They Might Be Giants: Join Us

Join Us is the type of record, despite its titular invitation, that will be best enjoyed by the faithful, as opposed to those who are curious about the group and want a starting point to delve into.

They Might Be Giants

Join Us

Label: Idlewind / Rounder
US Release Date: 2011-07-19
UK Release Date: 2011-08-01

If you look up the word “quirky” in your Oxford dictionary, you’ll find a picture of John Flansburgh and John Linnell of the long-standing alternative rock group They Might Be Giants. OK, OK, OK, so you won’t – but in a fair world that picture would be there. Since 1982 – almost a full-on 30 years – Flansburgh and Linnell have been the architects of out there skewed Grammy Award-winning rock with songs like “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” – and, yes, I realize the latter was a cover, but the duo pretty much put their own stamp on it and made it their own. In recent years, however, Flansburgh and Linnell have turned their attention towards either penning movie or TV theme songs – like the cloying “Boss of Me” from the even more cloying Malcolm in the Middle – or writing and recording music for children, with such albums as Here Come the ABCs, Here Come the 123s and Here Comes Science. Well, the group has finally taken a break from writing kids’ songs and in the form of Join Us have created an album for the parents – their first “adult” record since 2007’s The Else.

With Join Us, you get 18 songs that veer wildly all over the map, but still carry They Might Be Giants’ stylistic hiccups and oddball lyrics. In short, what you get is yet another album from the group that could have been probably made with great ease near the start of its long and storied career, albeit one that doesn’t reach the delicious heights as their left-field MTV hit “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, though a few songs come close. Thus, Join Us isn’t probably going to yield anything that could be included on the next Greatest Hits-type record, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun, enjoyable and engaging. It just seems that Join Us – with its one-foot-in-the-grave image of a Hearse jacked up as a monster truck on the cover – is They Might Be Giants going through the motions and crafting kooky rock songs that are best enjoyed by grown men with an Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis. Join Us is the type of record, despite its titular invitation, that will be best enjoyed by the faithful, as opposed to those who are curious about the group and want a starting point to delve into.

That’s not to say that there’s stuff here that you can really sink your teeth into. “Old Pine Box” is an acoustic jangle-pop song that could have penned by a mid-‘60s British Invasion group, notwithstanding its use of a talk-box guitar in its midsection. “Canajoharie” – one of only two songs that eclipse the three-minute mark – is full-on ‘70s-style power-pop that wouldn’t be too far outside of the canon of Big Star. “Let Your Hair Hang Down” reminds me of an early ‘90s track ripped from the songbook of Redd Kross. “Celebration” is a groovy bass-driven cut that is a kind of counterpoint to the Dismemberment Plan’s “You Are Invited” on Prozac. There’s also an attempt to rewrite “Ana Ng”, at least thematically, in the form of “Judy is Your Viet Nam” – it’s a great rock number, but is alas only less than 90 seconds long.

Then there are some turns into way out there territory. “Cloissoné” – which is in part narrated from the perspective of a raindrop – is a stab at Dixieland jazz with keyboard overtones. It’s a kind of a catchy tune on its own terms, but seems a bit out of place in its position in the ordering of the album, coming directly after the rollicking “Canajoharie”. There’s another jazzy moment with the jaunty “In Fact”, which opens with a loud muted trumpet. “Never Knew Love” is a squiggly pop gem that would snuggle nicely with the band’s Disney material. “The Lady and the Tiger” is almost an attempt at writing hip-hop, at least in the beginning, just filtered through the lens of “Weird Al” Yankovic. Then there’s “Spoiler Alert” – I’m not sure what exactly is being spoiled as the song appears to be about a truck with a mind of its own (unless the band is referencing the truck's spoiler, hmmm) – which is a duet that is call-and-response fitting the very definition of “quirky”, notwithstanding its flute-led final passage. Lyrically, things are somewhat a bit on the obtuse side, particularly in the opening cut “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” as it boasts the following stream-of-thought witticisms: "Some dude / Hitting golf balls on the moon / Bathroom in his pants / And he thinks he's better than me."

Being 18 songs long, there is bound to be a bit of filler – the majority of which comes right smack-dab in the middle of the record or later on in the album’s running order. “When Will You Die” is a bright, bouncy song that you get the sense Flansburgh and Linnell could have written in their sleep. “Protagonist” is a by-the-numbers attempt to be weird. “Dog Walker”, which comes a little later, is sung as though the vocalist has just inhaled air from a helium balloon. “2082” is just a kooky slab of science-fiction that could be incidental music for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Still, when all is said and done, Join Us is just a fun record with no further aspiration than to be party music for geeks. There’s good and there’s not so good, though I don’t think there’s a particularly embarrassing track to really be found. True, it does peter out by the time the latter third of the record comes upon the listener, and yet, overall, there’s a sense of giddiness that prevails through the album that makes it a delightful listen throughout much of its running order. Join Us might be the sound of a band treading water, but that’s probably what the long suffering fans of the duo’s grown-up records might be in a fix for. The curious should still probably go back in the catalogue to Flood, but for the rest, Join Us is a serviceable, albeit inconsistent, stab at shooting for the moon in sheer zaniness.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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