They Might Be Giants
Kids, the 1980s and 90s were a very different era. Here we have the ultimate oddball band, a duo of two nerds (John Flansburgh and John Linnell) from Brooklyn, signed to a major label. They had formed back in 1982, and by 1988, had released two very well-received indie albums, 1986’s They Might be Giants and 1988’s Lincoln. They even had a couple of hit single of sorts, ‘Don’t Let’s Start’ and ‘Anna Ng,’ the latter of which had reached #11 on the Modern Rock charts.
It turns out that Susan Drew, of Elektra’s A&R department, was a big fan, and had been since their first album, and she was the one who managed to convince Elektra to approach TMBG, offering a great deal of creative control, to say nothing of Elektra’s massive recording resources. For a couple of dudes who had cut their first two albums on 8-track at Public Access Synthesizer Studios in Manhattan, this was a bonanza!
They went into Skyline Studios in Manhattan, and worked with drum technician Alan Bezozi on programming the drum machine for the songs, though they also experimented with some less traditional methods of drumming, as the album also includes sounds such as a drum stick hitting Flansburgh’s kitchen sink and fridge. And then Flansburgh and Linnell blew two-thirds of the album budget on just four songs. There are 19 songs on the album. Why did those four tracks cost so much? Because they were produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who had made names for themselves in England, working with everyone from Generation X to Madness to the Teardrop Explodes to Elvis Costello. All of this was new and exciting for Flansburgh and Linnell:
We had never been in an actual, real, multitrack studio before. We had been in an 8-track studio run by a friend of ours that was essentially a demo place. But I didn’t know anything about how to make a real record … Langer and Winstanley approach production the way that we approach songwriting. That is, we let the song take us in whatever direction it seems to want to go.
That worked brilliantly for those four songs: ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul,’ ‘Your Racist Friend,’ ‘We Want a Rock,’ and ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople.’ Happily, for the rest of the album, the other 15 songs recorded with the remaining 1/3 of the budget, there was no real drop off in quality.
TMBG are known for their eclectic approach to music, their occasionally atonal musicality, their obscure lyrics and sounds, as well as humour, though they’ve always been careful to ensure they were not just a joke band. Underneath it all, Flansburgh and Linnell are musicians, and pretty damn good ones at that.
I had first come across TMBG back in 1987 when ‘Don’t Let’s Start’ got a lot of play on MuchMusic, which always seemed an odd choice for the station. But what did I care? There was something insanely catchy about it, and Linnell’s oddly nasal voice, and a video involving these two oddballs dancing around in funny positions and hats. I didn’t buy either of their first two albums, though I did hear all of Lincoln a few times in my travels around suburban Vancouver in the late 1980s.
I got Flood from Columbia House. A lot of people don’t recall Columbia House as fondly as I. For them, the introduction of a dozen albums for a penny was grand, but then having to buy x number of albums at full price over the next three years was insane. For me, it was amazing. I lived in the suburbs. In Canada. Music did not come to where I lived. Nor did the British music press that would become so fascinating to me later on, like Melody Maker, NME and Q. There was no real alternative radio station, and the University of British Columbia’s CiTR was dodgy in its signal, due to the presence of Burnaby Mountain between me and the UBC campus. MuchMusic offered a bit of a lifeline, but not a hell of a lot. So Columbia House became my saviour. I could get good music, and, in all reality, for less than I would’ve ended up paying at Sam the Record Man or A&A Records & Tapes at the mall. And Flood was one of them.
I was expecting oddball music. I got what I wanted. Flood begins, appropriately-enough with ‘Theme from Flood,’ which, listening to this again in 2020, seems oddly prescient, as it asks about rising water levels. After this 28 seconds of oddness comes the best track on the album, ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul.’ Surrounded by synthesizers, drum machines and other noises, Linnell sings about, well, the birdhouse in your soul, an odd little love song. It was also the first single. It is killer track, there’s no other way to put it.
One of the things about the album that I have always appreciated was the stylistic shifts, from song to song, and sometimes even within songs. Take the next track, ‘Lucky Ball & Chain,’ about a poor sod who loses his girl, sitting on a bar stool, drinking enough for two. The song is a straight ahead boppy song, and then, around the one minute break, we get a breakdown of the song, to some vaguely eastern-influenced tuneage, which is also a bit of a precursor what comes next.
Linnell also writes a killer hook. He tends to write the melody before the lyrics, and this album shows him up to the task of a major label debut.
Next is a cover of the 1953 novelty track, ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople),’ written to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople. This is perhaps one of the catchiest, most annoying songs ever written. When people think of earworms, this is the fucking song they think of. It’s insidious. It’s impossible to escape. Today’s column arose out of me hearing TMBG’s version of the song in the beer store, and so now I am taking it out on you, Gentle Reader. Now this song can get stuck in YOUR head.
Of course, the other thing about this song is it’s also pretty damn brilliant as TMBG reconstitute it, between the accordian, the drum machine and Linnell’s call and response lyrics. The video is pretty amazing too.
‘Your Racist Friend’ is an interesting song to listen to in 2020. We have all had this racist friend at some place or time. In my case, it was before I was really old enough to figure out what it was that I was supposed to do about a racist friend, other than feel uncomfortable and slowly move away from Andrew calling black people by the n-word, Asian people by the c-word, and worse. It took me awhile to be able to tell him, when he asked me why we didn’t hang anymore, to tell him it was because it was he was racist.
I think about this song a lot, though, especially in light of the societal discussions we are having these days, in Canada, the US, the UK, Ireland, France, and other nations, as we attempt to sort out our deep, societal problems with race and racism. And, well, Linnell is bang on correct in noting where the problem lies with your racist friend:
This is where the party ends
I’ll just sit here wondering how you
Can stand by your racist friend
I know politics bore you
But I feel like a hypocrite talking to you
You and your racist friend.
Linnell delivers this over a pounding drum machine, bass, and accordion, but, somehow, Flansburgh is able to make this music sound menacing. And Linnell is bang on, the racist friend is only part of the problem, the other part of the problem comes from the friend of the racist friend. And he saw this in 1989
Part of the power of this song, though, is undone by moving from it to the throwaway goofy song, ‘Particle Man.’ And this is one of the problems TMBG continuously encounter in their music, as their sense of humour, which is goofy and ridiculous, can occasionally challenge their more serious moments, almost as if ‘Your Racist Friend’ is the segue to ‘Particle Man,’ as opposed to the simple power of the first song’s message.
But, of course, TMBG are a very much about that oddball humour, it is the basis of their career, their music. And ‘Someone Keeps Moving My Chair’ is a fine example of this:
Telephone call for Mr. Horrible
But before he can talk
To the ugliness men
There’s some horrible business left
For him to attend to
Something unpleasant has spilled on his brain
As he sponges it off they say
“Is this Horrible?
Is this Horrible?
It’s the ugliness men, Mr. Horrible
We’re just trying to bug you
We thought that our dreadfulness
Might be a thing to annoy you with”
But Mr. Horrible says, “I don’t mind
The thing that bothers me is
Someone keeps moving my chair.
All of this happens over an organic bass and guitar combo over that drum machine, and we get an almost pop rock song akin to ‘Birdhouse.’
‘Minimum Wage’ is a grand-sounding cinematic track with a bossanova appeal, it sounds like the closing credits to a 1950s film. In reality, it’s largely cribbed from Frank Sinatra’s cover of ‘Downtown,’ by Petula Clark.
‘Hot Cha’ is perhaps the most 80s song TMBG have ever created. Over the drum machine, some synth, the Johns use a silly phrase (‘Hot Cha’) and create a sort of love song about it. There is a piano breakdown of the beat, and the track is constructed to sound like a jitterbug-type track, as Linnell and Flansburgh’s voices a layered and appear in a call and response. I hated this kind of music back in the day, I must be getting old, because it’s catchy now.
The second-to-last track is very much TMBG’s theme song, ‘They Might Be Giants.’ The track even sounds like a theme song, cinematic, bouncy, epic. Flansburgh later told Rolling Stone that
While we’d have a tad more street cred to cite Black Sabbath, I think we were really trying to make some of ‘Hey Hey We’re the Monkees’ our own with this one. Any song like this is kind of a manifesto, and although we had recorded a version early on, I think including it here was a way to telegraph to all who might care that we were very much going to carry on as we had started — which is to say.
I dunno, the Monkees have a kind of retro coolness now.
The album ends with ‘Road Movie to Berlin,’ which opens with a vaguely Spanish sound to it, and Flansburgh takes the vocals. In my head, this is a much more cinematic track, though in reality, it is a classic album closer, at least to start with, as Flansburgh sings over an acoustic guitar and a synth riff, before it does get cinematic, horns, drums, cymbals, all of it in a segue, before we return to the acoustic guitar and synth.
In that same 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Flansburgh recalls:
This song was designed to feel like a fragment of some bar room song just starting up again and again. Even though the verses resolve, there is a little bit of tension that is left hanging each go around, and that hopefully is a bit more unsettling with each verse. My voice is slowed down, which is kind of creepy. Indicative of the speed with which a lot of the second half of the album was recorded, we inadvertently left out one of the verses we had been performing, and then didn’t feel we had the time to fix it. The trumpet blasts, entirely synthetic or sampled, include the sample of the very same Frank London trumpet heard on ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul.’
And then we’re done, 19 songs, 43 minutes. The album always feels longer than it actually is, in part because listening to it is an immersive experience. This is not the music you put on in the background whilst you make dinner. It demands you listen to it. And because it’s so catchy, repeatedly. I was a little obsessed with the album back in 1990, it was so unlike anything else I listened to, it was an outlier in all ways, shapes, and forms. My usual fare was eclectic to start with, anything from The Cure to The Cult to The Pogues. But, this did not fit with that.
Over the past thirty years, I have continued to listen to Flood off and on. But a lot. I am not alone, Flood went platinum, perhaps the most unexpected platinum album ever. It remains the only TMBG album to reach such heights in sales. But they carry on. One of the things TMBG were famous for back in the day was the ‘Dial-A-Song’ service, a phone number somewhere in Brooklyn, you call it, and it plays you a song. It was hard to get through, I have to say. I tried a lot before I finally got through in the late winter of 1990-91, it was somewhere around 2am. I don’t remember the song, I am sad to say. But their ‘Dial-A-Song’ service was legend. The original idea ran from 1985 to 2008, and arose out of a period where Linnell broke his wrist and Flansburgh’s flat was robbed, so they were unable to perform for a bit. They revived the ‘Dial-A-Song’ in 2018, which led to a trio of albums.