All told, I spent around nine months working for Ferrero in Scotland. In the summer of 1990, I applied for, and got a job working in the head office in Rickmansworth, which changed everything and finally put me, at nearly 28, on the path to something resembling a career, but for those nine months, I slogged around Scotland doing a strange and nebulous job which required a lot of sitting in the car listening to the radio.
As the eighties shaded into the nineties, FM radio was gradually asserting itself in parts of the world – mainly rural Scotland – where it hadn’t been available before. My daily radio diet was still mainly BBC Radio 1, especially in the first part of the day, and I was still hearing some strange and wonderful things that way, but I was also just starting to wonder if I was growing out of the relentless diet of pop music it served up.
Chart music in the 1980s was – in the UK at least – eclectic and strange. Among the steady stream of radio chatter, you could hear a surprising number of experiments and off-the-wall oddities, almost all presented as serious music, many of which, from Laurie Anderson’s sublime artwork O Superman to the Dadaist ravings of Trio’s Da Da Da, were also purchased in their millions and took up residence in the higher reaches of the charts. If there was a formula for making a successful pop record (and it turned out there probably was), no-one had yet discovered or perfected it.
Noisy rock sat alongside twee novelty, electronic experimentalism, heartfelt folk, the odd country song, disco (which was becoming Dance with a capital D) and straight up comedy records for almost the entire decade, and it was often hard to tell them apart. Entire new genres arose and were instantly parodied; out-there experimentalists became chart staples and passing fads inspired by old movies or TV shows would suddenly and bafflingly appear for a few weeks, only to disappear, never to be heard from again.
All the while, those of us who spent our days driving around would listen to it being served up by an array of DJs who were household names entirely because of their position in the Radio 1 lineup, and hum or sing along to a bewildering array of music. I don’t remember often (if ever) turning the radio off or changing the station because of a song I didn’t like being played – there would be another one along in a minute to take its place, and it would likely sound completely different.
There were gaps in the radio coverage, though, and it was filling those gaps which first led me down the TMBG rabbit hole, and while it was Radio 1 which led me there, the Radio 1 of 1990 was different from the one I’d been listening to for the past twenty years or so, and while I didn’t articulate it – or likely even think about it much – at the time, I think the variety was dropping out; the music was becoming more formulaic, and I know I was listening to Radio 4 on the way back to Perth at the end of the day more often than not – unthinkably, I seemed to be growing out of Radio 1.
My job for those nine months was a strange one. Not only was I not expected to sell things, I was actually expressly expected not to sell things – Ferrero still employed a broker to do the selling, and while our presence in the wholesalers and cash and carry outlets was very obviously the company putting its own salesforce in place before taking the business away from the broker, we all played along as I solemnly explained how excitring the new TV campaign was going to be, and asked politely for the buyer to talk to his rep when they next came in. Meanwhile, I was going to tidy the shelves, rotate the stock, and get back in my Ford Escort to drive to the next cash and carry.
At least I was exploring a new part of Scotland. Until late 1989, I had been very firmly an East Scotland boy – Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh and Perth were my home territory, and I only ventured to the west to go to football matches. All that changed when I was handed my new territory – all of western Scotland.
In reality, of course, that mostly entailed driving to Glasgow, with the odd foray into Ayrshire or South Lanarkshire, and I came to know and appreciate Glasgow (not the way I loved Edinburgh, of course) much more, although the traffic often left something to be desired.
Each week, however, I had one of those wild excursions only someone sitting in an office in the south of England could dream up. Once every two weeks, I was tasked with a drive up to Fort William and Oban, and on the opposite fortnight, down to Stranraer and Dumfries. If you’re not familiar with the geography of that, have a look at the map. Both trips involved early starts, later than normal finishes, virtually no business transacted (Dumfries being the only town of any real population in the whole itinerary), and an awful lot of driving through some of Scotland’s most spectacular scenery.
It was the driving through the scenery bit which led to this album; there was no FM radio coverage for most of those two drives, and I loaded my car up with tapes of favourites old and new for the Tuesday excursions.
Occasionally the music ran out. I don’t mean that I forgot the tapes, more that I had heard them all many times and craved something new. You may well imagine that stopping en route to buy a new tape might have been tricky, and you’d be right. There wasn’t time to stop on the way out; early starts and time pressures generally meant I didn’t even stop for coffee at the start of the day. By the time I was in Oban or Fort William or Stranraer (Dumfries always came last for reasons lost to the mists of time), there wasn’t a wide variety of music shops to scour while I picked up some lunch.
So it was that one Tuesday lunchtime in early 1990 I found myself poking at the thin selection of cassette tapes available in Woolworths in Stranraer. I had already completed my duly appointed visit to the town’s only wholesaler, and before heading off down the A75 to Dumfries, I usually picked up a sandwich in one of the bakeries.
I had never before considered the Woolworths’ tape section, but I must have been desperate that day. There, among the cut price compilations and Daniel O’Donnell tapes, I spotted an album I had already earmarked to borrow when it appeared in the Perth library collection. I knew and loved Birdhouse in your Soul from its repeated Radio 1 plays in the previous autumn, and my attitude to the album was probably “well, why not?”
Listening to new music for the first time in the car while hammering along a major trunk road in between convoys of heavy goods vehicles off the ferry is, perhaps, not the perfect listening environment, but enough of it must have stuck with me, because I remain an ardent TMBG fan to this day. They were, and are, quite different to anything else I listened to, but their mastery of dozens of musical styles and the evident fun they have with the language are right up my street.
Flood is a startlingly different album to pretty much anything I’ve talked about so far. It’s hard to solemnly opine about something which is scampering around like a puppy chasing its tail, and in any case, there are nineteen tracks to write about here; even I might struggle to come up with something weighty and considered to say about all of them. So I’m going to dive back in to Flood and note down my reactions as I go, but I’m not going to constrain myself to a track-by-track analysis.
Unless I do, of course – who knows?
It starts, naturally, with an overture – its own theme, which causes a grin before breaking into Birdhouse, which – I’m only noticing this now – fades up from the volume level of the theme before fully asserting itself as the strangely compelling pop song it is, albeit one sung from the perspective of a nightlight with assorted brass instruments parping their way through the middle eight.
If you wanted to know how this was all going to sound, this is as good an intro as you’re going to get, from the unconventional instrumentation to the way the words only just fit the melody, to the interplay of the two similar but distinct slightly nasal voices.
The interplay continues into the upbeat bluegrass of Lucky Ball and Chain – all banjos and – I don’t know, pool balls? It’s a mournful lyric delivered as a jolly romp, but you can’t imagine it played straight – how would you fit in the accordion and tuba?
Istanbul (Not Constantinople) was a pre-existing nonsense song which the two Johns made their own, and is probably the best known song on here, thanks to its life as a single, and occasional use in advertising and television. As with so much of their work, the song is played with an absolutely straight face, if you can do such a thing with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Dead is about reincarnation as a bag of expired groceries. I’m not sure there’s anything more you can say about that.
Whereas Your Racist Friend is worthy of an entire essay. How such a politically sharp point came to be made on an album like this is anyone’s guess, but it truly stands out in the sea of silliness – even the instrumental break feels serious and pointed. It’s a simple way to make an important point – “Can’t shake the Devil’s hand / and say you’re only kidding”.
I’m not sure I ever expected to be singing along to an oompah song about an assortment of cartoonishly implausible superheroes, but here we are, bouncing along happily to Particle Man.
What I’m noticing now is how these short, sharp songs elbow each other out of the way as they vie for your attention. No sooner have your ears attuned themselves to the weird soundscape of Particle Man than you’re rocking out to Twisting, and as you settle in to the melody, you’re immediately tipped out of the cart into the surrealist landscape of We Want A Rock which makes perfect sense until you actually go back and read the words.
It doesn’t matter why a carpenter is hammering on his piglet, or why he wants a prosthetic forehead; it’s so much fun that you don’t care.
Until you go back and think about that word surrealist, and look at it through that lens.
The tape flips over before I’ve had a moment to process that, however. Now Someone Keeps Moving My Chair, and while I’m thinking about the clean production and how there now appear to be three syllables in the word ‘my’ or the extraordinary sentence structure of the bit where we appear to be writing something on the back of someone’s head with green magic marker, the album’s already moved on to the next agenda item.
Hearing Aid starts all muted trumpet and weirdly distorted tape recordings. It’s the longest track on the album, but I don’t know if that lends it added significance; it’s probably more that it’s a slower tempo, and therefore takes longer to get through the lyric. Having said that, I’d forgotten how intriguing the seemingly random sampled noises at the end are.
Minimum Wage is the exact opposite. The title is the entire lyric, and seems to exist simply to show off the sampled whip sound.
I had entirely forgotten how Letterbox works as a perfect jewel of a song; intricately constructed and executed – there is no way that many words should fit into the melody, but it never feels forced or hurried. One of the less well-known songs, it is worth exploring further, if only to figure out what all those words are actually saying.
Whistling in the Dark is one of many songs on this album which still pop into my head whenever the title appears in my life – I can’t hear someone say it, or read it without immediately intoning “I’m having a wonderful time, but I’d rather be…” It’s a curiously joyful tune given the pitch of the vocals and the subject matter, but it collapses into the sound of an uncoordinated brass band marching drunkenly into the sunset, and how can you not love that?
I feel I could say this about almost all of these songs, but I have absolutely no idea what Hot Cha! Is about, and I don’t care. I love the unexpected solo piano break in the middle, and the way it keeps threatening to break into jazz.
Women and Men is basically a sea shanty about – I don’t know, overpopulation, maybe?
One of my favourite facts about They Might Be Giants is that for a time, they would act as their own support band under the name ‘Sapphire Bullets’. Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love is one of many songs on here I’d like to hear expanded out beyond the minute and a half it gets, but that would spoil the rhythm of the whole thing, wouldn’t it?
The second theme song of the album is dedicated to the band rather than the album. I’ve never known why anyone would ‘fry up a stalk of wheat’, but it really doesn’t matter; I’m just hanging on tighter to avoid being thrown to the wolves.
How do you finish an album like this? With a Road Movie to Berlin of course. No sign of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Dorothy Lamour sarong’ here; this Road Movie is back in the folk / country idiom, until it isn’t as the scary synthesised sounds puncture the melancholy. Berlin was much on everyone’s mind at the time, of course, but it seems incidental to the song – with the obvious exception of Your Racist Friend, this isn’t a political album.
Nor is it a silly one, despite what its popular reputation might suggest. Sure, it doesn’t sing about the things everyone else sings about, and it’s full of the off-kilter and eclectic; full of wordplay and strange allusions, but it’s not playing at being a serious album, it really is one. It’s stood the test of time, as has the band, and while more than 30 years on, I still have no idea what it’s on about half the time, I still find it endlessly engaging and entertaining.
And how many albums can you still say that about?
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
My second favourite is still Apollo 18, but there are many others, including some you should introduce your children to, if you have any.
Compilations to consider?
I am horrified to realise that my favourite TMBG compilation Dial-A-Song is 20 years old. Having got over that, I still recommend it thoroughly, and will now go and seek out some newer ones.
There are a few, but for some reason, I don’t know them beyond the tracks which appear on Dial-A-Song. Another gap I need to fill.
Something very specific. Flood is the subject of one of the books in the 33 1/3 series – I’m not entirely convinced that this music is enhanced by close analysis, as may be seen above, but it presents a thought-provoking thesis, and is well worth a read.