Giant Steps: A Peculiar Rock Duo Makes a Big Noise

New York, February 6, 1989
by Peg Tyre

On a bitterly cold Sunday night in December, about 2,000 young people are milling around a garishly decorated club called the Malibu, in Lido Beach. The occasion is the first birthday of WDRE, New York's biggest alternative radio station. Half of the kids are there to hear the kind of punk-rockers the radio station has always championed--people like the Ramones (who are skulking around backstage in black leather) and Lou Reed. The other half, though, seem to be here for two nerdy-looking guys called They Might Be Giants, just now taking the stage.

John Flansburgh, 28, who looks like a bit player in Leave It to Beaver, adjusts his guitar. John Linnell, a rail-thin 29-year-old with a long, wavy forelock, disappears momentarily behind his accordion. Looking more like bewildered graduate students than a successful rock band, they blast through three high-energy songs--catchy pop tunes matched with difficult, sometimes bitterly ironic lyrics. The first song, "Ana Ng," begins with the dissonant crash of three staccato chords and an almost military-sounding snare, produced by a drum machine. Linnell speeds through the lyrics, describing heartfelt longing for a woman on the other side of the Earth: "Make a hole with a gun perpendicular to the name of this town in a desk-top globe/Exit wound in a foreign nation showing the home of the one this was written for."

The girls with big hair and men in leather jackets are rooted to the dance floor, looking confused. But the Giants' fans are electric--jumping up and down in time to the music.

Linnell and Flansburgh play a dance number called "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head," swaying from side to side like overzealous Pips. They punctuate the beat by folding awkwardly from the waist, singing, "Put your hand inside, put your hand inside, put your hand inside the puppet h-e-e-ead."

The punks in the audience give in when the duo hits the opening bars of "Don't Let's Start," an MTV hit. Like "Ana Ng," "Let's Start" is almost impossibly catchy, full of melodic "hooks" that force the listener to go around singing them for weeks. Linnell grabs the microphone and stares at it like a mad professor scrutinizing a roiling test tube. He leans forward into the lights, blind to the fact that by now, almost everyone in the audience is mouthing the words along with him. His voice swoops as they all sing, "But don't let's start/I've got a weak heart/And I don't get around how you get around."

After the show, even Linnell and Flansburgh are curious about the crowd's reaction. "I can never gauge it from the stage," says Flansburgh, a revved-up talker who ends each sentence with a bright grin. "I always worry, 'Are they getting it?'"

"It's a new kind of crowd," says Linnell in a flat, professorial tone. "After spending years playing East Village performance spaces, it's hard for us to know who they are and why they come to see us."

In the past few years, a surprising kind of pop music has been grabbing attention. New artists such as Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Timbuk 3, and Michelle Shocked have dialed back the clock, delivering socially conscious, folk-tinged rock in an era of heavy-metal ballads and pop nymphets. And record companies have been shocked to find a large, eager audience for these raw and compelling sounds. Suddenly, there is a rush to sign up musicians once dismissed as overly complicated and uncommercial--like They Might Be Giants, who have just landed a seven-record contract from Elektra, Tracy Chapman's outfit.

But the group, though still a cult item, is not an unproven commodity. Their first album, done for a tiny independent label, sold 125,000 records, and their latest, Lincoln, displaced U2's Rattle and Hum as the most popular album on college campuses. Rolling Stone has raved about their work, comparing their songwriting to Elvis Costello's. Esquire awarded them a place in its 1988 Register for "intelligence, irony, and iconoclasm." And now They Might Be Giants are getting their reward for having to hawk their own tapes and play the little clubs--a release from underground.

In the MTV studio a few days before Christmas, Linnell and Flansburgh, in full television makeup, are waiting to do the station's alternative-music show, 120 Minutes. They discard the scripted comments about their band and decide to sing "120 Minutes Before We Die," which they have just written. The producer, who has a shaved head and thick eyeliner, looks peeved. Linnell and Flansburgh try to work out some last-minute harmonies while he plays a noisy game of pinball.

When the cameras blink on, Flansburgh, the more outgoing and image-conscious of the two, can't seem to get the song right. "That was too fast, sorry," he says, breaking in after a few bars. Undernourished-looking technicians in huge headsets fidget and signal for the intro music to start again. After a few bars, Flansburgh stops again. "I hit the wrong note," he says. A makeup woman blots the sweat from his brow. Linnell, who is most animated when he is performing, is a caricature of patience. He crosses his hands on his accordion and stares off into space, as if he is writing music in his head. "We are running behind schedule," says the producer tightly, "but don't worry about it."

Flansburgh and Linnell stop again to choreograph their second number. As the technicians exchange furtive glances, the Giants move each other around like chess pieces, trying to find the perfect angle.

Later, the technicians can't believe that the two musicians, who seem so spontaneous in performance, are so obsessive about the details of their act. "They think about every gesture," says one, rushing for the door. "It was torture."

"The Giants wrote their first songs together when they were in high school in Lincoln, Massachusetts, But they didn't get serious until 1981, when, after dropping out of college, they moved to New York and found apartments in the same building near Park Slope (they've since moved to Williamsburg). Flansburgh worked as a designer for Condé Nast, Linnell was a bike messenger, and by night they played in a succession of short-lived bands.

For their early performances as They Might Be Giants (the name is taken from Don Quixote and a George C. Scott movie of that name), Linnell played an electric organ while guitarist Flansburgh controlled a homemade drum tape. After a dozen showcase performances around SoHo, they gradually moved to small clubs and cafés in the East Village. "Our audiences in the East Village were very forgiving," says Linnell. "We weren't singing that well then."

Once Flansburgh and Linnell had written and arranged a song, they would record it at home and put the rough version on their answering machine. Giants fans could call what was known as Dial-A-Song, hear the latest tune, and leave their comments.

"You didn't have to buy an album," says Flansburgh. "You didn't have to go out to a club. You could just dial the phone and there it was."

Dial-A-Song became an underground hit--getting more than 100 calls a day. People were intrigued by songs with titles like "Rabid Child," "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," and "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes." Even more important, They Might Be Giants, like Randy Newman before them, created an odd match of easy-to-hum pop melodies and complex, often dark lyrics. In "Piece of Dirt" they sang, "A woman's voice on the radio can convince you you're in love/A woman's voice on the telephone can convince you you're alone." And in "They'll Need a Crane," about the end of a relationship, they cautioned, "They'll need a crane to take the house he built for her apart/To make it break it's going to take a metal ball hung from a chain/They'll need a crane, they'll need a crane/To pick the broken ruins up again/To mend her heart, to help him start to see a world apart from pain."

The group sent demo tapes to record companies but got no action, so they decided to put out an album themselves. About that time, Tom Prendergast, who owns two record stores in Hoboken, and his partner Glenn Morrow were starting a tiny independent record company, Bar/None.

"I was attracted to the songwriting right away," says Morrow. "Their music reminded me of a long line of pre-rock musicians, like Cole Porter, because of the intelligent sense of wordplay and inventive melody lines. As soon as Tom saw them perform, he agreed to put out their record."

While the first LP, called They Might Be Giants, was being recorded, Adam Bernstein, then a director at Nickelodeon, shot low-cost videos of "Puppet Head" and, later, "Don't Let's Start" (featuring props like huge papier-mâché hands and three-foot fezzes). When the MTV staff saw the video, they pounced. In January 1988, a year after the first album reached record stores, MTV put "Don't Let's Start" in strong rotation.

"The video convinced me that the Giants were the ultimate MTV band," says MTV executive Rick Krim. "They're very visual and very entertaining."

The album, which had been selling 1,000 copies a month, sold 50,000 copies in January. Says Jamie Kitman, the group's manager, "Record-company executives who six months before had deemed the record unlistenable suddenly wanted to talk."

In May 1988, the Giants finished recording their second album, Lincoln, named after their hometown. This time, Bar/None signed on with Enigma, the second-largest independent label in the country. The band celebrated the album's release with three more months on the road, expanding their audience again and pushing sales of Lincoln to around 100,000. And three weeks ago, Elektra signed the group.

They Might Be Giants are playing a rocking set to a sellout crowd at the Knitting Factory, a performance space on Houston Street. It is obvious tonight that the group's popularity has far outstripped the small club's limited capacity. The audience is tightly packed from wall to wall. It greets each song with a delirious shout.

"Use the stick," calls out a fan. And Flansburgh obliges, pulling out a seven-foot branch and persuading a young man from the audience to "play" it. The man, with a curly mane of hair and tight jeans tucked into calf-high suede boots, looks more like a rock star than either Flansburgh or Linnell. "This is our U2 tribute," deadpans Linnell.

With a few bars of practice, the young man, named Peter, pounds the stick on stage in time to a bluesy-bop number, "Lie Still, Little Bottle." He knows the song so well that he is able to pound out the tricky offbeats while crouching and, with a touch of jazz bravado, closing his eyes. At the end of the song, Peter extends the stick to the audience, which applauds this bit of rock parody. "We'll be opening for Peter and the Stick at the Meadowlands," says Linnell.

But amid the laughter, the Giants also manage to work in a few of their newer songs, which show an even more serious side.

"I've become more interested in writing songs that are direct," says Linnell. "Ambiguity has been a good friend, but I'm finding that it is actually harder to write a good straightforward lyric than an obscure one."

In the dim light of the small Knitting Factory stage, Linnell croons "I've Got a Match," a quiet song about the disastrous end of a love affair. "You think it's always sensitive and good/You think that I want to be understood/I've got a match/Your embrace and my collapse."

Later, after the crowd has filtered out, the Giants sit in the stark dressing room. Linnell, looking comatose, sprawls on a ratty couch and sips coffee. Flansburgh and Kitman chat with friends who filter in.

"The place is overcrowded, and they are still turning people away for the second show," says Flansburgh. "It's a turning point for us. We can't play clubs this small anymore." He takes a swig of beer and smiles. "It looks like we have reached critical mass."