Writing about the music of 1986, I could talk about the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead, but then I’d have to write about Morrissey, and honestly I never loved the Smiths anyway. Or maybe I could write about Paul Simon’s Graceland, but then I get into the thorny issues of who gets credit for what, and was credit given where it was do. In the end, though, a couple of New York groups released debut albums and then went down very different career paths. Those bands are They Might Be Giants and Beastie Boys. Because, you know, there’s nothing murky to tackle when talking about the early Beastie Boys output.
The Johns, Flansburgh, and Linnell, were a DIY duo that did what they could to cultivate an audience. Prior to the release of their self-titled debut They Might Be Giants had a thing called “Dial-a-Song” where they would record songs onto an answering machine and provide the number so that people could dial in and listen. Their album was the second one ever released on the Bar/None label. It was a lo-fi existence.
In classic ‘80s indie fashion, They Might Be Giants is 19 songs and 38 minutes long. Only one song is longer than three minutes. And yet, it was the beginning of their success, and also Bar/None’s success. This was still the early days of MTV, and when MTV could break a band. TMBG made a couple music videos and one of them, “Don’t Let’s Start,” led to the band’s first hit. Also, apparently Robert Christgau loved the album.
They Might Be Giants never really became more than a cult band. They’ve released a lot of albums – including a few children’s albums – but had a couple gimmicky hits, notably “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Clarissa Darling was a big fan. It’s a respectable career, to be sure.
The Beastie Boys, Adam Yauch, Adam Horovitz, and Mike Diamond, were three bratty teenagers with a punk band who also liked to rap. Legendary producer Rick Rubin became a fan and the trio got signed to Def Jam to make a hip-hop album. Their debut, License to Ill, was a dual production of Def Jam and Columbia.
The group was an immediate hit. Their album went platinum and went to the top of the Billboard charts, the first rap album to do so. You definitely can still sense some of the band’s punk days in the sound of the album, which is heavier on traditional rock instrumentation. Songs like “Brass Monkey” and “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” have a ton of rock energy to them. Then, of course, there’s “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” which was an ironic dig on hair metal that most people didn’t seem to notice was ironic.
Of course, people could be forgiven for not recognizing that the Beastie Boys were lampooning that type of song and behavior. They were quite sophomoric in the early days. Granted, they were also about the age of your average college sophomore. It was crass and juvenile at times, though that didn’t stop them from finding tremendous success. In the ensuing years, the three members of the Beastie Boys dedicated a good chunk of their time – and some of their music – to apologizing for the dumb stuff they did in their youth. When Yauch, aka MCA, died in 2012, the other two members continued carrying the mantle of acknowledging their mistakes and poking fun at their younger selves. Horovitz, aka Ad-Rock, would even marry Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill.
Beastie Boys went on to become one of the biggest music groups of all-time, and it started by getting a major label debut in 1986. They Might Be Giants were releasing songs on answering machines prior to becoming the second-ever release on a fledgling independent label. The duo never rose above the level of respected, under-the-radar band. For both groups, it all began in 1986 in New York. From there, things went in two quite different direction. At least They Might Be Giants have had to spend less time apologizing for their early output.