A couple of weeks back, a strange new noise infiltrated unsuspecting suburban homes all over the country. Every household with a television tuned to America's favorite post-prime-time talk show heard it: A dorky duo banging out frighteningly original accordion-embellished pop songs. That's right, They Might Be Giants had invaded The Tonight Show.
The Giants' Tonight Show appearance was akin to a couple of goofballs from the wrong side of the tracks crashing an exclusive country club party. Just how the band finagled its way onto TV's late-night institution, which rarely books performers any more avant-garde than Belinda Carlisle, is beyond TMBG's guitarist-singer John Flansburgh. "It was obviously a mistake," chortles the guitarist in an interview from a recent tour stop in Dallas. "They must have used special 10,000 Maniacs clout or something." (The Maniacs are Flansburgh's Elektra label-mates, as well as frequent Tonight Show habitues.)
Flansburgh and John Linnell, his accordionist-singer partner, began their Johnny Carson gig safely enough with the melodic "Birdhouse in Your Soul," the first single from their third and latest LP, Flood. But then the duo really swung into zany gear with a cover of the 1950's novelty tune "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," replete with Linnell's hokey squeezebox riffs. After hearing that deformed pop number, guest host Jay Leno described thoroughly perplexed Tonight Show producer Fred de Cordova as looking like "a dog that had just smelled something new."
"From the show you sort of got the impression that [de Cordova] didn't know what to make of us," admits Linnell. "But actually, by the end, he was really into it. When we first did our sound check and stuff he was like, `What is this?' But by the end of the show he was like . . . `You're coming back.' It was really a lovefest, I have to say."
The Tonight Show guest spot is indicative of just how far TMBG has come since its days as a two-bit joke band playing lower Manhattan dives only a few years back. Flood has brought the group bona fide pop semistardom, with regular MTV play and a top spot on the college radio charts. Aiding the Giants' transition from New York nobodies to cult faves was a switch from Bar/None Records to major label Elektra last year. TMBG was actually shopped around to several big labels, but Flansburgh claims Elektra was the only one that vowed not to tamper with the pair's mutant-pop formula.
"They signed us because they liked what we did," stresses the guitarist. "We went to a lot of different record companies, and a lot of them made it very clear that they wanted to ruin [our music]. We appreciated their forthrightness in telling us how much they wanted to change us. But Elektra basically said they wanted us to keep pursuing our twisted vision."
The Giants' Elektra debut, Flood, shows the duo's vision to be as joyously twisted as ever. From the first cut, "Theme From Flood," a mocking promotional jingle for the album, to the sardonic finale "Road Movie to Berlin," the record is jam-packed with the band's usual humongous pop hooks and absurdist humor. Listeners who dismiss the group's lyrics as just a series of bizarre non sequiturs probably aren't listening closely enough. There's almost always a method to the band's inspired madness on the new album: "Your Racist Friend," for instance, betrays a bit of militancy boiling beneath the Giants' zany exterior. The normally jocular duo waxes sensitive on another cut, "Birdhouse in Your Soul," an offbeat love song with a tender night-light metaphor ("Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch/Who watches over you/Make a little birdhouse in your soul").
"Birdhouse in Your Soul" is littered with the skewed points of view (the song begins with omniscient narration by a night-light!) and recondite references (Jason and the Argonauts) that have always been a big part of TMBG records. Even more arcane allusions show up on the cut "Hot Cha," which takes its title from one of the characters in a Sixties-era Parker Brothers horse-racing game called Derby Day.
Does Flansburgh ever worry about his lyrics zipping over the heads of his listeners?
"I think you have to keep it all in check by writing stuff that makes sense to you," reasons the guitarist. "I mean, we're not Syd Barrett. We're not going to be institutionalized. It's not that far out of control."
In spite of its smart, highly literate songwriting, TMBG is still often saddled with the "wacky novelty band" label. Flansburgh himself laughs off those tags, claiming they're just his band's "cross to bear."
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"I mean, it's true that our music is definitely funnier than most music you hear on the radio," he allows. "It doesn't take itself as seriously on a certain level, but on another level we're much more involved with how our songs are put together. We invest in the songwriting in a way that is very rare. I think that's where it has some merit. If it were just funny music it would be pretty useless."
They Might Be Giants will perform at Compadre Stadium on Thursday, April 19, with Peter Himmelman, Meat Puppets, Social Distortion, and Lock Up. Gates open at 5:30 p.m.
"Birdhouse in Your Soul" is littered with skewed points of view. The song begins with omniscient narration by a night-light!
CHICANO IN SPITE OF HIMSELF... v4-18-90