Thursday , 28 September 2023
How The Killers made Mr Brightside, one of the most enduring rock songs of all time

How The Killers made Mr Brightside, one of the most enduring rock songs of all time

It’s a riff that lights up a room like dopamine in the air-con. An airy, tumbling thing, indie rock’s very own ice-cream jingle that, come the end of the night, still sends every dancefloor, student bar and wedding disco into air-punching frenzies decades after its release. Then comes the song’s universal message of triumph over jealousy, heartbreak and adulterous adversity, chests clutched and lungs opened to the timeless roar of the heart’s first crack: “I just can’t look, it’s killing meeee”.

From Gen Z-ers betrayed by a Magaluf brethren to boomers lamenting their umpteenth divorce, every age group, five pints in, finds itself bawling along to the song’s universal message of triumph over jealousy, heartbreak and adulterous adversity. “Mr Brightside” – the longest-charting song of all time in the UK, celebrating its 20th anniversary this week – has become far more than the definitive tune of Noughties indie. It’s now a pan-generational anthem, the 21st-century “Bohemian Rhapsody”. And it – almost – never got released at all.

Destiny calls in the strangest of places. Killers guitarist Dave Keuning and frontman Brandon Flowers were sitting in Keuning’s closet on the pair’s first rehearsal together when the song of the century fell in their laps.

“I had a microphone set up in there and all of the clothes drowned out the sound,” Keuning told me in 2013 for my Killers biography The Killers: Days & Ages. “It was a pretty good setup. I would play in the closet and then later when I worked with Brandon he would sing in the closet like a vocal booth. I can’t control my neighbours or my roommate or cars honking so we would make little demos and use that as a sound booth. I was just playing my SG [Gibson guitar] in the closet and then stumbled onto that riff.”

Flowers – the only person who’d answered Keuning’s “musicians wanted” ad in a local Las Vegas paper and was actually into the requested U2 and Oasis rather than nu metal – immediately heard a vehicle for exorcising the devil gnawing on his heart. Then working as a bellhop at the Gold Coast hotel, Flowers had recently turned up at his girlfriend’s apartment to collect a tie for work only to discover she was sleeping with someone else; later, he’d walked into his local British pub The Crown and Anchor to find the two together. He took away a tape of Keuning’s riff, and a verse he’d been toying with since high school, and came back for a second rehearsal with a melody line and lyric sharp with the sting of betrayal.

“Now they’re going to bed and my stomach is sick,” he sang, shrouded in Keuning’s shirts, “It’s all in my head but she’s touching his chest now/ He takes off her dress now/ Let me go”. An anguished catharsis, but Flowers’ nature forbade him a self-pitying wallow. Recognising jealousy for the soul-sucking monster it is, he turned the song into a defiant emotional rebirth. “Open up my eager eyes,” he concluded, “’Cause I’m Mr Brightside”.

To call its sentiment enduring is almost to understate the impact of the song they wrote that day. Declared a Diamond record, signifying over 10 million global sales (or equivalent streams), on the 20th anniversary of its release it’s currently celebrating its 378th week (over seven full years) in the UK Singles Chart; it recently hit Number 41. In 2021, it surpassed 280 million streams, racking up 1.2 million a week as the most streamed song released before 2010. Clearly, barely a night out, family do or generic indie playlist session goes by without “Mr Brightside” making a green-eyed appearance.

At this year’s Reading festival, one of the biggest and most enthused crowds of the weekend gathered for The Killers’ set and went wild for “Mr Brightside”, Gen Z, not only aware of a song released years before their birth but embracing it as their own. “I keep hearing from programmers at radio stations here in the States that the song gets requested all the time,” says Braden Merrick, The Killers’ first manager. “It just became this bar/college anthem that people can scream at the top of their lungs.”

As a young Warner A&R scout in the early Noughties, Merrick recalls discovering a somewhat less compulsive demo of the song on a website called “The world’s longest URL ever. There were like 10 bands on there. I clicked on this band The Killers because I thought they might have been an Iron Maiden cover band, and the demo of ‘Mr. Brightside’ is on there. I think it’s nearly five minutes long. When I first heard it, I immediately was thinking this is really cool. The vocal’s a little pitchy, it’s a drum machine that felt off time in places, but there’s something cool about this band.”

Amazon Music logo

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music

Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

Amazon Music logo

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music

Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

The Killers that Merrick took for dinner at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas were “super ambitious. They wanted to be famous. Wanted to make it big.” But his initial attempts to get Warner to sign what he heard as “an arena version of The Strokes” based on the demo fell foul of the song’s overlong arrangement. Having premiered the song at an “awful” acoustic open mic performance at Vegas hangout Café Roma, the formative Killers had made the first demo before fully honing the song: “That’s also why there’s not a second verse,” Flowers said in 2015, “I just didn’t have any other lines and [the first verse lyrics] ended up sticking.”

Leaving Las Vegas: The Killers pictured in 2004


With no labels spotting the potential in the song, a tighter recording was called for. Pulling in all of the industry favours he could, Merrick took up an offer from Green Day’s manager Jeff Saltzman to use his new studio Cornerstone in Berkeley, California for free, with Saltzman producing. Flying the band in on a gift budget of $10,000 from Saltzman, the team set about deconstructing and rebuilding “Mr Brightside” from the ground up.

“We drew up the current arrangement on the whiteboard,” Merrick remembers, “and then we just started saying: ‘What if we did this and this and this? Brandon, instead of just going ‘I never’ at the end, go into an upper pitch. Mark, try this bassline rather than just hammering down on 16th notes, groove with Ronnie here.’ We basically picked the song apart.”

Saltzman’s demo sounded like an instant smash. “I take them to Popscene, which is a very popular indie Britpop nightclub in the Bay,” Merrick says. “Jeff let us use his truck and we just kept playing it over and over again going ‘Holy s***, this is f***ing good’… As an A&R person at the time, I was thinking to myself when I heard it, okay, Kings Of Leon, The Strokes, The White Stripes have all paved the road for this band to drive their Mack truck down it, because as much I love those other bands, they just didn’t have a song like this. It felt very timely, real, honest. Love the melody. Ronnie’s backbeat just driving it. It’s a great rock track, it was more muscular than those other bands. It was like the missing link.” Famed remixer Alan Moulder would attempt a different mix for the band’s debut album Hot Fuss in 2004, but admitted he couldn’t do better that demo, which is the definitive single and album version we know today.

The cover art for ‘Hot Fuss’ by The Killers

(Island Records)

The new demo earned The Killers their Warner showcase, and Merrick also slipped it under the hotel door of an Atlantic-affiliated A&R scout named Alex Gilbert at SXSW 2003. “It had The Killers written on it,” Gilbert says, “it had ‘On Top’, ‘Mr Brightside’ and ‘Jenny is a Friend of Mine’. ‘On Top’ sounded like The Smiths to me, obviously a stupendously well-written song. And then suddenly, out of nowhere I heard this riff. The riff is one of the greatest riffs of all time. I kid you not, I listened to ‘Mr Brightside’ about 52 times in a row. I was shocked and wowed and thrilled, I was like a child. I couldn’t believe a song could smack that hard. It was distinctive, it’s got soul, it’s got passion, the lyric is killer. It made me happy in a dark way, and I think that’s what all great pop songs should do.”

Despite being barred from the band’s 2003 Los Angeles showcase as an industry rival, Gilbert snuck in at the back and “watched the band perform abysmally. The Killers hadn’t done a hell of a lot of touring. [Drummer] Ronnie Vannucci stood up for most of the performance. Dave just looked like he wanted to murder people. Brandon fell off the stage at one point, he was so nervous. I think he missed his footing and stacked it into the front row. I remember thinking: ‘They’re not gonna get signed because the singer had stacked it off the stage. Brilliant, how do I sign this band because they [the label] are gonna pass’.”

Pass Warner did, and Gilbert leapt at the chance to tout “Mr Brightside” around some key UK tastemakers – Iain Baker at XFM, radio plugger Stuart Bridgeman, fast-rising radio motormouth Zane Lowe, then heading for Radio 1 – and the Lizard King label, intending to whip up some heat around the band with an indie single release before “swooping in, saving the day and signing possibly the best American band of the past 20 years.” Lizard King struck a one album five-year license with The Killers and, as their debut single in September 2003, “Mr Brightside” began to make major underground waves in the UK. Lowe gave the song its first radio play on XFM and promoter Jeff Automatic – Reading festival’s resident DJ, then sharing an office with Lizard King – was likely the first to play the song in indie clubs such as Transmission at London’s Barfly.

“People liked it and things moved really fast with it,” he recalls. “It was at that time when the post-punk thing was coming up again,” he recalls. “Americans who really wanted to have been in Britain at a certain time. It echoed a lot of things from that mid-to-late-Eighties electronic British pop period. To us, it sounded like a really great electro-indie pop song. It had a good sound and the right sound for the time. You’d hear it and just go ‘yeah, this works’.”

The Killers performs ‘Mr. Brightside’ for One World: Together at Home

Initially released as a limited edition of 1,000 copies (and therefore non-chart eligible), “Mr Brightside” sold out in a week. A further run of several thousand more copies also sold out; the singles are now collectors’ items. By the time of its proper full release in May 2004, demand for the song was so strong that it hit Number 10 in both the UK and US and drew a mammoth crowd to Glastonbury’s John Peel Tent to try to catch the band that June.

“Mr Brightside” was The Killers’ breakthrough UK hit, but not their biggest. “Somebody Told Me”, “When You Were Young” and “Human” would all chart higher, and this was an era when plenty of indie rock acts’ top 10 singles would sink from public consciousness inside a year or two. But “Brightside” was built of different stuff. DJs found the song an enduringly popular floor-filler and even as the Noughties alt-rock explosion fizzled out towards the end of the decade, club, radio and early streaming audiences showed no signs of tiring of the song.

“For me, it went from ‘this is a cool song’ to ‘everybody’s dancing to it’ to ‘maybe we’ve played this too much’ to an intervening period to everybody, no matter how old they are, seems to love it,” says Automatic. “The closest thing I could think of might be the modern incarnation of a song like ‘Atomic’ by Blondie. It’s such a bang out classic that it cuts across age groups. You get a whoop when you play it and there’s not that many songs where you get a whoop.”

Gilbert found the same when DJing at Latitude this year as part of his Ultimate Power club night. “We had a stage invasion with kids ranging from 15 to 25 and every single one of them begged me to play ‘Mr Brightside’.” He says. “We don’t play it at a power ballad nightclub but, in the end, I just gave up and played it, and it was the biggest song of the night.”

You can hear the fragility in Brandon’s voice and the story was something that everyone could relate to

Former Killers manager Braden Merrick

But why has it endured? Merrick points to its theme: by encapsulating the very human need for recovery and redemption while owning the anguish that gives us substance, it celebrates the endurance of the soiled spirit, heroically straddling the space between anguish and euphoria. “You can hear the fragility in Brandon’s voice and the story was something that everyone could relate to,” he says. “We’ve all been in s****y relationships and had our heart broken by somebody.”

Gilbert puts it down in part to the sheer quality of the writing (“it’s the best song of the past 20 years”), but also the band’s individual virtuoso performances and the era-defining – and indeed, era-crafting – nature of the song. “It perfectly sums up the time it came out in,” he argues, “and it revolutionised British indie pop again. It forced people to write better songs … Everyone seemed to have a better song overnight. I think that’s the greatest achievement of that song. ‘Mr Brightside’ built that whole scene really.”

Certainly “Mr Brightside” was key in instigating the long-running revival of 1980s British pop sounds, and formative in gestating what’s now known as alternative pop too, which has kept it relatable and relevant to successive generations over two decades. But its rise to iconic Noughties status is an early lesson in how streaming mass-votes its heroes into a place of unassailable dominance. Perhaps simply because it’s more air-punching than The Strokes’ “Last Nite”, “Brightside” became an unavoidable mainstay in every indie rock and noughties throwback playlist in the early days of the streaming platforms. Thus, building a solid foundation of regular plays both passive and active, it quickly attained the position of its generation’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, only far more celebratory. That it was voted the best song of the Noughties by both Absolute Radio and XFM – who later pronounced it the best song of all time – only heightened its profile.

The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers performs at Reading Festival 2023


Hence, just as it began to slip into the nostalgia corner for its original fans, young, early streaming adopters discovered it afresh. For them, it epitomised the previous decade’s golden age of post-Millennium alt-rock, and also the benefits of this new age of (relatively) free music. No matter where or when it came from, how in or out of favour the act or whether there was a reissue on the way to plug a greatest hits album, a brilliant song could now be plucked from history, shared and celebrated widely by anyone, any time. The essential optimism in the lyrics chimed with the sense of musical freedom of the early 2010s. Just as Flowers was shedding his pain for a brighter future, music fans were coming out of their cage of scenes, trends and quarterly scheduled hype cycles, and doing just fine.

Once a streaming hit starts snowballing, it often becomes a self-fulfilling phenomenon. More playlist places equal more streams equal more playlist places equal more exposure, party plays, viral videos and memes. And so on until a song is embedded into the source code of modern music consumption. “The internet has decimated mediocrity,” Gilbert argues, “and it has made brilliance even bigger than it could possibly imagine being.” “Brightside” was amongst the first of this new breed of classics, but at the same time, Gen Z was finding its own unique comfort in the song. Facing an uncertain future of climate change, student debt, job insecurity and unaffordable housing, here was a defiant triumph-over-adversity anthem they could rally behind as their own, while also fulfilling their need for sonic reassurance.

“Gen Z really likes sticking to what they know and what they’ve known for a long time,” says 17-year-old student and writer Eero Deosaran, “If you go to a party or you’re hanging out with people and try to play something new, from my experience it’s like: ‘What is this? Here are the big things we’re familiar with.’ Gen Z’s afraid of growing up because there’s all this pressure that’s always talked about in the media. They’re scared to move on to what’s next. Especially when we’re all moving on to university, it’s like ‘what do I know that’s familiar? Here are these songs I’ve been hearing for the past 10 years, let’s just stick to these’.”

Which is why “Mr Brightside”, a 20-year-old song, has become the student sing-along du jour, as “Losing My Religion” was to 1991, “Common People” was to 1995 and, well, “Mr Brightside” was to 2003. Ambrose De Soisson-Page is shift supervisor at a Manchester bar catering to the nearby university accommodation and sees its effect on 18 and 19-year-old students daily. “It’s normally played at least once a night,” he says, “usually towards the end. It’s something that everybody knows, everybody gets singing it once they’ve had a few drinks.”

And what does it mean to young music fans today? “It’s good times with friends and it also has that emotional element to it,” he says. “It’s the simplicity. I’d be interested to see this year if the popularity slumps off because my uni cohort is graduating now so I don’t know how popular it’ll be in the next few years, whether that will move to a different song. At the moment it seems to be as popular as ever.”

For these and whatever other reasons unknown, the Brightside Nation is far from tiring of The Killers’ signature tune yet. “That’s not strange,” says Gilbert. “It’s better than any song ever written. You get bored of eight-out-of-10 songs. You don’t get bored of 11-out-of-10 songs.”

Check Also

First edition Sherlock Holmes book owned by Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts sets auction record

First edition Sherlock Holmes book owned by Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts sets auction record

Sign up to our free IndyArts newsletter for all the latest entertainment news and reviews …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *