Rock's Absurdist Duo Stake Their Claim with Lincoln

Rolling Stone, January 12, 1989
by Ira Robbins

John Flansburgh, the guitar-playing half of They Might Be Giants, the world's foremost absurdist rock band, has just read Rolling Stone's Comedy Issue. "They keep saying comedians are the rock & roll stars of the Eighties," he says. "But I think rock stars are the comedians of the Eighties."

Flansburgh, 28, and his partner, accordionist John Linnell, 29, have made their contribution to the decade by infusing sophisticated humor into eclectic pop music. The Giants' unique blend of the Beatles, Lewis Carroll, Elvis Costello, and Spike Jones begins with fine crafted melodies - both write and sing in a broad range of idioms and styles - but invariably adds lyrics that wander into a topsy-turvy land.

"Our songs are hard to explain," says Flansburgh, "but when they work, they're easy to understand." Linnell puts it differently: "The most desirable thing is to be completely explicit about what you're doing and still have it be something that can't be encapsulated."

Puns, satire and delightful dada wordplay made all the songs on their 1986 debut album, including "I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die" and "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," as intellectually amusing as they are instantly hummable. Lincoln, released this past October, expands the catalog with eighteen new creations addressing Sixties historical revisionism ("Purple Toupee") and romantic failure ("They'll Need a Crane") with equal aplomb. "Snowball in Hell" uses dialogue from a hopelessly dated instructional tape for salesmen.

The two Johns grew up in Lincoln, Massachusetts, but parted company after high school - Flansburgh to study art; Linnell to pursue music. Several years later, in a remarkable coincidence, they both moved to Brooklyn, New York - to the same apartment building, on the same day. They joined a neighbor's band; when he left town, they borrowed a line from Cervantes, by way of an obscure George C. Scott movie, and became They Might Be Giants.

Although they take their work seriously, the duo have no career plans other than pleasing themselves. "If you do interesting work, people will be interested," Linnell says.