It started out with a kiss, how did it end up like this?
The Killers’ Mr Brightside has set a new chart record, after spending 260 weeks – or five whole years – in the UK’s Top 100.
No other song comes close. The second-longest-running chart hit is Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars, which has racked up 166 weeks in the countdown.
According to the Official Chart Company, Mr Brightside is streamed 1.2 million times a week on average, and has sold 3.52 million copies since it was first released in 2003.
Not bad for a song that only reached number 10 in the UK on its second release in 2004 – and didn’t chart at all the first time around.
Its popularity continues without any promotional efforts. Mr Brightside has never been licensed to a television show or advertising campaign, and its only significant film appearance is in the 2006 romcom The Holiday – where a tipsy Cameron Diaz shouts-screams her way through the chorus.
So how did it happen?
The origins of a classic
Brandon Flowers wrote the lyrics to Mr Brightside at the end of his first serious relationship, when he was about 19 or 20.
Speaking to Q Magazine in 2009, he recalled how he had discovered his girlfriend was cheating on him in a pub in Los Angeles.
“I was asleep and I knew something was wrong,” he said. “I have these instincts. I went to the Crown and Anchor and my girlfriend was there with another guy.”
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Around the same time, Flowers met guitarist Dave Keuning, who’d already written Mr Brightside’s backing track. As soon as he heard that chiming riff, his heartbreak spilled out on to the page.
“When I first heard those chords, I wrote the lyrics down and we didn’t waste much time,” he told Spin magazine. “That’s also why there’s not a second verse. The second is the same as the first. I just didn’t have any other lines and it ended up sticking.”
The pair grabbed a drum machine to record a primitive demo, which was later released on The Killers’ Direct Hits compilation.
At that stage, it was a much darker song. Flowers alternately sounds angry and like he’s on the verge of tears – his vocals raw and raspy against a grungy, fuzztone guitar.Figure captionWarning: Third party content may contain adverts
Flowers says his urgent delivery was influenced by David Bowie’s Queen Bitch – but when it came to recording the studio version of Mr Brightside, he adopted a more detached, almost voyeuristic, tone.
That choice was informed by an artist who is closely associated with Bowie: Iggy Pop.
“If you listen to the Lust for Life record, Iggy does a monotone delivery on Sweet Sixteen, and I was trying to sound like that,” Flowers told Rolling Stone. “It’s just that I have a sweeter voice than Iggy, and I was a kid, so it came out the way it did.”
Mr Brightside was the first complete song The Killers wrote – and the only track to survive the original configuration of their debut album, Hot Fuss.
All the other songs were scrapped after The Strokes released This Is It, a record which redefined American guitar music at the start of the millennium.
“That record just sounded so perfect”, Flowers told the NME in 2012. “We threw away everything [we were working on] and the only song that made the cut and remained was Mr Brightside.”
First release: Met with indifference
The Killers debuted Mr Brightside at their first ever show, at a venue called Cafe Roma in Las Vegas in 2002.
“It was terrible, awful,” Flowers later recalled. “Before we went on, I was looking for a place on the floor to get rid of whatever I’d eaten that day. I didn’t throw up, but after my voice broke a couple of times I decided that I’d just play keyboards, because singing made me so nervous.”
Things didn’t improve for quite some time. The band’s sound, heavily influenced by British bands like The Cure, New Order and Depeche Mode, was unpalatable to the US record industry. It wasn’t until their demo found its way to the UK indie label Lizard King that they landed a record deal.
“We signed The Killers in the summer of 2003,” said label boss Martin Heath. “Everyone in America had turned them down. They had been out for a year looking for a deal but nobody was interested.”
Heath was particularly impressed by the band’s front man. “It was very clear to me that he was a major star. He had huge charisma. He completely believed in what he was doing. He just stood out and carried the music.”
Lizard King released Mr Brightside in 2003, in a limited run of 500 CD singles. It picked up early plays from Zane Lowe and Steve Lamacq on Radio 1; and their first ever review in The Times newspaper.
“Mr Brightside is one of those records that come along all too rarely and make you think, hel-lo,” wrote Dan Cairns. “A fantastically bleak and catchy ode to romantic paranoia and jealousy, it nails that moment in a love affair when one half is suddenly forced to accommodate the possibility that the other half is playing away.”
Despite the buzz, 500 copies wasn’t enough to make a dent in the charts; and the single seemed destined to become a footnote in musical history, until…
Making the top 10
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After a second single, Somebody Told Me, crept into the top 40, The Killers were signed to Island Records and Mr Brightside was re-released as a slightly cleaner “radio mix”.
This time, the song caught fire, making the top 10 in both the UK and the US. One of Flowers’ biggest idols, Smiths singer Morrissey, even declared himself a fan. “He’s bought our single – that’s nuts!” Flowers told an interviewer for the Independent.
Even so, there was no indication that Mr Brightside would become a defining anthem of the 2000s. It dropped out of the UK top 40 after just three weeks, and lost the Grammy for best rock song to Maroon 5’s This Love.
But Flowers had longevity in his sights, nonetheless: “We want to be important and to last,” he told USA Today in 2004.
“We look up to John Lennon and U2. To have just one great song like Where the Streets Have No Name or I Want to Hold Your Hand would be an accomplishment.”
He first realised Mr Brightside could become one of those songs when The Killers played Glastonbury’s John Peel tent in 2004.
“It went off,” the singer told Rolling Stone. “It looked like footage of the Sex Pistols!”
A classic is born
Zane Lowe was one of the first people to spot the enduring appeal of Mr Brightside. The radio presenter started making it a staple of his DJ sets in the mid-2000s “just to get that adrenaline rush of watching people sing it back at you”.
“Every time, you could see that it was giving them a moment. And those moments become something that you hold dear to you,” he told The Guardian in 2019.
Pretty soon, the song began to reappear in the lower reaches of the charts. It made number 100 in the first week of 2005, as fans spent their Christmas record tokens (remember those?) on the remaining copies of the single.
Once downloads started being counted towards the countdown in July 2005, Mr Brightside would pop into the charts every time The Killers played a festival or toured the UK.
Meanwhile, the song became a staple of wedding parties and student discos. Ed Balls shrugged off his defeat in the 2010 Labour leadership race with a karaoke version; and Gemma Atkinson turned it into a showdance on Strictly Come Dancing.
In December 2018, Mr Brightside reached the landmark of one million pure sales (ie downloads and CD sales). But its unparalleled chart run truly began in 2014, when the Official Chart Company incorporated streams into its calculations.
Since then, it’s taken up semi-permanent residence in the lower reaches of the countdown, with 281 million plays, making it the most-streamed song of any track released before 2010.
At the time of writing, it features on 20,200 separate Spotify playlists. The company says it’s most likely to appear on playlists designed for road-trips, although it also features on compilations called: “Darts: All the walk-on songs” and “Songs that never fail to make white people turnt“.
What do the band think of it?
While some bands would grow to resent the idea of being forever associated with their debut single, Flowers says he’s proud Mr Brightside has “stood the test of time”, insisting that: “I never get bored of singing it.”
Asked about the song’s record-breaking chart run in 2017, Flowers told the BBC: “We get little glimpses of stuff like that and it’s just incredible.
“As fans, we know what that feels like. Whether it’s Enjoy the Silence from Depeche Mode or Where The Streets Have No Name from U2 – those songs belong to everyone.
“To be a part of it, on the other side of it, it’s nothing that we can really explain. But it’s really cool.”
Last year, he capitalized on the song’s success to encourage people to wash their hands during the pandemic. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. View original tweet on Twitter
By the way, you’ve been singing it wrong
That iconic first line – “Coming out of my cage / And I’ve been doing just fine” has rung out at thousands of festivals and become a popular meme.
But according to the band, we’ve been singing it wrong for the past 18 years. Who knew?