They Might Be Giants
Many bands find entire career defined by a single song or pigeonholed by a single style and are unable to shake it. Being called a quirky, novelty band should have been enough to stop a career in its tracks, but They Might Be Giants have defied the odds. As writers of clever, literate songs, John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been described as the "older brothers" of a new generation of geeky rock bands like Ben Folds Five, Barenaked Ladies and Weezer who managed to find the right balance between quirk and intelligence. Even the "quirky" accusation is one the band try to put a positive spin on. "I don't think we're nearly as silly as our toughest critics might think," says John Flansburgh, "but I can sympathise with them because we are a wilfully complicated band." These days, They Might Be Giants might be best known for the theme music they have provided for Malcolm In The Middle and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. But during their 20-year career as Brooklyn's self-proclaimed Ambassadors of Love, the band have flirted with fame and commercial success before returning to their underground roots and their legion of faithful fans.
After meeting at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in Massachusetts in the ‘70s, John Flansburgh and John Linnell move into the same apartment building in New York. They start to record together and make their live debut in Central Park. In an interview, Linnell claims the show, where the duo played performed as El Groupo de Rock and Roll, took place on January 23 with 23 people attending. The band played 23 songs, they were paid 23 dollars, and Linnell was 23 at the time. The Johns had recorded some experimental tape projects during their high school days and Linnell was a member of the Mundanes and the Baggs during his college years while Flansburgh was in the Blackouts, but it wasn't until the move to New York that They Might Be Giants are born. The band's name was taken from a 1971 George C. Scott movie, where a deluded man believes he is Sherlock Holmes.
After a couple of years of touring, the Johns face an involuntary hiatus when Flansburgh's apartment is broken into and all his equipment is stolen, and Linnell falls off his bike while working as a messenger and breaks his wrist. They continue to record but need a new method of distribution because they can't play live, so they come up Dial-A-Song. By dialling 718-387-6962, callers could hear a new song every day on Flansburgh's answering machine. Not only does it get them exposure (more than 100 calls a day at one point), it would later lead to their first record deal. "It had more to do with what we could afford to do than what we wanted to do," Flansburgh says now. "It didn't requite much more than buying the answering machine to start it up and that made it very appealing." In the early days, callers can leave a message, providing much fodder for recordings. On the She Was A Hotel Detective EP, one caller discusses at length the mystery of They Might Be Giants. The service still exists, both by telephone and as a website, and is still as popular as ever — expect to hear the busy signal. "We kept going after the first couple of years because we didn't want anyone to think we were just chickening out, but over the years it's made us fearless about giving our music away."
The band's first release is a one-sided, two-song flexidisc called The Wiggle Diskette. They distribute it by attaching it to telephone poles and street signs around Manhattan. It is quickly followed by their 23-song demo tape. Most of these songs end up appearing on the band's first two albums in a different form, but the band's unique combination of guitar, accordion and drum machine is very much on display. Their live shows continued to draw an enthusiastic audience. At one show in Milwaukee, the Johns invite a sluggish audience to get up and dance with them during "The Famous Polka"; the crowd, standing on a covered orchestra pit, is too much and it collapses but no one is seriously injured.
1986 to 1987
After signing to New Jersey's Bar None Records, the Johns release their self-titled debut, called The Pink Album by fans for its cartoony cover art with the two Johns riding along the Toddler Hiway, as described in the song of the same name. While gaining a cult following in North America, the album is warmly embraced in Europe, where they become a popular live act. Nearly a year later, U.S. college stations notice "Don't Let's Start," a song the band themselves don't think is anything special. "We're a pretty un-neurotic band, but one place where we have a real blind spot is trying to figure out the relative merits of songs. For the first six months, we had no real idea that ‘Don't Let's Start' was any more viable than anything else — then it took off." "Don't Let's Start" becomes a hit on VH1, and works its way up the UK Indie Charts. It remains one of the band's most requested songs, although they don't play it frequently anymore.
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