College radio classics: They Might Be Giants, “Don’t Let’s Start” (1988)


(Above: This video spellbound me the first time I saw it.)

Among the bands I discovered in college that stayed with me after my college radio days ended, I’d have to put They Might Be Giants at the top of the list.

The hard part about this piece was “which song do I pick?” I mean, anything from 1990’s Flood LP would have been perfect.  This came out during my brief stint at WIUS-FM in Macomb, and I think we played the entire album on that station despite no real crossover hits. That’s the album that gave us “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” which is a song that I will still turn up to this day.  (I believe I once backsold it as “If The Walrus is Paul, then I want to be the blue canary by the light switch.”) Other tunes on it are timeless: to wit, “Your Racist Friend” is one that perhaps should make a comeback in the current climate. (For that matter, “Minimum Wage” usually makes me laugh as well, but only now that I earn a little better than that number.) It was also this album that turned me on to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople), originally a hit for the Four Lads and covered faithfully on this album. Eclectic is one word for this band, and it’s the word that drew me to them.  And yes, that video for “Istanbul” is from Animaniacs.  There was a whole episode of that show set to TMBG tunes, which should permanently cement the band’s coolness.

Lincoln also gave us “Ana Ng,” which is the number that MTV’s 120 Minutes played ad infinitum and gave the band huge exposure.  It contains one of my favorite lyrics ever: “When I was driving once I saw this written on a bridge/I don’t want the world; I just want your half.”  (I also vaguely remember a few of us pounding on desks in the WLRA office in unison, but I could be hallucinating that.)  For that matter, the poetry of “Purple Toupee” also sounds good at full volume, if for no other reason to see who looks up at the line about “sticking fingers in the President’s ears” and “that’s how they got Johnson’s wax.”

But the song that I found first – and the one I started working into college shows first – was “Don’t Let’s Start.” In the spring of 1988 I was watching MTV late at night – most likely 120 Minutes – and saw this video with two guys holding giant heads while a third guy was singing.  I had no idea who the guy (the giant head) was, but the image was rather striking.  And then the words got me.  I hadn’t heard anything quite like it in a long time, and immediately thought “I need this for my show.”  That meant a trip to the now-defunct Red Tower Records in Orland Park, IL, a store which was kind enough to offer all DJs 10% off purchases if  you kept your business card on file.  My 10% share alone was what probably drove the store out of business.  Of course, since the guys who ran the place were pretty hip (one was named Keg, for cryin’ out loud), they had the record I needed, and I bought it.  It’s one of the pieces that survived several dozen moves after college, and every so often I give it a spin – cue burns and all – and transport myself back to the days of playing something on the air simply because *I* liked it, and not worrying about how it “tested with a target demographic.”

Thanks to the Internet, I can now finally answer a question I had for years: whose head is it?  A wonderful TMBG fan site, “This Might Be a Wiki,” explains that the face in question belongs to William Allen White, editor of the Emporia (KS) gazette for almost fifty years. He’s a huge figure in the Progressive movement of the 1920s, and wrote a famous piece called “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”  This band requires that you read a little.

See how well the song tests with you.  You can hear “Don’t Let’s Start” by clicking here.



2 thoughts on “College radio classics: They Might Be Giants, “Don’t Let’s Start” (1988)

  1. Ah, TMBG. Saw them twice in college, including a really, really great show in the MIT gym, of all places. (Yup, MIT has a gym, and not surprisingly, the sound is quite good by college-gym standards.)

    They started wearing thin on me about a year after I graduated from college, and I put them on only very, very occasionally now.
    They sure could write a catchy hook, though.


  2. Pingback: Ten albums: They Might Be Giants, Flood (1990) | 45 Ruminations Per Megabyte

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