What did it mean to be a rock star in 1990? Whatever the answer may be, They Might Be Giants definitely wasn’t. The Brooklyn duo’s style was more turtleneck than leather, their voices nasal and not particularly appealing, their erratic dance moves more like the mechanics of wind-up toys. One of them played the accordion. On their first record, they gave a famous Who lyric a heartfelt moralistic twist: “I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die.” But those same uncool traits were exactly the things that made They Might Be Giants total rock stars. Their ability to grab listeners with sharp, catchy songwriting was never more apparent than in the 1990s Flood, where their sheer imagination was matched by the big label money. The underdogs always find a way.
John Flansburgh and John Linnell had both come of age in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a cozy Boston suburb close enough to Walden Pond that Thoreau could hear the town’s church bells ringing during his afternoon meditations. As high school students, the couple worked together on the school newspaper and developed a mutual interest in comic books, the Ramones, and experimented with the Flansburgh tape machine. In 1981, the two Johns reunited as young adults after moving to the same Brooklyn apartment – Flansburgh was there to study printmaking at Pratt and Linnell played keyboards in a band called the Mundanes. The boundlessness of punk had blossomed into the brilliance of new wave, and the pair’s quirky preoccupations made them natural bedfellows in a burgeoning New York City scene.
At the time, New York was just emerging from the economic stagnation and crime wave that plagued the city in the 1970s; 1981 would be one of the most violent years. But there was potential in the disintegration. The Johns began working together on music in earnest, with Flansburgh on guitar, Linnell on accordion and a drum machine. The lack of a formal rhythm section was liberating: While they may not have been able to afford an orchestra, they could program one on a computer. (Plus, lugging an organ to gigs was exhausting, as they discovered during their first show: a Sandinista rally in Central Park.)
In the East Village, artists as eclectic as feminist artist Karen Finley — known for their intense monologues about the politics of the female body over pounding disco beats — and Steve Buscemi’s comedy duo could find an audience. Between their day jobs as a graphic designer and darkroom technician, They Might Be Giants began honing their own act, which often included homemade props, such as a huge stick with a microphone at one end, which Flansburgh would hit for percussion. But equally intriguing were the Giants’ offstage practices. In the early ’80s, after Flansburgh’s equipment was stolen from his apartment and Linnell broke his wrist while working as a bicycle messenger, the pair began recording songs on Flansburgh’s answering machine. They shared this material not by looking for a label, but by placing advertisements for what they called Dial-a-Song – named after the Christian hotline Dial-a-Prayer – in The voice of the village section advertisements. Long before music was readily available online, the duo used a landline to release new songs daily and play them directly to listeners in and outside New York.