simple song (indeed, I can play it and sing it too, as long as nobody is home at the time). But it sure does have a lot to say. Even Orzabal who originally said the lyrics were “pretty lose” and not about anything in particular, other than observations of a teenager, think of Andrews’ arrangement as simply just the way the song should be. Jules shares the credit for the popularity of this cover version. The pair are true artists and the cover version of Mad World is a great lesson in reaching out to many people with mostly talent and will.