Left of the Dial: Oingo Boingo

Welcome to Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t. This is probably the most mainstream band I’ve covered so far, but they still deserve to be looked at either way. This is Oingo Boingo.

If you’re a film enthusiast, chances are you know about Danny Elfman. He’s second only to John Williams as one of the most popular and recognizable film and television composers in the industry, with over 80 titles under his belt including The Simpsons, Desperate Housewives, Batman, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands (as well as most of Tim Burton’s other films), Spiderman, Mission: Impossible, Good Will Hunting, just to name a few. Since he’s become one of the most in demand composers in Hollywood, it’s no surprise that his career would overshadow the fact that he was a part of Oingo Boingo, one of the most popular and without a doubt one of the weirdest acts of the 80s…. that no one ever seems to talk about anymore.

You see, throughout most of the 80’s, Oingo Boingo was to LA and Orange County what the Grateful Dead were to San Francisco, developing a following that turned every appearance into an event. While other new wave artists like Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel were constantly pushing artistic boundaries and experimenting with new sounds, Oingo Boingo joined the ranks of artists like Devo and A Flock of Seagulls as cult favorites that still got the seal of approval from MTV despite their more unconventional approach.

The roots of Oingo Boingo go back to the early 70’s when they were The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Created by Danny’s older brother, filmmaker Richard Elfman, they were an avante-garde musical theatre troupe in the vein of Frank Zappa and Spike Jones, combining Cabaret Theater, improvisational comedy, chamber music and good ole fashioned weirdness. What were they like? Well, have a look for yourself.

This act continued throughout the 70’s and they were even documented in Richard Elfman’s cult classic Forbidden Zone. After Richard left the group, his brother Danny took over, shortened their name to simply Oingo Boingo and completely changed their image from a theatre troupe to a traditional rock band. Their debut album, Only A Lad, combined new wave with ska and utilized unusual lyrics dealing with subjects like juvenile delinquency (the self titled track), pedophilia (Little Girls), and capitalism (Capitalism). Upon their arrival, they got constant comparisons to new wavers Devo, who, admittedly, Oingo Boingo has a lot in common with. Both had satirical lyrics about dark subject matter, as well as an artistic musical approach, and both of their frontmen went on to have careers as film and TV composers. But like I said earlier, Oingo Boingo is more influenced by ska and African rhythms whereas Devo was more gravitated toward synth music.

Only A Lad was a big success, but their following albums, Nothing to Fear, Good for Your Soul, and So-lo (which was billed as Danny Elfman’s first solo record despite everyone in the band performing on it) kept them on a low profile, despite spawning fan favorites like “Insects” and “Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me”. It was in 1985, however, when the band finally made their breakthrough with Dead Man’s Party. The sudden surge in popularity was due to the appearance of the album’s two lead singles, “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science” being featured in the movies Back to School and Weird Science respectively. Hell, in the first film, the band actually makes an appearance as a house band. Other films that had their songs on the soundtrack include Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and My Best Friend Is a Vampire.

After Dead Man’s Party, Danny Elfman’s career as a composer was beginning to become more of a priority. It began in 1985 when he was invited by Tim Burton to compose is directorial debut, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. This collaboration would begin a partnership that still continues to this day, as Elfman would go on to compose all but two ofBurton’s films (the exceptions being Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd). As a result of his new found career taking off, Elfman’s focus on Oingo Boingo was starting to become more of a secondary precedence. This was evident in a string of unimpressive albums throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s, with the exception of the live album, Boingo Alive, which enforced their reputation as an energetic live band. Despite their failures, their final 1994 album, Boingo, contains what I consider their masterpiece, “Insanity”, a self explanatory track on hanging on the fringes of madness and being on the verge of berserk. Oh, and the music video is one of the most messed up things I’ve ever seen in my life.

With nowhere else to go, Oingo Boingo officially called it quits in 1995, performing their last concert on Halloween at the Universal Amphitheater in LA. The final show was released as a live album and video simply called Farewell.

After the break-up, Elfman continued his lucrative and high profile career as one of the most sought after composers inHollywood. In 2005, drummer Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez put together a short lived Oingo Boingo tribute band that included former members Steve Bartek, John Avila, and Sam “Sluggo” Phipps. In a 2007 interview, Elfman announced that he would not do a full-on Oingo Boingo reunion, claiming that he and other band members have irreversible hearing damage and performing live would only make it worse.

While Oingo Boingo is no more, there’s no denying their place in music history. Even though they’re often considered a piece of 80’s nostalgia, their music is as timeless as that of other big 80’s acts like The Police or Guns N’ Roses, and the their words still resonate truth to this very day. For more information, check out this website. http://oingoboingo.org/ This has been Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t.

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