Remembering John Henry

Today my phone popped up a reminder that it’s John Henry Day, the 24th anniversary of the release of the album John Henry by They Might Be Giants. Some years ago at the suggestion of another fan, I entered all of their album release dates into my calendar, but this blog post is the closest I’ve ever come to celebrating.

Like a lot of people my age, my familiarity with the band They Might Be Giants started in the early ’90s when an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures parodied MTV. Scattered among animated music videos for other, older songs (namely “Respect” and “Money (That’s What I Want)”) were Tiny Toons’ interpretations of “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. I found them pretty amusing, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought until the summer of 1993. One of my parents’ friends had generously loaned me tapes of his Beatles collection; he had purchased original, vinyl pressings of the albums in England, and preserved them by copying them onto cassettes. I was flipping through his albums when I found myself face to face with Flood by They Might Be Giants. Remembering the name and the songs, I asked to borrow it. “Oh,” he said, “I don’t remember why I bought that.” I went home with a 90-minute tape that had Flood on both sides.

It took me awhile to warm up to Flood. At the time, I was most interested in the two songs I knew, but eventually I came around to the other songs, though maybe not the ones you’d expect. I remember being initially lukewarm to “Birdhouse in Your Soul” until learning that it had been a top-10 hit in Britain, a tidbit from the unofficial They Might Be Giants FAQ. Around this same time I remember getting my first taste of Internet access, and realizing that They Might Be Giants had a pretty substantial and rabid fanbase.

Gradually, I got more and more into TMBG, which required more active work in the ’90s than it does now. My parents had no specific interest in contemporary music and for some reason at that age I needed to hear a song several times before I liked it. I hadn’t figured that out yet so I assumed that none of the music on the radio was any good. TMBG caused me to work out how to interface with modern music and with pop culture in general. TMBG were not hugely popular enough to be in your face all the time, so I approached my fandom as a research project. I got their 1992 album Apollo 18 through interlibrary loan, and learned to use a microfiche reader in order to consume reviews and interviews in People Magazine and Stereo Review. One by one I collected the albums, and eventually sent a letter (never responded to) to the TMBG Info Club. This must have been in the early months of 1994, and I would have been thirteen years old.

That summer, I received my first issue of the Info Club’s magazine: a cheap, blue pamphlet containing answers to fan-submitted questions, an essay or two by the band members themselves, and the announcement that their fifth album, John Henry, would be released in September of 1994. After 12 years as a duo, John Henry would be TMBG’s first album with a six-piece band, including a horn section. The title, they explained, was a reference to the legendary black railroad builder and represented TMBG’s triumph over the tyranny of their drum machine. The announcement included a list of the songs on the album and (for some reason) each song’s tempo. At the time, I imagined that the beats per minute might be useful information to savvier music fans than myself. Now I wonder if one of the band members thought it would be funny.

I was terribly excited for the upcoming release of John Henry. In fact, I can’t remember having been excited about the release of a media property prior to that time, other than maybe an upcoming movie. In the interim, I remember placing my first call to They Might Be Giants’ Dial-A-Song Service (“Twenty five hours a day, six days a week, free when you call from work!”) and hearing a low-fidelity version of the song “Subliminal”, after which I went to the dictionary to look up the word subliminal.

The release date came and went because none of the stores in town carried something as exotic (read: unpopular) as the new They Might Be Giants album. A couple of weeks later, I picked it up while running errands with my parents. I remember reading the liner notes in the car and trying to guess based on the lyrics how the songs would sound.

At last, we got home and I went up to my room to listen to John Henry through headphones. It was not what I was expecting. TMBG albums had previously been loaded with a large number of short songs which wasted no time on instrumental breaks or long intros. By contrast, John Henry put musical virtuosity in the spotlight, and featured longer, jammier songs that rocked harder than their previous output. Predictably, it took me a few listens to like John Henry, during which time I started actually thinking about and appreciating the lyrics, which I had previously failed to do. I kept listening, the weather got colder, and I started growing up.

In my mind, John Henry represents the nexus point of several different influences on my life, and a clear break with the past. It was the beginning of my freshman year of high school. I began several long-term friendships during the fall of 1994, and a lot of my current interests firmly solidified at that time. My maternal grandfather, whom I’d been close with passed away.

I also think of John Henry as the official division between early-period TMBG and late-period TMBG. That’s not actually true but it seems that way because those neurons fired so many times in my young mind. TMBG was formed in the summer of 1982, which means that as of today John Henry came out at almost exactly a third of the way through their career (a fact which I’m using to justify this arbitrary 24th Anniversary post, rather than waiting until next year). I couldn’t see that at the time, though. In fact, it felt like the beginning of the end. The reviews I read at the time were good, but it didn’t chart very long or terribly well. Behind the scenes, Elektra Records was going through some management changes and dropped most of their support for TMBG. The album received one music video (the visually disappointing “Snail Shell”) where previous albums had several. The marketing budget for their next album, 1996’s Factory Showroom, was too small to accommodate a music video. At that point, TMBG parted ways with Elektra. Without the backing of a label to make them visible and in light of the constant personnel changes, it felt like TMBG were slowly sinking during the latter half of the ’90s.

In retrospect, it was exactly the opposite but I couldn’t see it at the time. The immediacy of the Internet made it possible for TMBG to increase the amount of material they were releasing, and the speed at which they were releasing it. By the year 2000, They’d released the first MP3-only album (1999’s Long Tall Weekend), and contributed the theme song “Boss of Me” to Malcolm in the Middle which probably earned them more exposure than any other single part of Their career. If anything, John Henry was the moment where Their momentum took over. If They Might Be Giants were a hobbyist’s experimental aircraft, John Henry would be the moment in the movie where the music swells as the wheels leave the ground and the craft stays up. The protagonist’s doubting assistant would take off his cap, wipe his brow and say “by God, it will fly.”

Anyway, TMBG have generously uploaded all of their albums to YouTube, including John Henry, which you can listen to below.