The accordion is a free-reed aerophone instrument, played by John Linnell. Despite seeing only rare use in rock music, it has been a staple of They Might Be Giants' music since 1984, and was featured as far back as the 1985 Demo Tape and TMBG's debut album. John Linnell claims to have picked up the accordion because it was a more portable and accessible version of a keyboard, an instrument with which he was already very familiar. This accounts for the fact that Linnell mostly favors the keyboard side of the accordion while playing. Up to the late 90s, it was also the instrument on which Linnell most commonly wrote songs.
Linnell started playing the accordion in 1983, after borrowing one from a friend who lived in his apartment building,for use in an outdoor busking performance on the Brooklyn Promenade . Another story states that he was "at a party at someone's house and kept borrowing [their accordion]." Linnell explained his adoption of the instrument in a 1996 interview:
I'm a keyboard player. When John and I started, I played organ and clavinet. We tried a bunch of different things and a friend of ours had an accordion that she had played when she was a kid and she had sort of given up on it. She loaned it to me. We used it in a show we did on the street in Brooklyn and it just made so much sense from so many different angles. It was the right instrument for the kind of material we were doing, it was a portable instrument you could play outside and it looked cool. It just looked very fresh to me, like something that was kind of interesting to look at and it's a very dynamic keyboard instrument. It's like an organ except you really have a lot of dynamic control over it.
How many accordions does Linnell own? I've seen him playing a few different ones at different shows.
I've got seven that I've used at live shows. My original Walters which dates from 1928 and is now too fragile to take on the road, a "Music Mart" which you can see in the live photo on the back of the "Don't Let's Start" EP, an Excelsior that I played in the early 90's which has many busted off ivories and two grills that look like bug eyes, a gigantic and burdensome "Marinucci Recanati" (I don't know which name represents the manufacturer) a tiny Chinese accordion that is good for radio shows, and two Hohners, one old and black, one brand new and red.
When They Might Be Giants performed as a duo in the 80s and early 90s, John Linnell would primarily play the accordion at live shows, unless a particular song (such as "Lie Still, Little Bottle") called for his instrumental talents elsewhere. This continued into the mid-90s when TMBG's live touring outfit included keyboardist Kurt Hoffman, which allowed Linnell to continue to play the accordion for the majority of a show. As time went on, Linnell's primary instrument at live shows became the keyboard, though there are many songs in the band's live repertoire that still utilize the accordion. The Else was the first They Might Be Giants album to not feature any accordion, and Join Us only features sparse, if any, accordion.
Accordions used by John Linnell
Over the years, John Linnell has used many accordions in the studio and at live shows. Some of these are listed below.
- Excelsior Accordiana 308 - (black and grey) Reportedly nicknamed "Toothless Joe", Linnell's Excelsior was his live standby for over a decade and was featured in "The Statue Got Me High" video, as well as many live shows between 1992 and ‘93. Linnell retired it sometime around the mid-90s due to cosmetic damage and has since been no longer used.
- Main Squeeze 911 - (red and auburn-brown, with black and white bellows) The Main Squeeze is a 26-key accordion, which Linnell has frequently favored for live performances since mid-2004. Linnell is quoted in a testimonial on the Main Squeeze website, saying "The Main Squeeze Model 911 is the most solid accordion I've ever played. It should meet the demands of any serious musician, whether they play professionally or just for the love of it."
- Gretsch La Tosca Victoria II - (white) Used in the recording of State Songs and featured in the "Doctor Worm" video, Linnell's Gretsch was purchased at a flea market. It was occasionally used in stripped-down setup performances, in-store shows, and radio station performances between the early to mid 2000s.
- F. H. Walters (black with white and gold trim and gold bellows) - One of Linnell's earliest accordions. It appeared in the "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head" video (1986). A 1928 model, and the first one he bought (July 2000 CMJ New Music Monthly) on May 19th, 1984 from "We Buy Guitars" on 48th street in Manhattan. Due to its fragility, the accordion was retired from live performances sometime around late 1986, but made some appearances in promotional photos during the late 1980s. He sold this accordion to Mike Buffington on September 9th, 2022.
- Hohner - Linnell has used two Hohner accordions over the years:
- Hohner Lucia IV P (black) - Featured in the "Purple Toupee" video (1988), and used in live performances from mid-1987 until the beginning of 1992, where it would be replaced by Linnell's Excelsior.
- Hohner Concerto III T (red) - Linnell has used this accordion in frequent live performances from 1994 until 2003.
- Music Mart (black) - Shown above, this accordion was used for live shows from late 1986 to mid 1987, where it would be replaced by Linnell's black Hohner.
- Marinucci Recanati (red) - Used on the 1991 JBTV performance and photographed with Linnell for the July 2000 CMJ New Music Monthly feature on his accordions . He sold this accordion on September 9th, 2022.
- Petite Soprani (white) - A 1936 model, its only known appearance has been in a small set of promotional images from around 1986.
- Sonola Rivoli (white) - Used at some in-store performances. He sold this accordion on September 9th, 2022.
- Camerano (red and white) - Purchased in late 2006, used during in-store, radio, and benefit shows. Linnell also used this accordion for majority of the 2010 tour (excluding February and March legs).
- Titano (black and white) - Used at some in-store performances and radio appearances. This type of accordion was also the first one Linnell ever performed with, when a friend of Linnell's loaned the accordion in 1983 for a busking performance on the Brooklyn Promenade. It can also be seen in old promotional photos.
- Video (white) - Seen recently in small performances like the Rolling Stone two-song set