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A brief history of They Might Be Giants

By Joel Rosenberg
Staff Reporter

It's a story of two guys who met in junior high, became friends while working on their high school paper, and started writing and playing songs together. It's the story of two guys who formed a band without a band, thanks to homemade taped rhythm tracks, later the magic of cheesy drum machines, four-tracks, and eventually an answering machine. It's a story of Johns.

John Flansburgh and John Linnell took the name They Might Be Giants from a film starring George C. Scott as a paranoiac who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes and Joanne Woodward as his psychiatrist Dr. Watson. "We wanted a name that was outward-looking and paranoid," explains Linnell. The title is fitting.

They've sold over two million records with their unmistakably quirky sound and inane/funny/strange/obscure lyrics. With six albums, a whole bunch of singles and eps, and a B-side compilation to their name, they've recorded quite a bit. Their big break came with their "brand new record for 1990/They Might Be Giants' brand new album" Flood (that's from the intro track). It included many of what are now their most famous songs like "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Particle Man," and certainly their most famous song, the remake of the 1950s Four Lads' "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," which garnered them an MTV breakthrough award.

Before Flood came two other albums, their self-entitled debut and their second offering, Lincoln. Mostly four-track creations with a Moog synthesizer, an old drum kit, Music Minus One-type karaoke recordings, and baby drum machines, a bunch of the tunes were tested out on a TMBG creation that lives on today - Dial-A-Song. Always a free call to Brooklyn, always busy. Call (718) 387-6962 and the message will be one of their tunes. It made them start writing songs with clear voices and simple instrumentation (the only things that sounded acceptable on an answering machine), and if the caller didn't like it, they hung up.

These early albums have been largely overlooked, and have now been collected and re-released on a two-CD compilation called Then: The Earlier Years on Restless Records. In addition to the first two albums, the B-side collection Miscellaneous T and 19 bonus tracks (Dial-A-Song songs that too many people hung up on?) round out the box-set. The songs are a nice contrast to the band-backed offerings on the last two albums John Henry and Factory Showroom, and finish off lots of TMBG collections that start with Flood (including my own).

The first song on the first disc, "Everything Right is Wrong Again," puts you right into the Giants mood, especially with the nice tempo change and quick pickup at the end. "Don't Let's Start," with the funkin' drum track behind the distorted electric guitar is a great throwback to the beginnings of sequenced music. "Hide Away Folk Family" is one of the few songs in existence to combine a Rawhide-type theme with an accordion and a Casio-sounding bass-line. James Bond would be proud of the intro to "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," and "Kiss Me, Son Of God" (alternate version) is about as blasphemous as TMBG gets (but is only as offensive as Jesus Christ Super-star).

The bonus tracks include "Critic Intro," a tape used to introduce the band (and do a sound check) at some of their early shows, and is a Twilight Zone-like intro which uses a bunch of soundbites from music reviewers like "If you hear only one song this year, there's something terribly wrong with you." "Fake Out in Buenos Aires" is a weird kind of rubato flamenco song that, like so many other songs, makes little to no sense, and "Greek #3" (Linnell claims to be one-eighth Hellenic) has what one Greek native calls "crappy" pronunciation. "I'm Def" sounds like "Was (Not Was)," and is probably as close to techno as TMBG comes. "Don't Let's Start" (demo version) is definitely a Casio special.

"Ana Ng" starts off disc two and also kicks off Lincoln, setting the stage for the second half. With standard upbeat Giants bridge and straight ahead rockin' 4/4, it's hard to not bob your head. "The World's Address" is a Latin tune that is more upbeat than the lyrics imply: "The world's address/A place that's worn/A sad pun that reflects a sadder mess." More close to home is the line, "Call the men of science and let them hear this song/Tell them Albert Einstein and Copernicus were wrong." In TMBG's defense, they sing an extremely technical song "Mammal on Apollo 18" and have an informative single, "Why Does the Sun Shine?"

"Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal" is a cynical look at radio these days and how hard it would be to buy the number one song, and the whole thing ends with schoolchildren singling "Particle Man" with the generic third-grade music teacher accompanying on the piano.

The whole set is around $24 right now. Is it worth it? If you have none (maybe one?) of the early albums, then it definitely is. More than that, and you need to be a die-hard TMBG fan (although if you have more than one of the early albums, you're probably already a die-hard). It's a cool compilation, and the fact that it's on two discs makes it that much more portable. The liner notes have some cool history of the songs, and lyrics to them all. They did a nice job.

But wait - there's more! Not only have we been lucky enough to get Factory Showroom recently released (October 1996 on Elektra) which is a really good album (much better than John Henry, the first with-band attempt), but now TMBG is playing Avalon on Landsdowne on Saturday night. Tickets are $15, available through Ticketmaster at 931-2000, and while it might seem a bit pricey, if you have any interest in the Giants this is not a show to be missed! They've been adding band members to their live show since after the Flood tour (1990), and as part of the release of Then, they're doing the first half of the show old-school style, with just the Johns on stage with a tape track behind them and a bunch of props on stage.

The second half brings out the band and tackles some of the more recent stuff. Boston is the only city other than Chicago to get this show, and it should be really cool. It's age 18 and over, doors at 6 p.m., show at 7 p.m., and there are still tickets left.

Well, there you have it. A plot of intrigue, love, power, money, greed, and bad George C. Scott movies. Check out They Might Be Giants. They fill a very valuable, if off-beat, niche in one's musical knowledge.