Oingo Boingo

Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin's Press, 1989, 495-497.

OINGO BOINGO: Vocal and instrumental group from Los Angeles, California. Members (early 1980's): Danny Elfman, born near Amarillo, Texas, May 29, 1955; Kerry Katch; Richard Gibbs; Steve Bartek; Dale Turner, born Minnesota; Johnny Hernandez; Sam Phipps; Leon Schneiderman. Katch and Gibbs replaced in 1985 by John Avila and Mike Bacich. Bacich left in 1986.

For a long time, Oingo Boingo was one of the best-kept entertainment secrets except on the U.S. West Coast, where the band had tremendous "underground" popularity. One of the bands's problems was its leader and primary writer Danny Elfman's penchant for constant experimentation in musical styles--ranging over such diverse influences in the early 1980's LPs as Balinese polyrhythms, West African melodies, and R&B-tinged horn-paced songs--that made it hard to catogorize.

Another aspect of its music that brought constant critical putdowns was the lack of relevance in much of Elfman's words. Oingo Boingo lyrics often were obscure or seemed like mindless backdrops to dance arrangements, something particularly heinous for some reviewers of the time. Elfman commented: "The press hated us. We were L.A.'s most despised band. Both our image and our attitude conflicted with their image of what "revelant rock'n'roll" was supposed to look and sound like. However, we got so we liked the bad reviews."

The son of an air force officer, Elfman was born in Texas, but later moved to California. Initially he didn't see himself as a professional singer, though he was interested in the rock of the 1960's and early 1970's. For a while, he traveled outside the country, including an extended stay in Africa. While some of Oingo Boingo's early songs took aim at American institutions--"Capitalism" made sarcastic comments on the U.S. economy--he generally endorsed democratic values.

He told Lawrence Henry of Music Connection:"I'm not a doomist. My attitude is always to be critical of what's around you, but not ever to forget how lucky we are. I've traveled around the world. I left thinking I was a revolutionary. I came back real right-wing patriotic. Since then, I've kind of mellowed in between. It affected me permanently and totally.

He also stressed to writer John Blenn: "We're not antiestablishment, we're just doing our own thing....We've just tried to create as much freedom as we could for ourselves. You can't be antiestablishment and be on a label. Sure I poke fun at society, but I don't want to be pigeonholed. Lyrically, I never been one for metaphors. I just say what I feel. When you think about everything, nothing is wonderful.

In a way, Elfman and his associates backed into the music field. In the mid-1970's, Elfman and some friends organized a stage act that combined satire, humor, and wild visual techniques (masks, odd props, and so on) under the name of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Virtually unnoticed by the media, the troupe won a following among college-age and young-adult groups and soon could draw capacity audiences to nightclubs throughout the Los Angeles area. Gradually the show incorporated musical elements until it evolved at the end of the 1970's into a band with the shortened name of Oingo Boingo.

The new band alignment came together officially in 1979 and managed to gain a record agreement before the year was out. As Marc Shapiro, writing in the Santa Ana (California) Register, noted "The prevailing feeling when Oingo Boingo signed its first recording contract was: 'Why them?' A new wave attitude was apparent, but a lot of people continued to question the seriousness of the band's venture."

The group's initial release, Oingo Boingo(an extended-play album on the IRS label) brought fierce negative appraisals from local critics. Among the charges was that the main reason for the new stress on music was to pander to teenage tastes for commercial ends. Stung by the press barbs, Elfman got back at reviewers with the scathing lyrics of the 1981 song "Imposter" (whose primary targets reportedly were the music writers of the Los Angeles Times).

Elfman indignantly denied he had slanted his early writing specifically for the teenage level. "On the contrary," he told Henry, "when we started up, one of the reasons it was hard to get signed was because they said our music was too complex for a young audience to understand, rythmically, melodically, and lyrically. And as the kids out here discovered us on their own, we were surprised. We had almost begun to believe what they had been telling us. But we came out with our first EP and it was the kids that we caught on."

The band had a modest local hit with the EP, which encouraged A&M Records to sign them to a multiyear contract. The debut on that label, Only a Lad (1981), contained "Imposter".

A&M issued two more Oingo Boingo albums, Nothing to Fear and Good for Your Soul, from 1982 to 1984. Both contained tracks that received extensive dance-club play (supported by videos that appeared on MTV and other music video outlets), notably "Private Life" on Nothing to Fear and "Wake Up, It's 1984" on Good for Your Soul. The albums achieved modest sales and, backed by constant nationwide touring, helped slowly to add to the group's audience across the U.S. The band had a rather unorthodox size for a rock group, numbering eight members including Elfman on lead vocals. One reason for the large total was the group's emphasis on horn-driven arrangements. The other seven musicians as of 1983-84 were Kerry Katch on bass guitar; Rich Gibbs on keyboards; Steve Bartek, lead guitar (and co-arranger with Elfman); Dale Turner on trumpet and trombone; Sam "Sluggo" Phipps, tenor sax and reeds; Leon Schneiderman, baritone sax; and Johnny "Vatos" Hernandez on drums. In 1985, Katch and Gibbs were replaced by bass guitarist/vocalist John Avila and keyboardist Mike Bacich.

During the mid-1980's, the group became popular with movie exectutives as a soundtrack contributor. It placed numbers on such soundtracks as Last American Virgin, Fast Times at Ridgmont High, and Bachelor Party. The year 1985 was particuarly productive for Elfman and his band. The group was represented on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack with the song "Gratitude" and also had the theme for the film Weird Science. The single "Weird Science" became the band's first top 40 success, aided by a widely telecast video. Elfman, besides working on those projects, wrote and supervised recording of the score for the comic film Pee-wee's Big Adventure plus music for the TV series "Amazing Stories".

Meanwhile, the bands reputation increased markedly with disc jockeys and fans. Was this primarily because of the soundtrack work? Elfman told Blenn: "Gee, I don't really know if it's a key. A soundtrack song is really a very different thing. Its fate is directly tied to the success of the movie. We really haven't done anything major on a hit, but I guess it's helped."

As to why Elfman and the band were offered so much film work, he said, "I think Oingo's music is good for the audience for those films; the people will relate to it. They were youthful, energetic films and so was the music, so I guess it succeeded in that aspect."

The fact that Oingo took a hiatus from touring in 1984 and Elfman recorded his first solo album, SoLo (including "Gratitude"), issued in 1985, caused rumors that the band had broken up. But this was quickly disproved by a late 1985 album Dead Man's Party, on a new label, MCA. The band's move to critical "respectability" was indicated by favorable comments from most critics. The Los Angeles Times reviewer commented on the alternately "mature and morbid concerns of the manic band's...release [which] is actually a goofy wake in which Elfman largely deals (in various degrees of seriousness) with the art of becoming aware of one's mortality...The horn-driven, hyperpercussive sound of one of L.A.'s most distinctive and talented bands had been smoothed out a bit, though it's only a tad less frantic".

Elfman agreed the new LP was more melodic than earlier albums and had less obivious ethnic influences. He told Lawrence Henry: "We already established ourselves with the ability to play pounding, driving rhythms, eighth notes as fast as anybody. We feel like the first two albums got plenty of that out. There hasn't been a conscious effort--'Okay, we're going to be more melodic now'--but I think it's more a direction that songs have been taking.

"In my own writing, I've been going back to my roots more. I know that sounds funny, because you don't hear any ethnic stuff on the album. The only music I've actually studied is African and Indonesian music. The root of that music, to me, is a certain kind of melody. When I think of the year that I spent in West Africa, what I think of is not big tribal, driving stuff. Most of the music I heard in Africa was played by small ensembles, sometimes just two or three, or even one person with a stringed instrument singing beautiful, strange little patterns. I started doing that more on the solo album, where melodies were in my head from a decade ago."

Before returning to the recording studio with his band, Danny completed work on the score for the 1986 hit comedy that starred Rodney Dangerfield, Back to School.

In 1987, the new Oingo Boingo LP was in record stores. For that album, Boi-ngo, except for Bacich, the lineup remained the same as for the previous album. In 1988 MCA put out Oingo Alive and A&M issued the LP Skeletons in the Closet.

From the Fan Supported Boingo Page