It's May 16. We're in New York City. And the Great And Special World Of Showbiz has just lost Sammy Davis Jr, Hollywood hellraiser, one-time dodgy Nixon-supporter and glass-eyed song 'n' dance supremo.
"His star shone bright to the very end," Channel Nine News informs us, "Sammy Davis Jr. was a giant among giants."
He had to be. Hollywood is filled with giants. America is all about being gigantic, getting gigantic. Big, huge, massive giants from tiny midgets grow. This I know, because I have watched a lot of television in my life. However, none of that television prepared me for what America is really like. On TV, New York looks big. In reality, it's actually a whole lot bigger. Flicking through the excessive amount of television channels is a quick and easy way to tune in to American culture.
"Still crispy! Chips that just won't quit! . . . it now takes almost eight years between conviction and execution . . . Kurt Krueger, our cardio-vascular technologist has picked St. Jude Medical, a manufacturer of heart valves which has a monopoly on the heart value market . . . and we'll examine that possibility right after these words . . ."
I'm trying to keep my jet lagged body awake for Late Night With David Letterman, whose musical guest this evening happens to be the very pop duo I'm here to look up: They Might Be Giants.
Already three albums into a promising career, the Giants are still considered 'alternative' out in the States; a 'college radio band'. Meanwhile, back in the UK, they have chalked up a surprise Top Three hit, with 'Birdhouse In Your Soul', and in doing so fooled everyone.
Whistlin' Dave Letterman packs off movie actress Blair Brown, does a routine from his desktop about going into his video store and asking for "that turtle movie" to piss them off, and: after these messages: he spoons a very low-key intro into his musical guests, two unassuming college boys in plaid shirts and at least one pair of glasses. John Linnell and John Flansburgh (for it is They) launch into a jerky rendition of a song called 'Your Racist Friend' with Letterman's in-house back-up band. It's garageland Paul Simon; it's Bonzo Dog House; it's Sonic Youth at the fair; it's gently bonkers, insidiously frightening, cleverly dumb, and very small.
That's the way with They Might Be Giants. Each of their songs is a mere fraction of what they're about. No one track represents them in any serviceable way. Their current, and third album Flood contains 19 songs: and not even the most fanatical TMBG fan likes all 19!
While piecing together their Sammy Davis tribute, Channel Nine News probably took 30 seconds deliberating over which of his songs (from 60 years in the biz) most definitively sums him up. When They Might Be Giants die, TV researchers everywhere will explode. It's 25 songs or nothing: and that's the defiance of Giants.
TALKING OF giants: who is this immense pseudo American in the baseball cap, chewing a match, moving through the crowd towards us in the foyer of Broadway's vast and ornate Beacon Theatre? It's Jonathan King! Mr Entertainment USA! Erstwhile music mogul and the only Sun columnist whose contract decrees that he shall not be sub-edited.
"Ah: the NME!" he beams, "you're the only people who wrote about They Might Be Giants before I did."
Jonathon believes that he 'broke' They Might Be Giants by featuring them in his Sun column when 'Birdhouse' was fluttering around 75 in the charts. He is very gratified by their current success: *self*-gratified. Even someone paid to be Jonathon King's friend would have trouble denying that the man is very pleased with himself. He has already contacted Elektra (TMBG's record label) and advised them in which order to release the band's next four singles to maximise their chart run, and is slightly perturbed that they have already ignored him by following 'Birdhouse' with 'Istanbul (Not Constantinople)': his least fave track on Flood.
The Giants have been touring Europe and the States constantly since Jon mate 'discovered them', and tonight's show is as close to a homecoming parade as they'll get. The Beacon is packed with plaid-shirted boys and hundreds of screaming girls. Not surprisingly, very few of them have forked out the $25 for a psychedelic TMBG fez, but XL T-shirts bearing the legend 'Brooklyn's Ambassadors of Love' are prevalent right across the theatre's 3,000 capacity.
About a year ago, when the head-turning 'Lincoln' LP emerged (on One Little Indian) the British public didn't have any preconceptions about the band. Now that they've signed to Elektra, they've had their ugly mugs on TOTP and half the nation's got them pinned as a gimmicky nerdhouse cabaret act; artwankers in the area; Afraid To Rock but Quite Content To Fiddle About With A Euphonium And Watch Star Trek. Being a duo, they offend strum-and-drum band purists; being songwriters with no ear cocked to the latest trends, they upset the tasteful; and being ordinary-looking, they will not survive Style Trial. But, to experience TMBG live: especially in a 3,000 seater: is to blow your mental barriers sky-high.
There are only two of them onstage. No session support, no dancing girls, no panto scenery, no dry ice: just five enlarged postage stamps and a metronome. For 'Whistling In The Dark', John L hugs an accordion and John F bangs a big bass drum. It is not a minimalist 'statement', it is a brilliant, effective, bold arrangement of a song that's so simple it requires no frilly stuff to make it work. It is a typical stroke of deep scary nonsense: Edward Lear meets Freud. And, as I said, if you don't dig it: who cares?: there'll be another one along in a minute.
Songs old and new are dropped one after another into the writhing, open-mouthed congregation of fast-fed New (York) Kids at John and John's feet. Plying their craft, offbeat love-and-therapy songs to a bunch of 200 students is one thing; infiltrating the vacuum of squeaky-clean teenypop universe is another one altogether.
Despite the occasional thinking rap record and an injection of Euro talent (Sinead, Stansfield etc), the Billboard chart is still clogged indefinitely with Michael Bolton, Heart, Bonnie Raitt and their unchallenging ilk. The US pop mainstream needs an enema; a jolt from within: and They Might Be Giants might be the ones to provide it.
"GOD BLESS Cheers!" rasps the driver who's taking myself and Tim Jarvis over the East River into Brooklyn. "If it wasn't for Cheers, you wouldn't know how to speak English!"
We have just impressed him by referring to the vehicle's boot as a "trunk". We've obviously been in America too long. Two days.
It's so misty in New York today that the skyscrapers actually fade into the grey heavens. Steam is closing in on us from above and below, billowing out of manholes and cracks in the road on our way to They Might Be Giants' backyard. People live and (and die) in Brooklyn. You can touch the ceiling there, you can get a parking space, you can walk 30 yards without being forced to eat.
John Flansburgh meets us at his front door from behind an armful of groceries. He is the one that looks like MC Search from 3rd Bass. John Linnell is the one that looks like John Cale.
John pours me a Heineken in his kitchen. He apologises for serving us a familiar beer, but his local deli is clean out of Shaffer, which he describes as "the real scum-f---er New England Dac-with-both-eyes-in-one-socket kind of beer: watching football, getting ploughed. It's kind of hard to find. They used to have a great jingle in the '60s: 'Shaffer / Is the / One beer to have / When you're having more than one'!"
We stroll along to the converted funeral parlour that is John Linnell's house. Within minutes we have cycled (yes: Linnell just happened to have four bikes with which to test the mettle of the NME) down to the authentic Brando-style waterfront, a derelict wasteland from which ferries used to operate, shipping folk over the river to East 14th Street in Manhattan.
The service has long since conked out, leaving a rotting stump, an automobiles' graveyard, and, well, a gift of a video location. With the rather dangerous Williamsburg Bridge in the background ("I had a bike stolen out from under me riding across there!" recalls Linnell), the boys pose for what they call their "Echo And The Bunnymen shots" and I think back to They Might Be Giants' very first video: 'Puppet Head': shot here by long-standing visual collaborator Adam Bernstein in 1986.
The day somebody puts out a compilation of TMBG's videos, if you have even the vaguest interest in the future of creativity in this impotent field, then you should get a copy. These promos are the most innovative, personal and entertaining since Madness. In them, you will see John and John being mad. Stomping around various industrial locales, indulging in hilarious semaphoric dance steps, acting up, falling down, and being court jesters to that ol' Devil MTV.
"We really get to collaborate with Adam," enthuses Flansburgh, "make sure there are no naked ladies in the video! That's a good thing to clear up."
Pretty soon we are seated, saddle-sore, in a nearby Italian restaurant, and the Johns are describing the worst places they've ever lived in NY.
"There were 12 brownstones in a row," Linnell nostalges, "and three out of 12 were burned out so that you could look in the window and see the sky."
"Kinda like Beirut!" Flansburgh adds. "I lived on the top floor and there was an eight foot gap in the ceiling, and in the wintertime there'd be snow in our living room."
If you want to be an artist you've got to suffer.
"I don't know. It really pissed me off!"
We order. The Johns say "Can I get . . . ?" instead of "I would like . . ." and we start to talk about language barriers. Isn't the Giants' wordier material rather wasted in foreign countries?
"It's one of those things we've never quite gotten to the bottom of," muses Linnell. "In Germany for example, where English is their second language, they tend to be analytical. When they listen to our words they pick them apart."
"Whereas English audiences tend to give up," continues Flansburgh, tucking into what he calls "an industrial salad". "It's like when we listen to a Squeeze record or an Elvis Costello record. I don't know if you're aware of it, because coloquial expressions are so much a part of the way people write rock songs, but those records are completely packed with English things. Like 'Up The Junction' is relentlessly English. I shared my first flat in Brooklyn with an English person and he used to howl at those records. "I never thought it would happen with me and a girl from Clapham."
As a touring unit, TMBG travel light So is there a threat of session musicians creeping in now that you're becoming successful?
Linnell: "After the first year we played together ('84) we pretty much decided that this is the format we work best with."
Flansburgh: "There are a lot of things you can't do with it. Y'know: we have a taped rhythm section, it's like we've got Paul and Ringo in the can! They're definitely not going to be doing any free jazz improvisation in the middle: but that's not such a bad thing. It's nice to have that un-drunk drummer!"
I was impressed with how well you filled such a cavernous space at the Beacon last night.
"That's because of the pact we made with the Devil," grins Flansburgh. "If it seemed like it wasn't working I guess we'd think more about changing it. It has its own unique set of weird problems."
Linnell: "Like we have those giant stamps to carry around."
Flansburgh: "Those damn stamps! If we had a drummer we wouldn't need the stamps. But it's true, we've doubled our crew size since last year."
How did you manage that?
"We just got two more people."
ON A more fundamental level, TMBG haven't changed much over three albums and five years. There's always been that pop-sensibility, a vaudeville larger-than-lifeness, and a playful appliance of any instrument they can lay their hands on. And the songs have always been short. But we must face facts: 'Birdhouse' wasn't a special TMBG single. It was merely luck, circumstance, the moon cycle and all those Elektra radio pluggers that got it where it is today: but that doesn't alter the fact that TMBG are now a different kettle of fish in the eyes of the world. They are famous.
'Istanbul' is, to all intents and purposes, their 'difficult' second single, even though it isn't. Up to now, the Johns have been cosily coasting along in the slipstream, playing to themselves and a few mates. Overnight they find themselves in at the deep end, with expectation tied to one leg, and corporate pressure tied to the other. How does it feel?
"To a certain extent, this is not where our ambitions lie," confesses Flansburgh, "but you can't help feeling thrilled by it. You hope for success, but at the same time, I really wouldn't wanna trade places with whoever was at Number Two. We wouldn't exchange our song with the Jive Bunny song, just for the sake of having a hit. Having a hit as an end in itself is an incredibly shallow thing.
"The whole thing about this is that it's a very temporary situation. If you look at a chart from ten years ago there are very few people who are still around now, and if they are, they tend to be nightmare megalomaniacs like Diana Ross. The real survivors are the creepiest ones of all.
"This is not the place we were destined to be! I wonder if it'll backfire on us. I wonder if people will perceive us as Haircut 100 Part Two! That would really be like a personal tragedy for us!"
'Istanbul' ought to keep everybody happy: band, record company, fans, and floating-voter pop kids alike. Again, it's clever rubbish, a nasal junkshop cover of that famous old chestnut about the changing name of the capital of Turkey. It was first recorded by full Canadian vocal group The Four Lads in the '50s, but it's thought that the original song dates back much further.
"It's a real simple song, because it's only two chords and it's fun to do because we get a chance to yodel. Not every song grants you the opportunity to yodel."
"And we've never recorded a cover before," lies Flansburgh. (On last year's compilation, 'Don't Let's Start', you'll hear Rogers & Hart's 'Lady Is A Tramp', most notable for its truly wild drum machine solo. They Might Be Giants should do more covers.)
"Why they changed it I can't say / People just liked it better that way" (Istanbul)
"It seems like the point of the song is don't make waves, don't think about it! A very weird message. It's a very negative song. That line "It's nobody's business but the Turks" is funny, because obviously there are a lot of Greeks who feel it's *their* business too: because they're the ones who had the city taken away from them by the Turks!" (which happened in 1453, Nationalistic Grudge fans).
"It's like a foreign policy song!" chirps Flansburgh.
It's a born hit, it sounds fine as a 12" dance mix, but, alas, it will do nothing to assist They Might Be Giants in the NME Afraid To Rock witch-hunt.
John Linnell and John Flansburgh: are you Afraid To Rock?
No! cries Flansburgh, "we're happy to rock! We will rock you all night long! We'll rock you dead!" "You've seen our show," apologises Linnell, "we don't rock any more than we did last night. If you don't consider that rocking . . ." "If rocking means having a tattoo on your face and being a sexist pig than we're definitely Afraid To Rock! But there are a lot of shades of rock, I think."
Touchè. Only terminal ATR cases think rock comes in different shades!
Where do you fit into Pop's Great Map?
Linnell: "We're on Might Be Island."
Flansburgh: "We don't wanna be derivative or a tribute band."
Linnell: "Having said that, we wanted to be The Beatles all our lives: but obviously that's out."
Flansburgh: "The Beatles are taken!"
Linnell: "We're doing as well as we can in the circumstances!"
Flansburgh: "I fully anticipate the huge British backlash a year and a half from now."
"Or next week," mumbles Linnell.
"This is it, man! This is the backlash piece," I joke.
Flansburgh imagines the stitch-up: "Their table manners were horrifying! But what can you expect from the appalling ingrates from Brooklyn?"
"I'm way less interested in me and John than other people are at this point," reveals Linnell, picking up the "check".
"We're really doing badly in the personal enigma category," signs Flansburgh.
You're just professional ordinary guys.
"Ah! We're putting on a show for you now," Linnell claims. "We're really way the hell more eccentric when we're in private."
ENOUGH TALL stories. Let's get this straight: They Might Be Giants are growing: ten feet high and rising. Meanwhile, John Flansburgh and John Linnell are staying the same as they ever were. Today they are ordinary: tomorrow they may be extraordinary, which is fine, since size isn't important.
In the case of this plaid-insane double act, less is definitely more. Cycling gently down a side street, Brooklyn, rather than tear-assing up Hollywood Boulevard on coke-powered choppers, They Might Be Giants know that small is beautiful.
Before we make our last exit from Brooklyn, I let the conversation drift back to Sammy Davis Jr. since that's where we came in (and Sammy went out).
"His politics were a real nightmare," frowns Flansburgh, "but he was a triple threat performer. People forget that in the '60s he was a Republican, pro-war, pro-Nixon kinda guy, a pretty frightening fellow. If he wants to attach his persona to all these horrible political causes then I have a hard time embracing the entertainer."
Mr. Entertainment is dead. Long live Mr. Entertainment.