Thursday, April 19, 2012

Like So Many Threads: Thoughts on Oingo Boingo

In 1988, if you were anywhere between the ages of 11 and 18, you were by law required to go see Tim Burton’s take on Batman.

The movie has aged okay, though not perfectly, and parts of it still work. The biggest and best bit is the opening credits, with the swooping shots through the Batman symbol.

And that music. Oh, that music.

It was from that movie that I learned the name Danny Elfman.

I’m not much of a hipster. I read music columns that cover everything under the sun, and when I do, I discover that my musical tastes are quite shallow. And like most folks, as I’ve gotten older it’s gotten worse as opposed to better, as most of my discoveries and tastes slowly angle towards middle of the road.

But in that moment, I got to make a kind of discovery, and it was pretty awesome. I wasn’t much ahead of the world when it came to the discovery of Danny Elfman, but I was just far enough in front of everyone that, for maybe a year or two, instead of going, “Danny Elfman, who’s that?” I got to say, “Oh, I love Danny Elfman. I have all his stuff. All of it.”

And for a period of several years, I did. I got myself a list (pre-Internet!) of all the scores he’d ever written, and I went to my local Indie record store, and I filled out slips to have them get everything Elfman had ever released on CD. Ever.

I had to pay a dollar per CD, as a reserve cost. Five or six years later, I finally got a refund when they couldn’t find me a copy of Wisdom. That was an awkward conversation.

Somewhere or another, I heard that Elfman also had a band, though I couldn’t find the name of it. For some reason, I was under the impression it was another group called Giant Steps, though for the life of me I can’t figure out where I got that information. Which was wrong.

Somehow, thanks to some magazine or another, I did get my hands on the name of his group. Oingo Boingo.

I had to know more. I was deeply in love with this man’s movie music, and I had to know what he created when he was in an actual band.

As it happened, my local library had two Oingo Boingo CDs. The first was Dark at the End of the Tunnel. The second was a Best Of called Skeletons in the closet.

I came home. I put Dark in the player. I listened for about five minutes. I started flipping through the songs. And I was done. Whatever it was that I liked about Elfman’s movie music, I wasn’t finding it in there.

Then I put Skeleton’s in the Closet in there.

I want to say that the moment was somehow revelatory to me, that my world was forever changed, but mostly I found myself puzzled. I lived in a top 40 world, where everything was carefully stuffed into boxes for easy consumption.

There was no Richard Marx or New Kids on the Block or Neenah Cherry or Madonna or even Prince to be found here. These were people who sang about love and lust and relationships. Maybe they’d tell a story sometimes.

Skeletons, on the other hand, started with horns. Just a big old horn-style introduction, not unlike the 20th Century Fox theme. And then… what? Keyboards. Bass. A riffy kind of guitar, but not really chords.

And then the lyrics: “I love little girls, they make me feel so good. I love little girls, they make me feel so bad. When they’re around they make me feel like I’m the only guy in town.”

Even typing that now, I’m not totally sure what to make of it. Madonna and Prince were considered “dirty” at the time, but this… what was this? Satire? A song about the joys of very, very young girls? Was it tongue in cheek, or serious?

No idea.

And that was one of the more straightforward songs. On the same CD, you’d find the song Insects, whose chorus is, repeated again and again, “Those insects make me wanna dance (dance) they make me wanna dance…”

Or Whole Day Off: “Have you seen my girlfriend? She lives in a pig pen.”

And so on. There were also songs about the book 1984, and a tune talking about using your brain (Grey Matter) and so on, and so on, and so on.

I couldn’t parse out the musical style to save my life. Punk? No, too much stuff going on. Ska? Kinda. But what was with the keyboard riffs? Most of the music I heard day in and day out, there was the main instrument (guitar, or piano) and everyone else just kinda filled in, falling in behind. You could strip everything out but the primary thing and the song would have still kinda worked.

But not here. Here we had horns, and then an answering keyboard, and then an answering guitar. Drop any one of the three and there would be a huge hole.

I didn’t really know what I was listening to, but I did know that I needed to listen to it some more. So I broke the law, taped a copy, and started walking around the house with it in my Walkman. (There will be no jokes about ancient versions of MP3 players here.)

Skeletons, as it turned out, pulled music from the first three Oingo Boingo releases, which I eventually went out and grabbed. I learned about, and joined, the Oingo Boingo fan club, and learned there was more to find. Boi-ngo. Dead Man’s Party. Dark at the End of the Tunnel. A two-CD recorded-live on a soundstage thing that contained a couple of lost songs, and allowed Oingo Boingo the chance to make more money off their previous “hits” which were now on a different label.

And wonder of wonders, there was a Danny Elfman solo album(!) that was actually recorded with the band(?).

In contrast to the early albums, Boingo began to develop a bit more of a pop sound. The nasty snarl of punk was replaced with… something else. The lyrics sometimes still bordered on beat poetry, but they were less and less about using the rhythm of the completely random, and more about setting a mood.

And I encountered the first Boingo song I would describe as pretty, and kind of heartbreaking. We Close Our Eyes, from Boi-ngo, with words like, “I looked Death in the face last night, I saw him in a mirror. But he simply smiled. He told me not to worry, he told me just to take my time.”

That and Dead Man’s Party bridged the gap. My love of those discs brought me all the way to Dark at the End of the Tunnel, which now felt like a progression, instead of like a rock album that didn’t quite work.

To be sure, it was (and mostly remains) the weakest of the Boingo recordings, but at least I finally understood it, and there were some gems there, in particular Out of Control, which is lovely enough that I’m surprised it was never covered by a pop star and turned into a hit.

And then? Then it was filling in gaps, mostly. There were, as it turned out, a couple of greatest hits collections, with extra liner notes and songs. I got on the internet, and “met” a couple of people who were, out of the goodness of their hearts, putting together compilations of lost remixes and bootlegged tracks, many of which were wonderful and enjoyable and impossible to come by.

And there were two more releases.

The first, Boingo, came out when I was in high school, and it was kind of magical to me. These other recordings had been out for a while. And while I knew no other fans (I still know very few, and most of them were created by me) this was my first chance to, you know, get there first.

I bought. I listened. It was another step forward, really, and you could hear all the work Elfman had been doing creating musical scores in there. The horns were mostly gone, and in their place was, quite frequently, an orchestra.

And then. Then there was the talk of a break up.

Boingo was famous for doing Halloween shows every year, something I knew from the various newsletters. They did a couple more that year, after announcing they were breaking up, bringing the horns back and doing songs that went as far back as their only available on cassette first release.

I was trapped in Indiana. California might as well have been on the moon during those shows.

But I got the CDs. And the video. And I watched them, and they made me kind of happy, though I felt a sense of loss there too. Danny would go on to score lots and lots and lots of movies, and I’ve bought some of those scores over the years. But as the band has gotten further and further into the past, I find that his gift for giant, sweeping, fun to hum melodies has been replaced with more tricks, like counterpoint and variation and making his themes smaller and smaller and more into musical wallpaper and less like, you know, MUSIC.

It demonstrates growth and progression as a composer, yes. But just once, I wanna see him come back and do something like Edward Scissorhands, with its lovely, singable melodies.

It was Edward that brought me back to Boingo a few days ago. I was getting rid of my old car, and the very first music I ever listened to in that 14-year-old near-beater was Edward. And so I popped it in on the drive to pick up my new car. The speakers had been damaged by years of weather and overuse, and the notes hummed and crackled as I drove.

As I came home in my new car, though, I heard those strings and notes and bells better than I had in years.

I was stuck what to put into my car next, and I thought I’d pull out some of my old Oingo Boingo and see what I thought of it today.

How do I explain it?

Years later, on a much better stereo system, the mixes often sound thin. And at 35, I find I have often forgotten just how surreal the lyric choices are.

But, well, you know. You put it on. You listen. You remember. And I’m my younger self, sitting and hearing and pondering and wondering just what to make of what it is I’m hearing. And that makes me happy.

Because, dangit, those insects DO kind of make me wanna dance.

1 comment:

  1. It's fear of death that allows you to enjoy it.