Sep 21


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#968, 27th December 2003

Mental illness and pop music are hardly strangers, but few bands made it as central to their work as Tears For Fears, named after a concept minted by experimental psychiatrist Arthur Janov, whose ideas ripple and echo throughout the group’s first two records. Tears For Fears were an unusually earnest band, and suffered for it critically, but their self-seriousness has worn well.

From another group the lyric of “Mad World” might land as just another glib dig at the squares; Curt Smith, though, sounds honestly perturbed. Madness, for TFF, is the primal topic – their songs are often an account of working through their own neuroses and buried pain. But that childhood pain isn’t unique to sensitive young synthpoppers – it infects the whole of society, contorting it into patterns of repression, routine and self-denial. Mad world isn’t just a description; it’s a diagnosis.

The key to the original “Mad World” musically is its shifts in pace – the sudden urgency on the chorus as Smith tries to push against the world; the fall back into torpor and contemplation. Like most Tears For Fears songs, it’s dynamic as well as catchy – the secret of the band’s later success, for me, isn’t their intelligence or their misery but the way Roland Orzabal’s ear for the thrill of pop as music made their songs about therapy into something actually cathartic. The point of therapy is to change yourself, not just understand yourself, and Tears For Fears’ music was never inert.

Can the same be said of “Mad World”, as interpreted by Gary Jules (and pianist Michael Andrews)? Jules’ version goes down a route which will become very familiar to pop listeners – and anyone who’s sat through an ad break in the last 15 years – he slows the song down, and delivers it in a tremulous, sorrowful voice, to the accompaniment of a gently tinkling piano.

In its original context – as part of the soundtrack to cult movie Donnie Darko – this might have been effective: I haven’t seen it, so I can’t say. But that’s not exactly the context of its arrival at No.1. “Mad World” reached the top at Christmas, as part of a ‘chart battle’ with do-they-mean-it hard rock revivalists The Darkness and their “Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)”.

As chart battles go, this is one of the less edifying. The Darkness presented themselves as heirs to Slade, a nudge-wink update of the classic glam rockin’ Christmas number ones, with enough plausible deniability to catch the ironic listener too. “Mad World” – just as heavily promoted – represented the alternative, an underdog antidote to tinsel tomfoolery. It’s the godfather of all “get this unlikely thing to number one” social media campaigns.

In this contest of “kind of funny” vs “kind of sad”, I resentfully backed The Darkness – it was a smirking caricature of Christmas rock, but it was sprightly and catchy. And – more to the point – the Gary Jules track sounded equally smug and caricatured to me, a mawkish pantomime of seriousness.

Jules’ “Mad World” wrecks the song for me. Usually with bad cover versions of good songs, something worthwhile can poke through – even if it just reminds you of what you’re missing. That barely applies here. Jules flattens the song – his singing throughout is a barely expressive whimper, and he kills the dynamic shifts which make the original exciting. It brings the music into closer alignment with the lyric – but in doing so it breaks a lot of the interest and tension in the record. For me, it also shifts the emphasis in the song away from the “world” and onto the “I” of the song, who stands revealed as, well, a bit of a whingebag.

It worked, though – The Darkness’ novelty rock missed out, and Sad Gary topped the Christmas chart. Last year on the Twitter polls I run we did cover versions, and “Mad World” did OK (though I was gratified by how many people dislike it as much as I do). The poll was a good opportunity to think about what a good cover version does, and one of the things I realised when I ask that question is that it’s quite hard to come up with criteria which exclude Gary, much though I’d like to. His version is distinctive. It recasts the song in a new style and brings out something different in it. It’s a proper reinterpretation, not just a crappy xerox. It does something new.

And yet the new thing it does is corny and pointless. Anything will acquire more gravitas if you slow it down a bit and slice an onion in the vocal booth, but most of the time it’s a really cheap, thoughtless kind of gravitas which almost always makes songs less interesting (to say nothing of far less entertaining). “Mad World” showed that this one weird trick might actually work, and even if it wasn’t cynical itself, it opened the doors to a lot of cynicism to follow.



  1. 1
    Gareth Parker on 7 Sep 2021 #

    Hi folks, just a quick post here (great stuff as always Tom). I have to say this one’s not for me at all I’m afraid. I find it all a bit dreary and ponderous. The earnestness and faux-seriousness/solemnity is a pet hate for me. Much prefer the TFF original (7/10?), and didn’t mind the Darkness’ Xmas single (6/10?). 2/10 for Gary and Michael imho.

  2. 2
    Coagulopath on 7 Sep 2021 #

    I often wish we could freeze memories or experiences behind glass, and not have them change.

    The “bullet time” effects in the first Matrix film looked amazing in 1999. But I can’t ever see them as they originally were; now I rewatch those scenes and see parodies and ripoffs and references. The effect has been so overdone in the past 20 years that it’s spoiled them in the original movie.

    This song is like that. Its original context feels lost to me. Is it good or bad? I don’t know. I hear bland corporate music, filed under “sad/emotional/solo piano” on a stock music site. You’d use it as a bed track if you were creating an ad for a funeral parlor, or a legal firm that specializes in personal injury litigation. It sounds like it’s selling a product. A sad fate for any song – for all know, it would sound great to virgin ears.

    I can’t imagine listening to it for pleasure. My eyes would start instinctively looking for the “Skip Ad” button.

  3. 3
    23 Daves on 7 Sep 2021 #

    Interestingly, I liked this at the time. I loved the original song anyway, and felt that while this wasn’t a better version, it at least upended it somewhat and shined up some elements of it which had previously remained hidden beneath the eighties production. For me, a successful cover version isn’t necessarily one which improves on the original, but comes at it from a fresh angle and causes you to pause on areas you might have otherwise let go past due to over-familiarity.

    It also did work well as part of the soundtrack to the “Donnie Darko” film, I thought, so there was an added background appeal.

    As Tom points out, though, while this might have sounded original once, it became the bog-standard template for “sad, world weary cover versions” for the next fifteen years, and the idea sounds so tired I really can’t listen to it anymore.

    It obviously wasn’t an original device either. Back in 1975 an artist called Rhys Eye turned up at CBS Records and claimed he had a startlingly original idea which couldn’t be copyrighted and wanted to sign a secrecy contract before explaining what it was – the idea was to do a sad, slow version of The Beatles “Yellow Submarine”, which he felt had elements of melancholy, delusion and despair somewhere in its core. It wasn’t a big seller, and I obviously wouldn’t swear blind that he was the first to take the John Lewis Christmas approach to popular song, but eventually… given time… we were swamped. It’s surely only time before a sad, weary version of Blur’s “Song 2” with someone soulfully weeping “Wehell I feel like heavveeyyy-mettahhaalll, o-hoooo” emerges.

  4. 4
    AMZ1981 on 7 Sep 2021 #

    Quite a bit to say about this one.

    Firstly this is arguably the only genuine “outside bet” to be Christmas number one in the modern era of the Christmas chart battle (which I’d date as beginning with the Spice Girls in 1996 but I digress). It’s worth noting that the early favourite was Merry Xmas (War Is Over) as covered by the Pop Idol finalists but this could only make number five, making it the only real Xmas miss for the reality TV machine between 2002-14*. In retrospect this isn’t surprising as it was a hasty make-do in lieu of the winner’s single coming out in the New Year but there was still the sense that all they had to do was turn up. It is an interesting “what if” as to whether the eventual winner’s single (the next bunny along) would have been Christmas number one and if Mad World would still have taken the runner’s up position but that discussion may have to be postponed.

    With hindsight this may have been an even bigger commercial mis-step for The Darkness. It wasn’t clear at the time (and still isn’t) as to whether they were supposed to be a novelty band or not. However Christmas Time (Don’t Let The …) was ultimately a novelty record and might be the reason why the Darkness, despite a corker of an opening single, proved to be one album wonders.

    So why did Mad World take off so strongly? Donnie Darko had been a surprise smash hit but was already a year old and Mad World itself was available on the soundtrack album (it’s worth noting here that it was the only actual song on a record that otherwise collected the original score – despite much demand a collection of the 80s indie featured prominently in the film didn’t appear until the following year).

    Maybe Mad World is best seen as a better Gordon Haskell (the surprise Christmas contender from two years before). Maybe, as Tom suggests, it was an earnest acoustic performance in an era friendly to such a thing. Who knows? Maybe it just is what it is; a dark horse contender for Christmas number one that people liked on its own merits.

    I liked it – and unwittingly it marked the end of an era for me. I bought the CD single, the last time I would ever buy a number one single in that format.

  5. 5
    AMZ1981 on 7 Sep 2021 #

    Forgot to add my footnote (probably because I broke off writing my post to rummage for the Donnie Darko soundtrack). The reality TV machine would miss out on the Christmas number one twice more between 2002-14; once denied by an even bigger event single and once by an effective “not the X Factor single” campaign.

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    Ed Still on 7 Sep 2021 #

    So if the film was over a year old, who or what was propelling this? One of those (generally) terrible DJ led campaigns to get “this song what I found” to the top of the charts?

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    Sausagebrain on 7 Sep 2021 #

    This is a wan, rum old song alright. But I was pleased that it beat The Darkness’ novelty rock to the top.

    Did The Darkness ‘mean it’? I don’t know. What I do know is that, whatever merits their act might have had, I could not get past Justin Hawkins’ thin, weak falsetto.

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    23 Daves on 7 Sep 2021 #

    This entry has also caused me to remember the failed and slightly half-hearted attempts to prolong Gary Jules’ career past this one hit – the promotion around his bizarrely titled LP “Trading Snake Oil For Wolf Tickets” which got to number 12 in the album chart then quickly disappeared, the number 83 follow-up single “Broke Window”, the appearance on “Never Mind The Buzzcocks” which saw him looking perplexed at Mark Lamarr’s ravings…

    I’m sure I investigated some of his other material at the time but can’t remember a thing about it, and he didn’t seem to attempt a follow-up album until 2006 (which did nowt). One of those proper one-hit wonders who was largely forgotten within weeks of the track leaving the number one spot.

  9. 9
    ThePensmith on 7 Sep 2021 #

    The 2003 Christmas number one race then. If nothing else, I think I speak collectively when I say this was the last one for at least the next six years where there was a genuine air of excitement to proceedings and it was anyone’s guess what was going to end up at the top.

    Although it’s worth pointing out that ‘Mad World’ was actually something of a dark horse to begin with. In the early bettings, the bookies’ favourite was in actual fact “The Idols” (the final 10 of Pop Idol 2) with a woeful version of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’. Needless to say they were out the running the second the initial midweeks were bandied around, trailing at the arse end of the top 5.

    Along with The Darkness (second favourite) there was Leigh Francis in his Avid Merrion getup (with assorted rubber masked compatriots) on ‘Proper CrimBo’. Plus new singles from Atomic Kitten (with Kool and the Gang), Sugababes, Blue (with Stevie Wonder), who all ended up as also rans, and other unlikely releases such as Bill Nighy in his Love Actually character guise, Billy Mack, with ‘Christmas Is All Around’ (bizarrely, it was the latter two acts pitched as Christmas number one frontrunners in the film. How life would have imitated art if that had happened for real).

    XFM (pre-Global Media buyout, and still incredibly influential at this time) had undoubtedly set the wheels in motion on giving ‘Mad World’ airplay as far back as September, despite Donnie Darko having been out for over a year at this point. Radio 1 breathlessly played catchup about a month or so later, a sign if any of how desperate they were at this point to be ‘the face of new music’ (awkwardly for them, Alex Parks, who had just won the second series of Fame Academy, which they also tried with desperation to distance themselves from, also recorded a cover in the same style of this arrangement for her debut album ‘Introduction’).

    But it became clear to me that ‘Mad World’ was on course to be a bigger hit than anyone realised when I saw it performed by Gary and Michael on CD:UK a week or two before its release, and you could have heard a pin drop from the usually hyperactive audience on that show. A Hotshots Review panel of Cheryl, Mutya Buena and Victoria Beckham (preserved on YouTube) that same episode all agreed it was the best of that year’s contenders as well.

    Whilst admittedly this is the grandfather of every ’emotive’ John Lewis reading of well known songs (some of which we meet), which perhaps works against it a little, there’s something about Gary’s vocal performance on this which is haunting for me, captivating even. There’s a touch of Michael Stipe in places. It wasn’t going to be good for a career beyond this point, true.

    But as a specific moment in time, and speaking as someone who did buy this single with my Christmas money in the backwater between the festive period and New Year, it is one I still feel strangely fondly about. Not one I’d listen to ad infinitum out of choice, but on the rare times I do revisit it I feel as captivated as 14 year old me did back then. 7 for me.

    So close but no cigar for The Darkness then, whose ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)’ led the way all week before being usurped right at the last gasp. It was, predictably, the closest they’d ever get to number one under their own steam as had been the case with ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’. Just one more top 10 single from the ‘Permission to Land’ album came the following March (‘Love Is Only A Feeling’) and a clutch of BRIT Awards to their name before they descended into the difficult second album syndrome that was so obviously going to occur anyhow.

    Not a #2 watch, but the third and final week of this at the top also saw the – to date – last chart appearance for Victoria Beckham. Now back under Simon Fuller for her management, and signed to Telstar Records, she released a double-A-side single that was a product of compromise: one half, a Damon Dash produced sub-R&B slinker called ‘This Groove’, the other, a sparkly club pop banger called ‘Let Your Head Go’, released in the dead chart week of the year (29th December) but benefitting from almost universal coverage on TV and press over that Christmas period, including an interactive viewer vote on the relaunched Top of the Pops, where the audience at home decided which track was the lead of the release (‘This Groove’, as it turns out, was the favourite by a country mile).

    However, ‘Let Your Head Go’ was undoubtedly the better of the two songs for me (it, along with ‘This Groove’, remains unavailable on streaming, despite the best efforts of the excellent Pop Music Activism account on Twitter). But because of who was singing it, and people’s preconceptions of her – see the painful attacking interview Jonathan Ross did on her on his show around this time – not even her old manager’s media savvy nous could turn public opinion on her as a solo artist completely. It peaked at #3, but when Telstar went bust in 2004 she quietly walked away from music to settle down more successfully in fashion, where, save her 2007 and 2012 Olympics jaunts back to Spiceworld, she has remained more happily since.

  10. 10
    Mark M on 7 Sep 2021 #

    Like 23 Daves, I think this was effective in Donnie Darko, where it exists in the context of a bunch of original staples of moody 80sness, including TFF’s Head Over Heels, The Church’s Under The Milky Way, The Killing Moon and the Tear Us Apart twins (yawn for Joy Div, yay for INXS). In that company, it felt like a sombre punchline and worked… as far as I can reconstruct in my head. That, again, as others have said, is an unrecoverable moment, buried under decades of John Lewis ad sludge. And, as I will explain, that was over two years before the song made it to number one.

    Because before the 13-month gap between the film’s UK release and the song hitting the top, there was the 22-month gap between the movie’s first public screenings and that UK release. Donnie Darko was shown at Sundance in January 2001, picked up a buzz, but didn’t get a general release straight away.

    I saw it at the London Film Festival in October 2001 (and really liked it). But when that same month it belatedly got into US cinemas, it tanked (even by low-budget indie standards). It took another year for it to reach British cinemas (having started to gather a fanbase on VHS/DVD in the States in the meantime), where it finally became a success…

    I certainly have no desire to hear the Gary Jules version again at any point, other than a rewatch of the film.

  11. 11
    flahr on 8 Sep 2021 #

    I’m glad that Tom does genuinely despise the song, and isn’t just attacking it as the (commercial) origin of the trend which leads to Black Widow’s Malia J version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

    It would have been been a fair few people’s (including mine) first exposure to “Mad World”, and insofar as it works I think it’s because that song has a strong and arresting lyric which this version very much foregrounds. Sure, it’s true that “anything will acquire more gravitas if you slow it down a bit”, but we’re talking about an original that contains the words “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” – we’re not exactly slapping a poppers-o’-clock anthem into a Procrustean bed of mumbly wimpitude. Being familiar with the original might make encountering a version which is undoubtedly far more obvious and route-one a disappointment, but I don’t think it’s impossible to see why it worked for and sold well to people without that context.

    I don’t doubt that there was some novelty factor in its success but it did three weeks at the top so it wasn’t just a Bunny Against the Machine affair.

    The first of two Tears for Fears covers to hit the top spot, both of them, um, radical reworkings of the originals, though neither as fun a radical reworking as “Everybody Wants to Run the World” is.

  12. 12
    Stephen Emmett - he/him on 8 Sep 2021 #

    OK, now that we’ve made it here: time for part 1 of my great emo confession.

    “I want you to watch the movie screen. There’s something I want to show you.”

    In January 2001, a little movie directed by Richard Kelly – who would later go on to direct 2006’s Southland Tales – premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Described as “The Catcher in the Rye as told by Philip K. Dick” by Richard, this little movie set in October 1988 tells the story of the titular character (played by a pre-stardom Jake Gyllenhaal) who is a teenage high schooler who has an imaginary friend in James Duval’s character as Frank, the weird guy dressed in a bunny rabbit costume who tells him that the world will end in; get this: 28 days – 6 hours – 42 minutes… and 12 seconds. I won’t spoil the film for you, but during this film, you will feel confused, warped and twisted and yet entranced by its plot, the mainly young cast of unknowns alongside a few familiar faces (Drew Barrymore as Donnie’s English teacher; she also executive produced the film and Patrick Swayze’s final good film role as the evil self help guru Jim Cunningham), and do not forget the music: 80s tunes from Duran Duran, INXS, Echo and the Bunnymen and Joy Division to name but a few. When released in the US that October of 2001, it didn’t have success in the cinema, but did very well on video and via word of mouth – especially in Britain where the Brits restored the film to cult classic status that we know the film for today. Admit it, the Theatrical Cut (the version I first saw one weird night) is amazing – I’d recommend you see that one and avoid the 2004-released Director’s Cut.

    “I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.”

    But I’m not here to discuss the film; I’m actually here to discuss “Mad World” outside of the context of its use in the film – in the context of it as a conventional pop record. It surprisingly works well; in my opinion. Michael Andrews’ solemn stripped-back arrangement of a Number 3 hit for Tears for Fears in 1982, using just acoustic piano as the main instrument alongside a mellotron (imitating a cello), small doses of electric piano and a modestly used vocoder on the main chorus. At the center of it all is Gary Jules’ haunting and eerie vocal which creeps up giving Roland Orzabal’s lyrics a more fitting juxtaposition to fit in with Andrews’ arrangement.

    Originally released in 2002 on the film’s soundtrack CD, demand grew for the song to be given a proper release on December 15th the following year (being featured as the final track on Now 56 that November 2003 really helped out as well as support from Radio 1) which, as many have said, led it to becoming part of the 2003 Christmas Number One race. Ultimately beating out The Darkness to the top spot on Sunday 21st December 2003 (Wes’ best Radio 1 chart show he has ever hosted – fellow charts expert Richard White said that his presentation on that chart was “superb”), the record also managed to stop the previous Number 1 from bouncing back to the top for its last two weeks at the top.

    All in all, I can say that if you’re in the right mindset, this is a brilliant end to what was one of the most depressing and confusing years for pop music – despite it having some (but not most of the time) great UK Number Ones. This – alongside Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” in June, another teen angst-driven emo Number One single – is one of the only two times I can say this to a UK Number One from 2003 here on Popular: this record is pure teen-angst emo awesomeness, this time stripped down to minimalism.

    Enough said – 10 out of 10 from me. Farewell to Popular 2003, and get ready to see you in Popular 2004.

    (Stay tuned for the final part of my great emo confession, coming up in two more (from Popular 2004) bunnied years’ time…)

  13. 13
    Phil on 8 Sep 2021 #

    Well, I like it. Admittedly I can’t think of this without thinking of its appearance in Donnie Darko – and I can’t think of that without welling up a bit – so I’m certainly not coming to it cold, as Tom is. But even as a stand-alone track, I think it deserves a lot better than to be lumped in with all those lulling, breathy cover versions, what we can collectively call the John Lewis Sound (which, I’d suggest, began with Eve Cassidy’s “Over the Rainbow” in 1992).

    The sound isn’t the same, for one thing. The delivery is a lot more sombre, even raw, than those generally are – Gary Jules is no Michael Stipe, but that’s clearly what he’s going for. The accompaniment and production, instead of making everything sound pure and angelic, sound as basic as they were.

    Also, while Tom and FLAHR are right about the power and, frankly, grimness of the original song, I’d turn Tom’s point about dynamics on its head. Pop and rock (a folkie writes) typically work by building and releasing tension; by building a sense of cathartic release into the structure of their songs, Tears for Fears were only doing the same thing that U2 do, even if they were doing it with more intelligence and self-awareness. (Arguably. Just following the logic of Tom’s argument here, don’t @ me.) The Gary Jules “Mad World” doesn’t offer the comfort of catharsis; like a C&W song or a traditional ballad, it walks you gently into the misery, then leaves you to soak in it. (What was it doing at number one at Christmas? Ask that CD:UK audience – but remember that for a lot of people it’ll be lonely this Christmas…)

    As for the Darkness, having checked the lyrics of that song (for the first time) I think their big problem was that they didn’t know what the hell they were doing. It’s a straight ironic-Christmas-heartbreak lyric, with an exuberantly OTT kitchen-sink pop-metal delivery and production, and a failed attempt at a smutty pun in the title – ? Not since John Otway released “Geneva” as a follow-up to “Really Free” has a pop act shown such range and versatility to such baffling effect.

  14. 14
    Coagulopath on 8 Sep 2021 #

    @12 I liked the Darkness song a fair bit, singing aside.

    Admittedly I don’t know much about them aside from THAT Liam Gallagher interview. That one where an excited journalist says “I had the Darkness on my show last Friday!” and Liam says “whoopie” in a bored voice (and it goes downhill from there).

    They seem like a band that was good at grabbing attention but had terrible staying power. It’s not like glam rock stayed popular for long even when it was new.

    “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” was produced by legendary 70s superproducer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd/Aerosmith/Lou Reed/etc/etc). It seemed like an odd pairing, but then I looked at the rest of Ezrin’s credits (Berlin, Taylor Swift, Tim Curry, K’naan, and the soundtrack for Babe 2: Pig in the City) and realized that, for him, working with the Darkness is actually pretty normal!

  15. 15
    will on 8 Sep 2021 #

    Yes, I remember this as the last Christmas chart battle that was actually interesting.

    I’ll be honest, I preferred Gary Jules to the Darkness for the simple reason that the week before this reached Number One I lost my mother after a short illness. I wasn’t simply in the mood to enjoy ironic tinsel-strewn hair metal with knob gags. Or any sort of Christmas at all that year.

    Of course, it’s not a patch on the TFF original, which is one of the most brilliantly-arranged songs of its era; each element building up to a thrilling crescendo of panic and anxiety. But in December ’03 I wasn’t feeling anxious, just sad and numb so, for me, this sad and numb version hit the spot perfectly.

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    Teenage Ebola Victim on 8 Sep 2021 #

    #14 For me, the first time I cared about the charts was the 2009 Xmas chart battle.

    I wasn’t around at the time, but I quite enjoy the Darkness’s track as the most recent addition to the Christmas canon. Not as a joke, but as a pleasant tune. It doesn’t make me want to check out their later work, though. Was this actually the last occasion that a Christmas themed pop song (as opposed to some charity granny music) was in a contest for the bunny?

    Oh, I’ve just remembered what happened l*st Christmas.

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    23 Daves on 8 Sep 2021 #

    @11 Actually, I haven’t rated this song yet for that very reason. At the time I think I’d have given it a 7 or an 8. Is it Gary Jules’ fault that his was the first significant big hit which gave an existing pop song a slow, melancholic sad piano arrangement? Does the song deserve 3 or 4 just because it’s not something I’d feel remotely inclined to listen to out of choice these days? I’m not sure. It feels strange to take aim at a chance hit single created by a minor performer who obviously wasn’t trying to be cynical in his approach, and created something which did feel as if it stood up at the time.

    @13 I used to have a work colleague who was one of The Darkness’s early fans, and used to go on about this “amazing unsigned band” he’d seen live. He bought a CDR of their demo into the office one day and insisted I listen to it. I wasn’t overly convinced by the fuss, though I did actually think Justin Hawkins’ vocals were an eccentric plus. It was the trad rock arrangements I didn’t like – I prefer my glam to either be arty or sledgehammer rough, or a combination of both, not fussy and elaborate like Queen or eighties hair metal (so Earl Brutus were the band for me rather than The Darkness, really).

    Fast forward a few years later and I’m in a pub in Camden and Su Pollard is talking extremely loudly at a table some distance from us about how (among other things) The Darkness are “amazing, Britain’s Top Hot Rock Band!” and that was around about the point I can remember them toppling from grace. For as long as they could be perceived by floating voters to be a bit of an ironic backwards-looking joke, they seemed to thrive – as soon as the tabloid press, the elders of the rock establishment and the light entertainment world began to lionise them seriously, the irony felt less and less apparent and given the choice of being fans or moving on, a lot of people seemed to take the decision to politely walk away and leave them to their core audience.

    The peculiar thing about “Christmastime (Don’t Let The Bells End)” is that despite being a sizeable hit at the time, it still hasn’t quite worked its way into the line-up of Christmas pop standards you’re guaranteed to hear in shopping centres from November onwards. You hear it occasionally, but it’s not one of the guaranteed fixtures of the season. Yet. Of course, somebody who has actually had to work in a store during recent festive periods may well correct me on that one…

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    Lee Saunders on 8 Sep 2021 #

    Once again a landmark number one for me, because I was very aware of this v the Darkness battling for the Christmas 2003 number one. So the first time I not only properly engaged with the charts but willed a song to the top.

    And, I admit very oddly for a 6 year old, I wanted this over Christmas Time. I knew the original already, having spent 2003 knowing it through a few life-changing 80s music video DVDs my dad bought me from Fopp, knew TFF were from Bath (local!) and that family friends and a teacher had been to school with them etc.

    I still hear this now and think of precisely this moment in time – charity video exposure has not turned into overexposure to me. I think of listening to it at the end of Now 56 on Christmas Day and being surprised it was there (‘hold on, hasn’t this song only just come out? Now 56 came out over a month ago…’), I think of one of the most cheap music videos to any number one ever – buried now on YouTube behind ones made later – showing Gary Jules and slice-of-life scenes hanging dimly on a 1985 CGI mobile. Like with Changes I don’t even know how to be objective about it, but I like it a lot, especially the parts where the vocal ricochets into the blank nothing behind it. Let’s say an 8.

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    DW on 9 Sep 2021 #

    I have to say that at the time The Darkness were everything I was looking for in a band as a 17 year old boy from the provinces who saw very little else to enjoy in the charts.

    They obviously went off the rails but me and my best mate went to see their comeback gig (i.e. when Justin Hawkins returned) a few years back, when Brian May came on for the encore, and the nostalgia was strong – which I think is all you can really ask from them.

    Diminishing returns have set in (I presume), but they gave a brief glimmer of colour to things for a few months at this time for me.

    Also discussed by Simon Price on the latest Chart Music.

    Having said all that, Donnie Darko was one of those films at the time which felt important (again, to a 17 year old me), and combined with a slow rediscovery of the original, I didn’t mind this at the time. Hate it now of course.

  20. 20
    Alba on 28 Sep 2021 #

    I’ve been playing about with Spotify tools a lot recently and my favourite things is one that lets you reorder playlists by characteristics like ‘energy’. I plugged in a playlist of every UK No.1 (minus the 25 or so that aren’t on Spotify) and Mad World came out the second lowest energy track, behind Albatross. Stand and Deliver had the highest energy score! Sorted playlist follows:


  21. 21
    Mr Tinkertrain on 30 Sep 2021 #

    I was very much on team Darkness when this battle came about – their debut album (which is still a terrific record) soundtracked my first term at uni and I loved their attempt at the time-honoured Christmas anthem which seemed to have fallen by the wayside by the 90s. Christmas Time (DLTBE) would be an 8.

    But I didn’t mind this either. I’d never heard the TFF track or seen Donnie Darko when it came out, so I had no frame of reference for it. It’s not very festive, but it’s suitably haunting and (probably by virtue of hearing it first), I prefer this version to the original. This gets a 7.

    Edit: in terms of The Darkness’ subsequent efforts, the follow-up album One Way Ticket To Hell And Back isn’t all that bad, but it’s a noticeable step down from the debut and it killed any momentum they had, especially since it took until late 2005 to be released and in the interim indie music had had a huge revival. That was it for them as a commercial force but they reformed in 2011 or so and have released a few albums since which are perfectly entertaining and still along similar lines to what made them famous in the first place. In retrospect, it’s somewhat surreal that a band like them were as big as they were in 2003 – for six months or so they were the biggest band in the country.

  22. 22
    steve on 18 Oct 2021 #
  23. 23
    steve on 18 Oct 2021 #

    The Darkness, I meant. (Tried editing my first comment but wouldn’t work)

  24. 24
    steve on 18 Oct 2021 #

    The Darkness were yet another example of the many better-songs-that-didn’t-make-the-no.1 at Xmas list. Can’t help but wonder what score Tom would have given TFF’s version had it made No. 1 – a definite 8 from me. Jules version – 2

  25. 25
    krollo on 3 Jan 2022 #

    I’m desperately late, I know – but I really ought to start commenting here. I’ve had a lot of fun reading through the back catalogue, and I’m looking forward to commenting more here as the narrative drifts through my childhood (and don’t worry: I doubt many of my comments will be as melodramatic, or indeed as sincere, as this one).

    In any case, this is where I come in. It’s not the earliest number one I remember, but it’s the earliest number one I remember listening to at the time, and indeed the first pop song I ever gave much thought to. My introduction to it was a little bizarre – in one of the first school assemblies of 2004, our music teacher had decided to use this song to end proceedings, one presumes partly due to the joy of hearing a current hit she could have played on upright piano, partly out of some forlorn didactic spirit.

    It wasn’t sadness I felt from it, but a sort of wonder: wonder that such things could be said in a song, that lyrics could be so elliptical and yet so evocative. The stuff about going to school was maybe something I could almost grasp onto, but I remember looking up at the lines projected on the screen and earnestly struggling to fit them together in my head. The words are naturally rather winding, but I can’t help thinking a lot of the confusion was simply because it was the first time I had ever really thought about this kind of blunted despair, on-the-nose as its depiction here is. (Like all childhood memories, this was rebuilt around a flashbulb moment: specifically, I was arrested by the line about “the dreams in which I’m dying”, it being the first time death had ever been presented to me as positive.) It sat around in my head for a while; occasionally I’d hear it when it came up in sad TV scenes, but I never actively sought it out. My corners of Twitter often hold it up as an almost parodic example of “the saddest song ever”, and until recently that was how I parsed it: a sort of “Kid’s First Melancholy”, Joy Division with stabilisers.

    For whatever reason, I came upon it again about six months ago, and the song almost audibly clicked into place. I had recently started counselling, and the disconnected, time-wandering lyrics made sense in that light: they sounded exactly like the meanderings of memory that open-ended discussions with psychotherapists tend to provoke, a succession of emotional images half-understood and half-remembered, grasping attempts to catch crushing emotions and turn them into words. For so long I had indeed found it hard to tell anyone: to realise that something this stark, so close to my own current emotions, had been in my consciousness for an eternity, waiting to make sense, was one of the most jarring experiences with music I have ever had.

    It’s perhaps too neat a circle to draw – the first song that my brain ever really engaged with explaining itself only when I started to engage with my brain – but I still think it’s essentially a real one. For me at least, there are all manner of things irreducibly looped together here: how I discover music, how I think about music, how my past influences my current self, how my current self makes sense of my past – and it would be difficult to get closer to any truth without this itself turning into a list of loose images. Perhaps after all this was the point: minds that don’t make sense, making sense of themselves through music that doesn’t make sense. Whatever the ultimate significance, whenever I’m thinking about a set of lyrics, or poking around trying to explain why a song makes me feel a certain way, it’s always with the wonder of that young boy in a school hall, listening to this song and first realising what music could mean.

  26. 26
    will on 13 Apr 2022 #

    There have been seasons of silence before, but none long as this.

    Is this really the end? Or just another ‘extended hiatus’?

  27. 27
    Teenage Ebola Victim on 14 Apr 2022 #

    @26 It is definitely not the end, since there are reviews for bunnies well into 2004 uploaded to patreon and ready to go. They just haven’t been posted here yet.

    I hope this project will continue into the beckoning horizon and that Tom is well and able to get into his stride again.

    Fortunately, in the meantime we are spoiled by Tom Breihan’s Billboard Hot 100 version, published thrice weekly on Stereogum, so it’s not so bad.

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