Monday, July 10, 2017

Brooklyn's Ambassadors of Love: More from the TMBG mailbag!

The two Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell, choke themselves in this photo by Chris Cuffaro (December 1990).

I saved pretty much everything, every insignificant little scrap of paper, from my early days as a fan of the alternative rock duo They Might Be Giants in the 1980s and '90s. I have already shared some of that material with you here and here, but there is much more of it in my archives. Hence this third (and probably final) post. 

Just to show you I was not kidding when I said I saved everything from that era, here is a packing slip that was included with a TMBG baseball cap I ordered in 1992. I'm including it here because of the whimsical coffee cup design and to give you some insight into how low-tech TMBG's merch business was in the early '90s.

An official TMBG packing slip (1992).

And, yes, I still have -- and wear -- the hat.

Wearing my "TMBG: Building Better Music" hat (2017).
In the pre-internet era,
They Might Be Giants kept fans updated by means of printed newsletters like the one below. This particular example is from early 1990, a crucial time in the band's history. John Flansburgh and John Linnell had made the move from Bar/None Records to Elektra Records by then, and TMBG had just released Flood, its major label debut and still its best-selling album. With tracks like "Birdhouse In Your Soul" and "Particle Man," the LP brought They Might Be Giants lots of new fans, a fact that is addressed in the newsletter. 

But the fan club was still a humble, homemade operation by today's standards. Note the request for fans to send in two SASEs (that's "self-addressed stamped envelopes" for you youngsters). The back side of the newsletter makes reference to the aborted Purple Toupee EP and mentions a possible B-side anthology from Bar/None. That turned out to be Miscellaneous T from 1991. (More on that later.) Other items of note: updates about Flansburgh's new glasses and Linnell's new sax, plus a whimsical Mark Marek drawing of the title character from the 1942 children's book The Poky Little Puppy. TMBG appropriated that image, originally created by Swedish-American illustrator Gustaf Tenggren, and used it on merchandise in the late '80s and early '90s. And, as always, there are coffee cups.

TMBG newsletter from early 1990 (page 1).

TMBG newsletter from early 1990 (page 2).

Steve Skovran
What else do I have to share today? Well, here's a tour itinerary from December 1988. TMBG would have still been promoting Lincoln at that time. You can tell this list was typed on an actual typewriter, with a crudely xeroxed "They Might Be Giants" logo stuck to the top of the page. This was a very busy month for the Johns, taking them across the United States. They had very little time off to relax and enjoy the holidays that year.

Beyond that, this scrap of paper is like a glimpse into a lost world. Club Lingerie, a former hot spot on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, is long gone. So is the I-Beam in San Francisco. Ditto One Step Beyond in Santa Clara. The Starry Night in Portland bit the dust in 1991. The Sundance Saloon in Bozeman, Montana seems to have gone the way of all flesh decades ago, maybe not even surviving past 1988. Wally Gators in Madison, Wisconsin is likewise defunct.

Maybe the most puzzling listing is for a December 21, 1988 appearance on the MTV talk show Mouth To Mouth. Anyone remember this one? It was hosted by a comedian named Steve Skovran, who went on to be a prolific TV writer-producer (Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, etc.). The short-lived, totally forgotten show featured comedy by Skovran, live performances by rock bands, and animated bumpers by Bill Plympton.

A TMBG tour itinerary from December 1988.

Speaking of Lincoln, here's a press release from Bar/None regarding that album. It's a nice little snapshot of where the band was nearly 30 years ago, thrilled to have shared the stage with LL Cool J and Suzanne Vega. Also dig this bit of wisdom from Flansburgh: "I think we've also learned that our arrangements might actually be less fussy than they used to be. We tend to leave the kitchen sink in the kitchen now."

A press release for Lincoln from Bar/None Records (1988).

I've been debating how best to present some of these newsletters, since the text is smaller and may not be legible if shrunken down to blog-friendly size. And yet, I still want to preserve the original formatting of the pages. So rather than chop them up into pieces, I've decided to present them at a smaller size while encouraging readers to CLICK on them to see them at a larger size. Is that acceptable?

Okay, then, here is a newsletter whimsically titled "The Might Be Times" from December 18, 1990. This had been a year of triumph for They Might Be Giants, with Flood and "Birdhouse In Your Soul" burning up the charts in England. This newsletter gave the boys a chance to crow about their success, while also working in some information about Dial-A-Song and Miscellaneous T.

A TMBG newsletter from December 1990. Click to see at larger size.

Conveniently printed on the back of the December 1990 newsletter was the Winter 1991 newsletter. This was more housekeeping-type stuff about the mailing list itself, with reminders about address changes and the like. But there is some background information about William Allen White, the Kansas newspaper editor whose image was used in many TMBG videos and concerts in the early days. Again, you'll have to click on this to see it at a legible size.

Winter 1991 newsletter. Click to see at larger size.

You thought we were done? Don't be silly. The TMBG discography is now so unwieldy that it takes a team of experts to keep track of it all, but in the early days, the band's entire output could fit comfortably onto a single piece of paper. The fan club occasionally sent out copies of the discography back then, allowing fans to keep up with all the releases, and here's an example from 1990. Again, you'll need to click to see them at a legible size. I guess what's interesting here is that the discography is broken up into two sections. The material from 1985-89 (the indie years) is on one side, and the material from 1990 onward (the major label years) is on the other. Also take note of the cartoon Johns from the "Hotel Detective" music video.

TMBG discography, page one. Click to enlarge.

TMBG discography, page two. Click to enlarge.

Getting back to the band's innovative music videos, TMBG put out a VHS compilation of them called simply The Videos 1986-1989. The following ad for the tape could scarcely be more bare-bones, but that's how They Might Be Giants rolled back then. The Videos 1986-1989 was originally VHS-only but later came out on laserdisc. I swear I had a copy of the LD version but must have gotten rid of it years ago, probably when it was made obsolete by the Direct From Brooklyn DVD and, of course, YouTube. Silly me. The thing is now a collector's item, fetching up to $80 on Ebay. Whoops.

This was TMBG's entire video output circa 1989.

I think I'll close with a reprint of They, an elaborate TMBG newsletter from the fall of 1991. Once again, you're going to have to click on these pages to see them at a more legible size. The fan club newsletters varied wildly in size and format from issue to issue. They seems like an attempt to create a standard magazine-type template, but it didn't last beyond this one issue. TMBG didn't have a new Elektra album to promote that year, but they did have the Miscellaneous T compilation from Bar/None. In addition, the fan club assembled two pages of "Arcana From The Archives" to share with fans. Some really fascinating little oddities here, concerning Dial-A-Song, Lincoln, and more. The last page of They is the typical "TMBG Information Bulletin," this time giving a progress report on Apollo 18 and teasing a TMBG songbook that never happened.

And then, my friends, there is this quaint announcement:
It's hard to believe it's been five years since TMBG's first album came out, but it has, so we decided to have a party. John & John and lots of past and present folks from TMB Productions, Bar/None Records, Hornblow Music Management and Dubway Studios (where They Might Be Giants was recorded) gathered at a Manhattan eatery earlier this month along with family, friends and assorted hangers on to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Giants' debut album. It was great seeing all those folks together again for the first time and a swell time was had by all.
Could they have known they'd still be doing this three decades later?

Fall '91 newsletter, page one. Click to enlarge.

Fall '91 newsletter, page two. Click to enlarge.

Fall '91 newsletter, page three. Click to enlarge.

Fall '91 newsletter, page four. Click to enlarge.