When people run in circles, it’s a very, very
Mad world, mad world
The story of Mad World began with British pop-rock duo whose songwriter turned personal turmoil into an ‘80s hit single. Two decades later, a movie about a time traveling guy in a rabbit costume brought the song back into the mainstream and everyone’s dreams.
It was a transition over decades and genres that some would call genius. The truth is both songs and creators – the original by Tears for Fears and the cover by Gary Jules and Michael Andres – deserve a nod and a retelling of how they made one dark but beautiful song into a legend.
It Started With Two Guys From Bath
The Tears for Fears duo, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, grew up in England’s city of Bath during the 1970s. Before anyone really knew them, they were bandmates in a ska group called Graduate. Orzabal was the principal songwriter, and everything was written on guitar with a “desperate attempt to become current.”
Those were the days when he and bandmate John Baker were playing Simon and Garfunkel songs in a hairdressing salon on Saturdays. Orzabal recalled how they were “good enough to get a record contract,” despite being only 18 with a bit of radio play.
Graduating From Their Graduate Days
Getting that first publishing cheque was a trip as he was on unemployment at the time and came from a very poor background. Getting that first $3000 was like, “Woah!” he said. The era of Graduate was short-lived, though. They did one tour in Germany for two weeks before they broke up.
Orzabal said he and Smith weren’t like the other three guys in the band. They were different; they came from broken homes. They split from Graduate and formed Tears for Fears together. Then, Orzabal “got an asymmetrical hairstyle,” Smith got plaits (another word for braids), and they started listening to synthesiser music.
Becoming Two Poofs and a Synth
The music trend was shifting from mod and ska to electronica. There was Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, OMD, Soft Cell, and them – two guys and a tape recorder – or as he called them “two poofs and a synth!”
Eventually, they followed the trend into new wave and synth-pop of the early ‘80s, started their new group, and released their first album, The Hurting. It was their first hit single, Mad World, that made eyebrows rise and heads bob. The song hit No.3 on the UK Singles Chart in 1982 and hit the Top 40 in several countries.
The Teenage-Menopause Phase
Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Something about the song resonates with listeners. According to Roland Orzabal, who wrote Mad World, it’s because it expresses a period he likes to call “the teenage menopause.”
The way he explains it, it’s the time when you leave your childhood behind, and your hormones go crazy. “Your fingers are on the cliff and you’re about to drop off, but somehow you cling on.” Orzabal wrote Mad World when he was only 19 years old. And he was still using an acoustic guitar.
The Whole Rat Race Thing
All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for the daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere
Orzabal said that when he wrote the song, he was spending a lot of time on his own and with his girlfriend Caroline, who later became his wife.
They were living above a pizza place near a local theater. He remembers looking out the window, seeing people “go on their merry way to work” and living the “whole rat race thing.” He was just a teen, though, without any real responsibility other than school.
He Stole the Rhythm of Girls on Film
Although Orzabal didn’t tell people this, the truth is he was listening to Radio 1 on this “tiny radio” and Duran Duran’s hit single Girls on Film came on. “I just thought: I’m going to have a crack at something like that.” He also admitted that it had “this rhythm that I stole – not that theirs was original!”
He described it as “channelling,” but others would probably call it the state of “flow.” Orzabal recalled feeling very confident in the rhythm because it was from a song he loved. His process was like how he wrote for Graduate, he explained.
Just a Boy With His Guitar
He sat on his own, “the bedroom strummer trying desperately to express himself!” It was something he learned to do as a kid. He started playing the guitar at the age of nine, and whenever there was a bad atmosphere at home, which was 24/7 he said, he would go into his room and strum away on the guitar.
For him, the guitar was a form of company, as Paul Simon called it – “Hello darkness my old friend.” Orzabal liked to sit in the bathroom (because of the echo), turn the lights off, and just sit and strum the chords there.
A Troubled Kid in a Turbulent Home
It was his way of self-soothing in the turbulent home he was living in. “That’s a remarkable thing about playing the guitar and singing, it’s incredible the calming effect it has on you,” the musician related. He explained how he suffered from depression during his childhood.
Orzabal’s father wasn’t the best of role models, to put it lightly. The man had been in the World War II, had gone through the old-fashioned and questionable method of electric shock treatment, suffered from terrible bouts of anxiety, and was abusive to his wife, Orzabal’s mother.
A World Gone Mad
But like most kids, he kept a lid on his feelings, especially at school. Then, when he turned 18, he dropped out: not just out of school, but out of everything. He didn’t bother even getting out of bed. “I poured all this into the song,” he said.
Around the same time, there was a band called Dalek I Love You, and their lyrics happened to spark Orzabal’s interest. One of the group’s lyrics went something like, “I believe the world’s gone mad.” For Orzabal, it pretty much summed up his feelings of “alienation from the rat race.” The result was Mad World.
It Sounded Pretty Awful
But he remembers it sounding “pretty awful” on guitar, with just him singing. “I couldn’t sing it very well, because my voice is designed for acrobatics and drama, enunciation and doing crazy things, and shooting up into falsetto. So, I wasn’t sure about the song at all.”
Luckily, they had the good fortune of being given an opportunity by a guy named Ian Stanley, who invited him and Curt Smith to his “very big house [to] muck about on his synthesiser.” Stanley became their keyboard player, but he had a drum machine, too.
Dreams of Dying
And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had
There was a guitar teacher both Orzabal and Smith knew who introduced them to Arthur Janov’s psychology book called The Primal Scream.
“The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” – the song’s chorus – is actually from Janov’s concept that nightmares can be good a thing as they tend to release tension (there’s something we haven’t really considered before, huh?).
Smith, You Sing It
Slowly but surely, they made a demo tape of Mad World, still with Orzabal singing the vocals. But he didn’t like it at all. He turned to Smith and said, “Look, you sing it.” Suddenly, “it sounded fabulous,” Orzabal recalled.
For Smith, it was easy to sing it because he could relate to his bandmate’s lyrics. “We were both the middle of three sons and had been brought up by single mothers with absent fathers.” He described how his dad was always away, before dying when Smith was 17. “But I hated him by that point,” Smith admitted.
Teenage and Angry
It only hit him later in life that back then, he was “teenage and angry.” That’s why Mad World was the perfect platform, as he put it. “It worked better with my voice because it’s more melancholic, darker.” While Orzabal was particularly inspired by Girls on Film, Smith recalls hearing Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, and David Bowie, and loving how “amazingly produced” their music was.
They wanted to try something similar, and the synthesisers gave them a chance to experiment. The song, once finished, was intended as a B-side but their record company, PolyGram, said it was too good to be just a secondary track.
That’s how it became a single. They also believed the music industry would like it. “We didn’t expect it to become a hit,” Smith said. To this day, Smith considers it a dark song, “but it brings back happy memories.”
When they made the music video on a tight budget, they bussed all their friends and family from Bath “and had a fun day.” The woman whose birthday party it is in the video is his mom. Orzabal revealed that he even came up with a dance for Mad World and would do it a lot in the studio.
The Mad World Dance
PolyGram saw the dance and told him to do it in the music video because Smith was busy singing and “there was nothing else for me to do.” And so, there he was, “stuck by this lake doing my flying wombat impersonation, but it worked.”
Two decades later, when Gary Jules brought Mad World back to the masses in the Donnie Darko soundtrack, people wondered what the guys from Tears for Fears thought.
The Proudest Moment of His Career
It “was probably the proudest moment of my career,” Orzabal stated. By then, he was in his 40s and forgot how he felt when he wrote “all those Tears for Fears songs.” He heard Jules’ cover and thought to himself, “Thank God for the 19-year-old Roland Orzabal. Thank God he got depressed.”
Smith pointed out how Jules added the lyric “enlarging your world” at the end, but the correct lyric is actually “Halargian world.” As Smith recalled, producer Chris Hughes had a running joke while they were in the studio back in the day about this made-up planet. His catchphrase was “Oh, that’s so Halargian.” So, they put it in the song, “and it sounded right.”
Gary Jules Enters the Mad World
For “anti-rock” star Gary Jules, landing a hit single was never a goal of his. He wasn’t into fame and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle in the slightest. His eclectic sound didn’t really mesh with the chart pop attention that his cover of Mad World gave him.
Jules and his childhood friend, Michael Andrews, put together a rather haunting version of the Tears for Fears classic, and it reached No. 1 on the UK charts. The two became the sixth American artists in over 30 years to hit the top of the British pops in the holiday season.
It Took 90 Minutes and $50
Of course, it helped that the song was on the 2002 Donnie Darko soundtrack album. Something people don’t expect to hear is that Jules and Andrews’ version was recorded in 90 minutes in Andrews’ basement for merely $50.
Despite the song’s overnight success, Jules said he had no reasoning or motive behind the song’s popularity. “Mike and I have done tons and tons of music together and if you believe in it, it doesn’t mean that someday it’s not going to be popular,” Jules noted.
A Victim of Bad Timing
After years on the LA singer-songwriter scene, Jules signed with A & M records and recorded his first album, Greetings from the Side, in 1996. But the record industry was in a shaky situation, and his album’s release was delayed for over a year.
“I was more or less a victim of bad timing,” recalled Jules. “With the record industry – I never got dropped, my record never had a chance, so it ended up being a very positive thing. I did go back to school and got a degree in British Lit., and that was probably the greatest thing that I had done in my adult life.”
One of the 13
In 2001, he regrouped with Andrews to record what became the album Trading Snake Oil for Wolf Tickets, what Jules refers to as his “baby.” They recorded it on his friend Zeke’s home stereo while he was living on the couch. It cost them $100.
Mad World was one of the 13 songs on the album, and Jules believes the album was “successful before it got successful.” Jules is also quick to credit Andrews as a central creative and inspirational figure in his life and in his musical vision. The two were, after all, friends for over 20 years.
When Song Writing Wasn’t “Cool”
They grew up together in San Diego, where Jules joined Andrews’ band when he was 14. “Mike today is the most talented musician I’ve ever met,” stated Jules. “I’ve never been around somebody who is more talented than Mike is at music.”
When he was 20, it was the first time he was writing his own songs, which was “the antithesis of what was going on at the time,” Jules recalled. “The least cool thing you could have been into was Cat Stevens or Paul Simon.”
A Lesson From Jack Johnson
Jules started touring and sharing the stage with other singer-songwriters like Jack Johnson, Todd Rundgren, Sheryl Crow, and Jason Mraz. Jules was particularly inspired by how Johnson didn’t let the fame get to his head.
“I was excited by the way he did it and took the music to the people and didn’t worry about videos and major label distribution. He just went out and did it.” While he’s struggled with the fame that Mad World brought upon him, he came to find some comfort in his popularity.
Reaching the Tipping Point
Orzabal opened up about his years in Tears for Fears. “Harmony and conflict,” is how he summed it up in two words. The truth is the duo’s creative relationship was rather volatile. That said, he noted that “People think conflict is always bad, but it is the grit in the oyster around which the pearl is formed.”
After 18 years without new music, Tears for Fears made a comeback with a new album, The Tipping Point. It’s praised as an album that was worth the wait, but the making of the record took some tragedy, sorrow, and recovery.
Healing After His Wife’s Death
First and foremost, the 2017 death of Orzabal’s wife, Caroline, changed everything. She was someone whom both Orzabal and Smith had known since they were teenagers. The album “became part of the healing process,” Smith noted.
A few years after her death, and the two are still careful when discussing the tender subject of losing Caroline. Now in their early 60s, the duo still has a tense relationship at times, but they’re supportive of each other. It’s something Orzabal, in particular, needs considering the mental state he entered after losing his wife, who was 55 when she died.
Depression, Dementia, and Denial
You’ve probably heard before that the first stage of grief is denial. Orzabal acknowledges that he was “was very good at denial.” Caroline, the mother of his two sons, suffered from post-menopausal depression. Her condition then declined into alcohol-related dementia.
During the final five years of her life, Orzabal was essentially her full-time caregiver. It was while she was ill that he started writing the songs that appear on The Tipping Point. He needed some respite from all the sickness and dysfunction. Naturally, he turned to song writing.
Please Be Happy
The Tipping Point includes one song, Please Be Happy, which offers a sad prayer for recovery. It was sung by Smith since Orzabal found it too painful. The song was about “watching someone you love sitting in a chair all day, not doing anything, not moving.”
And when she did, she would go upstairs with a glass of wine, and the glass would crash on the stairs. As for the title track, it’s about sitting in Caroline’s hospital room, “looking at someone and waiting for the point when they are more dead than alive.”
Five Years of Hell
Caroline never stopped drinking, which Orzabal partly blames himself for as he’s a drinker, too. He said in an interview that he doesn’t know how “commonly known it is that alcohol is far more dangerous for a woman than it is for a man.”
The problem in their marriage was that she used to “match” him. He’s aware now that there shouldn’t have been any alcohol in the house. It turned into “five years of hell.” He had some hired help, but it was mostly on him, and he noticed his circle of friends shrink with time.
From Shock to Worrying Symptoms
The duo was on tour when Caroline died. Smith explained how they went “into shock, of course,” and the tour was put on hold to arrange the funeral, the wake, and “all that stuff.” Two months later, Tears for Fears was back on stage.
“I was trying to move on quickly,” Orzabal recalled, but his mind and soul had other plans. He started experiencing “worrying symptoms,” unlike anything he’s ever experienced, “like I’m f***ing dying!” Unsure whether they were panic attacks or heart attacks, he started to self-medicate.
Blackouts and Seizures Were His “Karma”
“I was going through hell,” Orzabal recalls. Smith kept his distance, he says, out of fear that he would make problems for his bandmate worse. “I knew Roland wasn’t in a healthy place, and I felt it was important that he got well more than anything else.” he says.
He tried to quash the attacks with drugs, alcohol, sleeping pills. As a result, he started experiencing blackouts and even seizures. It was horrible, Orzabal says, and he wound up in the ICU a couple of times. When he looks back now, he describes it as “almost karma, that I was experiencing everything Caroline went through in the last years of her life.”
A New (Married) Man
But the difference between them, he noted, is that he found a way to recover; she never did. What helped him was therapy and grief counselling. He also met and married a writer and artist named Emily Rath.
The pair married in 2020. But it wasn’t just Rath who helped him move on. He learned to connect to his heart, he says, “which made my relationship with Curt so much better.” He became a different man – “more humble, more open.”
Hey, It’s Been a While
The way Smith saw it, Orzabal’s trauma called the group’s future into question. “I wasn’t worrying about Tears for Fears. I just didn’t want you to die,” he told his bandmate during a recent interview. For both of them, music has always been a fix for their personal problems.
It was Rath who encouraged a reconciliation between her husband and Smith. Orzabal had an aha moment when he realized that with his wife gone and Alan Griffiths (a long-time Tears for Fears collaborator) gone, it became clear that Smith was a constant in his life.
Back in Action
He understood just how important Smith is to him and how good what they had really was. In early 2020, he messaged his old friend and bandmate, and the two had lunch in Los Angeles. “It was like: what’s our problem? We don’t really have one.”
Orzabal then went to Smith’s home with an acoustic guitar and the two guys went straight back to being 18-year-old kids. Curt came up with a riff (from No Small Thing) and they were off. It was basically the key that “unlocked the album.”
A Falling Out
Back in the day, when they became Tears for Fears, Smith stepped up to the front; now, they “switched roles, without discussion,” says Orzabal. He actually preferred to be in the background and “explore what was going on inside me.” Smith took on the “more confident, arrogant, extrovert role.”
After a decade of major success, with hits like Mad World, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Shout, and Seeds of Love, the duo had a falling out. By the end of the ‘80s, Orzabal was taking on more control of both songwriting and singing.
A Clash of Egos
It became “impossible” for them to be together, he explained, as their careers progressed, and dynamics shifted. There was also the issue of egos, which seems to be a trend in bands (especially all male groups).
Orzabal explained: “It’s like, ‘Wow, I know what I want now, I’m a grown man, I’ve got money, I’m successful, f*** off!’” It was Smith who left the group in 1991, and Orzabal continued Tears for Fears as a solo project. By 1995, with the flop album, Kings of Spain, he seemed to have given up.
Hermits and “Attention Whores”
In interviews, he was coming off as difficult, self-destructive, and egotistical. Unlike Smith, who is “better at communicating,” Orzabal let his anger get the better of him. Smith ended up returning to Tears for Fears in 2004, for the album Everybody Loves a Happy Ending.
In the end, it’s the band they created and maintained that is the one subject they can always agree on, as Smith explained. “Curt and I have done this dance for around 40 years,” Orzabal summed up, “because we are both hermits and we’re both attention whores.”
Karaoke With the Cast
In many ways, the two have come full circle. For a while, before he moved to California, Smith was in Vancouver, filming guest spots he made on the TV series Psych. After work, he would join the rest of the cast at a local karaoke bar.
There, on the stage, Smith suddenly got the idea to sing one of his very own songs – the 1985 platinum-selling single Everybody Wants to Rule the World. It would be hilarious, he figured at the time, to see people’s reactions when they realized who he was.
Unrecognized at the Karaoke Bar
Funnily enough, “no one paid a blind bit of attention,” he recalled, partially offended but still having a laugh. “No one! They didn’t realize it was me.” Back in England, Orzabal was asked to audition for the reality TV show Popstar to Operastar.
What people don’t know is that he actually sang opera in the past. It was as though the stars were aligning for him. He took the audition seriously and practised with an opera coach. “I went in there and I f***ing nailed it,” he said of his performance.
A Stay-at-Home Dad
A semi-retired musician, Smith was still writing music while also doing other things. He was “very much the stay-at-home dad,” since his wife is the one with a full-time career and very busy. In their LA home, there aren’t any gold discs on the wall or awards to showcase his musical past.
His past fame is something of a mystery to his kids. At preschool, when his daughter was asked what her parents did, she answered, “Mama goes to the office and Papa goes to the gym.” Cute.
When Kanye West Says He Was Influenced by You…
After years apart, the guys were in a new, unknown territory. Gary Jules’ cover of Mad World was already a phenomenon, and artists like Lorde, Kanye West, and the Weeknd were citing Tears for Fears as influences.
They started getting more and more invites to do shows together. They went on tour with Hall and Oates, did a Royal Albert Hall show, and a Radio 2 special. As Orzabal explained, they got to the point – a tipping point – where people liked their music but didn’t know whether they could play anymore.
I’d Like to Thank Us
What they never really expected was to be “back in fashion!” as Smith expressed it. In September 2021, they walked on to the stage in London for the Ivor Novello awards and received a standing ovation. Smith stood back while Orzabal took the microphone, where he thanked their wives, their new management and their new label.
“Lastly,” he said to the crowd, “I’d like to thank two people without whom we just wouldn’t be here.” He looked at Smith and said, “Us.”