In Great Britain, they take their album and singles charts seriously, so seriously that bookies do big business taking bets on who will have the year’s final No. 1 song on Christmas Day.
Gary Jules, a little-known singer-songwriter from La Jolla, Calif., and his lifelong friend, producer-pianist Michael Andrews, can attest to the U.K. yuletide fever. Beating out The Darkness’ “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” and Ozzy & Kelly Osbourne’s “Changes,” they scored the last, most improbable No. 1 of 2003 with their somber cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World.” They’re only the sixth American act to do so over Christmas week since 1970 (joining Little Jimmy Osmond, Jackie Wilson, Johnny Mathis, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson).
Jules had no idea how monumental a feat that was until a recent U.K. tour and appearances on “Top of the Pops” and “The Jonathan Ross Show.”
“People were bringing their betting slips for me to sign,” he said recently. “One guy I knew had bet 77 pounds (about $143) and won 3,300. ($6,130). We were 144-to-1 odds when the first-day bets were open. Nobody expected us to win.”
And they did it with a song they recorded three years ago for Jules’ second album, “Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets,” which he later released independently. Just as they were wrappng up the album, Andrews was hired to do the score for the sci-fi film “Donnie Darko.” Needing a song that would fit in with the movie’s 1980s-era storyline, Andrews chose “Mad World.”
“Donnie Darko” wasn’t a box-office smash, but it did develop a cult following – and so did the soundtrack. Requests for “Mad World” – featuring Jules’ melancholy voice and Andrews’ lilting piano – started pouring into radio stations throughout Europe. By last November, Sanctuary in the U.K. prepared “Mad World” for a holiday release – and then came the unlikely reign at No. 1.
“Mad World” is hardly Christmas fare, with such dark and dreary lines as “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.” But Jules says people feel a connection with the song because it touches on a vulnerable moment in a person’s life.
“They say that everybody, whether consciously or not, contemplates suicide or has some sort of suicidal thought at some point in their life,” he said. “(The song is) a very honest representation of what it feels like in those moments. You may not be thinking about suicide, but you’re pondering where you’re going or where you’ve been, where you are and whether it’s all worth it. People always weigh the options. You know, life is a pain in the ass, but the other option is not so good.”
Equally jarring is knowing that Roland Orzabal wrote “Mad World” when he was only 20. It was Tears For Fears’ first U.K. hit, reaching No. 3 in late 1982; it never charted in the United States.
“The first time I heard the song, I was probably sitting in Mike’s car,” Jules said. “We were in a band at the time, and we began covering Tears For Fears songs. Those guys (in Tears For Fears) were 19 or 20, singing obviously about real adolescence, 14 or 15, and the fact that we grew up and 20 years later we do it, having lived with this song for so long and to do a different take on it, it’s such an honor and so cool.
“In one of the interviews I read with Roland, he was saying that the first time he heard our version was through his 8-year-old son. So it went kind of full circle. Two guys wrote it when they were a little older, singing about being a teenager. Mike and I, with 20 years experience, record it for a movie that’s about a teenager, and the movie is set in 1988. Then, an 8-year-old takes it to his dad, who wrote the song 23 years ago. It’s crazy.”
Jules has been down this big-label road before, only the first time he got upended. In 1998, he was signed to A&M Records and had just finished his Andrews-produced debut album, “Greetings From the Side,” when he fell victim to the Seagrams/Universal merger.
“The thing about it is, there’s no ill feelings,” Jules said. “You can’t really complain about it. It’s just something that happened. It’s not like anyone was trying to screw anybody over.
“It was unfortunate timing. For my part, I was naive and put way too much responsibility in the hands of that size of a record company anyway. Lessons well learned … mistakes that won’t be made again, I guarantee you.”
In an odd twist of fate, Jules is with Universal.
“As a lollipop, they gave me my first record back,” Jules said, “and so I’m getting ready to release my first album independently on my own record label, the same way I’ve been selling ‘Snakeoil’ until now.”
“Greetings” is different from “Snakeoil,” Jules says, because his debut album was “properly recorded.”
“We made it for a major label,” he said. “It was a very expensive album to make. It cost about 1,600 times what it cost me to make the second album. We made ‘Snakeoil’ by ourselves for $100 in the basement of a house.”
Through it all, from high school bands to getting dropped by A&M and then snaring a Christmas No. 1, Jules’ friendship with Andrews has never wavered.
“Mike’s my best friend,” he said. “There’s not a lot of people my age who have known people as long as I’ve known Mike – certainly not a lot of people in the music business who have friends as close as Mike and I are and that they actually work together successfully. We’re like brothers; we fight like crazy, but that’s our business … know what I mean? It’s family. We talk shit out, like normal people.
“He’s a genius, and I’m not blowing smoke. He has seemingly limitless amount of musical ideas. It’s frustrating, actually. Growing up, he could always walk into a room, see an instrument he’d never played before, then play around with it for like 10 minutes and then be able to play it.”
NOW, ABOUT THAT ALBUM TITLE … : “Snakeoil is a potion, like a cure-all. In scientific terms, it’s a placebo, but really it’s something that triggers a person’s faith. If you believe it’s going to help you, it probably will, even though it’s probably made out of herbs and olive oil. So, on one level, it’s a trigger for faith, but it’s most likely being sold to you by a hustler.
“Selling wolftickets means making promises you can’t keep – or promises you don’t necessarily intend to keep. I would say ‘Trading snakeoil for wolftickets’ is ‘Trading bullshit for bullshit.’ Because all of the songs are kind of a return to Earth and me as an adult taking responsibility for my life, being in L.A. for 10 years and usually being at the wrong end of the music industry.
” ‘Trading snakeoil for wolftickets’ is something I’ve seen a lot of – and not just from the big, evil record companies, just from the snake-in-the-grass manager or promoter guy – and even musicians do it, too. I’m a guy from San Diego, a much smaller town who moved to the big city to try and have success in a field that’s different from the one I was groomed for by my parents.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “The Beatles’ greatest hits (‘The Beatles/1967-1970’), the blue one. It was blue vinyl, slightly see-through. It was awesome. I still have it.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Probably the Beach Boys, because they played about every three hours in San Diego when we were kids. The first one I remember being a big deal was the Stones’ ‘Tattoo You’ tour, with J. Geils Band opening up for them at San Diego Stadium.”
THE WORST JOB I’VE EVER HAD: “My best and worst job is the one I have now. You know how the ground is all cold and hard in the winter? We’ll have to see if the sunshine will peek through and thaw things out.”
ON THE WEB: garyjules.com.
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc