It was a genuine stroke of pure bad timing which happened to see They Might Be Giants’ eighth studio album, Mink Car, released on September 11th 2001. Not only did that album understandably end up being overshadowed by the horrific events of that terrible day, but the future of the group ended up being thrown into jeopardy, as 9/11 led to the collapse of the record label with which they had signed.
Luckily, 2002 would see a reversal of fortune, as they would end up founding their own label, Idlewild Recordings, which was a commonly-used moniker of New York International airport before it was renamed in honour of John F. Kennedy after his assassination in November 1963. Their first release on Idlewild would see them venture into new territory, with a focus upon producing material intended for an entirely new audience: children.
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They Might Be Giants already had something of a crossover appeal with kids, as they had been name checked in 1991’s pilot episode of the Nickelodeon show Clarissa Explains It All, with lead actress Melissa Joan Hart coincidentally being a fan of the two Johns, Linnell and Flansburgh. The pair, who joined forces in 1982 to form the group, had also seen two of their tracks – ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ and ‘Particle Man’ – used in the animated show Tiny Toon Adventures.
Some of the pair’s songs had something of a whimsical or lightheartedly absurdist quality about them, with ‘Particle Man’ being a prime example of a piece of their work which held an appeal for younger audiences. In 1993, a group of schoolchildren gave a rendition of the song which ended up actually being included on compilations of TMBG’s work. It also came to the Johns’ attention that some of their longer-standing fans from their very early days, and had grown up with them, now had kids – or even grandkids – of their own.
In a 2002 interview, Flansburgh said: “We’ve actually been able to do this kid’s album and kind of expand our audience without alienating our core, alcoholic, swear word loving crowd.” The notion of their recording an album which was dedicated to school or kindergarten-age listeners happened not to be a new one, as it had been kicking around since the band’s earlier days. It became something of a pet project for them to work on between other work, predominantly the 18 months that they spent creating music for use in Fox’s sitcom Malcolm In The Middle.
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Some younger folk may have accidentally happened across TMBG’s work purely by accident, as their very first album – 1986’s self-titled They Might Be Giants – had an illustrated cover which had been specially drawn by artist Rodney Alan Greenblat. The nature of the artwork had led Tower Records to mistakenly place the album in the children’s section, and the band were at that stage determined to be protective of their image as not being seen as a kids’ act.
However, over time the idea of doing something which was aimed at pre-teens took hold, and culminated in what was to become No!, the first of five children’s albums to date, along with two illustrated books, Bed, Bed, Bed and Kids Go!, with the former having a CD of music, the latter a DVD. No! opens with the catchy track ‘Fibber Island’, which is a collection of jovial untruths and flights of fancy, which does not feel at all too far removed from their work for grown-ups.
Not all the tracks on No! are Linnell and Flansburgh originals, as one – ‘In The Middle, In The Middle, In The Middle’ – was actually an educational tune composed by Vic Mizzy, who is perhaps best known for his work on TV, including the theme to The Addams Family. Originally penned in the 1960s as a Public Service Announcement for the New York City Dept. of Transportation on how to cross the road safely, this cover is performed by Flansburgh’s wife, Robin Goldwasser.
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The other track not stemming from the two Johns is ‘Where Do They Make Balloons?’, which is written and performed by the group’s bassist, Danny Weinkauf, who has said that the inspiration came to him in a dream. All the remaining songs on No! were to come from Linnell and Flansburgh, although more than one in fact pre-dated the album, and were either adapted or re-used for the project, such as ‘Robot Parade, a tune first written as ‘Robot Design’, written for company The Chopping Block, who did Flash animated videos for most of the songs, which are on the enhanced CD, and are viewable on most PCs.
Another tune that came before No! is ‘The Edison Museum’, which goes back to 1991, and was first released on 1999’s ‘Long Tall Weekend’. Centred around the real-life exhibit based in New Jersey devoted to inventor Thomas Edison, a version was also captured on a wax cylinder recorder at the Museum itself. Chiefly one of the more educational-based entries on the album, there are also some songs which are included more for their pure entertainment value, like the interactive ‘Clap Your Hands’, which has come to be known as the ‘TMBG National Anthem’, having become a staple of their live shows.
While somewhat less cohesive compared to the later kids albums based around a specific theme – like Here Comes Science, Here Come The ABCs, and Here Come The 123s – No! is still a landmark release for They Might Be Giants, as it sets them on a path which would see them eventually win a Grammy in 2009 for Best Musical Album for Children. No! should definitely get a big, resounding ‘Yes!’ from parents – whether fans of the band or not – and their offspring, with this eclectic mix of edutainment pieces still as fresh today as they were on release two decades ago.