"Speak softly, drive a Sherman tank."
Released into a musical landscape over-populated by purveyors of synth-pop, stadium rock, post punk, underground alternative, heartland rockers, disposable pop and The Smiths (the band that pretty much defined what the mainstream thought indie / alternative music was in the mid 80s, at least here in the UK), the eponymous debut of They Might Be Giants was barely noticed on its initial release in November 1986. Released on the fledgling Bar/None Records label and housed in a cartoonish sleeve, some record stores mistakenly assumed it was an album of children’s music and stocked it accordingly, therefore ensuring that the curious few that were seeking it out struggled to locate it.
The sound of They Might Be Giants’s self-titled debut (a.k.a. The Pink Album, a.k.a. First Album), is unlike almost anything else released at the time. While the D.I.Y. punk aesthetic found angry young men who made such cultural waves in the mid to late 70s graduate from releasing hastily recorded under-produced material, to working with proper producers in big-budget recording facilities, TMBG’s debut saw them stick to a self-enclosed, home-recorded aesthetic which in its own way was much more ‘punk’ than many of the acts who labelled themselves such. The material recorded by They Might Be Giants in the studio usually consisted of John Linnell and John Flansburgh backed by a drum machine, with session musicians used sparingly (one of whom, Eugene Chadbourne, literally phoned in his guitar solo on “Absolutely Bill’s Mood”), resulting in the album sounding like a bunch of skilfully recorded demos that had been given a dabs of polish in the studio. Given that The Two Johns had spent the previous few years offering the Dial-a-Song service (where anyone who wanted to hear their music would dial an answerphone on which they would have recorded their latest song), they had honed this simple approach to near perfection, often achieving some impressively sophisticated sounds given the limitations involved. This also ensured that throughout their career they have developed a writing style with the emphasis on creativity, and despite signing to a major label, recruiting a stable backing band and the inevitable progression of recording techniques became ever more sophisticated, this approach remains at the very core of what TMBG’s music is about.
Opening with “Everything Right is Wrong”, They Might Be Giants is an album that opens up an alternative pop music landscape to the listener, one that simply didn’t play by the same rules as the stuff we heard on the radio here in the UK at the time. Fun without being annoying, it was a collection of 19 songs, only one of which broke the three minute barrier. With this Ramones-like brevity and enough self-awareness to just let a drum machine sound like a drum machine, it’s an album of pop music which just doesn’t fit in anywhere in the accepted wisdom of where music was in the mid-80s. That said, due to the technology available to them at the time of recording, it’s unarguably a product of its time too, leaving it hovering in a strange limbo state, along with a bunch of albums by other misfits who also defied narrow categorisation (see also Tom Waits, Kirsty MacColl, XTC, Pixies, etc), none of whom sounded anything like each other. Driven by Flansburgh’s guitars and Linnell’s keyboard and accordion work, TMBG were and still are, a truly alternative rock band, driven by a winning combination of smart thinking, quirky arrangements and nerd humour.
Song wise, it’s staggering how much thought and creativity must have gone into mini-masterpieces like “Hide Away Folk Family”, “Angel” and “Only Two Songs In Me”. It’s also evident that They Might Be Giants are well versed in their pop and rock history too, as sly nods are given to The Who (“I Hope I Get Old Before I Die”), Johnny Cash (whose unmistakable voice is sampled for “Boat of Car”) and Eurythmics (closer “Rhythm Section Want Ad”). It has to be said that any album that concludes with a song like “Rhythm Section Want Ad”, has got to be at least worth a listen once in your lifetime, especially when you consider that the song title is underlined by well considered drum machine programmes and the type of chorus that card-carrying pop geniuses spend their entire career aspiring to write. It’s heartening to reflect that thirty years later, They Might Be Giants now have a well established rhythm section, and that drummer Marty Beller very much propels the song with enthusiastic abandon whenever they perform it live.
It’s taken me years to identify exactly what it was, but there’s something a bit odd that strikes you about They Might Be Giants in a way that few albums do, and it’s that you don’t listen to the album in the same way that you would listen to albums by most acts, due to its very different dynamic. Once you’ve got your head around that it is intentionally just a collection of songs, rather than being a unified statement, the whole things starts to make a whole lot more sense. The fact that it isn’t completely bewildering and disorientating is down to the song craft of The Two Johns, and particularly their firm grasp of melody and irresistible pop hooks. Its something that they’ve repeatedly returned to in the three decades since their debut’s release, and is particularly notable on 2001’s Mink Car and the trio of recent albums largely compiled from material from the resurrected dial-a-song service. One of the key reasons why TMBG remain so unique, is that it’s so difficult to balance all the elements needed to emulate them without it all blowing up in your face in embarrassing fashion, resulting in you looking very silly indeed.
Thirty years after its release, They Might Be Giants retains an energy and audio identity all of its own. Too sophisticated to be true lo-fi, it nevertheless must have given heart to so many other bedroom recording geniuses whose ambitions were massively at odds with the size of the budget they had available. It’s a triumph for modest ambition and fierce intellect over shallow commercialism and moody posing, and as such should be celebrated as one of the earliest celebrations of geek culture, as undeniable proof that TMBG’s genius was present and correct from the very beginning and ultimately, one of the great overlooked albums of the 80s.