#116 – “Ana Ng” (1988)

Lincoln

A.S.: Oh boy.

L.K.: HOLY SHIT. Can I start this off by saying that this is my favorite TMBG song OF ALL TIME? OF ALL TIME.
A.S.: I wouldn’t go so far with that, but it is impossible to deny its greatness.
L.K.: It is absolute musical and lyrical perfection. Also it is up there with “Accidents Will Happen” on my list of Greatest Album Openers Of All Time. “Ana Ng”  totally grabs you right from that jagged guitar intro and then sort of sucks you in for the next 3 minutes or so.
A.S.: It’s an incredible pop moment, just… yeah, if you’re reading this, you probably don’t need us to tell you how amazing this song is.
L.K.: This is John Linnell’s pop genius at work here, full-throttle.
A.S.: I think it’s amazing that this and “Don’t Let’s Start” – probably the two most highly-regarded, canonical songs from the band ‘s earlier days have already popped up here. Perhaps it’s because of that high regard, but I’ve always sort of mentally linked the two songs together, even if “Don’t Let’s Start” is much more lyrically similar to another heavy hitter like “They’ll Need A Crane”.
L.K.: “Don’t Let’s Start” is more musically upbeat than either “Crane” or “Ana Ng” though.
A.S.: True. I guess it’s just something about a lot of those songs from the early years were just… I dunno, these jagged, strange, sad, sublime songs. There was something about them that vanished after the 1980s, which is fine because there have been obviously a mass of incredible songs since, but just this song and Lincoln as a whole.
L.K.: Like “Don’t Let’s Start” though, “Ana Ng” sort of hides its lyrical heavy-hitting statements in between lighter stuff.
A.S.: Right.
L.K.: There just some great, I mean god, the imagery of the opening lines I always find really awesome. “Make a hole with a gun perpendicular to the name of this town in a desktop globe.” I mean, it’s syllable-filling, yeah, but it’s also really distinct. It is the sort of thing that wedges in your brain and you aren’t really sure why. “Exit wound in a foreign nation.”
A.S.: I guess Linnell found inspiration for that line from a Pogo comic strip: “The other inspiration for [Ana Ng] was a Pogo comic strip. […] Some of the characters are digging a hole. They decide they’re going to dig to China, but one of the smarter characters pulls this huge revolver out of a drawer and shoots a hole ‘in the desktop globe.’ Then they look at the other side and the hole is in the Indian Ocean.”
L.K.: Yeah, I’ve heard that Pogo story many times, but the opening lines of “Ana Ng” are still just really compelling to me on their own merits. What a way to start a song. It’s even more interesting to compare the final lyrics of “Ana Ng” to the old Dial-A-Song demo.
A.S.: Yeah, the DAS demo is really quite different. Different key [at least in the version I have on MP3], different lyrics.
L.K.: You can tell that the main idea for the lyrics was there, but some of the particular phrases still had to get perfected.
A.S.: “I don’t want everything, I just want your half” – yeah, the finished version is better.
L.K.: You know, it’s amazing this song is as memorable as it is considering the unbelievable wordiness of its chorus.
A.S.: Yeah, that’s a catchy mess of notes, there.
L.K.: It took me YEARS before I actually knew what the words to the chorus were.
A.S.: Like a much simpler rendition of some of Zappa’s catchy-but-full-of-notes tunes. For uh, lack of a better term. And then we get the album version, which has another iconic music video.
L.K.: Oh yeah. Johns dancing awkwardly and holding photos of their grandfathers, and uh, other things. Lots of vintage junk store props were bought for this video.
A.S.: Maybe another reason I connect this with “Don’t Let’s Start” – both have creepy grinning Flansburghs in the videos.
L.K.: The fish were purchased for this video too, and uh… animals were harmed during the making of this music video.
A.S.: Oh yeah, what was the story with that?
L.K.: I don’t know. It’s briefly mentioned in the commentary on Direct From Brooklyn that the fish did not survive, although I don’t think anybody was quite sure why. It’s not like the fish are really undergoing any dangerous activity on film. They’re just swimming around with a bust of Chairman Mao or whatever. Maybe they were just very, very cheap fish.
A.S.: Speaking of images of famous people in this video, I really really want that JFK glass.
L.K.: I saw one on eBay once! TMBG fans were going nuts over it.
A.S.: That’s some iconic shit there!
L.K.: Yeah, there are so many weird props in this video… Cameras, taxidermied piranhas, rotary phones…
A.S.: And in terms of amazing choreography, as found in a lot of those early videos, I love the running they do around the two minute mark, followed by the long-shot handshake.
L.K.: Flans mentions their desire to avoid lipsynching as part of why there is so much weird dancing going on. There was also apparently some argument about avoiding any literal imagery in the video, and there IS a little bit of that in the video (but just a little bit).
A.S.: Certainly not enough to make it seem contrived or obvious; it ties the song and the imagery together subtly.
L.K.: There are a couple seconds of footage of a bridge though!
A.S.: And a phone.
L.K.: Which, the Johns being the Johns, drove them nuts. Or at least it drove Flansburgh nuts since he was the one bringing it up in the commentary track for the music video.
A.S.: Heaven forbid!
L.K.: TMBG just wouldn’t be TMBG if they weren’t a couple of neurotic control freaks. But anyway, weird video, very little relation to the song, and some very interesting location shooting at a fireman training ground (exterior shots) and an abandoned school on the lower east side (interior shots).
A.S.: And then the song became a “hit” and a fan favorite and remained fairly consistent in concert… until last year. Well, okay maybe not entirely. There was that brief time when they used to open the song with “Somebody Took My Eyeball”.
L.K.: Well, there’s also the variation in the bridge section, which as of recent years has evolved to consist of Flans singing “I don’t want the world, I just want your half” in a high, quiet little voice.
A.S.: To the tune of the chorus of “I’ve Got A Match”, nonetheless, so even though they never play that live anymore, there’s at least a shade of it in a lot of concerts. But I mean, last year saw a pretty major chance in the song’s performance – an extended, heavy, dissonant, almost noise-rock-ish introduction. I adore this change. I adore any chance the Johns get to play heavy.
L.K.: Oh yeah, the beginning of “Ana Ng” has gotten REALLY FUCKING INTENSE in the past 6 months or so. They even played it that way on Conan in January of this year.
A.S.: It’s just this glorious cacophony that is pretty rare in modern TMBG performances, so when it does hit, it hits hard.
L.K.: The most intense version I’ve heard is the one from Mohegan Sun last year. That was nuts.
A.S.: It was perfect, especially transitioning without pause from “Cowtown”.
L.K.: (Here is a very old “Ana Ng”… or this: “Ok…more songs now, I guess.”)
A.S.: (Oh man from the best early concert on YouTube.  Astralbee, whoever you are, you rule.)
L.K.: (“Breasts” – poor Flans)
A.S.: Well fuck that guy.
L.K.: I think it was a woman reviewing the concert, actually.
A.S.: Same sentiment, different gender.
L.K.: L.K.: Yeah but that makes it even WORSE that she’s calling him BREASTS
A.S.: Hey is Flansburgh yelling into the pickup of his guitar in that 1990 performance at the “I don’t want the world” part?
L.K.: Yeah, he is.
A.S.: Noisy TMBG might be the best TMBG.
L.K.: The Severe Tire Damage version also has Flans yelling that through his guitar pickups, though the weird thing about that version is that it’s an overdub on top of a live recording.
A.S.: Yeah, the live version from the 1994 NYC release.
L.K.: John Linnell making static noises. Not as interesting or cool as screaming through your guitar.
A.S.: True noise rockers. That part of the song though, just that line again, “I don’t want the world, I just want your half” is easily one of the most perfect lines I’ve ever heard in a pop song.
L.K.: I have heard stories of people painting said phrase on real-life bridges, but I have yet to see it with my own eyes. Heck, or even a clearly non-shopped photograph.
L.K.: I like how the song’s lyrics effectively just end with “And the truth is we don’t know anything”. I mean, the chorus is repeated a couple more times after that, but that’s where the song’s lyrics end. It’s true, we don’t know anything!
A.S.: It’s like Linnell just gives up and renders all the lyrics prior to it irrelevant. If I can share a personal story about that, because I do really hold that line near and dear to me, and what the hell is music if you can’t hold it near to you anyway, right?
L.K.: Yes, share away.
A.S.: I was in a long distance relationship a few years ago, and my girlfriend was visiting me at home.  It was the last day she was in town and we were both getting bummed out about it, and we were driving around listening to music.  Whatever we had on was only making us even sadder (probably Pet Sounds or Odessey and Oracle or something along those lines), so she wanted to lighten the mood a bit and put on Lincoln. But when that line came up, I had to just turn off the music entirely because it tore me apart. It just captured everything so perfectly. And then the subsequent launching right back into the song, with Linnell’s intensified vocals, “They don’t need me here and I know you’re there.” It’s beautiful, it really is.
L.K.: Man, I’m glad I spend all my time listening to music in a room by myself. Helps keep unwanted emotion out of it.
A.S.: I mean, it’s not a bad memory by any means, and I have other memories associated with it too (that kick-ass live version at Mohegan Sun), and I’m pretty good at not letting song associative memories get in the way of me enjoying the song on a more objective level. I remember our friend Leia of the Afternoon Naps once posted something on popular social networking website, Facebook, telling people not to ever let anyone or anything take a song from you or taint your perception of great music, which is 100% true, dear reader. But that is a memory I still hold dear, and I think it captures a point of the song pretty well.
L.K.: I mostly just remember listening to this song when I was 13 or so and loving it and having no idea what 90% of the lyrics were.
A.S.: What did you make of the 10% you did know?
L.K.: Oh, I don’t know, I didn’t pay attention. They were lyrics.
A.S.: Oh right.
L.K.: I just liked the music. Oh man, wait, I forgot to mention the 1964 World’s Fair makes a return in this song.
A.S.: Yeah, that’s another thing about the early years, they lost the whole allure of the 1964 World’s Fair. Another thing that ties a lot of those early “hits” together.
L.K.: You know, when I found out what really WAS at the DuPont Pavilion, I was pretty disappointed.
A.S.: I honestly still don’t know What was at the DuPont Pavilion? (Why was the bench still warm?  Who had-*gets shot, dies*)
A.S.: It’s a cool idea, but the dancing is pretty goofy.
L.K.: You know, both Johns went to the World’s Fair, but I sincerely doubt they actually remember anything from it. It’s just so weird that it had such a lasting effect on them.
A.S.: Oh yeah, they would have been, what 5 and 4 years old?
L.K.: Yeah.
A.S.: I mean, my Dad was slightly older but he still remembers it, used to tell me about it when I was younger. There was something about that fair.
L.K.: I mean, nothing that I went to when I was 4 or 5 made ANY sort of impression on me at all. But then again, there were never any World’s Fairs when I was growing up, and we never really went to anything big or fancy because there really isn’t anything big or fancy in Ohio.
A.S.: I mean there wasn’t really anything huge like that growing up in the 1990s in Connecticut either. Did we have any sort of positive/weird cultural phenomenon that left some crazy mark on us?
L.K.: It’s just a thing that seems really significant to people who actually saw it, but that is kind of lost on subsequent generations.
A.S.: Aye. Well, we’ve been talking about this song for about an hour now, so I think it’s time to wrap this sucker up.
L.K.: Oh jeez. Yeah, we probably should. One last thought—now, I don’t know jack shit about either Vietnamese or Cantonese, but I think Linnell is pronouncing “Ng” incorrectly.
A.S.: Which is bad because if I ever meet anyone with that name, I’ll have to do some serious re-learning. But yeah, “Ana Ng” – a perfect song.
L.K.: Absolutely! Makes up for some of the whining we’ve been doing about some of the less impressive songs that have come up recently.
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Comments
One Response to “#116 – “Ana Ng” (1988)”
  1. Kate says:

    I agree that this is a perfect song! Listening to both the album version and the live versions (particularly with the new intense opening) makes my heart break every time. It’s an absolutely beautiful song.

    On the topic of the ’64 World’s Fair, Flansburgh answered a question about it on the ifc tumblr a couple of weeks ago. He said that he remembers Dinoland and Texaco, but not much else. So I guess he has some faint memories of it, which is to be expected for being four. I don’t know about Linnell, though.

    What’s funny is that my biology teacher had just been telling us about Sinclair a day or two before that in class, and she passed around a pamphlet that advertised Dinoland at the ’64 World’s Fair. I told Flans about it on tumblr, and he responded with: “What I can’t figure out is if it really had a button that controlled it’s head movement. That is my memory but it seems like a dream.” So… there’s that, as well! More fuzzy memories, I guess.

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