October 31, 2009

Mod-A-Day: Oingo Boingo

Halloween comes but once a year, and sadly of late it has done so without the vibrant insanity of Oingo Boingo. Boingo's halloween shows started in the mid-80s and by the early 90s were legendary events -- as much performance art as music. No surprise that when you learn that the band started out pretty much as a performance art troupe in the early 70s.

For myself that learning came much later. I was first introduced to Boingo in 1981 at summer camp when a friend let me listen to his very new, very cool, and very big and heavy Sony Walkman. He was playing what I thought was a punk band at the time, Oingo Boingo and it was my first taste of the group's strange version of new wave -- more synthesizers than guitars, and more vocal focus than most bands at the time. There were post-punk and ska elements mixed in, but it was hard to classify exactly what the sound was. All I knew, was I loved it. No less for the fact that to my 14 year old ears it had what must surely be socially unsuitable songs like "(I Like) Little Girls" and "Nasty Habits" and at the same time some socio-political commentary that I was just beginning to understand like "Capitalism" "Only a Lad", and "Perfect System". Even though it wasn't mod, it wasn't power pop, it wasn't motown, it wasn't from the sixties -- all things which I was then obsessed with (and am still obsessed with come to think about it) -- it was something I knew my mother would hate. I was right. She later found the cassette tape I'd bought in my bedroom was appalled by the cover and more so by the song titles and destroyed it. That forced me to smugly make my own bootleg copy with a cleverly disguised title like "Jesus Loves Me Acapella." But I digress.

The band, as I mentioned started out as more of a theater troupe and was led by Richard Elfman who eventually turned the group over to his brother Danny in the late 70s, just after they'd appeared --and won-- on The Gong Show under the moniker The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, a name they used later in their dreadful first film The Forbidden Zone. On the show Gene Barry appropriately introduced the band in a manner that I think could have been suitable through most of their existence: "And now to open the show we bring you an act who at first may shock you, but once you get to know 'em, they'll just boggle your mind."

Danny led the band more into music, though keeping a lot of the performance art aspects alive in their live shows. They had a hard edge early on, almost punk like, but with all those synthesized sounds, electronic accoutrements, and orchestrated horns and strings the songs ended up falling more into the new wave category. Even though on their first EP, Only A Lad, "Violent Love" was clearly ska influenced, "Ain't This The Life" had a very punchy, power pop like feel to it, "I'm so Bad" had an otherworldly atmosphere layered over punk like guitars, and there was the very obvious power pop song "Only a Lad" that was more British punk than the burgeoning rock like punk of the US.

The band moved away from those harder edges toward a more polished, but no less hard hitting, sound. They worked hard, and their second and third albums, 1982's Nothing To Fear and 1983's Good For Your Soul, again defied classification mixing the bizarre with the cerebral, exotic new wave sounding songs, with more guitar driven punk like numbers. Each spawned a handful of songs that garnered much college radio play -- such as it was in the early to mid 80s. They were good albums packed with some of the band's best work like "Private Life", "Wake Up (It's 1984), "Who Do You Want To Be Today", "Nothing To Fear", "Whole Day Off" and "Wild Sex (In The Working Class)".

At that same time throughout California the band was becoming almost legendary for it's live shows, especailly after popular appearances at the US Festival, and their early, annual Halloween shows. They went on to tour with lots of the new wave bands of the era -- Devo, Wall of Voodoo, and The Cars -- and even as their sound became more and more watered down and mainstream, their popularity soared. For me, the beginning of the end was the aptly name "Dead Man's Party", and of course their biggest hit "Weird Science". Later albums in the 1990s saw the band move more into the easier to classify adult alternative arena, and surprisingly produced a few songs that far outstripped what they'd done in the late 80s.

These days Halloween passes with only a tribute act led by Boingo drummer John "Vatos" Hernandez and including a number of other past members. But, Danny Elfman has decided not to do any reunions, not because of his high demand and sucess as a film score master, but because he says he has had a great deal of irreversible hearing loss and he doesn't think he could do the shows justice anymore.

For a nice historical overview of the band see this write up by Richard Elfman.

Oingo Boingo -- Ain't This The Life

Oingo Boingo -- Violent Love

Oingo Boingo -- Nothing To Fear

Oingo Boingo - Capitalism