Dittyday 7: Danny Elfman and Oingo Boingo

Being a pop musician is not, it appears, a stable career choice, and cataloging the various iterations involved in this one would take more effort than I’m going to expend – Wikipedia exists for this reason, but I grew up before cut-n-paste was a thing and learned how to write my own essays, so I’ll just send you over there if you want all the nitty-gritty. And I admit that I was late to the party on this one, not really discovering the primary band until after they’d disbanded.

While the initial aspects had a long history before this, it was as Oingo Boingo that they gained their primary popularity, a pop/new wave group with a lot of members, which is the only increment that can be used dependably – I think the lineup changed by the song. One of the things that set them apart was how much you realized there were a lot of people in the band, because most of the songs were a kaleidoscope of instruments and sounds and stings and flourishes, but exceptionally well mixed like the dialogue in a character-heavy movie, never overriding one another. The horn section, found wandering the streets destitute after the end of the disco era, were given a new home and a big yard to play in, while multiple keyboardists got to try out many of the newer synth sounds being produced in shadowy computer dens.* And Danny Elfman became the primary singer and songwriter, after the band (and before that, the street-theatre group) was initially created by his brother Richard.

My first introduction to them was from the soundtrack of the movie by the same name, so we’ll have a listen to ‘Weird Science.’ Note the spooky little three sustained notes from the keyboards lending character to the lyrics, but especially pay attention to the classic guitar riff following the chorus, which is actually two guitars playing the same thing very slightly out of sync – easiest to hear if you have headphones on, because they’re on different channels (I entertained the possibility that this was simply a duplication of one riff, but they don’t seem to be perfect clones.) I want to see the sheet music that delineates all of this:

Weird Science – Oingo Boingo

I’m not sure if you could, or should, consider this ‘typical’ of the band – I’m not sure anything is, really, because they tackled a variety of styles while still within the confines of ‘pop music.’ But it’s distinctly catchy for something with such a melange of things going on in there.

More along these lines is the next, but there’s a caveat: this song was never performed the same way twice, and I have no count of how many different versions there are, except that this one is my own – I happened to like certain progressions of the lyrics and ended up remixing this myself. I don’t recommend this, because you’ll discover that no two sources have the same tonal quality and trying to match them seamlessly isn’t a healthy undertaking. However, the numerous versions almost guarantee that any live performance you see is actually performed live, and not lip-synced, because you won’t find a recording that matches it.

Back in the early 2000s when I was shooting weddings in Florida, a local radio station would play this fairly dependably on Saturday nights, and I’d catch it as I was driving back home from gigs, sweat drying in the blast from the open windows. Wedding photography (at least to me) required being ‘on’ the entire time, not necessarily tense but certainly riding a regular stream of adrenaline to remain on top of everything, and grooving to this song would burn off the remainder – that’s probably not biologically accurate but you still know what I’m talking about. It’s slightly amusing that the song is about funerals, so let’s check out ‘Dead Man’s Party’:

Dead Man’s Party – Oingo Boingo

Elfman shows off his falsetto range here, yet they had to dig a hole below the basement to tune that bass. Many popular songs have a recognizable riff, but this has nine or twelve of them – I would have loved to have seen the studio sessions as they hashed all this out. Such complication is easy to do in the studio (more or less, anyway,) but the band could and did routinely produce this live, with just as much detail. You can see it in this performance, and I have to say, this is typically what the band looked like, most of them having just gotten out of classes while the horns have come back from three different bar mitzvahs (b’nei mitzvah, fuck you,) and Elfman is wearing his grandpa’s clothes.

There are a lot of songs to be found out there, before they broke up, and none of them is a straightforward love song – many of the themes are fairly dark in counterpoint to the tempos. Elfman can look especially creepy at times, which I suspect he realized and preyed upon, but it might also indicate an aspect that helped him in some later works – more shortly. Right now, we have another of my favorites from their heyday, probably the most ‘mainstream’ of their compositions.

We Close Our Eyes – Oingo Boingo

If you’ve picked up any pattern from the songs that I feature, one of the biggest criteria is a singer that can seriously vocalize, and Elfman certainly counts. This is a song that can embarrass you at the stoplights, because even lip-syncing puts on a show. If it happens, open the windows and crank it – you’ll find a kindred spirit. Besides, fuck’em anyway – they probably can’t even use their turn signals.

After Oingo Boingo disbanded, Elfman did a bit of solo work, but was soon asked to compose the soundtrack to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and is now well-known for producing some more recognized things like the theme from The Simpsons and the soundtracks to Batman, Men in Black, and The Nightmare Before christmas, where he not only recorded all of the songs sung by the Jack Skellington character, he did the dialogue as well, though for reasons unknown he was replaced for the speaking parts. As a composer for movie scores, he rivals John Williams, and I have no idea how many songs he’s written over his career, but it may number in the thousands.

Yet here’s one you might not know, appearing on the official soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop yet not heard in the film – it was added to the soundtrack release, I believe, to garner attention to Elfman as a solo artist even though most of Oingo Boingo is actually performing on the track, and the complicated rhythms and fills are retained (catch the baum baums and ditditdits.) The soundtrack is where I found it – a pretty strong soundtrack overall even if it isn’t Elfman’s work – but the song itself can also be found on Elfman’s So-Lo album. This is ‘Gratitude.’ Or is it?

Gratitude – Danny Elfman

All this, from a guy that was rejected from his elementary school orchestra “for having no propensity for music.” Oh. Well, it seems I can cut-n-paste at times…

* Sorry, I’ll stop.