Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
They Might Be Giants defied the major-label curse with <i>Flood</i>

They Might Be Giants defied the major-label curse with Flood

In the fledging “alternative rock” world of 1990, the words “major-label debut” were greeted with a mix of anticipation and dread. Cheers to the fact that your favorite band was finally being recognized, jeers to the fact that the major-label machine may chew them up and spit them out, leaving a tame, shiny version of said band in its wake—a sadly familiar tale.

Leave it to two boundary busters like John Flansburgh and John Linnell to upend even that familiar trope: They Might Be Giants’ third album and major-label debut, Flood, which came out 30 years ago this month, still stands as the band’s watershed moment. “In so many ways, when people tell the standard ‘We got signed and it sucked’ stories, we had the opposite experience, and I feel very grateful that it was so positive,” says Flansburgh now. Rather than having to kowtow to its new higher-ups at Elektra, the two-man band leaned even harder into its alternative-in-an-alternative-world musical offerings: one guy with an accordion, another with a guitar, who often used a metronome for percussion and played around with a Casio, whose lyrics preached adages like “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful” over a deceptively cheery pop background. The two Johns had gone to school together in New York, lived in the same apartment building in Brooklyn, and released They Might Be Giants’ self-titled debut in 1986 (featuring “Don’t Let’s Start”), followed by Lincoln (“Ana Ng”) in 1988, both on Bar/None.

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

For what would turn out to be their fateful third release, the pair signed with Elektra. But “they’ve never really relied on being signed… they play the songs they want to play,” explains Sue Drew, Elektra’s then-VP of A&R, in the hard-to-find TMBG documentary Gigantic: A Tale Of Two Johns (the DVD is currently $88.50 on Amazon). “They’ve opened the doors for other alternative artists. They’ve really been the vanguard of alternative, and I think that their importance can’t be underestimated.”

Looking back on the Elektra transition, Flansburgh describes, “Up to that point, we had been like a bedroom project. We had been making 4-track recordings with very few elements, and it was all very home-brew. And that’s a difficult thing to transition out of. I think our first couple of albums have a magical quality to them, but it’s like the magical quality of something that’s entirely cloistered and just working with these very crude tools and figuring out ways to make it work. The thing that’s magnificent about Flood is that it’s sonically satisfying, and part of that is that there was some emerging technology that complemented the way we worked. Then the other thing is that we had this big budget because we had a major-label deal, so it was just very fortuitous that the stars aligned at that moment.” Yet, as Drew stated, it’s impossible to calculate how many other bands were influenced by the fearless experimentation contained in Flood’s vast plethora of songs.

As the Johns announce in the Flood promo video, the album offered 19 tracks instead of the standard 10 at the time (“and that’s why our record is better,” maintains Flansburgh in the video). The college-rock world was making inroads that year with albums like Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual De Lo Habitual and Sonic Youth’s Goo, but TMBG defied classification even by those alterna-standards. If there’s a single word to describe the ambitious Flood, it’s “cinematic.” Many of those songs barely top (or don’t even top) two minutes; one only has two words (the hilarious and on-point “Minimum Wage,” which features only the song’s title and the sound of a whip-crack to portray the cattle-like treatment of the lower-waged worker).

But any of its tracks could be spun off into their own individual universes, their own short films—like “Dead,” which is backed only by a plaintive piano while overlapping vocals describe being reincarnated as an expired bag of groceries (“I’m still alive and there’s nothing I want to do”). The pesky barbed-wire parameters of genre definition are tossed aside, as TMBG delve into a country-western saga (“Lucky Ball & Chain”), take a political stance (“Your Racist Friend”), craft a surreal narrative for “Particle Man” and his pals, and offer a love story steeped in the synths of the previous decade (“Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love”). Even 30 years later, Flood never sounds dated, but compelling—a rich and imaginative sonic journey that leaves you breathless to see where it’s headed, no matter how many times you’ve heard it before.

The album kicks off with an orchestral flourish, an intro that asks “Why is the world in love again?” and answers its own question by announcing “A brand new record / For 1990.” It then kicks into the record’s (and band’s) best song, “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” a desperate plea for affection from a protective nightlight. “Birdhouse”’s hook goes beyond irrepressible into a straight-up earworm (“Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch / Who watches over you”), an alchemic creative moment that resulted in the song that still closes the band’s shows. (Elektra reportedly sold promotional blue plug-in night lights.)

They Might Be Giants spent most of their major-label recording budget on just four of Flood’s 19 songs: “Birdhouse,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” “Your Racist Friend,” and “We Want A Rock,” aided by legendary producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. Flansburgh describes, “They had produced hits for Madness and Morrissey, and they’d done ‘Come On, Eileen,’ which was a huge hit. They were commercially England’s biggest music producers at the time. The fact that they were interested was a much bigger get for the record company than getting us.”

That relationship proved to be advantageous, helping Linnell and Flansburgh transition from a “home-brew” outfit to a more formidable setup. While nowadays, any bedroom producer can craft something in ProTools, “Back then, you didn’t have any access, you didn’t have any flight hours,” Flansburgh describes. “It was all earn as you learn, on-the-job training. So working with Clive and Alan was like a crazy full-immersion master class in how song structure works, how sonics work, how instruments interact successfully, how to put effects on vocals, how to make things not sound corny—like a million tricks that were pouring out of these guys. I feel like we got so much more out of working with them than a bunch of good-sounding songs. They were really generous with us. They didn’t need to be helpful to us, but they were incredibly kind and cool.”

Just one example: Although Flansburgh worked on the demo production for “Birdhouse,” at first he didn’t actually have a musical part in it. “There was a point where the song was turning into quite a production with all the bells and whistles on it. And for very selfish reasons, I was like, ‘Hey, guys, this song still doesn’t have a guitar.’ ’Cause I was just thinking if this is going to be the song we’re going to be touring on for 14 months, it would be nice if I had something to do on stage besides shake a tambourine, y’know? Alan Winstanley had the brainwaves to bring in one of those huge Marshall amps, that are as tall as you are, and I had never played one before. I plugged in, and it just sounded insane and bombastic and wild. I just played the bass line, and it’s very much the sonic glue of the song that you hear now. I was so relieved, and he was so generous to figure out a way to have me participate in this thing. Now it seems like my part is like the rhythm spine of the song, but that was not a given at all, and I think that people who were less kind would have just pushed me out of the room.” Of course, that 14 months turned into 30 years of touring on “Birdhouse.”

“Birdhouse” also became Flood’s primary video, translating an unsettling message to the band’s fans that belied the sweet nature of the song itself. As the Johns play on stage in an abandoned theater, a crowd wearing matching outfits surrounds them on bicycles. Then the members of that crowd all don the same mask and trudge around the band mechanically, wearing signs that say “Stop Rock Video,” a message against conformity as strong as The Replacements’ non-video for “Bastards Of Young.” Flansburgh explains, “I think the idea of placards and having people protesting in a rock video was an interesting idea, and what better thing to protest in a rock video than a rock video itself?” He also admits that he and his partner were a bit loathe to put themselves as front-and-center in the videos as they eventually did. “For a long time, we were just like, ‘Can we keep us out of it?’ But that’s not a very practical way to approach being in a band. I mean, when you’re making rock videos, I guess the cheapest prop you’ve got around is your face.”

The 1960s beach-party-soundtrack vibe of “Twisting” was a follow-up single released from Flood, but it eventually became overshadowed by the band’s cover of a 1953 song by The Four Lads that has become something of a signature. “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” has now appeared everywhere from Tiny Toons to the 2016 release of the video game Just Dance, and is less a rock song than a geographical anthem that would fit right into a 1930s black-and-white nightclub musical. Flansburgh explains about the origins of the rare TMBG cover: “My aunt and mom used to play that song on the piano when I was a kid. At family get-togethers they would just sing it, so that was how I was introduced to the song. I didn’t reference the original by The Four Lads’ recording when we put together the tracks for that song; I just played the song that I knew, which is a nice way to liberate yourself from the original.”

The rock vibe unexpectedly swings back around in the story song “Your Racist Friend,” describing “the loveliest party that I’ve ever attended,” which is marred by the titular partygoer. They Might Be Giants get about as political as they’ve ever gotten by stating, “Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding,” a sentiment underlined by Flansburgh’s searing guitar solo. (“Yeah, that is a crazy 10 seconds of music,” he agrees.)

Flansburgh also explains the band’s inclination to expand the parameters of rock, which they do over and over again on Flood. “I think one of the things that’s very tricky and tough about us in how we fit into the rock culture is that people often think that our expression in a way is kind of anti-rock. I mean, we wouldn’t be in the rock business if we didn’t love rock music. There are a lot of people who want their rock music very dangerous and druggie and very mysterious. And I completely understand that and respect that, but it doesn’t really reflect the kind of people that we are. We’re just being authentic to ourselves, or trying to be, and trying to do interesting work, and that’s who we are. We don’t need that many more Keith Richardses.” “Particle Man” has also had a second life over at Tiny Toons Adventures, and sounds like the kind of song a one-man band could have created, carrying a bass drum on his back.

As Flood progresses, it gets less and less easy to classify, with inspiration and music styles continuing to spring from the most unexpected sources, as the band maintains that everyone just wants a rock “to wind a piece of string around” (“We Want A Rock”) and rants because “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair” (“a song that notes the exaggerated importance of petty concerns when everything else is going haywire,” Linnell told Rolling Stone in 2009). The calypso synth hijinks of “Hearing Aid” hearken back to the pair’s lo-fi past, “Whistling In The Dark” depicts a conversation between two prisoners communicating to each other through their separate jail cells, and the jazzy “Hot Cha” is an ode to a horse in the old Parker Brothers board game Derby Days. Until finally, that “cinematic” motif wraps things up (after the band’s eponymous Monkees-like signature song): “Road Movie To Berlin” makes a weary exit after such an elaborate sonic journey via a nod to the Hope-Crosby movies of the ’40s: “We’re in a road movie to Berlin / Can’t drive out the way we drove in / So sneak out this glass of bourbon / And we’ll go.”

By 2020, They Might Be Giants have released 22 studio albums (including many children’s music releases in the 2000s), several just in the past few years, after the 2015 revival of their famous Dial-A-Song service. But the Johns know that Flood remains their calling card. Says Flansburgh: “The thing about Flood, if you never heard They Might Be Giants before, it seems to be the one that people point to as where to start. Is it actually our best album? I don’t know. It’s a pretty sonically satisfying experience.” It’s also one with an extremely slow burn: Released in 1990, it went gold in 1993, then finally platinum in 2009, illustrating the record’s longevity.

The band is about to kick off a 30th-anniversary tour for the album, which will feature Flood in its entirety, along with another set. It’s a fitting continuation of the ambitious project that began all those years ago. “It was important to us when we started making the records that they hold up to repeated listening,” as Flansburgh states. “But at the same time, ultimately, we knew that the spirit of what we were doing was sort of exceptional.” Three decades later, Flood still captures the lightning-in-a-bottle moment that basically established They Might Be Giants’ still-vibrant career, while paving the way for the aspiring experimental musicians that followed.