You can’t hide from Danny Elfman. Well, I suppose you could, but you’d have to be a pop culture recluse to do so. He’s got 104 composer credits for a slew of films and TV shows, and then there’s this band… Oingo Boingo.
Naturally my first exposure to Oingo Boingo came from Weird Science, 1985’s John Hughes’ film that asks the important question “what if two nerds attempted to create the perfect woman with a home computer?” As a 15-year-old nerd, I loved this movie, and (of course) I also loved the title track. But it would be a number of years before I finally dug further into Oingo Boingo’s catalog.
I started with Best O’Boingo, under the theory that as good as “Weird Science” and “Dead Man’s Party” were, it seemed unlikely that the rest of Oingo Boingo’s work would be as compelling. (This theory often holds true for other bands.) Admittedly, this turned out to be deeply wrong – but this best-of compilation is still my must-have album.
Oingo Boingo lives in a macabre wonderland
This 17-song smorgasbord of Oingo Boingo’s work from 1984 to 1990 is all prime cuts. Basically this captures most of Oingo Boingo’s career, excepting the one-album incarnation as just Boingo. (Also very worth looking into.) After “Weird Science,” “Dead Man’s Party” is probably Oingo Boingo’s most-recognized tune. It’s a great jam, upbeat and dance-able but also complex and worth repeated listens. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s all good.
As you’d expect from Elfman, most of Oingo Boingo’s tunes have a slightly macabre or menacing tone. “When the Lights Go Out,” is a great example. It’s got an upbeat tempo, but Elfman’s vocals, the bass, and the lyrics give this a lightly sinister tone. As always, there’s consistently great guitar work too.
I’ve already mentioned “Weird Science,” but it is one damn fine song. The popping bass on this is perfect, the horns are on point, the drumming is deeply satisfying, and lots of great guitar. At more than six minutes, it’s a bit of a journey as a pop/rock song – but so worth it. It even has copious cowbell!
Another fave of mine is “No One Lives Forever,” which moves along at a furious tempo. This is almost certainly the most upbeat song to ever include lyrics about dying during the hour of the wolf. This is super-effective gym and exercise music, by the way. I’m not sure how many times I listened to this one while at the gym or taking walks when I lived in Denver, but it’s got to be in the hundreds. Many props to Steve Bartek, Boingo’s guitarist, John Avila (bass), and Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez (drums/percussion). Well, really everybody.
For many reasons, “Wild Sex (In the Working Class)” is a personal favorite. Originally off Nothing to Fear it was re-recorded for Boingo Alive. I like both versions, but slightly prefer this one (probably due to repetition). This pairs well with “Who Do You Want To Be,” both musically as well as spiritually. What I mean by that is that I’ve taken both songs to say something about taking control of your life. Being “working class” may mean giving over a lot of autonomy to work, but you can break free of that (at least for a while) at home.
“Only a Lad” is another in the “boys will be boys” condemnation theme, along with Warren Zevon‘s “Excitable Boy,” and XTC’s “No Thugs in Our House.”
You don’t have to stay home, but you can’t stay here. “Goodbye-Goodbye” is the perfect song to play the band off at the end of shows. It’s probably the most disposable of the tunes on Best O’Boingo, but it’s still great. Also handy to have on hand if you do host parties. And it’s fun to hear Elfman do a kind of callback to Cab Calloway with the brief scat singing on “Goodbye-Goodbye” that reminds me a lot of “Minnie the Moocher.” Oingo’s arrangements borrow more than a little from big bands and jazz. (If you’re skeptical that Minnie the Moocher is an influence on Elfman, then I would recommend checking this cover out.)
Oingo Boingo out
It seems unlikely at this point, but I keep hoping Elfman will decide he has some unfinished business with Oingo Boingo and do one more album and one more tour. Or just one more tour, if the album is out of the question. Having been late to the party, I never caught Oingo live, and everything I’ve seen suggests they did one hell of a live show. Luckily, Elfman keeps putting out fantastic work in the form of film scores – but that’s not quite the same thing. (Though Nightmare Before Christmas is damn satisfying both as a film soundtrack and a standalone album.) Elfman’s voice doesn’t make it into the soundtracks/scores, and that’s a damn shame.
For folks who have only caught one or two Oingo Boingo songs, you should really give Best O’Boingo a few listens. As a compilation, it does a good job of gathering their best stuff in one place. As a primer, it’s a suitable overview to the band’s amazing career.