#49 – “Don’t Let’s Start” (1986)

They Might Be Giants

L.K.: AAAAHHH WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF ALL THE GOOD SONGS.

A.S.: I’m enjoying discussing all these undisputed classics/popular favorites, but we’re setting ourselves up for just, I dunno, five lousy kids songs in a row at some point.
L.K.: We are going to get 10 “Fingertips”/McSweeney’s songs, followed by “Ten Mississippi”.
A.S.: We’ve had a disproportionately large number of really great songs and a disproportionately few number of “Fingertips”.
L.K.: Before we actually say anything much about the song itself, I just want to state that the single mix was actually the only version of this song I’d heard for years and years, because that was the one that was on all the reissues and compilations and things. Now that I am the proud owner of the pink album on vinyl, I can say that it still weirds me out to hear the song in its original mix. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s still noticeable.
A.S.: Noticeable especially around the “I don’t want to live in this world anymore” part about two minutes into the song; the single version has a prominent synth-bass part missing in the album version.
L.K.: I mostly just notice the echoey-ness of the drums or weird things like that.
A.S.: On the contrary, I’ve known the album version far longer, so it’s a bit weird hearing the single mix whenever I watch the music video or listen to Then or Miscellaneous T or whatever. I wonder why that was the case, why there was even a single mix of this at all. This, “(She Was A) Hotel Detective”, “Sleeping in the Flowers”… The art of the single mix (if such a thing exists) is something that completely evades me.
L.K.: Well, the “Sleeping In The Flowers” one was a radio edit, and “Hotel Detective” was actually more noticeably different from the DLS single mix. I can’t say I know too much about why it is the way it is. Oh man, let’s talk about this music video. I want to talk about the music video. (I can’t believe we got two songs with videos in a row!)
A.S.: Yes, the music video.
L.K.: Like most TMBG music videos, it’s… the Johns jumping around for about two-and-a-half minutes.
A.S.: In Flushing Meadows.

L.K.: But they’re jumping around in the ruins of the New York State Pavilion, from the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens!

A.S.: Yep!
L.K.: I desperately want to make a pilgrimage there before that thing either collapses or is torn down. The floor is a map of New York, but while it was cracked in 1986 when John Linnell was rolling around on it, it’s almost completely destroyed now. I think there was some project going on to restore the map though. I think they were actually removing the tile from the floor of the pavilion to be restored and reassembled elsewhere.
A.S.: I’d be very surprised if it gets torn down, honestly. I feel like New York City would have half the mind to respect such a significant historical site.
L.K.: Nobody’s been moving to tear it down so far, but if it’s left to the elements a few more decades it’ll probably come apart on its own unless people take care of it… Enough about the building though (even though I love that building). This is where the carpet hats made their music video debut. For that, I think we can all be grateful. The giant William Allen White heads are also a (possibly unintentionally) hilarious touch.
A.S.: This video, perhaps more than any other, utilizes a lot of props and symbols that would later crop up in many other places.
L.K.: THE PIPE! To shoot this video they basically played an extremely slowed-down version of the song, and then John Linnell had to learn how to lip-synch to that. Then they sped everything up for the final video so that it synched with the song when played at normal speed, hence the spastic movements of John and John.
A.S.: It’s all done entirely without rhyme or reason or meaning, and it’s just amazing.  Complete irreverence and idiosyncrasy.
L.K.: If I recall correctly, I think John Linnell later expressed some displeasure at the shots of him blowing up the accordion, which were apparently put in to create some attempt at a sense of narrative to the video.
A.S.: “D world destruction” I guess.
L.K.: They Might Be Giants don’t want plotlines! Or videos at all related to their lyrics.
A.S.: I wish I knew a bit more about the history of music videos or what sort of direct influence Bernstein’s videos had on MTV, because I have a feeling that this sort of irreverent approach just wasn’t commonplace prior to these videos. Although I really have nothing to back that up.
L.K.: Adam Bernstein, on working with the Johns: “It’s fun working with the Giants because they are very contrary. They  have a real aversion to the imagery having any direct response to the  lyrics. They want to be as oblique as possible, and with their music,  it’s gotten increasingly oblique to the point of complete  impenetrability. They are real tough customers; it’s very hard to sell them something,  because they’re very into controlling their world. It was good  directorial practice, because if I had an idea, I had to figure out  exactly how to phrase it so that I wouldn’t set them off. Or, you have  to figure out how to sell them so that they would eventually like the  idea.”
A.S.: I’m just learning that Bernstein also directed the “Baby Got Back” video. I feel like it was probably a bit easier to sell Sir Mix-A-Lot the idea of dancing on a giant butt.
L.K.: Are you serious? Talk about a video that is about as far removed from TMBG’s stuff as possible. I mean, they’re peaches instead of butts, but they might as well be butts.
A.S.: Oh come on, they’re BUTTS.
L.K.: They might be butts.
A.S.: If we want to get a little closer to TMBG (aside from Frank Black’s “Headache”, as we’ve mentioned), he also directed Ween’s “Push Th’ Little Daisies”.
L.K.: Ah, I do remember reading that.
A.S.: So there’s that “Don’t Let’s Start” demo, which is pretty significantly different from the final recording.
L.K.: Oh yeah, that’s such a weird little baby version of the final song.
A.S.: A mere shell of the finished version. Different key, completely lacking the verses, has all those goofy sound effects.
L.K.: A lot slower too. Weirdly mellow, but with handclaps. Flansburgh on it:  “It’s difficult to fake freshness… you can’t get your virginity back.” Pfffffft Flans what are you even talking about, what even
A.S.: …And then at some point, Linnell made the wise decision to completely revamp the song, add the verses, and turn it into what is still one of the absolute greatest songs in the discography.
L.K.: Yep. Even now, it’s still a ton of fun live. Speaking of which…
A.S.: Yes, and speaking of the carpet hats…
L.K.: We definitely need to talk about live performances of this song because there are some truly amazing ones out there from the tape machine duo days. The best is from this “Randee of the Redwoods” thing on MTV in 1988…
A.S.: The “I don’t want to live in this world anymore” part in that performance is one of the greatest moments in any of their live performance, at least from what I’ve seen.
L.K.: Back when the video was on YouTube (it has since been removed because Viacom sucks), I think I rewatched that one part of the video about 50 times in a row. It seriously is the greatest thing, found after a carpet-hatted performance of “Shoehorn With Teeth”

A.S.: And the song has, I guess unsurprisingly, translated well to the full-band setting.
L.K.: It’s one of the few songs Dan Miller doesn’t play on, which already makes it feel like kind of a throwback. Flans can’t bounce around as effortlessly as he could when he was in his 20s, but he still makes a noble effort. Danny Weinkauf on the other hand, does a magnificent job of hopping around in circles every time they get to the chorus.
L.K.: Let’s talk lyrics.
A.S.: Incredible set.  Pretty quintessential humor/pathos balancing here.
L.K.: When people talk about the whole “funny but sad” thing this is the sort of song they tend to hold up as an example.
A.S.: A lot of it is complete nonsense, so that when the heavy hitters come along, they hit.
L.K.: You get “Wake up and smell the cat food/In your bank account” and then you also get “Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful…” followed by “Deputy Dawg dog a ding dang depadepa.”
A.S.: Yeah, as much as people go on about the “everybody dies” line, it’s seldom noted that it’s immediately undermined by the stupid “Deputy dog” line.
L.K.: It’s like this weird balancing act between total nonsense and stuff that would seem really melodramatic in most other contexts. People always quote the first part of that verse… and then stop. Just the parts about death. “Everybody dies frustrated and sad,” as Sarah Vowell said, it’s “kind of a downer idea”. It’s also worth mentioning that I love his need to include the apostrophe when spelling out the word “DON’T” in the lyrics.
A.S.: Sadness and nihilism do win in the end of this one, when in the song’s climax, Linnell shouts “I don’t want to live in this world anymore.” But just the sheer joy of the music turns that into a triumphant slogan of sorts.
L.K.: Yes, “I don’t want to live in this world anymore” is ironically one of the most triumphantly declared lines in… most of TMBG’s output. I can’t really think of any other competitors.
A.S.: “A leg”?
L.K.: Yeah, that is such an epic leg, man. Or “He ended up really, really, really sad.”
A.S.: Linnell is just so good at those sorts of lyrics.
L.K.: Like with “Birdhouse In Your Soul”, the music to this song predates the lyrics. Even when he’s scrambling to fit syllables to notes though, John Linnell always seems to manage to come up with something good.
A.S.: Just the right set of meaningless lyrics with some stingers thrown in.
L.K.: You know, I think that’s probably part of why they’re such good songs, why Linnell has such a knack for these little pop masterpieces: getting the music right first. Because if you’ve got a great song, you can afford to have a little bit of nonsense in the lyrics.
A.S.: Most people I know, you and I included, notice a good melody before noticing a good set of lyrics.
L.K.: I notice the song weeks, months, sometimes even years before I notice the lyrics.
A.S.: It’s a real gift to have that knack for creating good melodies. Flansburgh too, they both have it.  To turn them out at the rate they do too.
L.K.: And both songwriting halves of TMBG have a pretty ridiculous gift for melodic hooks. The music is what sold me on them as a band in the first place, which is why I find it so odd that most other people I’ve spoken to online seem to have been drawn to them by their lyrics first.

A.S.: I’m with you on this.  The music sells me on every band.
L.K.: I mean (controversial opinion time!) I don’t even think the Johns are necessarily the greatest overall lyricists either, but their writing works well for them.
A.S.: Maybe we can discuss this at another point; this post is getting a bit lengthy.
L.K.: Yeah, I feel like I’ve just opened up a whole can of worms here.
A.S.: Eh, we’ll keep it open for a while.  Maybe we’ll close it when we come across a set of lyrics you’re not particularly fond of. The opposite of “Don’t Let’s Start”.
L.K.: The opposite of “Ana Ng” (still the best set of lyrics to a TMBG song, for my money).
A.S.: I’m a “Crane” devotee.
L.K.: God, that bridge… with our luck, we’ll wind up having to discuss Crane tomorrow…
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