Friday, September 20, 2013

Song #360 of 9999 - Don't Let's Start by They Might Be Giants

I have to pack a bag tonight so I'm calling an audible and leaving you in the capable hands of my third guest blogger, Mr. Erik Schlosser. Erik is a guitarist extraordinaire, one of the best teachers I know and one of my closest friends IN THE WHOLE WORLD. Luckily, I only have to travel down the hall to see him. To learn more about Erik and websites with brown-toned color schemes, visit

Song #360 of 9999

Don't Let's Start
They Might Be Giants
Year: 1986
They Might Be Giants

The Brooklyn duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh (affectionately known as "The Johns" by their fans) form the core of the band They Might Be Giants. To call them a band is not entirely accurate. Since the early 90s, they have toured and recorded with a full ensemble. However, in the 1980s the Johns were primarily a duo making demo recordings in their apartment. These sparsely produced relics feature Linnell on keyboards/accordion, Flansburgh on guitar, songwriting/vocals by both, and synthesized drums and bass lines to flesh out the rest of the "band." They created quite an underground following in this pre-Internet time period thanks to their "Dial-A-Song," a simple answering machine where they offered a new song nearly every day (just a toll call to Brooklyn. As TMBG advertised in the Village Voice: "Free when you call from work!")

Their 1986 debut album featured the best of many of these demos (and actually the worst one as well with "Boat of Car"). "Don't Let's Start" is one of Linnell's craftiest tunes. While it never hit the charts, it became a college radio favorite. Musically, this is about as catchy as two and a half minutes can be. Linnell's great penchant for melody and Flansburgh's tasty guitar riffs could be the subject of this post. However, I would like to focus on Linnell's lyrics. TMBG are often cited as having quirky, clever and sometimes even "juvenile" lyrics (they do have a few children's albums after all). John Linnell has said that he chooses lyrics based on what accompanies the melody best even if they are just meaningless words. While that may be true, "Don't Let's Start" contains many lyrical gems.

Let's start with the title and main hook in the chorus: "Don't Let's Start." What an awkward phrase! Spread the contractions out and we have "Do not let us start." Linnell is quite apt at incorporating lyrical dissonance in his lines. In everyday use, "Let's Start" is a cliche used to mean positive action. By putting "Don't" in front of it, he completely disarms the listener. "Don't Start" and "Let's Start" are familiar to us, but not the combination.

This dissonance continues with the rest of the chorus: "This is the worst part, to believe for all the world that you are my precious little girl."  "Worst" and "precious" create such conflict in this line. Leave one out or make one the antonym and we have a mundane lyric. Both of them together give this a delightful bite.

The second verse features one of the best examples of schadenfreude in a pop song. "No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful. Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful." The melodic line that accompanies "beautiful" has such a gentle soft landing that once again it unsettles the audience.

The pre-chorus features that clever wordplay that the Johns are known for. Here they spell out D-O-N-apostrophe-T while simultaneously chanting about "world destruction" and "do I need this torture?". Each subsequent letter of “don’t” ascends a major scale which leads us nicely into the main hook of the chorus. This is just a fun lyric to sing along with even though it is pretty much nonsense.

A certain famous "music teacher, songwriter and musician" once confided in me that he finds the bridge of a pop song to be the confessional moment in the lyric. This is where the songwriter lets all of the emotions out and is often the moment where you can find the true intent of the lyricist. In "Don't Let's Start" this can be found in the short but powerful bridge lyric "I don't want to live in this world anymore." Linnell sings this as a frenetic, out of control child having a grown-up existential tantrum with Flansburgh's guitar wailing in the background. It is short but what a great climax!

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