Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Pop stardom is, among many other things, a cult of personality. To rack up any kind of sustained success, pop stars have to be larger-than-life figures. The world has to project lust and fantasy and anxiety and parasocial friend-feelings and all sorts of other things on these people, and these people have to be able to support all of those projections. Most people can’t do that. Pop stars come in many different sizes and shapes, but in just about every form, pop stardom involves some sort of majestic, mystical charisma. Even a pop-star everyman like Phil Collins has to be able to communicate a whole lot with, for instance, a waggling eyebrow. He has to perform the absurdity of his own stardom.

Every once in a while, though, someone relatively normal sneaks through the system and conquers the charts. It doesn’t happen often, but it can happen. In the music business, professional hooksmiths who aren’t obvious pop stars usually play behind-the-scenes roles, writing or producing hits for people who do have those qualities. But under rare circumstances, a nobody can become a somebody without even having to invent some kind of narrative or persona. That’s what the Australian duo Savage Garden did in the late ’90s.

Nobody knew much of anything about Savage Garden. They were two faintly anonymous-looking white guys who would occasionally pop up on VH1, and there was nothing especially outwardly interesting about them. For a while, though, Savage Garden had radio programmers under their spell. The duo made lighter-than-air earworms that would simply become a part of your environment. You’d hear these songs out in the world, and you might enjoy them without becoming the slightest bit curious about the people who made them. Savage Garden weren’t part of a cultural wave, and they didn’t belong to any particular genre or scene. They never had buzz, or at least they didn’t have the type of buzz that was legible to my teenage self. But they had songs, and those songs crept into your brain and stayed there. At the top of 1998, one of those songs went all the way to #1, ending the long reign of Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind 1997.”

The two members of Savage Garden found each other by happenstance. Multi-instrumentalist Daniel Jones was born in England, and his family moved to Brisbane when he was still a baby. As a teenager, Jones started a band with his brother and some friends. They were called Red Edge, and they mostly played covers. Red Edge needed a singer, so they put an ad in Time Off, a local music newspaper. Only one person responded to the ad, and that person was Darren Hayes.

Darren Hayes, a Brisbane native, had been a nervous and fragile kid, obsessed with pop music and Star Wars. (When Hayes was born, the #1 song in America was Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”) Hayes was in college when he auditioned for Red Edge, but all he wanted to do was make pop music. During his audition, Hayes’ voice broke, but he still got the spot in Red Edge; musicians, it seems, will forgive certain flaws if literally nobody else shows up to audition.

For about a year, Red Edge played the pub circuit around Australia’s Gold Coast. In 1994, Hayes and Jones both realized that they wanted to write original music, so they left the band and formed their own duo. First, they called themselves Crush, before learning that a British group already had that name. Eventually, they renamed themselves Savage Garden after a line from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books, a pretty clear sign that these guys were dorks.

Savage Garden sent demo tapes to labels all around the world, and they caught the attention of John Woodruff, a manager of a few fairly prominent Australian rock bands. Woodruff helped Savage Garden get signed to Roadshow Music, a Warner Bros. imprint. In 1996, the duo released their debut single “I Want You,” a strange and addictive piece of dream-world bubblegum. Darren Hayes quasi-raps over weightless keyboard diddles and sensitive-heart power-chords, and the whole thing just hovers in the air. “I Want You” became a big hit in Australia — the biggest hit from a homegrown Australian artist that year, in fact — and Savage Garden started to get international interest.

When they were trying to figure out how to expand beyond Australia, Savage Garden caught a lucky break. The name Guy Zapoleon has come up in this column a couple of times. He’s the idiosyncratic Phoenix radio programmer who, on a whim, revived UB40’s “Red Red Wine” five years after that song’s release and helped it become a chart-topper. Zapoleon had also started playing “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You,” a song from the 16-year-old Hawaiian kid Glenn Medeiros, after hearing the song while on vacation in Hawaii. That song became an international hit, and Medeiros eventually scored a #1 hit of his own. In the ’90s, Zapoleon was working as a music-business consultant, and he heard “I Want You” while he was at a conference in Australia. Zapoleon took the song back to the US with him, so when Savage Garden started angling for an American deal, the big labels were already familiar with the duo.

Clive Davis wanted to sign Savage Garden to Arista, but the group knew that he’d get heavily involved on the creative side, so they went with Don Ienner at Columbia instead. Columbia released “I Want You” in the US in 1997. The song became a #1 hit in Canada, and it reached #4 on the Hot 100 — a pretty great showing for a debuting artist from overseas. (“I Want You” is an 8.) By the time the song landed in the US, Savage Garden had their self-titled debut album all ready to go.

When “I Want You” did well in Australia, Roadshow, Savage Garden’s Australian label, moved the group to Sydney and set them up with Charles Fisher, a producer who’d worked with Australian groups like Radio Birdman, Hoodoo Gurus, and former Number Ones artists Air Supply. Savage Garden already had a hit on their hands, but they weren’t making money yet. In Sydney, Hayes and Jones lived together in a one-bedroom apartment and skipped meals to save money. Darren Hayes had married his girlfriend a couple of years earlier, and he missed her terribly.

One day, while sitting in a café, Hayes started writing a song about his wife. At first, he called the track “Magical Kisses,” a truly terrible title. For a while, the song didn’t have a chorus, but then Hayes came up with a bit about wanting to stand with you in the mountain, to bathe with you in the sea, to lay like this forever until the sky falls down on… he? (You can’t really change that chorus to the third person without fucking up the rhyme scheme.) Hayes also gave the song a new title. He named it after Truly, Madly, Deeply, an Anthony Minghella film from 1990 where Juliet Stevenson keeps up her relationship with Alan Rickman even after Rickman dies and becomes a ghost. (That’s right: It’s the other ghost romance of 1990.) In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Hayes says, “It was a wink-wink nudge-nudge reference to a film I didn’t think anyone had seen.”

Hayes thought that “Truly Madly Deeply” should be a hidden bonus track on the Savage Garden CD: “I thought no one would want to listen to this sappy song about my love life.” But Charles Fisher, Savage Garden’s producer, knew that the world loves sappy songs about people’s love lives, and he thought that Hayes had just written his first #1 hit. Fisher produced the song to make it sound big, getting Hayes to sing stately overdubbed backing vocals. When “Truly Madly Deeply” came out in Australia, it had a drum-machine beat and a cheap music video, and it still topped the Australian charts.

For the American release of “Truly Madly Deepy,” Columbia added in some beefier live drums, and the label also commissioned a new video. Adolfo Doring, the director who’d made videos for a couple of Hootie & The Blowfish hits, filmed a newly short-haired Hayes walking around Paris, narrating a couple’s love story. It’s an almost aggressively anonymous video, but it didn’t need personality. The song did the work.

“Truly Madly Deeply” is one of those songs that might as well have been crafted by mathematicians in lab coats in a sterile, sealed-off laboratory. It sounds inevitable. Every line is a hook. The first verse starts with Darren Hayes promising to be your dream, your wish, your fantasy. That line sticks with you, and so does practically everything else Hayes sings on the song. The chorus, the one about laying standing with you on the mountain and bathing with you in the sea, is just a perfectly composed piece of sentimental gibberish. I love it.

If anything, I wish Savage Garden made that chorus sound even bigger and more merciless. Hayes delivers that hook in a feathery, sensitive voice without a whole lot of muscle behind it; he sounds maybe a tad embarrassed. The production, with its gauzy synths and its fake-Spanish guitar solo, hews a little too close to late-’90s adult-contempo trends. Around the same time, Swedish pop scientists were coming up with increasingly shameless new ways to hammer a gigantic chorus into your brain, and those guys would’ve gone nuts if someone had brought “Truly Madly Deeply” to them. In the version we got, “Truly Madly Deeply” sounds a bit too lightweight. It could be a great song, but it’s merely a good one.

But what do I know? “Truly Madly Deeply” was Savage Garden’s third American single, following “I Want You” and the Blade Runner-inspired “To The Moon And Back,” which peaked at #24. By the time “Truly Madly Deeply” reached #1, Savage Garden’s self-titled album was already platinum. “Truly Madly Deeply” only spent a couple of weeks at #1 in the US, but it remained on the Hot 100 for a full year. The radio truly embraced the song. On Billboard‘s Adult Contemporary chart, “Truly Madly Deeply” sat at #1 for 11 weeks, and it remained on the chart for 123 weeks. In 2013, Billboard named “Truly Madly Deeply” the #1 adult contemporary song of all time.

Savage Garden’s album sold steadily for years, and it eventually went platinum seven times over. Darren Hayes’ marriage didn’t last. He and his wife separated in 1998 and divorced two years later. Hayes came out as gay in the early ’00s, and he eventually married animator Richard Cullen. Savage Garden kept making hits, and we’ll see them again in this column.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: In 2006, the German group Cascada had a huge hit all across Europe with their hammering Euro-dance cover of “Truly Madly Deeply.” Here’s the extremely silly video for that version:

(Cascada’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit is 2005’s “Everytime We Touch,” which peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: I don’t like to put TV commercials in this section, since I generally hate them, but I’ve got to make an exception here. In a 2010 Puma ad, a whole mob of scary, Jason Statham-looking British soccer goons roars out an a cappella version of “Truly Madly Deeply” and makes it sound like Cock Sparrer. This is easily my favorite take on the song. Here it is:

That ad is presumably what inspired this TikTok, which I watched about five million times during the early quarantine days of 2020:

@brandonfoster74 #thesquad this is gonna happen #fyp #foru #foryoupage #4u #xyzbca #xyzcba #foryou #pub #comedy ♬ original sound – THE MUSIC VAULT

THE ASTERISK: Smash Mouth’s fizzy, organ-happy hip-swinger “Walkin’ On The Sun” never officially came out as a single in the US, so it never charted on the Hot 100. But while “Truly Madly Deeply” was at #1, “Walkin’ On The Sun” peaked at #2 on Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart, so who’s to say what could’ve happened? It’s an 8.