Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time


[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986, which now shifts to the releases I didn’t discover until after 1986]


They Might Be Giants - They Might Be GiantsWhen discussions turn to the great songwriting duos of the rock era, names like Lennon/McCartney, Goffin/King, Jagger/Richards, Bacharach/David*, Difford/Tilbrook, Becker/Fagen, Hayes/Porter, John/Taupin, Lieber/Stoller, Page/Plant and Mann/Weill usually come to mind, but not Linnell/Flansburgh. That’s a shame because the pair of Johns behind They Might Be Giants has spent three decades creating some of the most original, quirky yet always catchy songs. They’re probably not taken seriously by a lot of music snobs, but the quality & consistency of their work shouldn’t be ignored, even if you’re not a fan of their music. They came to most people’s attention via their delightful third album, 1990’s million-selling Flood, but they built their reputation with the alternative & indie crowds through their one-of-a-kind videos from their first two albums. Both of them are jam-packed with sonic delights, and their self-titled debut has long been my favorite TMBG record, so much so that I included it in Part 1 of the Great Out Of The Gate series on my favorite debut albums. Following is what I wrote about it in April 2015. In addition to the full-length songs I mentioned, this album includes a number of strange…and strangely interesting…short tracks like “The Day” (“The day Marvin Gaye and Phil Ochs got married…”), “Number Three” (“There’s only two songs in me, and I just wrote the third…”), “Chess Piece Face” and “Boat Of Car” (which cleverly samples Johnny Cash’s “Daddy Sang Bass”).

I don’t think the duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell get the recognition they deserve as incredibly gifted songwriters. That’s likely due to the fact that many of their songs are humorous, they’ve released several collections of children’s music (which are as good as any of their “adult” albums) and they started their career using sampled sounds, dressed in silly outfits, included accordion in their instrumental arsenal & produced quirky, low-budget promotional videos. In many ways they were like Devo Mach 2, without the de-evolution manifesto of their quirk-rock predecessors. Instead, they churned out incredibly inventive songs at an impressive rate, their first four albums containing 18-19 songs each, all of them in less than 45 minutes. For me it doesn’t get much better than their self-titled debut, which I first checked out in 1988, the same year I saw the video for “Don’t Let’s Start” on MTV. Some tracks are merely sketches with one or two hooks before wrapping up in less than 90 seconds, while more fully fleshed out songs like “Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head,” “(She Was A) Hotel Detective,” “She’s An Angel,” “Youth Culture Killed My Dog” and “Rhythm Section Want Ad” make the case for them being one of the most creative artists of their time. They released more mainstream-friendly material in later years, but I always come back to their debut, which has remained my favorite TMBG album for nearly three decades.

I’m wondering how others feel about They Might Be Giants’ debut, especially fans who first discovered them through their later albums. Their early work might seem under-produced in comparison but that’s what makes those records so special to me.

* These songwriting legends were name-checked in TMBG’s “Youth Culture Killed My Dog.”


18 comments on “Thirty Year Thursday – THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS “THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS”

  1. Jeff Kempin
    September 1, 2016

    Don’t Let’s Start is another one of those songs that puts you right back into a certain time and place when you first heard it. You’re right, the production does sound a bit thin and tinny, but a lot of ’86 era albums sounded like that. I’m a fan of TMBG, but I only own Flood.
    I certaily like them much better than Talking Heads, that’s for sure. Couldn’t even bring myself to say anything on last weeks post. But my TH dislike is mostly due to overexposure. With TMBG its the opposite. These guys should be superstars. They have so many earworm level tunes that burrow into your head and just don’t leave.
    Good stuff Rich. Have a good week.


    • Hi Jeff. I completely agree about “Don’t Let’s Start” returning me to a particular time & place. And it was a good time & place, so the song always brings a big smile to my face. As for Talking Heads, I highly recommend their first two albums, which have very few of their radio hits and are arguably the best things they did. But if you’re not a fan I’m sure you’ve got plenty of other artists & albums to check out. I’m just saying not to dismiss their entire catalog due to certain albums being overexposed.

      I really appreciate your feedback. Enjoy the upcoming weekend.


  2. Kevin
    September 1, 2016

    I remember hearing “Don’t Let’s Start” on college radio in ’86. I’ve been a fan since. I think of them as XTC’s American silly little brother. Every TMBG album has a handful of well crafted infectious pop songs among the silliness and weirdness. I don’t know just how collaborative their songwriting partnership is, but, to me, all of their best songs are sung by (written by?) Linnell. Nice pick, Rich.


    • Hi Kevin. I can understand your “XTC’s silly little brother” sentiment but I think TMBG’s songwriting is a lot more sophisticated than they’re given credit for. They may not be in the rarefied realm of Partridge & Moulding but they have a pretty impressive discography and they’ve come up with a seemingly endless supply of interesting melodic hooks. I also lean more toward the Linnell songs, at least the ones he sings, but I think there’s a lot of collaboration between the two Johns. That was certainly the case in the early years.

      Thanks for the feedback.


  3. critterjams
    September 1, 2016

    For a while this was my favorite TMBG album. I kinda loved the DIY-level production on it and all the little weird sounds they come up with. Can’t quite think of another disc quite like it. In retrospect it’s pretty uneven but the good stuff is really, really great. “Puppet Head” especially, what a perfect little tune that is. Their first four albums get all the attention but they have lots of good ones – less unique than their first four but the songwriting is probably even better.


    • Hi Nik. Glad to hear you’re a fan of this album. While I understand why you feel it’s uneven, every track continues to bring me so much joy nearly 3 decades after I first heard it. I love how the shorter, weirder tracks act as interludes between the more fully-formed songs. I have everything they’ve released and I agree that their songwriting may have gotten more consistently strong later on, even if the albums don’t always resonate with me as much as the earlier ones. A couple of their children’s albums are as good as any of their “real” albums.


      • critterjams
        September 2, 2016

        Yeah. There’s just something about that early stuff. Especially if you go further back and check out the demo tapes or the stuff on Then: The Early Years. Check out the tune called “Now That I Have Everything” if you can find it. Just pure brilliance.


      • I love those early TMBG demos. I used to call Dial-A-Song regularly after I got into the first album. It seemed like they were literally posting a great (or at least interesting) new song nearly every day for a long time. My favorite was “Welcome To The Jungle” (not the Guns N Roses song, of course). They re-recorded it years later but it wasn’t as good as the original. I just listened to “Now That I Have Everything” again for the first time in many years. I had forgotten how great it is. Thanks for the reminder.


  4. J.
    September 1, 2016

    Great post, Rich. My brother’s a big fan of this one, though I’m not all that familiar with it. I did get my hands on a copy of Don’t Lets Start when I decided it was time to explore TMBG, but sadly the copy is somewhat hoofed. So that exploration didn’t end well. I decided to restart it when I see a copy of this one (which my brother assures me is great).


    • Your brother clearly has discriminating tastes and you should take his advice & check this out. Of course, it might not have the same impact as if you had heard it back in the ’80s, but in the right mindset you’ll find a lot to love here.


  5. Murphy's Law
    September 2, 2016

    I remember seeing the video for “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” on late night MTV. I wasn’t really sure what I had heard, but I knew I liked it.

    They had one of the best quotes ever. They were doing a radio interview before a show around here in 1993 and the DJ said they sounded like pretty happy guys. One of the Johns said “no, we’re pretty gloomy, but we want you to be happy, so we make happy music” The show was great too.


    • I don’t think I saw the “…Puppet Head” video until years later, but it was the video for “Don’t Let’s Start” that initially reeled me in. They were drastically different than anything I was listening to at the time…and different from pretty much any other artists before or since…but I was immediately hooked. Not sure why I didn’t buy the album until at least a year later but it was worth the wait. That quote you shared is fantastic, and perfectly captures their personalities. Thanks for sharing.


  6. 80smetalman
    September 2, 2016

    This band never really got my attention in the past. May have to explore them more.


    • Their music isn’t for everyone but their catalog is jam-packed with wonderfully quirky & melodic songs. I hope you find some that you like.


  7. Don
    November 13, 2016

    Great album great band! I first heard of them when Flood came out and finally saw them live 2 years ago at Reggie’s in Chicago! Thanks


    • Hi Don. Flood is a great “first” TMBG album. I know a lot of people who discovered them with that record and they’ve stuck with the band ever since. How was your first live TMGB experience?


      • Don
        November 17, 2016

        Yes first live show
        I was in 6th grade or fifth when flood came out


      • You were the perfect age for Flood. I was already in my early 20s & loved that album but, as they proved years later with their children’s albums, they could appeal to listeners of all ages.


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