They Might Be Giants – Severe Tire Damage

It’s not typically my policy to cover live albums, but that’s only because live albums are usually nothing spectacular, just the artist playing the songs, only it’s live. In rare instances, like with the live albums I have covered thus far, the artist makes the bold, pain-staking initiative to do something different with the live album formula, or in the case of Neil Young, take the opportunity to introduce new material that has never been heard before or since (we’ll get to THAT album pretty soon here). If you’re They Might Be Giants, and logic dictates that you might be, you’re going to do a little of all of that, and then you’re going to name your album Severe Tire Damage, because why not:

It took me until roughly 3 seconds ago to figure out that the cover to this album is a bit of pavement with tire streaks all across it. Clearly I'm too stupid to be writing these things, why don't I just die right now, would that make you happy?

It might be that this album is special to me because the band is special, but really, it’s got just about everything you could want out of a live album, and in case that isn’t good enough for you, heathen reprobate, then consider this: there are three studio tracks on it, one of which is a song you can’t go to a TMBG show and not hear during one or more of the encores.

I am talking, of course, about “Dr. Worm”. It opens, and the album with it, with a blast of horns playing the catchy hook, as John Linnell (typical for the albums’ opening tracks in the TMBG catalogue) takes on the singing role as the eponymous worm. These words killed me when I was younger, and I am still influenced by this style of nonsense mixed with a very sensible tone:

They call me Dr. Worm
Good morning, how are you? I’m Dr. Worm
I’m interested in things
I’m not a real doctor but I
Am a real worm
I am an actual worm
I live like a worm

And I like to play the drums
I think I’m getting good, but I can handle criticism
I’ll show you what I know, and you can
Tell me if you think
I’m getting better at the drums
I’ll leave the front unlocked ’cause I can’t hear the doorbell

The song just keeps going on like this, and the abstract nature of the song is further made exciting by the grand melody and section of horns that some may mistaken for ska, but it’s really more its own thing, I think. It’s also got one of the best finales of any rock song, owing in no small part to Linnell’s potent lung power and Mark Pender (of Conan O’ Brien’s television band) with his trademark trumpet high notes. Truly a song for the ages.

“Theme To Severe Tire Damage”, perhaps not so much. It’s actually a good song, incorporating many horns, as well as some funky bass and drum action going on, but is just an instrumental ditty to broadcast the start of the album.

The live portion of the album starts with some guy introducing “They Must Be Giants” as they launch into their first song… an unheard of new song? ‘Tis true, the song is “They Got Lost” and would not appear on an album of its own for about 3 years. It was a leftover from the Factory Showroom sessions, and was probably deemed too slow to add to the already lengthy album. The version on Severe Tire Damage is vastly pepped up in both speed and tone, as the key has been raised to the breezy area of A major. The song is about the band getting lost, and tells in a funny and sort of strange narrative how they go about trying to find the show. Good times all around!

The excellent thing about Severe Tire Damage, as I hinted at earlier, is that the band has changed almost all the songs in a radical way in order to appeal to a live crowd more than they would normally. “They Got Lost” was just the start (literally, I guess), but the version of “Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas)”, an obscure Science Song the band covered on an EP years earlier featuring keyboard and glockenspiel, is now a punk rocker featuring spacey organs and crunchy guitars. This version of the song is still played to this day, and I doubt the band has gone back to the stripped down children’s version since. The song is a literal song about the science of the sun, that’s all you need to know about it.

Next we’ve got “Birdhouse In Your Soul”, that wonderful track that made Flood such a hit (or at least assisted the other 18 songs in doing so). This time the song is given a little more guitar, and the pitch is raised somewhat, not entirely different, but still excellent.

One thing that has changed and for the much, much, much better is “She’s An Angel”. More than any other version I’ve heard (including 3 other live version than this one), I am just floored by this version. Would you believe it’s the tuba that does it for me? Either way, the change up from synthy ploddiness to real instruments being played in a caring way really gives this song the warmth it needed to convey its strange message about finding love with an intangible being of light.

Then we get “XTC Vs. Adam Ant” which is not changed much apart from an even more kickin’ guitar solo. The bass solos at the end are retained, and this is good.

The other Flood classic, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is given a new face, that of rock guitar and a skillful trumpet blaring. This version would eventually be traded off for a lengthy acoustic guitar solo by future TMBG guitarist Dan Miller, and the song would never be the same again…

“Ana Ng”, however, is more or less the same. This is the only track I have a bit of an issue with on this album. The swift, staccato notes (processed through a computer in the early, early days of doing that) are replaced by more protracted guitar chords, and that gives the whole thing an oppressive minory rock aura that just doesn’t belong in a TMBG song of this vintage. Pardon me while I adjust my glasses and fake goatee.

We’re then treated to a new song, “First Kiss”, which could emerge later on Mink Car as a sultry, acoustic pop du jour number. In that form, and this punk rock version from Severe Tire Damage, the song is just good enough to fall short of being annoying. Something about pop love songs just doesn’t click with TMBG I’m afraid, they were right to avoid it for so long.

Next is a real treat for avid TMBG listeners, a live version of “Spider”, recreated about as well as could be expected. Weren’t expecting that, were you?

After that, we get another surprise. Possibly not as radical as a performance of “Spider”, but a ploddiness-less almost Zydeco version of “Particle Man” is one of this album’s major highlights. I absolutely adore this version of the song, with its bits of rockingness on top of the drum’s outstanding fancy beat. This is the definitive version of “Particle Man”, I feel.

We then get a finally updated, swing-tastic and zoot-suit sportin’ version of “She’s Actual Size”. This version features a raised key, so it’s not so low, and a bit of a drum solo halfway that would become embellished to the moon and back in later shows.

Another bit of a surprise, the song “Meet James Ensor”, only played with accordion and voice. Apparently this was spliced in from a recording they did in a hotel lobby or some-such, I don’t really remember. It’s very touching despite the humorous theme of the song.

Finally, we get a standard version of “Till My Head Falls Off”, and to top it all off, a quick studio track, again featuring the horns, called “About Me”, which is a wonderful egotistical number that I feel would later be fully realized as a song off The Spine Surfs EP entitled “I’m All That You Can Think About”.

Either way, all I can think about is how great this album is, and how much I want to stop writing now! If you are a beginner to the world of TMBG, I recommend this album, it was the only one I got to hear for months before picking up the other albums, so it did me a world of good.

Stay tuned for tomorrow, which is my favorite day of the month, Gentle Giant Day! Au Revoir!

OH wait! Hang around at the end of the album, there are some secret tracks of improvised material having to do with The Planet Of The Apes. Not to be missed!

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2 Responses

  1. TMBG’s manager was a fairly prominent writer at a car magazine I read regularly, and if I remember right, around this time they weaseled a press van out of Ford for their tour (the glamor of rock stardom), and so there was an article in the magazine in question about the tour in order to justify the van weaseling, which is how I first heard of them.

    Severe Tire Damage made me think of that.

  2. Wow, I had no idea. That’s actually kind of awesome in a weasely sort of way.

    Well the album is really good, weaseling or not. It was the second time I’d ever heard of TMBG after watching Tiny Toons in my youth and not seeing any reference to them again until my teens.

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