Is this band good: Oingo Boingo
A regular feature where we—using scientific, circumstantial, and anecdotal evidence—determine once and for all whether a band is good
Welcome to “Is This Band Good?”, a semi-regular feature where I, with the help of a knowledgeable and accomplished musician, try to determine—quantitatively—if certain bands are actually good.
THE DEFENDANTS: Oingo Boingo
All’s fair in love and war... and music opinions.
Let’s just say I have not made a lot of friends with the “Is This Band Good?” series. There’s a good chance that I’ve been harsh on a band you like, or have liked in the past. Being real hasn’t translated to being liked—it’s a difficult but necessary duty. Heavy lies the crown and all that, you know? I’m not going to apologize—how can we fully appreciate art if we can’t acknowledge its shortcomings?—but I also know it’s not fun when people trash your music.
To be honest, though, there have been bands that I’ve refused to tackle due personal or sentimental reasons. But after some deep introspection, I’ve decided that this is a coward’s stance! If I can’t be critical of the bands that I love, then what good am I?
That said, I felt pangs of dread when my guest critic suggested we tackle Oingo Boingo. I can’t think of another act that I’ve consistently loved since I was eleven years old. They’re easily one of my all-time faves, and they’re pretty much all I play throughout the month of October. I only have a few musical sacred cows, and they’re one of them.
But, as they say in writing, sometimes you have to kill your darlings.
The origins of Oingo Boingo date back to the early ‘70s, when it was an LA-based surrealist theater troupe known as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Founded by Richard Elfman, these performances were akin to watching a live version of Rob Zombie film but with more Cab Calloway, clowns, and musical chaos. In other words, it was pretty cool. Just watch this clip of them in 1976, when they appeared on the Gong Show and ended up winning.
When Richard pulled away from The Mystic Knights to focus on filmmaking, he handed the reins over to his younger brother, Danny Elfman, who gradually transformed the theater troupe into a more straight-forward rock band (“straight-forward” being a loose term here) and shortened the name to Oingo Boingo.
Even in an era that was giving rise to weirdo art bands like B-52s and Talking Heads, Oingo Boingo was wild. Their mix of punk, ska, cabaret, carnival music, and vaudeville made it difficult for anyone to pinpoint their sound. Was it funny? Was it scary? Was it mean? Was it sincere? Was it even rock music?
In 1981, they released Only A Lad, which featured the eponymous single, as well as one of the most cringe-worthy songs ever to play on MTV, “Little Girls.” While the album didn’t make them superstars, it gave them a huge cult following in Southern California thanks to heavy airplay from KROQ.
The next four years were incredibly prolific for the band, which found them putting out three increasingly accomplished albums: 1982’s Nothing to Fear, 1983’s Good for Your Soul and 1985’s seminal Dead Man’s Party (which I consider to be Oingo Boingo’s Nevermind). With each successive release, the band became darker and more assured in their identity. Their music became staples of ‘80s movie soundtracks (most notably Weird Science, for which they wrote the theme song).
It was around this time that lead singer/songwriter Danny Elfman was tagged by Tim Burton to compose the score Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, which was a perfect fit for Elfman’s manic, hodgepodge of music stylings. Thus began a long-lasting relationship between Elfman and Burton, resulting in some of the most iconic and recognizable movie scores in history (Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Nightmare Before Christmas). Additionally, Elfman wrote the theme for The Simpsons, which I would argue is one of the most famous songs of all time.
Due to Elfman’s film success, he began to lose interest in performing with Oingo Boingo, and it’s apparent: the output after Dead Man’s Party feels weighty and self-serious (although still interesting) compared to their earlier albums. Compare “Weird Science” to anything off their final album, 1994’s Boingo, and the difference is profound.
But what exactly is Oingo Boingo? Do people outside of Southern California (and strangely, Salt Lake City) even know them apart from a few novelty Halloween songs? Are they scary? Are they funny? Are we supposed to take them seriously?
Which brings us to the eternal question: Is Oingo Boingo good?
Scotty Pants: I'm the host of Pants Karaoke (San Diego's dumbest karaoke night), the front man for Pants (San Diego's premiere [only?] Pulp cover band), a full-time Dexter (but like Dexter in the good seasons, not the incest and lumberjack seasons) and the father of two Little Girls who I do, in fact, love.
Ryan Bradford: I’m the writer of Awkward SD. I’m also a spooky boi(ngo), so therefore I’m an Oingo Boingo fan.
Ryan Bradford: I could write pages of my relationship with Oingo Boingo, but for the sake of Scotty and everyone else reading this, I’ll try to keep it brief.
My first concert was Oingo Boingo. On October 24, 1995, my dad took me to the Delta Center in Salt Lake City to see the band’s second-to-last performance before their “Farewell” Halloween show in Los Angeles.
I’m not sure there could ever be a better first concert experience, especially for an eleven-year-old. I’ll never forget the potent mix of excitement and fear that settled in my gut when the lights went out and the ominous horn intro to “Insanity” crept forth. For the next eight or so minutes, I feasted upon a stage show that featured creepy marionettes, tribal drums, and a sheer amount of volume that I had previously never experienced. It felt like the music was shaking my soul free. That first song transformed me into a lover of spectacle and live music, and for the next three hours, I couldn’t turn away.
For my next birthday, I got the two-tape VHS and the live CD of the band’s “Farewell” concert so I could relive that formative concert in multiple formats. I must have watched those tapes hundreds of times, and would probably still have them if the analog hadn’t eroded from overuse.
While so many of my youthful music interests feel embarrassing now, Oingo Boingo’s power over me has remained steadfast throughout my life. I become very annoying come October, when they’re pretty much the only band I listen to (alongside The Misfits). They’re like an audio equivalent of a PSL— seasonal, a little much for most, but perfect for me.
Scotty Pants: When Ryan asked me to participate in "Is This Band Good?", I suggested Oingo Boingo mostly as revenge for his hit pieces on They Might Be Giants and Ben Folds Five. Growing up, I think I missed the boat on Oingo Boingo. If you asked early-2000s me to name an Oingo Boingo song, I likely would’ve asked if the Nightmare Before Christmas stuff counts (it doesn't), but only because I knew that my one answer, “Weird Science,” was the wrong answer. [Editor’s note: it’s true. No one’s favorite Oingo Boingo song is “Weird Science.”]
Since I started hosting karaoke in 2008, I've expanded my Oingo Boingo knowledge considerably, but mostly through other people's drunken versions of their songs. And in that setting, I get it: The upbeat tempos, the overly theatrical vocal style, the guarantee that anyone in the room who's into Oingo (can I call them that?) is really into Oingo and will react accordingly to your song choice. It's great fun to sing.
I guess I should also mention I was invited to sing a few Oingo Boingo songs as part of a regular covers night at a local San Diego bar [The Office’s “Under Cover” series, if you wanna know]. Pretty sure I was invited only because they were doing it on actual Halloween and they weren't able to find enough actual musicians who didn't have Halloween plans (I'd been politely rejected in the past for being "just a karaoke guy"). I did two songs: “Private Life”—which I knew mostly because of karaoke—and “Not My Slave,” which I had never heard before I was asked to sing it. Again, great fun to sing, but this feature isn't called "Is This Band Great Fun to Sing at Karaoke and/or In a Cover Band?", so…
Ryan Bradford: We’ve already established that I love this band, so we don’t need to dwell on their many, many good qualities. Anyone who’s even peripherally aware of Danny Elfman should recognize the originality and inventiveness he’s brought to music as a whole. He’s earned his place in history as a musical genius, and without developing those chops via Oingo Boingo’s mad-dash, spooky, anachronistic anarchism, I don’t think he’d be where he is today.
But stepping back and removing the fanboy-tinted glasses, I can understand why people wouldn’t like Oingo Boingo.
Have you ever been friends with a drama kid? Nice people, all of them—but there’s always a chameleon-like vibe of inauthenticity to them. They can hang out with the goths, the punks, the jocks—any clique, really. They can approximate any group’s uniforms and lingo, and they pass. But it’s only surface level passing. Their identity is the act of trying on identities. And that’s what listening to Oingo Boingo is like.
On Only A Lad, it feels like the band can’t decide what it really wants to be. As Scotty mentions later, this sort of allowed Oingo Boingo to become their own genre.
Oingo Boingo’s punk attempts at provocation are also super cringey. “Little Girls”—a song ostensibly about pedophilia—is too ridiculous to really be offensive, but, like, as the first track off your first full-length, that’s how you want to introduce yourself to the world? At least TSOL’s “Code Blue”—a song about necrophilia, which also came out in 1981—is funny.
More offensive, at least to me, is “Capitalism,” a song that features lines like “There’s nothing wrong with capitalism,” and “You're just a middle class, socialist brat / From a suburban family and you never really had to work.” Elfman is pretty much giving voice to every Republican’s wet dream, and I hate hate hate it. One of the worst songs to come out of the ‘80s.
However, Elfman claims he was only poking the bear when he wrote those early songs, according to an interview he did back in 2014:
“In Oingo Boingo days, things were a little simpler to grasp where I was coming from. Because in Oingo Boingo, I was really just functioning as a brat, and I liked to provoke. A lot of people hated us, and I kind of liked that. So I wrote that as another little way to provoke reactions. Nobody at that point was doing counter-left-wing rock ’n’ roll that I was aware of, and even though I consider myself very left, I wrote something that was very satirical of the left—for no other reason than being a brat.”
Provoking or not, the song still sucks, and that attitude of offending everyone again just reinforces their vibe of inauthenticity. If nothing is sacred, then what are we, the listeners, supposed to latch onto? Nihilism and trolling in music gets old very fast. I should also note Richard Elfman directed and released Forbidden Zone in 1980 (a year prior to Oingo Boingo’s first album), a film that also revels in provocation-for-provocation’s sake: minstrel-style blackface, homophobia and racism run rampant in it. Is there a meaning to it? Hard to say, but it makes a case for the Elfmans’ (Elfmen?) early work not being as bright as it was inventive.
One last thing: it would be nice to hear Oingo Boingo write a song that wasn’t a production, and the bombast gets a little exhausting. As affecting as Elfman’s film music can be, there’s a strange emotional void throughout Oingo Boingo’s catalog. Their songs are surreal, fun and scary landscapes with layers of instrumentation piled on, but there’s very little heart. Maybe it’s because Elfman is more focused on rhyming couplets than expressing himself in a genuine way, but it makes it difficult to connect with them. No kid is going to scribble Oingo Boingo lyrics in their binders or journals. (Wait, do kids still do that?)
Okay, that’ll be enough Oingo Boingo bashing from me! “Only a Lad” hands-down rules, and “Nasty Habits” is an unhinged banger that feels like a precursor to The Simpsons theme. It’s peak Boingo. The following album, Nothing To Fear, is great and does away with all the annoying provocation. It also feels like Danny Elfman finds his voice in this one. Good For Your Soul moves the band in a darker direction, and features my all-time favorite song of theirs, “Who Do You Want to Be?”
Like I said above, Dead Man’s Party is Oingo Boingo’s Nevermind. It’s a nine-song masterpiece with no skippable tracks (even though the cheesy “Weird Science” is on it, but it’s the last song, and you can just stop the album before it gets there, which technically still makes it a no-skip album).
Scotty Pants: Oingo Boingo is its own genre. It's the flip side of Ryan’s statement on They Might Be Giants ["Part of the problem may be the lack of a signature sound"] – Oingo Boingo is *all* signature sound. The frantic, anxiety-inducing rhythms. The stabbing horns. The occasional 5/4 measure just to throw you off. And the vocal stylings. It's all so very Oingo. Sure, you might have Oingo trying to be Devo (“You Really Got Me”) or Devo Oingo with a twist of Meat Loaf (“Capitalism”) or Oingo at their most Duran Duran (“Just Another Day”), but they're always Oingo. While I was doing my Oingo Boingo full immersion for this article (admittedly, prior to this I'd never dug any deeper than "Skeletons in the Closet"), I mentally began ranking songs based on their degree of Boingosity™. “Not Your Slave”? “Just Another Day”? Fairly low Boingosity™. “Insects”? “Nasty Habits”? “Nothing to Fear (But Fear Itself)”? Peak Boingosity™. And you know what I realized? I'm much more a session IBA (International Boingosity™ Amount) guy than a Triple Hazy IBA guy.
Let's talk about the vocals for a moment, though. So. Much. Creepy. Drama. Why sing "this is where I lie at night" when you can sing "this is where I like at ni-IIIII-iiii-ight", amirite? The thing that make Oingo songs so much fun to karaoke is the exact thing that pretty much guarantees I'll never come home from work on a Friday evening, kick my feet up and put "Nothing to Fear" on the turntable. Unless, of course, it's Halloween season. I don't listen to music to get creeped out unless it's Halloween season, just like I don't enter houses that I know for a fact are going to jump scare me repeatedly unless it's Halloween season.
Scotty Pants: Danny Elfman knows what he's doing. He wants to make me feel uncomfortable. He wants my skin to crawl. He wants me creeped out and anxious. And with the vast majority of Oingo Boingo tracks, he does a fantastic job of that. Oingo Boingo makes me feel things, which is one of the primary goals of art. They just happen to be feels that I don't want to feel on a daily basis. I guess this is my thesis statement, and I'm saying this knowing I risk getting doxed by the Oingo faithful [Editor's note: please don't dox Pants]—Oingo Boingo is Halloween music. Full stop. Mid-September to October 31st? Spin "Dead Man's Party.” Is the former DSW currently a Spirit Halloween Store? Yeah, go ahead and play "Only A Lad.” But come November 1st, the metaphorical skeletons go back in the closet along with the literal giant lawn ornament skeletons ($299.00 at Home Depot). Listening to Oingo Boingo after October is like wearing white after Labor Day.
Ryan Bradford: I’m good with “Oingo Boingo is Halloween music.” However, some of us would prefer if Halloween was every day.
Oingo Boingo are good, but in October, they’re excellent.
Scotty Pants hosts karaoke every Sunday night at Park & Rec from 8 p.m. to midnight.
Q&A WITH SADISTIC SUMMER BOOK CLUB AUTHOR, KEA WILSON
AWKSD’s Sadistic Summer Book Club is going on right now, and we’re having a blast. The book we’re reading, We Eat Our Own, is even better than I remembered it, and I remember it being pretty damn great.
This Monday (August 22), I’ll be hosting a virtual Q&A with the novel’s author, Kea Wilson. If you’re interested in joining us, just let me know and I’ll hook you up with the Zoom link. Perhaps you didn’t have time to join the book club, but you’re still interested in hearing Wilson talk about Cannibal Holocaust, horror films, or civil unrest in South America in the the late ‘70s? Should be a fun, enlightening time.
The Q&A will go down Monday, Aug. 22 at 6 p.m. (PST).
AWKSD GUEST LIST
The Guest List gives AWKSD subscribers the opportunity to see live music for free. Just reply to this email and let me know which show you want to see, and I’ll hook you and a friend up.
Wednesday, Aug. 17
Pound, Ferminator, INUS @ Til-Two Club: Pound’s name doesn’t lie—the doom/mathcore/d-beat band is heavy. But their musicianship is undeniably astounding, kind of like a metal version of Hella. Wear earplugs to this one.
Saturday, Aug. 20
Incantation, Goatwhore, Bewitcher, Mongrel @ Brick By Brick: For over 30 years, Incantation has been a pioneer of death metal. Without them, the world would be brighter, sunnier (shudder) and way less cool.
Sad Girlz Club, Awesome &roid, Matt Caskitt @ Til-Two Club: Sad Girlz Club plays instantly-catchy-yet-hard-edged pop-punk. It’s quintessentially Californian, and it’s the perfect soundtrack for doing degenerate shit on a warm summer night.
Sunday, Aug. 21
Sasquatch, Hippie Death Cult, Nebula Drag @ Brick By Brick: Sasquatch rules. Stoner desert rock that sounds like early Soundgarden? Yes, please.
Monday, Aug. 22
Ghorot, Kushtaka, Lvciferian Death Mechanism @ Til-Two Club: Ghorot’s darkened black metal perfectly captures the feeling of what it’s like to be in Idaho, where the band is from: bleak, heavy, and mournful (sorry if you’re from Idaho).
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