Wednesday, November 23, 2011

SDTK: Oingo Boingo

You really can't blame them,
Society made them.
Normally it takes years for a band to find themselves on a soundtrack for a major motion picture. We’re not talking about indie films taking what they can get to keep costs low. For a band to breakthrough on that level of national (and international) exposure they either have to be very well established, or insanely talented and ahead of their time. Another factor to consider is the variety of songs in their repertoire. Most of the time if an artist is lucky enough to get selected for inclusion on a soundtrack it is only for a hit single, or a one-hit-wonder. It is exceptionally rare for a band to contribute several different tracks to multiple films. Of course the thing that will make or break this situation for a band is their proximity to the action. In that regard Oingo Boingo, who are anything but “normal,” became the go to band for film soundtracks in the 1980s. Based out of Los Angeles and rising from the ashes of a well established cabaret musical theater troupe, known as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, the band had a modest following when they transitioned into a new wave rock outfit. 

From the very beginning, Oingo Boingo had an advantage over other acts when it came to film. They had a track record. Richard Elfman, who founded the Mystic Knights, had moved over to filmmaking, leaving the musical group and direction in the hands of his younger brother, Danny. Richard's first project was a fictional document on the Mystic Knights stage show, aptly titled Forbidden Zone (1982). The film featured skits, characters, performers, and musical numbers associated with their recently deceased stage show. Being the main creative force of the band, Danny composed the score and wrote the songs for the film, which were all performed by the band. They even appeared in one of the more memorable scenes where Elfman plays Satan, singing an adapted version of the Cab Caloway classic Minnie The Moocher, entitled Squeezit The MoocherConceived and executed during the bands transitional phase, Forbidden Zone acts as a pop culture headstone to the band that once was. The title track actually made it onto the band’s self-titled debut EP.


When they reemerged it was sans costumes and theatrics, embracing a new wave punk rock edge. Despite the loss of their stage personas their musical proficiency and diversity enabled them to stand out among the crowd. They were featured alongside other up and coming artists of the day such as The Police, The Dead Kennedys and Devo in the concert documentary Urgh! A Music War (1981) playing another song from their debut EP, Ain’t This The Life. They followed the success of that EP with a slew of provocative pioneering albums beginning with Only A Lad (1981) and continuing with Nothing To Fear (1982), and Good For Your Soul (1983). As a result they became a landmark not only in the L.A. music scene, but also the entire new wave movement.

In addition to dishing out album after album the band also recorded several songs that appeared exclusively on motion picture soundtracks. They were featured in the forgotten film Longshot (1981) performing an unreleased song, I Got To Be Entertained. The following year they contributed the songs Better Luck Next Time and Goodbye, Goodbye to the soundtracks for The Last American Virgin (1982) and Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), respectively. 1984 proved to be a breakout year for the band, contributing two tracks (Something Isn’t Right and Bachelor Party) to the soundtrack for the Tom Hanks comedy Bachelor Party (1984). Their song Wild Sex (in the working class), from Nothing To Fear (1982), was featured in Sixteen Candles (1984) as well as the song Gratitude, from Danny Elfman’s So-Lo (1984) album, which was featured in Beverly Hills Cop (1984). Of course their biggest success came the following year when they contributed the title track to the John Hughes film Weird Science (1985). The song was also featured on their subsequent album, Dead Man’s Party (1985).

As if these accomplishments weren’t enough, Danny Elfman, who wrote and sang all the songs for Oingo Boingo, turned his talents towards film composing. Recruited by Tim Burton and Paul Reubens (aka: Pee Wee Herman), who were both fans of Forbidden Zone and Oingo Boingo, Elfman was hired to compose the light comedic score for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). This was Elfman’s first motion picture film score, outside of Forbidden Zone, and although the presentation was completely different from his work with the band, his unique musical style bled through. Elfman’s musical collaborator and Boingo band mate, Steve Bartek, continued to fulfill his role from the band as musical arranger. He would go on to be the orchestrator for all of Elfman’s compositions and even make his own contributions to films in the future.


Danny’s success as a film composer opened even more doors for the band in terms of cinematic exposure. Often times a film that he was composing the score for would also feature a track by Oingo Boingo on the soundtrack. In the case of Back To School (1986) the band not only contributed to the soundtrack, while Danny wrote the score, but they also appeared in the film playing the title track from Dead Man’s Party. Throughout the latter part of the 1980s Oingo Boingo was also featured on the Elfman scored soundtracks for Wisdom (1986), Summer School (1987), Midnight Run (1988) and Nightbreed (1990). Their songs also appeared in the films: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), Something Wild (1986), My Best Friend is a Vampire (1987), Teen Wolf Too (1987), Like Father Like Son (1987), Ghostbusters II (1989), and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990), although at this point they rarely contributed exclusive or non-album tracks.

During the 1990s Elfman focused more on film scores than rock albums. They released their final album, Boingo (1994) and retired as a band on Halloween night, 1995. Despite the musical outlet that the band provided, Elfman found a way to satisfy his song-writing fix by occasionally performing in the films he was composing, most notably with long time collaborator: Tim Burton. Elfman wrote the score, songs and provided the singing voice for Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). In that regard the soundtrack almost acts as an Oingo Boingo holiday album. He also was an associate producer on the film. More recently he pulled the same duty in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), singing all of the Oompa Loompa songs, as well as Corpse Bride (2005), singing two songs as the character Bonejangles.

Oingo Boingo continues to appear on film soundtracks from time to time. Their songs have been featured in Donnie Darko (2001), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), and Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s (2007) to name a few. Even an episode of American Dad (2005) featured Patrick Stewart’s character singing Little Girls (from Only A Lad (1981)). Coincidently that is the song that got Oingo Boingo band in Canada. Choosing to focus on composing orchestral scores, Elfman has officially stated that he is content to remain retired from the stage. The only thing left to do is sit back and have a brew.



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