They Might Be Giants. Maybe the hardest working, most popular group you’ve only ever sort of heard of. With connections to Don Quixote and George C. Scott, they’ve been proudly doing their thing since 1982 and finding their way firmly into popular culture without you even realising.
Didn’t they do ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’ all the way back in 1990? Why, yes, they did. So, you know their #6 charting (in the UK) hit. But they’re not just one hit wonders. The theme to Malcolm In The Middle, ‘Boss Of Me’? They Might Be Giants, don’t you know. Remember the opening music to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Bob Mould’s ‘Dog On Fire’? That’s their version of the tune. How about the track ‘Dr. Evil’ from 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me? Them. They also wrote the theme to Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and had a piece (‘Other Father Song’) on the Coraline soundtrack.
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Plus, they’ve had tracks used in cartoon shows like Tiny Toon Adventures and The Simpsons, as well as their cover of ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ featured in a fight sequence from episode one of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy. So, yeah, you probably know them, without actually knowing it. Basically, you don’t get to do what you do for nearly four decades and not leave some kind of footprint on pop culture.
The core of TMBG consists of two Johns – Linnell and Flansburgh – who met when they were teens, growing up in Lincoln, Massachusetts (with the town actually ending up being used as the title of their second studio album). Although they did write songs together in high school, they didn’t form a band until they reunited in 1981, when they happened to move into the same apartment in Brooklyn on the same day.
Initially starting out as El Grupo De Rock and Roll, they soon took the name of the 1971 movie They Might Be Giants, which starred George C. Scott as a millionaire who retreats into a fantasy of believing he’s Sherlock Holmes after the death of his wife; the name of the film came from Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in the passage where the hero is famously tilting at windmills after he mistakes them for evil giants. In fact, They Might Be Giants had been used by a friend of the band for a ventriloquism act, but when he dropped it, they soon picked it up. I guess taking up the discarded TMBG name and making it their own speaks for itself, unlike the ventriloquist’s dummy.
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TMBG have always been an innovative group, and ahead of the curve in many ways. Soon after they formed the band, both Johns found themselves having to take an enforced break from playing live, due to injury and misfortune. In order to keep up their early momentum, they had the idea of setting up a service known as Dial-A-Machine (and later Dial-A-Song). Using Flansburgh’s home phone line, the duo would put recordings of songs on a standard answering machine, and then advertise the number on back covers and liner notes, as well as in the ‘personals’ section of New York’s Village Voice (as it was cheaper than posting a commercial advert).
Dial-A-Song was quite revolutionary for the 1980s, and it gave a rather intimate connection to the group, as people could leave messages and feedback. As it was a regular phone line, it also meant only one person could call up at a time, so it was a little bit like having your own personal performance by the group. It was used as a proving ground for works-in-progress and demo pieces, and fans could track the evolution of songs from Dial-A-Song to the finished album track. The service actually ran from 1983 to 2006, before returning in 2015 (with new songs every week for the whole year) and 2018, reviving the phone line and their dialasong.com website, as well as posting the songs with videos on their YouTube channel, ParticleMen.
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Nowadays, we take for granted services like iTunes and Spotify, but back in 1999, the age of internet music was still in its relative infancy. Like with Dial-A-Song, TMBG were pioneers in this area, with their seventh studio album – Long Tall Weekend – being the first album to be made available exclusively online by a major label band. Having expanded the lineup to include other members, John and John released Long Tall Weekend through eMusic, and TMBG became the most legally downloaded band of 1999 (a feat which they repeated in 2000), due in part to them being an early adopter of digital music formats.
Although not their strongest album – you have 22 to choose from, with everything from collections of Dial-A-Song tracks to a series of educational works for children, tackling literacy, numeracy and science – Long Tall Weekend is a fascinating snapshot of a band that’s still growing musically, with experimentation which has continued to this day. The two Johns manage to tackle the most unlikely of topics and make songs out of them, as well as producing works which seem to have an Edward Lear-esque nonsenical nature to them, yet are far more clever and subtle than they appear to be on the surface.
For longtime fans of TMBG’s live shows and body of Dial-A-Song work, many of the tracks on Long Tall Weekend would already be known to them; some would appear with different versions on other albums in their discography. What we get here is a prime example of TMBG in full flow, exploring different musical styles, being lyrically creative and inventive, and rocking an accordion in contemporary popular music like literally nobody else. 15 tracks may seem like a lot, but one of the joys of TMBG is that their songs never overstay their welcome – many of them here average between just two and three minutes, meaning they get in, do their thing, and get out again.
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The album gives us a smattering of pretty much their whole ethos and style, from a purely instrumental piece with ‘Drinkin’,’ to songs which reference real people and places, namely ‘The Edison Museum’ and ‘She Thinks She’s Edith Head,’ the former track having a vibe full of spookiness and antiquity. The Johns aren’t so precious about their craft as not to avoid doing covers of other artists’ tracks, and they manage to always put their own spin on them (just track down their stomping take on Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’ from back in 2011 as proof); here, they give us a gender-swapped and more uptempo version of the Lesley Gore tune ‘Maybe I Know,’ played in a different key which gives it a darker vibe.
‘Reprehensible’ shifts styles again, bringing to mind German cabaret or dance hall music of the 1920s which you don’t often get from modern musicians. There’s also a genuine banger on here with ‘Rat Patrol,’ and a take on Kentucky Bluegrass in the form of ‘Counterfeit Faker.’ One of their few self-referential forays comes in ‘They Got Lost,’ telling the tale of the band missing a radio appearance because they can’t find the way to the studio; it’s a far slower version than they do in their live shows, as well as on their album ‘Severe Tire Damage,’ and the more languid pace doesn’t suit the song, sadly.
John and John also present a gentle bit of cultural satire in ‘Operators Are Standing By.’ One of their most playful tracks on all of their releases comes with ‘Older,’ which seems deceptively simple, both in terms of lyrics and orchestration; however, it’s a clever tune which takes an uncomplicated idea and takes it to an obvious and catchy conclusion. ‘Certain People I Could Name’ begins with a vivid picture of Samurai, battlefields, and being drenched in blood, before going an entirely different way; it’s a classic bit of TMBG misdirection, with their patented brand of legerdemain.
It’s probably as good a place as any to start with TMBG’s back catalogue, partly due to the sheer variety and range on offer here, partly because of its noteworthiness in the history of online music. You might as well give Long Tall Weekend a try as you most likely already know some of their work via pop culture and media osmosis. They might be growing on you.