They (definitely are) Giants

“Don’t call me at work again no, no the boss still hates me / I’m just tired and I don’t love you anymore / And there’s a restaurant we should check out / where the other nightmare people like to go/ I mean nice people, baby wait, / I didn’t mean to say nightmare” from “They’ll Need A Crane”
Lincoln, 1988

One band’s music spans three decades of my life (and threatens to last even longer). They Might Be Giants, the geek rock originals, have a strange staying power. Few bands put out music that is so readily recognizable. Despite this, I don’t actively listen to the band frequently or play the part of a fan to any great extreme. Most playlists I make include one TMBG track, but weeks can go by without the two Johns passing my thoughts.

Not your typical rock stars

TMBG—Johns Flansburgh and Linnell—are like friends who keep popping back into my life or relatives I genuinely like but never spend enough time with. Too much of my own musical awakening has their albums for soundtracks. So many of their songs call up strong memories—and always good ones. From simple memories like staying up late to catch their performances on Conan O’Brien to celebrating their success with the theme song for “Malcolm in the Middle” to the more specific moments below, I cannot deny them.

“She’s an Angel” (They Might be Giants, 1986)—I am in two places at once. In the auditorium at my high school where a friend has used this song as the backing track for the credits of his documentary (and I am floored by the contrast between verse and chorus). I am also in my room, listening to the song again and again as I moon over a girl (and I say ‘a’ because this scene could be (and was) recycled).

“Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (Flood, 1990)—I am at “geek camp” where the counselors have perversely organized a dance for adolescents who are beyond awkward. We are cynical enough to mock “Jump, Jump” by Kris Kross, too self-conscious to approach the opposite gender, only to be suddenly liberated into a strange frenzy of joy running in circles when this song comes on. Soon after, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes on. The scene suddenly and irrevocably changes.

TMBG function for many people (well, for a geeky set) as a gateway band from the safe rock of our parents, from show tunes, and from gag music. When I was young, my musical world was dominated by the narrow tastes of my parents and the church (with the exception of a brief flirtation with NKOTB). When my lack of coolness began to first dawn on me, I remember trying to fit in—by memorizing “U Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby”. It was Weird Al Yankovic cassettes copied from friends that I first wore out on my father’s Panasonic personal tape player (followed by, unsurprisingly, every Monty Python cassette). The first ‘rock’ album I wore out was Flood.

“Fingertips”—Apollo 18 (1992) I am at an after-party in a private school student basement after my band has played our first gig. I am talking to students, strangers,  from other schools. TMBG come up. Someone mentions how amusing “Fingertips” is (a track made up of samples or ideas of song ideas). One of us sings the first part of it; before I know it a group of 5-7 of us has sung through the entire song (all 20 segments). We start again.

Road Movie to Berlin” (Flood, 1992)—I am on a bus traversing Italy from Naples to Venice sitting next to an older girl who has been giving me seriously mixed signals during the entire tour. She is way too cool to like TMBG, I think, but something about the constant riding makes her think of this song. I sing it for her from beginning to end. We don’t kiss that day, but eventually we do. When we return to the states I learn to play the song on the guitar. I never end up singing it for her (the relationship ended quickly), but for a while, my band covered it.

What made TMBG attractive to me? The songs are fun, yes. Some seem corny (but are actually deeper than they appear). The subject matter (on the surface at least) isn’t all about sex, drugs and violence. The content of the songs is far from narcissistic—the ambiguity of the meaning allows one to provide his own meanings. The music, for someone who has yet to learn to love distortion and the basic three chords of rock songs, is challenging and entertaining. (Tubas?! Accordions?!) The harmonies can be wonderful. The style from track to track on each album can change suddenly.

Having two vocalists contributes to the variety. Both Flansburgh and Linnell are good vocalists (perhaps a bit nasally for most rock, my wife can pick out their crooning in a crowded room or when my headphones are on). Their voices blend extremely well and they create the types of close harmonies and alternations that rarely develop unless performers have extensive experience singing together. The quality of their voices is complementary, but still different. We used to play the game “Flansburgh/Linnell?”: select a random track from any album, whoever guesses the vocalist correctly the quickest wins.

“Alienation’s For the Rich”, They Might Be Giants (1988)—I am driving around a suburb of Boston in a 1970’s Chevy pick-up truck singing this song with the Historian. Something about the slow, stilted motion of the vehicle calls the song to mind. As we sing the lyrics “Well I ain’t feeling happy / about the state of things in my life / but I’m working to make it better/ with a six of Miller High Life…” we turn into a Cappy’s to pick up the aforementioned beverage. I am still not sure if the song is mocking country music; I drank the champagne of beers for several years after.

“Snailshell”,  John Henry (1994)—I am in geometry class. My best friend went to see TMBG the night before (I wasn’t allowed to go). The new album was over a year from its release but the band was trying out new songs all the time. The Lead Singer (as I will refer to him from now on) tried to repeat the new song “Snailshell” for me from beginning to end (including the break-down and guitar solo). It was pretty close.

It wasn’t just the music that made TMBG attractive. For outsiders, denizens of theaters, choruses and bandrooms, there was something about the band that was appealing and through this appeal created a sense of community. Older friends, people from other schools, co-workers helped to create this community—wherever I went I found TMBG fans. It was probably something about me and the people I sought out or attracted, but it was comforting.

“New York City” (Factory Showroom, 1996)—I am in a large passenger van moving in slow traffic past Co-Op City. The Lead Signer is wrangling with the tape player as we come into sight of the large spires of NYC. The driver yells at him and eventually shuts the music off—but, for a minute or so, all of us in the van hear the highlights of the city many of us are to see for the first time from Flansburgh and Linnell. A few years later (this time in the Buick LeSabre) I would be mocked by different friends for trying the same trick (and denying that it was fore-planned).

“Lie Still, Little Bottle” (Lincoln, 1988)—I have taken my girlfriend (my future wife) to see TMBG in Boston. She was wide-eyed in reaction to the crowd from the beginning (this was only the poor cloistered girl’s second live show) and the opening band (an a capella group named Double Dong which sang about the “Nine Holy Orifices” ) was off-putting. She raised her eyebrows at the puppet heads singing “Exquisite Dead-Guy”; she is even more unsure when Flansburgh breaks out the rhythm stick for this memorable track. I am smiling; she smiles. The rhythm stick thumps.

It wasn’t just the sense of community that made TMBG attractive, for my best friend (The Lead Singer) and me the story of the band was inspiring. Here were two best friends from Lincoln, MA who made music together in high school and eventually ended up in a successful band in New York City. Their story told us we didn’t need to worry about bassists and drummers, that we didn’t need to worry about how cool we were or weren’t, that all we needed to do was write memorable songs with clever lyrics and good harmonies. (Of course, we always debated which one of us was Flansburgh to the other’s Linnell. It was clear that I, the flabbier one and the guitarist, was destined to be the less-cool Flansburgh.)

“Don’t Let’s Start” (They Might Be Giants, 1986)—I am in three places now. At a friend’s house watching TMBG videos on VHS (yes, before YouTube if you wanted to watch videos that weren’t in rotation you had to either purchase them or record them from live TV), where, even in my memory the Johns look so young. Then, I am in the small shed studio of my guitar teacher learning to play this song. Finally, I am on stage in front of my high school playing a song we love but that none of them know.

“Bangs” (Mink Car, 2001)—I am walking down the streets of Manhattan (I now live in Queens) listening to Mink Car on an old CD player with the headphones snaked through my clothes and under my winter hat (the crosswinds in winter can be pretty strong in the city). “Bangs” strikes me as simultaneously witty, poignant, innocent and beautiful. My own cynicism strikes me even more. I get teary-eyed. I tell myself it is the wind.

I have seen TMBG play only four or five times (for a real fan, this is nothing). While I find much of my life to be interspersed with their songs (and I imagine this continuing—their music for children is far better than a lot of the crap available), I never quite commit to pushing the band on others, buying merchandise or even expressing my love. And this is why they are like my family. I don’t know if I ever really ‘chose’ TMBG, they just sort of became part of my life. I never appreciate them enough but I would feel the severe absence if they were gone.

And you, Brother? I know you probably find TMBG incredibly dorky and annoying, but, if you strip away your sense of coolness, are there any songs you actually like? Are there any bands that do for you what TMBG has done for me?

35 comments on “They (definitely are) Giants

  1. professormortis says:

    I will always be grateful that you got me to really listen to these guys. Obviously for someone who went to high school and college in the 90s with geeky friends I’d heard them many times, just never really listened. I even knew their cover of “New York City” I knew, but didn’t know it was them, and just associated it with a trip I made to NYC the year it came out, with The One That Got Away (we stayed on Staten Island, with her sister, you see). In any case, thank you for bringing back the memory of driving around in that truck, blasting “Alienation’s For the Rich”. Great times. I also recall singing “Kiss Me, Song of God” way, way too much.

    Strangely, another thing I associate the Johns with is Conan O’Brien, since I saw two tapings and both times happened to be when at least one of them was there.

    I always associated “Lucky Ball and Chain” with driving around Hartford in my brief period working there, being depressed that I was in a job I hated, living back in my parents house, stuck in CT, with few friends and zero romantic prospects; things were so bad that I was wondering if breaking things off with the Little Mad Woman was really a smart move.

    • theelderj says:

      “I built a little shelter out of some crazy garbage called the blood of the exploited working class. Now they’re overcoming their shyness and they’re calling me your highness and the world screams ‘Kiss Me, Son of God’

      That was always one I was reluctant to play too loud at home for fear of hearing complaints about sacrilege. But, a good melody and a good lyric make a great song.

      Did we see TMBG at a taping of Conan together? Wasn’t that when the Indian freaked out because we couldn’t sit in the line and later you repeated re the Olive Garden “When You’re here, you’re family”?

      • professormortis says:

        This is the advantage of being the youngest-my siblings had already worn down my parents with their music, so by the time I was on the scene I had nothing to worry about.

        That’s the right time-I’d totally forgotten about ‘Hey, when you’re Here, you’re Family.” It was also when I went up to see you guys during my grad school crisis and I think it was the Friday/weekend before 9/11.

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  7. […] brief rise of geek rock was nearly ideal for They Might Be Giants. Their 1994 release John Henry seemed to anticipate the themes and atmosphere of the times better […]

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  28. […] brief rise of geek rock was nearly ideal for They Might Be Giants. Their 1994 release John Henry seemed to anticipate the themes and atmosphere of the times better […]

  29. […] most of the songs I end up liking (think of selections from They Might Be Giants and the Pixies), the lyrics on these three songs refuse disambiguation. But, unlike some of the […]

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