Last week, Rosie and I roadtripped down to California. As is a necessity with any long car ride, you have to have a great roadtrip playlist. Since I updated my iPhone to iOS7, the shuffle function is wonky when I connect it to my car’s stereo system. Songs were playing by artist in clusters, and “Particle Man” came on. And “Whistling in the Dark.” And “Minimum Wage.” And “Istanbul – Not Constantinople.”
Even though I got my tonsils removed two weeks prior, it is practically impossible for me to listen to TMBG without singing along. So on this trip, I croaked a little and mostly danced on my seat. I looked across the car to my 13 year old daughter, who knew every word to the songs. She reminded me so much of myself at her age when I started listening to TMBG.
My first introduction to They Might Be Giants was in the fall of 1992. I was in a church production of “Hello Dolly” with my mom. Most of the rehearsals, my mom and I rode together. But when it was just the teens rehearsing, I usually got a ride with my neighbor Danny. I thought Danny was soooo cool. He was cute and mysterious and wore Converse All-Stars and t-shirts for bands I’d never heard of. My favorite part of these car rides was listening to these bands that I never heard of, or never played on the top 40 radio station.
One night we were coming home from rehearsal, and he turned on TMBG’s “Apollo 18” album. From the moment that “the statue got me high,” I was immediately in love. I wanted to listen to the whole album that night, and he let me borrow it. I asked Danny which other albums the band had released, and he said “You have to get Flood.” So I walked to Fred Meyer the next day and bought both albums.
It’s crazy to think that it was over twenty years ago from that experience, because TMBG had already been around for a decade. John Flansburgh and John Linnell formed TMBG in 1982. Flansburgh (guitar, black plastic glasses) and Linnell (accordion, keyboards) met as teenagers in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and began writing songs together in high school. They attended different colleges, then later moved into the same apartment building in Brooklyn after college.
The first time that they performed, they went by the name El Grupo De Rock and Roll, and most of the audience members spoke Spanish. They quickly ditched that band name, and switched to a name based on a passage of the book Don Quixote. Quixote thinks that the windmills look like evil giants. A friend’s ventriloquism act went by the name for a while, and Flansburgh and Linnell adopted it when they were looking for a band name.
After a bike accident that kept John F from performing, and John L’s apartment was burgled, they took a hiatus from performing. They began recording their songs onto an answering machine, and advertised “Dial-a-Song” in the Village Voice newspaper. People called in to listen to their songs, and it eventually led to a record deal. Flood is TMBG’s third studio album, preceded by the self-titled album “They Might Be Giants” in 1986 and “Lincoln” in 1988. Although the mixing process was analog, Flood was the first TMBG album to be digitally recorded.
The track list for Flood is as follows:
- Theme from Flood
- Birdhouse in Your Soul
- Lucky Ball and Chain
- Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
- Your Racist Friend
- Particle Man
- We Want a Rock
- Someone Keeps Moving My Chair
- Hearing Aid
- Minimum Wage
- Whistling in the Dark
- Hot Cha
- Women & Men
- Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love
- They Might Be Giants
- Road Movie to Berlin
Flood debuted on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart the week of February 10, 1990, spent 22 weeks on the chart, and peaked at #75. In the UK, the album peaked at #14 and was on the charts for 12 weeks. Flood is TMBG’s most popular and best-selling album, yet when it was released, Rolling Stone only gave the album “2 out of 5 stars.” On the album’s 20th anniversary, Flansburgh and Linnell’s greatest album was again featured in Rolling Stone. It’s a pretty fun recap.
“There’s only one thing that I know how to do well
And I’ve often been told that you only can do
What you know how to do well
And that’s be you
Be what you’re like
Be like yourself
And so I’m having a wonderful time
But I’d rather be whistling in the dark
Whistling in the dark
Whistling in the dark”
When I moved to Utah in 1993, one of the first friends I made was Emily. We met in science class and started about the things we liked. While most if our music tastes didn’t mesh, we both loved and bonded over show tunes and TMBG. In fact, in 9th grade geography class, we did a combined project making up an imaginary land based completely upon They Might Be Giants. We were geeky, TMBG is geeky, and we didn’t care. A few years ago, Emily gave me a blue canary nightlight.
Although TMBG has released many albums since the early 90’s, none of them hold the same appeal for me as Flood. It’s juvenile enough to be appealing for kids, but clever and catchy for adults to love.
What is your favorite TMBG song? Do you have memories you love of listening to Flood? Can you listen to “Minimum Wage” without pretending to crack a whip?