This has been going on since, oh, I don't know, 1992, maybe? Summer of '92? That sounds about right--I'd have been 12 years old, and I borrowed the album Flood from one of my parents' friends because I recognized the name of the band and the titles of two songs which had been featured on Tiny Toon Adventures' parody of MTV. The album was about two years old at that time, and the friend did not recognize it, and could not remember why he had purchased it. Knowing a little of his musical tastes, I must confess myself similarly puzzled.
They Might Be Giants is a band that inspires a level of rabid devotion which non-fans find very difficult to understand. They tend to get pigeonholed as a novelty act, but that classification has never really fit. The average TMBG album contains clever lyrics but few jokes, so it's understandable that They bristle at being called comedians. People I know who have only slightly scratched the surface are convinced that the TMBG gimmick is sad lyrics paired with happy music, and while that's a common formula for Them, that's not it either. Their songs are musically complex, and and borrow from every tradition I can think of (any probably many that I don't recognize). PhDs Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer attempted, in their book They Might Be Giants' Flood to pin down the band's appeal, and mostly chalked it up to a decadent un-self-consciousness (and it took them about 130 pages of highfalutin academic language to do it). In 2004 Pitchfork's Liam Singer used considerably less-opaque vocabulary to describe (in a mostly uncomplimentary review of Their album The Spine) "the evil robots and grinning skulls at the core of the Giants' imagery". I can't really explain this, but I know exactly what Singer is talking about. His description might benefit from a couple of "bombastic"s, or a "square", but he's in the right ballpark. He might be carrying a hockey stick, but at the very least he's dressed for a sporting event.
It's not easy to trace TMBG's roots, but when They candidly discuss Their influences, you can sort of see that Their earliest albums are a soup of late-'70s American punk rock (no, really, it's in there and it's prominent) and post-punk à la The Smiths.2 And as long as we're using cooking metaphors, let's say that the soup is being boiled in a pot cast from The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Tom Lehrer and Burt Bacharach, and the kitchen is the performance-arty new-wave backdrop that birthed Tin Huey, Devo and Klaus Nomi. And little bits of Menudo and New Order are dripping into the soup and-- what a terrible metaphor.
When TMBG's John Flansburgh and John Linnell talk about the band's early days, you get a sense that They rose out of the most blighted parts of Brooklyn, and immediately found an audience that was on the edge of burnout; they were done with rock music, and rather than embracing the dirty, brazenly talentless aesthetic of punk, this community took off on a much more avant-garde tangent. If you're willing to dig, you can find remnants of the very weird DIY performance art culture that flourished briefly in New England during the early '80s, but it's mostly forgotten. Somehow, TMBG made it out into the wider arena of pop culture, had a few breaks early on, and have enjoyed a modest level of international visibility ever since.
TMBG's early albums are emblazoned with entreaties to call Their Dial-A-Song service. Dial-A-Song was an early TMBG innovation which garnered Them a lot of attention at the time, and makes for good nostalgia. The story--recounted in hundreds of interviews--goes that John Linnell broke his wrist in a bicycle accident in 1983, around the same time that John Flansburgh's apartment was burgled and some of the band's equipment stolen. Unable to perform live shows for awhile, They purchased an answering machine and set up a phone line dubbed "Dial-A-Song" in Flansburgh's apartment. Dial-A-Song played a new song every day and They advertised it around town and in The Village Voice, which ultimately exposed Them to a much wider audience than They might normally have reached. The novelty of Dial-A-Song may not be immediately apparent; remember, this was in the early day of consumer-grade answering machines, and to distribute music this way almost seemed like a breakthrough of disintermediation. In fact, TMBG probably owe Their career to Dial-A-Song: it got Them noticed by People magazine--a national publication--which reviewed the self-recorded demo tape that They were personally selling via mail order. The exposure from People magazine is probably responsible for Their first record deal.
Anytime TMBG was gearing up to release a new album, Dial-A-Song would feature new songs (my first Dial-A-Song experience was hearing "Subliminal" in August of 1994, prior to the release of John Henry), but often you'd hear incredibly half-baked material--unfinished ideas, documented quickly and sloppily. Most of these songs never found their way onto albums, and are available only as illicit bootleg recordings. Youtube is full of 'em.
Dial-A-Song struggled its way to the web in the mid-'90s, and became a somewhat different experience because you could now download and own legitimate copies of the songs. The original "rough around the edges" style didn't feel quite right, but neither did studio recordings which would show up in the same form on the next album; the ephemeral rawness was lost. Dial-A-Song officially ended (at least, the phone line did) in 2006 because the analogue answering machine at its heart was becoming too difficult to replace.
Which brings me, more or less, to the reason I'm writing this.
Dial-A-Song relaunched at the beginning of 2015, and it's featuring a new song every week. These are still more polished than the ones that played on the original "new song every day" service, but we're eleven weeks into the year, and there's been some pretty excellent material.
Each song is being released as a video at DialASong.com, but They've resurrected the phone line as a toll-free number at (844) 387-6962 for those who miss the low-fidelity monophonic sound of the original service.
In the meantime, here are my favorites from the new batch:
Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel
1The older that joke gets, the less of a joke it becomes.^^
2I tried to find a citation for this, but couldn't, and Googling specifically for the word "smiths" is a fool's errand. Somewhere, though, there's an interview where John Linnell sheepishly admits that he can hear a lot of The Smiths in early TMBG. Instead, however, I am happy to present to you this Q&A from TMBG's fall 1994 newsletter, in which the Johns list their influences, discuss '60s folk music, and adamantly deny that Dial-A-Song will ever be made toll-free.^^