New York alternative duo They Might Be Giants were unlikely candidates for mainstream fame. Their quirky songs were primarily played in small clubs by John Linnell (vocals, accordion and saxophone) and John Flansburgh (vocals and guitar) - and for those who couldn't get out into the big city, there was "Dial-a-Song," a number connected to an answering machine that would randomly play some of their work.
And yet, after TMBG raised their profile considerably through the '80s, they were as close to mainstream as a group like them could get in the '90s - and part of it had to do with a cartoon!
Well, the first big change was signing to a major label for third album Flood (1990), and all the benefits that came with it. The duo were given an unusual amount of creative control, and utilized that in interesting ways: bolstering their own unique lo-fi sound with the polished production of duo Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley.
"We had never been in an actual, real, multi-track studio before," Flansburgh told Mix magazine in 2002. "We had been in an 8-track studio run by a friend of ours that was essentially a demo place. But I didn't know anything about how to make a real record." Luckily, he added, "[Langer and Winstanley] approach production the way that we approach songwriting. That is, we let the song take us in whatever direction it seems to want to go."
The songs of Flood were short and off-kilter while also being maniacally catchy. Single "Birdhouse in Your Soul," a winding tune about a night light, became a massive rock radio hit, reaching No. 3 on Billboard's alternative singles chart and a Top 10 pop hit in England. The head-spinning polka "Particle Man," featuring brilliantly nonsensical lyrics about made-up superheroes, was also a good indicator of the TMBG style, as was a frenetic cover of The Four Lads' "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."
While these singles were lauded on alternative stations and played on MTV, Flood got an extra kick from a most unlikely place: in 1990, Warner Bros. debuted Tiny Toon Adventures, a children's cartoon series featuring a class of students following in the footsteps of the original Looney Tunes characters. A wacky combination of modern humor and classic animation, Tiny Toons was a blockbuster, winning seven Emmy Awards and firing up the imaginations of a new generation.
A year after its premiere, the episode "Tiny Toons Music Television" featured a block of animated clips set to current and classic songs - and TMBG got treated to not one but two videos: "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and "Particle Man," casting the characters as wacky wrestlers. (Plucky Duck and Hamton J. Pig even dress up as the two Johns in the "Istanbul" clip!) Long before the group actually recorded children's albums, they were finding an audience with young kids - helping establish Flood as a multi-generational classic.