They Might Be Giants

Unknown UK magazine, 1990
by Mike Richmond

Leslie Halliwell's Film Guide describes the 1972 George C. Scott movie They Might Be Giants as a curious fantasy comedy which rather tentatively satirizes modern life and the need to retreat into unreality which is also an accurate description of the Brooklyn-based duo who trade under the same name. They have recently had chart success with their unique brand of musical idiosyncrasy and in the rock music land of giants, they're getting increasingly taller.

Two Johns make up They Might Be Giants, namely Flansburgh and Linnell. The former plays guitar, wears specs and sings, the latter plays accordion, sax and sings too. The rest is made up by a beat-box and a sampler but don't be fooled into pigeon-holing them alongside other modern duos such as Soft Cell or Tears For Fears. Live, they rock out with as much gusto as your average thrash band although their roots lie in New York, busking on the Brooklyn Promenade.


Flansburgh and Linnell actually knew each other as kids in Massachusetts, but a chance meeting, years later, led to their formation as a group. Flansburgh had written a play in 100 acts, each two lines long, while Linnell was a musician without a band. They soon started writing and recording their own material and planned to form a full band. Linnell took up playing the accordion, and with the lack of success in finding like-minded musicians they decided to remain as a two-piece and busk instead. They found that it was a success. Local bar dates followed, often performing two different sets in one evening. Songwriting had become much more prolific and when Linnell broke his wrist in a traffic accident, putting a hold on live activity. Flansburgh hit upon the idea of the now infamous Dial-A-Song service. It's been operating now for over six years and features a new They Might Be Giants song every day or two. It differs from other such services as it is a home number and therefore non-profit making. It now receives hundreds of calls a day and is increasing all the time. 0101-718-387-6962 is the number, but try to use someone else's phone as it's a cheaper way to call America!

With hundreds of songs stockpiled, it wasn't long before their first album was issued in America on the small Hoboken Bar None label. Their eponymous debut was later issued on vinyl by Rough Trade in Britain and more recently on CD. Don't Let's Start was issued as a 3" CD single in the States by Rough Trade but was only available as a 12" in the UK.

Their debut album was not an overnight success, but they slowly built up a loyal network of fans via the phone line. The turning point came when one of their videos was regularly shown on the American MTV station, no mean feat for a band with no major label backing. Their second album, Lincoln, knocked U2's The Joshua Tree off the top of the US College Radio chart and went on to become the biggest selling American Independent Album of 1989.

They signed to One Little Indian, who issued Lincoln, and more recently to the major Elektra. Cries of "Sell Out" have been answered by airplay problems in their native America. With so many different stations and regions most networks ignore anything on a small label, thus denying vital exposure. In Britain the problem wasn't so bad, bands now can achieve both high sales and media attention and still be signed to a small label.


Don't Let's Start, an excellent compilation album of B-sides and oddities, was issued by One Little Indian late last year at a low-budget price and was followed four months later by Flood, their Elektra debut.

Musically they defy crude definition. They cite The Ramones and music from the forties and fifties as major influences as well as songwriters such as Porter and Gershwin. Listening to them on record supports this variety in taste - a light-hearted waltz or polka could be followed by a 90-second high energy attack on the senses or a simple piano-based ballad. Certainly they believe in giving value for money, the average number of songs per album is about 18, which is reminiscent of The Ramones early albums, but you can never be sure of what's coming next. On their first album, the guitar solo on one track was phoned in by Eugene Chadbourne via North Carolina while Don't Let's Start includes a bizarre version of The Lady Is a Tramp. Flood has some fine moments with their opening Theme From Flood and Minimum Wage, a 44-second cowboy-style piece with whipcrack!


One misconception about the band was that "Birdhouse In Your Soul" was a pastiche of REM, Linnell and Michael Stipe both have a similar nasal whine, but that is where the similarity ends.

Lyrically, they are in a world of their own. Critics are divided into branding them "smartarse intellectuals" or "zany pranksters", likening them to a diverse range of artists and citing their often surreal subject matter. For instance, on Flood, reincarnation as a bag of groceries that was accidentally taken off the shelf before the expiration date, is used in Dead. Particle Man includes a fight with Triangle Man, who in turn fights with Person Man, who lives in a dustbin after being attacked by a frying pan!

My favourite line is from their own self-titled track on Flood; "They might be Dr. Spock's back-up band."

They might be a lot taller too.

SINGLE: Birdhouse In Your Soul
ALBUM: Flood