Then: The Early Years (ICE ARTICLE)

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Jeff Gustafson

Nov 20, 1996, 3:00:00 AM11/20/96


Due January 21st on Restless, THEN: The EARLY YEARS is a boon for
longtime TMBG fans and recent converts alike. A 2 cd "Box Set", The
Early Years brings together the entirety of the Brooklyn based bands
three albums for Bar/None/Restless Records: 1986's self-titled
debut, 1988's Lincoln and 1991's B-side compilation Misc. T. the set is
fleshed out with 19 rare and previously unrealeased tracks. "The set has
a total of 72 tracks," Restless VP of Businesss Affairs, David Gerber
tells ICE "with each disc maxed out at 70 minutes of music>"

The origins of the Restless retrospective can be traced to an inspired
(and, somehow, typically Giants-like) Combination of fortuitous timing
and post-adolescent experience. "the immediate events that preceded this
thing were that we got the rights back to our early records," TMBG's
John Flansburgh tells ICE. "I was trying to think of the best way to
keep our back catalog in print, and-strange as it sounds- doing a
collection like this is exactly the kind of thing that raises the
profile of your early albums.

"When I was a teenager," Flansburgh continues, "I found out about the
Who through a bunch of $3.99-priced double albums reissued on MCA, which
were basically the first four albums bundled in two sets. I was as
tantalized by this incredible value and repackaging scheme as I was at
discovering the Who."

Clearly, The Earrly Years is far more than a cynical "repackaging
scheme," as it received the deluxe treatment from Flansburgh and
co-Giant John Linnell in everything from audio-fidelity to graphic
design. "I basically spent three days in my home studio with some
open-reel tape recorders no one had used in ten years," Flansburgh
explains, "Some of the tapes were already decaying, which was terrible,
really heartbreaking.

"We did a bit of EQ-ing on the tapes just because our tastes at the time
ran to the harshest, most treble-y sounds possible, when we thought that
a faster tempo and more treble would grab people's attention, because
wer were so scared that no one would listen." Although TMBG tweaked the
knobs a hair in the remastering process, Flansburgh offers comfort for
those dyed-in-the-wool types who liked the band's first few albums just
the way they were. "The new CDs will sound a bit warmer, with more 'low
end,' but it's not like a total Frank Zappa-like retread, screwing up
what you know about them. We just shined them up a bit. the casual
listener will hardly notice a change."

As has been standard practice since their debut, the Giants were
inimately involved in crafting the look and feel of the CD artwork.
"The design we chose was like Neil Young's DECADE, which, I think, is
the best kind of CD reissue package you can do, because it fits in with
your CD collection. I think it's a little pretentious when they do
these odd shaped box sets that you stick on the shelf. Ours look like
three CDs, but it's really two with a big, fat (32 page) booklet on the
inside. We wrote some pretty extensive liner notes, which gave us an
opportunity to tell the story of the band's early years."

For the most part, the tracks on THE EARLY YEARS are in chronological
order. To that end, Miscelaneous T is "split in half," notes
Flansburgh, "because half of it was actually recorded between our first
two albums, and half was recorded after the second album." Only the
bonus tracks, some of which appear at the end of each CD, are
non-chronological, "because we couldn't fit them all onto the end of the
second disc." In fact, all of the bonus tracks were recorded before
1986, making them at least as old as - if not older than - the band's
Bar/None debut.

Following is a list of the 19 bonus tracks, with commentary from

"The Critic Intro" - "It sounds like pull-quotes on the back of a book
describing how great it is. At the time, it was something that warmed
up crowds of complete strangers. It's basically a minute and a half of

"Now I That I Have Everything"-The first song on our demo (a 23 song,
pre-Bar/None cassette from 1985 sold at early TMBG shows, now prized by
collectors). That was the "official pop song" to make people think we
weren't going to send 'em away in droves."

"Mainstream U.S.A.-A 'Dial-A-Song' tune for years and years.
('Dial-A-Song' is the Giants music-via-telephone service) It's been a
pinata for the band ever since a producer told us it was an example of
how obtuse and unlistenable our material can be. the chorus of the song
is: 'Mainstream U.S.A./I flipped that guy the bird.'"

"Fake Out in Buenos Aires" - A Magnificent piece of obscura. In fact,
John and I had completely forgotten about it. It's very lush and slow
and strange. We recorded it for our first album, but we kept it off
because thought it would have appeared indulgent."

"Greek #3"- "Linnell, who is [art Hellenic, sing it in greek. we played
it for a couple of Greek people and they seemed interested and slightly

"Hope that I get Old Before I Die' (alternate version)-"Restless was
doing a polka album, and they were interested in rock bands that did
polka songs. Before we were signed, we tried to convince them to use
this song; thay had no interest in it, so we put it on our first album.
this is the original acoustic version."

"I'm Def"-" this song was probably written the second I heard the term
'I'm Def.' In 1984, the rap lingo in my community was coming fast and
furious and "I'm Def' seemed like one of the more fucked up new kinds
of slang. the song, though, has no relationship to rap music. I mean,
the only words to the song are:'I'm def/I got a job as a test pilot/I'm
listening to the radio.' Even though the title is drawn from this
popular culture reference, it' srelationship to it is completely
tangential which is the core of what makes they Might Be Giants a hard
band to explain.'

"Don't Let's Start (demo)-"It's a very, very short almost like a sketch
of the song. there's something about singing a song for the first time.
the way John sang the melody was very pure, direct and fresh. It's
difficult to fake can't get your virginity back.'

"85 Radio Special thank You" - "Another example of something we put
together unsolicited. Basically, we made a tape and sent it out to
radio stations as a promotional device for ouselves. We thought that
instead of sending college radio a tape of ours songs, which we were
sure the'd never play, we'd actually sedn them a piece of programming.
We created this fifteen minute radio show with crazy interviews and
spoken word things. the two minute version (on the box) is the most
interesting part of the recording.

"Kitten Intro"- "Based on a car commercial."

"Weep Day"-"Just a good osng we never put on a record."

"Big Big Whoredom"- "It's a little sad we never recorded a final version
of this song. When we did it live, we had a very impressive and strange
rhythm accompaniment. this version has Linnell playing guitar; it's a
lop-sided; both eyes-in-one-socket recording. Definitely less
accessible than our average song."

"Getting Sentimental Over You."---"We actually took lyrics from another
song and grafted them on to another piece of music, so it's not strictly
a cover."

"Become A Robot"---"this was another song we did for the Restless polka
album. It also got rejected. It's an over the top song that uses a
Fairlight, which was then a brand new invention, like a music sampler
and computer. Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel-every Brit art-rocker guy had
a Fairlight in the '80s."

"Which describes how you're feeling."---"We did another version of this
later in our shows. This is the original version."

"Swing is a Word"---"ONe of the first Dial-A-Song recordings, back in
'83. A very ugly song."

"Doris Bewitched"---A little soundbite.

"Counterfeit Fake"---this uses the very first drum machine I ever bought
two months before it officially came out in America. this song was
created with all the drum programs people had recorded while testing it
in the store. I was trying to figure out how this piece of eqiptment
worked, so it's very psychotic sounding. I though the title was kind of a Bob Dylan title that kind of folds in on itself.

"Children Singing Particle Man"---"Given to us in 1990 by a fan, who
taught music at an elementary school. He taught these children how to
sing 'Particle Man' (from FLOOD, TMBG's Elektra debut). It has that
out-of-tune upright piano accompaniment. It's hard not to smile when
listening to it."

"The songs on (the Early Years) say a lot about what technology was
avilable at the time," the band's manager, Jamie Kitman, tells ICE.
"and they stand as a testament to what a band of extremely limited means
but hightened creativity can put together. It was an exciting time;
they were toiling without any of the pressures of record contracts or
radio singles."

Is ther still more material from those days of toil? Or is Then: the
Early Years the extent of They Might Be Giants' closet recordings?
"There was some stuff that was just too embarrassing to put on the box,"
Flansburgh chuckles. "We were kids and we were drinking way too much
caffeine. I mean, I found a tape of John adn I performing a Yoko Ono
song when we were 17 years old. It's pretty amazing in a weird
way...but I don't think we're ready to go public with that."

Francesca Lynn Parker

Nov 24, 1996, 3:00:00 AM11/24/96


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