Early Years Handbook

From This Might Be A Wiki

The TMBG Early Years Handbook by Myke Weiskopf is an archival Q&A about the early years of They Might Be Giants shared online in the '90s, containing previously unpublished TMBG facts and information regarding their work during the early to late 80s.

Much of this information was acquired by Myke during exclusive and extensive interviews with people close to TMBG during these years. Here is the final version of the Handbook from 1997, as found on tmbg.org and alt.music.tmbg, reformatted for TMBW.



   **   Early Years Handbook
   **   v3.0

   **   by Myke Weiskopf (jerk@execpc.com)
  aided by John Flansburgh, Jamie Kitman, Jill Knapp, Bill Krauss,
           John Linnell, Bo Orloff (obo@dnai.com), Francesca Parker 
           (flparker@woodlawn.uchicago.edu), Mike Weiss (Mulva@aol.com),
           Aaron T. Porter (atporter@entropy.muc.muohio.edu), Brian D.
           Kane (bkane@pldac.plh.af.mil), Dan Spock.

While the facts contained within this document are not copyrightable,
the style, organization, and content of the document is (c) 1996 Myke
Weiskopf. Please do not reprint or quote without permission.
This document features information previously published in OBSCURE
Magazine, No. 5 ("They Might Be Giants"), which is (c) 1994 Obscure
Publications / Myke Weiskopf, and in the THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS INFO
CLUB newsletter Winter 1995, which is (c) 1995 TMB Productions, and the
liner notes to THEN, which is (c) 1997 They Might Be Giants / Restless

This document can be accessed via the WWW:

        * http://execpc.com/~jerk/ey_faq/

This document answers questions (obscure and common) about the music,
life, and spirit of They Might Be Giants from the years 1982 to 1989,
collectively known as The Early Years, encompassing The Bar/None Years
(1986-1989) and The Krauss Years (1983-1988).

1983-1985 [Including all early releases][edit]

When did They Might Be Giants first:[edit]


John Linnell and John Flansburgh met in Lincoln-Sudbury High School (Lincoln, MA) in the mid-1970's. Flansburgh had heard about Linnell due to the latter's famed comic books and strips and his love of avant-garde music such as Frank Zappa. Linnell says, "John was always calling me up, and I didn't know who he was really. He'd call and go, 'So. Linnell. What's happenin'?' Flansburgh had authored a minor existentialist work-- a play in 100 acts, all of which were two lines long. "He felt that Linnell might somehow understand," writes Adrian Deevoy of Q. "He didn't." Before long, the two were collaborating on minor experimental tape projects using Flansburgh's tape machine(s).

begin recording together?[edit]

The Johns began recording shortly after moving into the same apartment building on the same day in New York City in 1982. (A note on that: this was not entirely coincidental, as they carpooled to NY together with a mutual friend.) While at first the Johns recorded independently, they eventually played on each other's demos regularly.

play out?[edit]

The Johns' first show was as "El Grupo de Rock And Roll" in 1982, in Central Park. The group, it is said, performed in front of a group of Sandinistas who spoke no English (hence the name). Another rumor (perpetuated by Linnell) goes as such: "It was January 23rd. We played 23 songs, although we had only planned to do 22. There were 23 people at that show. We each made 23 dollars. I was 23 at the time." The first show as They Might Be Giants took place at Dr. B's, a Soho showcase club in Soho.

release recordings?[edit]

They Might Be Giants' first official release was a one-sided 7" flexi-disc (round, not square) in 1985, produced by Bill Krauss and engineered by Al Houghton (with drum programming by Chris Butler). The tracks were "Everything Right Is Wrong" and "You'll Miss Me", both of which resurfaced in drastically re-arranged versions on THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS and LINCOLN, respectively. The "Wiggle-Diskette" (as the record pronounces itself) was released on TMB Music. Its cover features a photo of a young girl at a wool machine threading wool, with a small photo of the Johns (looking demented) at the bottom. At the top, the simple yet elegant words "THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS" in an elongated Helvetica. It was limited-edition 1000, released on January 1, 1985.

Their 23-song demo tape followed later that year, featuring demos of many songs off of their debut album, as well as another version of "You'll Miss Me". It featured several LINCOLN and B-side tracks as well. It was re-issued in limited quantities by the Hello Recording Club (John Flansburgh's pet project) in 1993. (See the Demo Tape-specific question for more info.)

meet Bill Krauss?[edit]

John Flansburgh met Bill at Antioch, at which time Bill was in a band called the Functionnaires with another high-school chum of the Johns', Dan Spock. Flansburgh produced the Functionnaires' first demo on his four-track recorder. Bill became the Johns' soundman in 1983; their first show together was at CBGB's in New York City.

Had the Johns been in any bands previous to playing in TMBG?[edit]

John Linnell had played saxophone in a band called The Baggs while in college. "There was a moment when I'd step out and do a solo. But I'd just bought the pick-up for my sax and when the time came all I could play was the highest note! I moved all my fingers around and nothing happened. The wire on my pick-up was holding open one of the valves on my sax. I had just played a one-note solo," he remembers.

Linnell also played keyboards and saxophone for Rhode Island's Mundanes, whose demo, 7", and unofficial live concert recording were filled with .. well .. mundane new-wave love songs in the vein of .. well .. pretty much every band on the new-wave circuit at this time.

John Flansburgh played in a band called the Blackouts. "I was wearing pyjamas. I was 20 years old," he recollects. Also on the shortlist: The Turtlenecks, featuring Chris of Annabouboula.

What was the first They Might Be Giants song...[edit]


"Space Suit", which later turned up on the post-Bar/None album APOLLO 18, was written by Flansburgh as an exercise in jazz chord structure as per his instructor, Jack DeSalvo. Flansburgh says, "It was originally titled 'I'll Remember 3rd Street' to reflect its jazzy origins, but once the recording was made with the spacey synth part its final title seemed more appropriate."

on their very first demo?[edit]

The very first song on their very first demo was "Now That I Have Everything", a popular Dial-A-Song staple during the Early Years and, to a lesser degree, thereafter. The song was demoed in 1984. In the Winter 1995 edition of the Info Club bulletin, they claim that their first recorded song was a cover of Yoko Ono's "Don't Worry Kyoko." "We sang with faux-Rod Serling voices," they say.

What are the lyrics to "Hell Hotel" on the 1985 demo tape?[edit]

          "HELL HOTEL" from the tape THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS.
             (c) 1985 They Might Be Giants / TMB Music.

     Salutations paint his karma, [?] in fighting words
     Got his mean streak from his mother, ha ha ha
     Now Love Boats paint his liver, with eyes on the city lights
     Collapsin' on the upbeats or relaxin' for the night
     He steps into a crazy hotel, the desk clerk hands him soap-on-a-rope
     What does he mean by this?
     Bellhop takes his flashlight, takes John up to his room
     Va-va-va-voom this is a sweet life, Anthrax on the couch

     We're here to entertain you, or have you seen this episode
     We're the ancient order of robots dials, we're putting you
     at the controls
     Welcome to Hell Hotel

     Sports cars and the gamblin', John's winning every night
     Well there's certain smells John can't repel, but Momma it
     can't be right
     He bolts awake laughing, but no one's in his room
     And the big boss man doesn't understand why John can't smile no more

     We're here to make you happy, that's all that we are programmed for
     But you say this pleasure's a pain for you, Sebastian C. could tell
     you more
     Welcome to Hell Hotel

Bill Krauss adds:
I think Flans said that the song was based on a "Twilight Zone" episode, but I can't remember which one. "Sebastian C." is Sebastian Cabot, who you may remember as the butler on the 60's sitcom "Family Affair."

Where / how did the Giants meet the Ordinaires?[edit]

Bill says, "We met the Ordinaires at 8BC, which was run by a couple of guys named Dennis and Cornelius. It was the greatest club in the world for about two years. They had something like 3000 performances in two years. It was running non-stop. They had plays in the afternoon and performance art at dinner time, and bands at night. It was just a wonderful time. It may have been the first time we played there. People liked to book TMBG with the Ordinaires because there were nine people in the Ordinaires. Logistically, it was really easy, because to have another full band when you had the Ordinaires on stage meant moving a whole lot of equipment. We did some shows at the Pyramid for them and the Village Gate. In the very earliest shows, the Ordinaires had been around a bit longer and had more of a following, so we opened for them."

How did Dial-A-Song start?[edit]

In 1984, the Johns had been playing shows, writing, recording, etc. However, the world stood on its own head when John Flansburgh's apartment was broken into; all of his earthly possessions, including his four-track, were stolen. That same week, bike messenger Linnell fell off of his bike and broke his wrist, rendering him unable to either perform or work. Since neither of them could do much of anything, Flansburgh began putting TMBG songs on his answering machine. This apparently caused a lot of problems at first; whenever anyone would try to contact Flansburgh, not only would they have to wait through the song, but they had to scream at the top of their lungs to get Flansburgh to come to the phone at the end. "I tried to talk him out of it," says Linnell. As all early Giants fans know, the early Dial-A-Song was "message-capable", a quirk which gave the Johns a lot of source material to use. One particularly memorable message features a woman (Gloria) talking to her friends about the mystery of "There May Be Giants". An "edit" of this conversation was tacked onto the HOTEL DETECTIVE EP (Bar/None A-HAON 006), unmarked but referred to by insiders as "The Lady". Several other messages were saved and broadcast as bumpers when the Johns guested on East Orange, New Jersey's WFMU (91.1) radio station in March of 1987 ("Frank O'Toole Show").

What is a "Pal Joey revival"?[edit]

"Flansburgh has a Sinatra thing. He's really into Sinatra. I remember when the Kitty Kelly book came out about Sinatra, he read it right away. He's just got this thing about 'what it means to be Sinatra'. He's very interested in the phenomenon. So, 'Pal Joey' was part of that. He really liked 'Pal Joey,' and he decided he wanted to do some of the songs from 'Pal Joey' one night."
-- Bill Krauss

The Johns performed:

Jill Knapp says that the middle two songs were actually taken from a musical called "Babes in Arms", which is another Rodgers-Hart production.

They have definitely performed "Tramp" and "Valentine" on numerous occasions; they played all of the above except "Tramp" at the Knitting Factory (NYC) in June of 1989 during a special "Pal Joey Segment". Whether or not this was the actual "Pal Joey" show is not known, but the segment was referenced in CV Magazine as a part of the Giants "neo-Dada absurdist" early performances, indicating that the first performance was of older vintage than this one. "Lady Is A Tramp" was later issued on Bar/None's EP collection, MISCELLANEOUS T.

Tell me about the 1985 Demo![edit]

About the 1985 Demo:

  • 23 songs.
  • Cassette-only.
  • First issued on TMB Music in 1985; subsequently reissued with the premiere of John Flansburgh's Hello Recording Club in 1993. Flansburgh has sworn not to reissue the demo tape again.
  • Recorded at Studio PASS, New York, by Alex Noyes and Bill Krauss.

Other fun information:
The 1985 demo tape was recorded, like the other unofficial TMBG recordings of the time, during sick days and late at night, after the two Johns and Bill had finished work. Often the sessions would go from 10 PM to 4 in the morning or later-- time was scarce. The Johns had secured a special deal with Alex Noyes, who worked at/ran the studio during its normal hours, which enabled them to work after the studio had officially closed each evening, until it reopened the next day. Most of this time was probably spent programming the Fairlight, a monstrous computer sequencing/sampler superstation which not only had a full, weight-sensitive keyboard, but also had a full-size computer screen, keypad, and light pen for operation! (The Australian workstations ran about the price of a new car.) Much of the tape was sequenced on this machine-- the noises at the beginning of "Hope That I Get Old" were taken from the Fairlight. The cover (featuring a photo of the Johns wearing the giant "Puppet Head" hands seen in the video) was created on a Macintosh by Bill Krauss and John Flansburgh. The early TMBG logo shown on the cover-- a haphazard, chunky serif font-- was also emblazoned on the early fezzes which could be purchased via mail-order. The reissue slicked up the cover and cleaned up the graphical rough edges, but (save for the back flap and the cassette itself) was roughly identical to the original issue in immediate appearance.

"They Might Be Giants" (1986-1987)[edit]

What does the sample at the beginning of "Rabid Child" say?[edit]

"Lord, please don't take me away."

What the hell is that sample in "Number Three"?!?[edit]

When cleaning a recently-vacant apartment with roommate/ superintendent Chris in Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan, NY, Linnell uncovered a stack of obscure polka recordings, including one titled "Skinny Lena." Linnell says: "At some point I figured out a way to make the record skip in 4/4 time during the [alto sax] riff while the 45 was played at 33, which became the repeating figure on TMBG's recording of Flansburgh's 'Number Three.' "

What's the "Close-N-Play" that is mentioned in "Toddler Hiway"?[edit]

It's an archaic kids' record player which does not play until the lid is shut -- hence the name.

Why is "Absolutely Bill's Mood" called that?[edit]

Around the time that "ABM" was being written and brought into the studio for the first time, a great deal of the equipment was frying out and going insane. Bill K. was rather perturbed about the whole situation, and the song-- obviously about a man in crisis-- was named in his honor. The use of the word "Absolutely" is a nod to Bob Dylan's mid-60s habit of adding adverbs/adjectives to song titles for no apparent reason-- "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine" and "Absolutely Sweet Marie" being two such examples.

What's this about the Johns going on the radio and playing Dial-A-Song demos? What station? When?[edit]

This show, which has passed into TMBG legend as the "WFMU Tape", was broadcast in March of 1987 on WFMU, East Orange, NJ, on the Upsala College campus (91.1 FM). The show-- actually a special edition of the late-night "Frank O'Toole Show"-- was comprised of the Johns playing ancient Dial-A-Song classics from the original master tapes, performing live, and generally engaging in bizarre shenanigans. Opening with a special live-show introduction from 1985 (talking about a car decorated with uniquely-scented kittens), the show continued with over an hour of non-stop TMBG madness, including the legendary "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You"; original demos of "The World's Address", "For Science", "Snowball In Hell", and dozens more; and live performances of "Birds Fly" and "Kiss Me, Son Of God", among others. It also aired a series of Dial-A-Song prank calls, show introductions, TMBG promo radio skits (dating back to 1985!), and other high weirdness-- including a lengthy discussion of Robert Bork's beard. A portion of the acoustic performances from this program were issued on a double-disc WFMU donation-solicitation compilation titled "Upsalapalooza" [still available for $12 as of 2013] from WFMU; see http://store.wfmustore.org/upsalapalooza.html] in 1995.

"Lincoln" (1988-1989)[edit]

Where does the source material from "Snowball in Hell" come from?[edit]

Krauss, 1994: "It's a dub off of something I gave Flansburgh for his birthday in 1985. I bought it at a bookstore in my hometown in New Jersey, and it's from a tape from some kind of series on how to manage your time effectively. I saw it on a rack with a bunch of tapes on how to make the most money in your life, how to relax.. It was just a bunch of 'how-to' cassette tapes. I was just flipping through them, and Flansburgh's birthday was coming up; I came across 'How To Manage Your Time Effectively', and I thought, 'Flansburgh will find a way to use this.' And so I gave it to him for his birthday. And we ended up putting it in 'Snowball'."

Why are the Johns so infatuated with the '64 World's Fair?[edit]

The World's Fair-- a now-defunct world-famous bash celebrating technology & invention-- was a huge event in its heyday, drawing thousands upon thousands of wide-eyed spectators to observe the festival. John Linnell visited the '64 World's Fair as a child. Obviously, it made a profound impression on him. The Fair turned up as a mysterious, unknown kind of alternate world in Linnell's "Ana Ng"-- "All alone at the '64 World's Fair / 80 dolls yelling 'Small Girl After All' / Who was at the Dupont Pavilion? / Why was the bench still warm? Who had been there?" Flansburgh has been known to hunt all '64 World's Fair items obsessively, recently proudly noting that he had finally located the '64 World's Fair souvenir record.

What is "Purple Toupee" about?[edit]

"Purple Toupee" is sung from the vantage point of someone the Johns' age, born in the tail end of the '50s or very early 1960's, who was alive during the '60s but has only the vaguest recollections of what it was all about. This person's memories of '60s politics, although declared in an authoritative tone, are totally muddled and shambolic. To this person, the only real link he has with the '60s are the flashy clothes: the "purple toupee and gold lame" of the chorus. The clothes are the representation of the entire decade, politics and all. (If this interpretation does not sit well with you, I wish to inform you that it comes straight from John Linnell.)

Why are the lyrics wrong/out of order in the liner notes?[edit]

Because Flansburgh, not paying great attention to detail, typed them up at work. The lyrics on "Piece of Dirt" are the original lyrics that were later re-written.

What's the deal with the cover art?[edit]

Created by zithermaster/furniture craftsman Brian Dewan, it pictures John Linnell's great-grandfather (L), Louis T. Linnell, and Flansburgh's grandfather, whom he identifies as General Hospital. The monument, which sits in Flansburgh's apartment, stands slightly higher than a television set on an average-size TV stand. The photos in question also appear in the "Ana Ng" video.

Why are there extra words to "Piece Of Dirt" in the lyric book?[edit]

The extra words are heard on various live versions of the song (including the first-ever performance, on New Year's 1988) but are not sung on the album. Although the recorded performance was later altered, the lyric sheet remained the same.

Identification Questions[edit]

I enjoyed Adam Bernstein's videos for TMBG. What else has he done?[edit]

Well, this is only a partial list, but I know of the following:

  • B-52's, "Love Shack" video
  • ADRIAN BELEW, "Oh Daddy" video
  • FRANK BLACK, "Headache" video
  • "IT'S PAT: THE MOVIE", director
  • NICKELODEON: Various shorts + other stuff
  • RAGE TO LIVE, "Enough Is Never Enough" video
  • "Santa & Marilyn: The True Story" short movie
  • WEEN, "Push Th Little Daisies" video

Where was the video shot for[edit]

"Puppet Head"?[edit]

The Giants' first video, "Puppet Head", was shot in New York City-- Williamsburg, to be exact-- with Adam Bernstein in 1986. The video was filmed on what NME called a "Brando-style water- front, a derelict wasteland from which ferries used to operate, shipping folk over the river to East 14th Street in Manhattan." The Williamsburg Bridge looms in the background of the location, of which Linnell says, "I had a bike stolen out from under me riding across there!"

"Don't Let's Start"?[edit]

"Don't Let's Start" was filmed at the site of the '64 World's Fair in New York City. The large arena-styled amphitheatre in which the Johns are bouncing around was the centre of activity at the Fair.

"Ana Ng"?[edit]

The "Ana Ng" video was filmed at a fireman's training center in Wards Island, New York.

"Purple Toupee"?[edit]

The "Purple Toupee" video was filmed at Coney Island. [Thanks to flparker@woodlawn.uchicago.edu (Francesca Lynn Parker) for this answer.]

"They'll Need A Crane"?[edit]

"TNAC" was filmed in Central Park.

"Rabid Child" (also see 4.3.6)?[edit]

"Rabid Child" was shot in Flansburgh's kitchen.

Is there a real...[edit]

Chess Piece Face?[edit]

Chess Piece Face was the derogatory nickname assigned to a guy that the Johns worked with at a record store when they were in high school. The guy's exact name has since been lost to time.

Rabid Child?[edit]

Rabid Child is not known to be based on any specific person, but a famous country tune, "Teddy Bear" (once by Red Sovine), tells a similar story of a disabled CB operator.

Ana Ng?[edit]

The most popular Chinese (or, according to Flansburgh, Vietnamese) name in the New York telephone directory. No special connection, but the Johns say that it was not written from their perspective but that of someone on the opposite side of the world from Vietnam (hence "Make a hole with a gun _|_ to the name of this town..." etc).

Toddler Hiway?[edit]

A Massachusetts-based Toys R Us apparently existed at one time wherein the manager of the store would fill the parking lot with new toys for the kids to test out and play with before the store opened each morning. This particular toy store is the basis for Toddler Hiway.

Sadly, the Cross-Eyed Bear?[edit]

The 'Sadly, The Cross-Eyed Bear' of "Hide Away, Folk Family" fame is, in fact, nothing more than a bad Catholic-school pun. In an old hymn, the line 'Gladly the Cross I'd bear' is sung-- mutated by Sunday school smartasses into 'Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear'. In keeping with the song's disconsolate tone, the bear's name was changed to 'Sadly'.

"Rabid Child" video?[edit]

That depends on how you define "real". Flansburgh made the rather unusual video in his kitchen; it consisted of little more than Flansburgh hugging a door jamb and staring dreamily at the camera. No, you -can't- get copies of it anywhere.

Who is/are...[edit]

Kurtis Blow?[edit]

Kurtis Blow, as in "you're free to come and go or talk like Kurtis Blow" of "Where Your Eyes Don't Go" fame, was a famous rapper of the mid- to early-1980's who released several awful rap albums on Mercury Records. One major hit was "Basketball", wherein he implored listeners to go "to the hoop, y'all".

Margaret Seiler?[edit]

Margaret Seiler was the woman who was responsible for introducing Flansburgh to Bar/None co-president Glenn Morrow. It was she who placed the demo in Morrow's hands, and it is also her sonorous tones which can be heard on "Boat Of Car".

James McIntyre?[edit]

James McIntyre was a member of the high-school clan of which the young Johns were a part-- a group of highly intellectual, clever, and highly literate kids who had an irrefutable lust for life and the pursuit of knowledge. The most talented and gifted of these kids was not Flansburgh or Linnell, but James McIntyre-- who, while still in high school, was writing for the Boston Phoenix, spinning records on the local community radio station (eventually becoming the director), and performing random acts of extreme intelligence. McIntyre was a tremendous influence on Flansburgh and Linnell-- Flansburgh credits him for being the first to play him the Ramones-- but, sadly, his life was claimed as one of the earliest victims of the then-unnamed AIDS virus circa 1983.

Ouida Bailey?[edit]

Ouida Bailey was a far-out science teacher at Lincoln-Sud High, which the Johns attended. She is, incidentally, still alive and well.

those old guys in the "They'll Need A Crane" video?[edit]

From the Winter 1995 Newsletter:
"They are professional old guys. The drummer worked for Frank Sinatra in the 50s. The bass player is retired from music and currently writes crosswords for the Daily News, and the keyboard guy is an actor."