The first time I ever laughed out loud in a rock club? It was in Manhattan, and They Might Be Giants were playing at a little club called Dr. B's in Soho. It couldn't have been more than 1981 or '82, but they emerged on the scene like a fully formed whoopee cushion. They had it all, and they had it before anyone else did. Long before Prince sequenced his entire show, John Flansburgh and John Linnell had a large TEAC reel-to-reel recorder acting as their rhythm section. Secure in the knowledge that the show could go on regardless of whether they were playing their instruments, the freed Johns would step out from behind their guitar and accordion to wield props or instruct audiences to "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head." There was a cornucopia of pop culture references, leading audience sing-alongs with non sequitur homemade cue cards that took Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video to hilarious extremes.
Flansburgh and Linnell further endeared themselves to the New York underground intelligentsia with their immensely popular Dial-A-Song service, which offered a new original song every day played on a Brooklyn answering machine. Dial-A-Song still exists today, available in analog (718-387-6962) and digital (www.dialasong.com) formats. It's through this primitive forum by which many of the group's miniatures like "Kiss Me, Son of God" and "Hi We're the Replacements" were first heard. It got them noticed, and by 1985 the duo released their first albums on indie label Bar/None.
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Signing with Elektra in the late '80s, they received a heavy push with Flood, the Giants' first gold album. Their bizarre, stream-of-consciousness songs proved a natural for music videos (also directed by Flansburgh). MTV even embraced them for a time on the strength of the hits "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and a cover of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."
Just then, grunge took over the alternative market, and the Johns returned fire by adding a live rhythm section. Even with the addition of excellent musicians like onetime Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone and drummer Brian Doherty, it made the Giants seem ordinary even Weird Al Yankovic had a full band! Some might argue that the 1994 TMBG album John Henry was a harbinger of the nerd rock of Weezer, Presidents of the United States of America, and Nerf Herder. At the time of issue, the album was not especially popular, and the group went back to its indie roots, turning out a succession of albums that gradually restored the group to full humor.
They Might Be Giants
Cajun House, 7117 East Third Avenue in Scottsdale
Scheduled to perform on Monday, July 29. Haggis, and Light Year open the show. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $23.50. Call 480-945-5150.
And that's where Giants stand now, playing with a full ensemble and celebrating their 20-year history with their first children's album, named after the one word kids dread hearing the most: No! How can anyone but a devout curmudgeon resist the psychedelic-shopping trip titled "I Am a Grocery Bag," or the defiant "Bed Bed Bed"?
It's not an all-ages show, but most grown-ups won't have any trouble staying awake for a set that dares to ask the musical question "Where Do They Make Balloons?"