Friday, April 12, 2013

They Might Be Giants

The first time I ever heard They Might Be Giants was during the closing credits of a Jake Johannsen comedy special – This’ll Take About An Hour. The song was “We Want A Rock” and I loved it.
This was 1991, and at that point I’m not sure I had heard anything quite like that song. It was bizarre and catchy and didn’t make a bit of sense. It was somewhat reminiscent of Weird Al, but not really. That was just the closest reference point I had for any kind of odd music. But all of Al’s stuff told stories and had a cohesive narrative. This thing was about prosthetic foreheads and hammering piglets. It was delightfully incomprehensible.
            I had taped the special with an ancient device called a “VCR” because I was already a fan of Johannsen’s work, but I ended up watching the credits several times just to hear that song. Finally I had to watch to see the song credit and write it down. I didn’t know who these “They Might Be Giants” people were, but I had to find out. I was absolutely fascinated with this song.
Now, of course, you can go straight to YouTube and find This’ll Take About An Hour in its entirety:

Not to mention as many They Might Be Giants videos as you could possibly want. But back in 1991 the only way I had to research a band was to make a trip to the local record store. My preferred destination was a place I have mentioned before called MusiCDrome. The staff were a bunch of nice guys who loved sharing music with people. I can’t even tell you how many times I went to Dave, Michael, or any of the other folks that worked there through the years with a song, artist, or even genre of music. They would always point me in the right direction.
I don’t remember who I spoke to about They Might Be Giants, but I left the store with a copy of their 1990 album, Flood, on cassette.
I listened to Flood a lot. It took me years to appreciate the opening track, but everything else on that album pleased me immensely. It’s funny to think of now, but I had no exposure to college radio or anybody else who had heard of They Might Be Giants. To me, “We Want A Rock” was the big song from the album. “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” was probably my favorite, though. I became very adept at rewinding the tape to the beginning of that song so that I could listen to it over and over again. I enjoyed “Birdhouse In Your Soul” but had no idea that it was any kind of big deal to anybody.
Nowadays Flood is not one of my favorite TMBG albums. Not even Top 5, actually. It’s notable for having the biggest number of radio hits, and also for having what is their strangest song – relative to all of their other songs, that is. “Your Racist Friend” is without a doubt the weirdest song the guys have recorded because it has a narrative, a transparent message, and is socially conscious. It’s so bizarre to have this one “message” song in amongst their massive catalog. I mean, it’s a great message and all, but I have to wonder what motivated it. Never again did the Johns seek to right social ills. At least, not in such a musical, straightforward fashion.
Over the course of the next year several things happened in an order I can’t quite place. TMBG put out a new album – Apollo 18 – and went on tour. I also joined the massive scam that was Columbia House records and through them obtained CDs of Lincoln – the band’s first proper album – and Miscellaneous T – a collection of B-sides, singles, and alternate takes that was basically another album unto itself. I also ordered Flood on CD. But I liked all three of those other CDs more than I did Flood.
The big thing that happened was I got to see They Might Be Giants live. Twice. I had never been to an in-store gig before. I didn’t even know what it was. I just knew I wanted to experience anything having to do with my new favorite band.
Actually, before I get into that day of live TMBG performances, I should discuss becoming a fan. As I have mentioned before, I was mostly a metal guy. But there was a progression of sorts to that point. My first true musical love was Weird Al. Shortly thereafter I discovered RUN DMC and the Beastie Boys. And after that came Metallica, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, and my favorite metal band of all time – Anthrax. For the most part I needed my music to be either heavy or hip-hop, but my base was still in the weird. Or Weird; as the case may be. I simply wasn’t exposed to a whole lot of alternative music. But TMBG opened up a whole new world of creative, intelligent expression. They were unlike anything else I had experienced and exemplified what I now hold to be the most impressive skill possible in any form of creative expression – the ability to blend pop sensibilities and mainstream appeal with niche individualism.
So anyway, TMBG were playing an in-store gig at Blockbuster Music (which was once Turtles and would later become Wherehouse Music) downtown. None of my friends at the time cared about They Might Be Giants and I had no means of getting downtown by myself, so it ended up being a family excursion. Yes – Mom, Dad, and Little Sister accompanied me. I didn’t care. I had to see these geniuses perform live.
This was part of the Apollo 18 Tour, which I believe was the first TMBG tour with a live band. But at that in-store I saw John and John and a drummer play stripped down versions of maybe five or six songs. I wish I could remember which ones, but I don’t. They were set up in this tiny nook n the back of the store. When we got there the only things in that nook were a minimal drum kit – probably a snare, a high-hat, and a tom – and a keyboard. I’m sure John Flansburgh had a guitar, but at the time John Linnell was my guy. Anybody who played the accordion was cool in my book. I do remember not breathing while they were playing. I think that was the most excited I had been up to that point in my life.
But things only got better.
The first concert I ever saw was RUN DMC and the Beastie Boys at the Astrodome. It was unforgettable, but maybe not the best experience ever. The second concert I ever saw and the first I attended parent-free was Metallica at the Omni. It was just as amazing, probably a little more fun, but also somewhat terrifying. The third concert was TMBG at the Variety Playhouse and it was nothing but positive. 
The show was outstanding, I knew every word to every song, the audience was fun and seemed less stabbing-inclined than either of the previous shows, and I was there with my best friend at the time and fellow TMBG enthusiast, Dan. When the band came back for their encore they took requests. Not requests for their own songs, but requests for other people’s songs. Then John said something that has stayed with me to this day:
This is our last song. Because as we all know, no rock n’ roll show is complete without a rendition of ‘Frankenstein’ by The Edgar Winter Group!”
And they played this instrumental song that I had never heard before but that I love to this day simply because of that cover.
I bought my first concert t-shirt at that show. It was simple – the Apollo 18 album cover on the front and the tour dates on the back. I wore it until it literally fell apart – the only t-shirt I have ever done that with. It lasted me almost twenty years.
To this day Apollo 18 is my favorite TMBG album. My third tattoo was the cover:
The space capsule was too small to do at the size I got the tattoo. I really wish I had just gotten the whole thing a lot bigger like the guy recommended, but I got it as big as I could for the money I had. Stupid youth and impatience. Still, I love my Apollo 18 tattoo.
The band’s next album was John Henry, but before that came out there were approximately eight thousand singles from Apollo 18 for me to track down.
CD singles used to be a HUGE DEAL. In the early 90’s bands would release CDs with an average of three to six songs on them. Typically one song would be from the album, then a couple of remixes or alternate versions, then a previously unreleased song or two. There were also EPs that would consist entirely of unreleased material. Both of these formats saw a much more limited release than regular albums and typically only had one production run. They took a little bit of work to get your hands on. Not every store got every release and if they did you had to buy it before it was gone. I spent years going fucking crazy trying to find every release from Faith No More, nine inch nails, and They Might Be Giants. I had to have all the songs. Heck, there’s still an Anthrax EP missing from my collection - a German release called PEnikcufecin. There were even multiple singles of some songs that would have different accompanying songs. I think I have three different singles for TMBG’s “The Guitar”. I don’t mind at all, though, because I believe TMBG’s releases in this format were the best of anybody’s. One of my favorite songs of theirs – “Welcome to the Jungle” (which is not a cover) – comes from an Apollo 18 single.
I’m not going to get too deep into the next few TMBG album releases because all it would be is different ways of me saying awesome. John Henry, Factory Showroom, and Severe Tire Damage – TMBG’s first full live album – are all awesome. As a matter of fact, if I had to recommend one TMBG album to someone, it would be Severe Tire Damage. It serves as a greatest hits album of sorts, and They Might Be Giants are quite literally the greatest live band I have ever seen; and I have seen some great live bands. They play with their songs and with the audience in a way that no other band I have ever seen does. My favorite kind of live show is one in which the band mixes up their songs, improvises, plays covers, and banters. I’m not usually a fan of shows where the bands just play their songs exactly like the recorded versions. Why would I pay to see that? But seeing TMBG live is like seeing a variety show. Quite frankly they should charge double for their tickets because you are being entertained in a way that few bands are capable of providing.
I had the pleasure of seeing the band live many times over the next few years and every show was different and excellent. TMBG have a singular talent for working new material in with old favorites, but a lot of that probably has to do with the fact that all of their new music is as good as or better than all of their old music. This is another thing that many bands can’t manage.
Okay, it’s time to tell a story that I’ve never told. It’s embarrassing, but that’s never stopped me before.
TMBG were playing a show in Athens, GA:
I had a buddy named Dave that was as big a fan as I was. We loved TMBG and wanted very badly to meet them. So we concocted a scheme.
I was in a band at the time – The Irresponsibles. We were terrible, but our bassist was very, very good (and still is). He worked for Auburn’s college radio station, WEGL. He had told me and Dave about getting tickets to shows and meeting bands and all kinds of other great stories about working for the radio station. So naturally I called the Athens Theater and told them me and Dave worked at WEGL and would be in town for the TMBG show and wanted to interview the band. I can’t even imagine what the guy I talked to was thinking, but in retrospect I’m sure he knew I was full of shit. He told me to show up at the venue early and tell the guy at the door we were there for an interview. So we did. On the drive up to Athens we even wrote down a bunch of questions for John and John. I have no idea what we thought was going to happen or what we were going to do with this “interview”. We were just two dum-dums that really wanted to meet our favorite band.
We arrived at the venue and amazingly were allowed inside. Even more amazingly, somebody went and got John Flansburgh and he came and talked to us. He obviously came into the situation knowing we were full of shit, but I think he was curious to know what two lunatics were doing lying about working at WEGL. To his credit he was very nice in a subtly mocking way. He asked how Super Frank was doing. I didn’t know who the fuck Super Frank was (he was a director at the station) and said he was fine. There was a bit more verbal fencing where Flansburgh was clearly trying to out or lie, but not in a cruel way. He was having fun. The only actual interview question I remember asking was, “How much do you guys generally make for a show?” (yes – I seriously asked that) and he told me nothing – they got paid in beer.
At some point he must have stopped being entertained because he politely excused himself and told us to enjoy the show.
Me and Dave left and walked around Athens for a while after that. We knew that Flansburgh had known what was up and felt more than a little stupid and dishonest. The fact that we had lied to our favorite band far outweighed the excitement of meeting our favorite band. Even worse, we happened to walk by John and John as they were having dinner at one of Athens’ sidewalk cafes. We waved and moved on as quickly as we could without actually running. I can only imagine what Flansburgh said to Linnell after we were clear of the area.
So that happened.
The show was awesome, though. They did a version of “Exquisite Dead Guy” using only ventriloquist dummy heads mounted on mic stands:
They also did a bit where every member of the band pulled out a trombone and they all jammed:
The first TMBG album that I did not love was Mink Car. In a fact unrelated to my perception of the album’s quality it was released on September 11, 2001. I was managing a Wherehouse Music at the time. It was my day to open the store and the planes hit the World Trade Center before I left the apartment. My girlfriend didn’t want me to leave. She – like many people – thought it was the end of the world. I didn’t know what to think. All I knew was that I had a boss that hated me and if it wasn’t the end of the world I was still going to need a paycheck. So I went in to work.
It was an extremely weird day. It was New Release Day and the idiots that worked the night before hadn’t done their job so I had to put out all the new CDs. Except for the new live album from Dream Theater. It had an image of the Twin Towers on the front with a sacred heart. Corporate was worried that it could be interpreted the wrong way and I have to admit it was a good call. But my big concern was the new They Might Be Giants album, of which we received two copies. I bought one and listened to it on the way home. It just didn’t click for me and hasn’t to this day. The only songs I really loved were “Cyclops Rock” and “Another First Kiss”. Everything else just didn’t work for me. Mink Car feels like an album of B-sides; but not a good one like Miscellaneous T.
The next album was TMBG’s first foray into music specifically directed to children – NO!. It was the first album I bought when I found out I was going to be a father and I think it is a very good children’s album. But back in 2002 I wasn’t interested in a children’s album. Between that and my disappointment with Mink Car, I kind of took a break from They Might Be Giants. I was terribly hurt by the fact that I didn’t like Mink Car. I already had plenty of experience with losing interest in favorite artists due to stylistic changes – Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dance Hall Crashers, The Suicide Machines – but I really didn’t think I could bear to be disappointed in such a way by TMBG. So I stopped buying their albums and just kept listening to the ones I owned.
Side Note: Some of you may be wondering who the Suicide Machines are and why they would be mentioned alongside Metallica and the Chili Peppers. They were a ska/punk band that came out when that stuff was big. Their debut album – Destruction By Definition - was one of my favorites from the genre. They were right up there with Less Than Jake for their ability to rock. I listened to that thing a lot. But their second album was some kind of emo garbage. Completely different to the point where you wouldn’t even attribute the two albums to the same band if you didn’t know better. I was let down.
But I still “Liked” the band on Facebook once I gave up on MySpace and switched. It was through there that I saw the promo video for the album Join Us:

The video was neat, but that song haunted me. Even after only hearing it once I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was the classic TMBG formula of dark lyrics over poppy, fun music. I watched the video several times, but I still couldn’t bring myself to buy the album. As pop music has taught us – one great song does not a listenable album make.
At some point I signed up for the band’s e-mail list. I think it was when I decided that whether or not I was going to enjoy their post-2001 career I still wanted to see them live again. It was through that mailing list that I was made aware of the TMBG Holiday Gift Pack.
(I’m going to assume you clicked that link and read all about it)
It was too much. All of the goodies in that bargain-priced collection were indicative that TMBG were still the same strange, clever band that I had loved for that decade. The best indicator was, of course, the DVD. Filled with songs from the decade I skipped, it was so much fun to listen to and see new things that I had never experienced. And that damn song was on there, too – “When Will You Die”. I had to buy Join Us immediately.
It was great. There wasn’t a single track that I didn’t like. It wasn’t necessarily reminiscent of the band’s older stuff, but it was definitely the same style. This, of course, meant that I needed to start delving into the rest of the albums I had skipped. I downloaded Long Tall Weekend next. This was a digital-only album that came out in 1999 – before the Mink Car debacle, but also before I was any sort of internet savvy. I wasn’t even aware of that one until recently. It’s also good. I still need to get The Spine and The Else, but I don’t want to rush it. I want to savor each one of these existing releases on their own for a while rather than just getting everything and having too much at once. But so far it seems like Mink Car is an aberration.
Which brings me to Nanobots.

Nanobots is the new album. It came out a month or so ago and is excellent. The opening track is the equal of “When Will You Die” in terms or earworminess. It’s called “You’re On Fire” and I knew every word within a couple of times of listening. This is a miracle for me. I don’t learn songs anymore. I was never a big lyrics guy. I have to really focus and concentrate to learn lyrics. Actually, one of the hardest things I have ever had to do was memorize the words to Operation Ivy’s “The Crowd” so that The Irresponsibles could do a cover of it. I still think they did that just to torture me. But I know “You’re On Fire”. And I love it.
I love the whole album. It is very reminiscent of Apollo 18, my favorite of TMBG’s albums. I honestly couldn’t explain what I am basing that opinion on, but it’s how I felt after the first listen.
And now I am going to see the band live once again. They are playing two nights at the Variety Playhouse. I can’t go Saturday because I am working all weekend, but I am going Sunday night. Believe me – I’d go both nights if I could. As a matter of fact, as I write this I am still gauging how late They Might Be Giants might play versus exactly how tired I can bear to be at work. But I am off Monday and am going with a small crew Sunday night. I don’t think I can go without sleep for that long. Also, Sunday night the band will be playing Flood in its entirety. While that may not be my favorite album, it is the first one I heard. It’s the one with “We Want A Rock”. And for me, that’s where it all began. I can’t wait to see it live again.

1 comment:

  1. I know of TMBG because the Brothers Chaps of Homestar Runner made the video for the band's song "Experimental Film."

    Don't know much about them other than that, except that they did "Triangle Man" on Tiny Toon Adventures, the theme song to "Malcolm in the Middle," and, randomly, a song about the heart that used to play at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (I live in Pennsylvania.)

    I enjoy the comedic nature to the songs I've seen. "Experimental Film" is also one of my favorite songs. I love the way it makes fun of arthouse films and the people behind them. (And the fact that those people didn't seem to get that since the song was used for an experimental film competition series.)