Tuesday, November 11, 2008

There's Weird Science Behind The Simpson's Theme

Anyone who has caught an episode of The Simpson’s over the last twenty years, or is a regular patron at the cinema would surely have heard the work of one Danny Elfman. But before Elfman was an award winning composer of film and television scores, he fronted a quirky little new wave pop-rock outfit called Oingo Boingo, that scored several chart hits during the mid 80s.

Oingo Boingo originally formed in Los Angeles during 1977 in order to record a soundtrack for the movie project ‘Forbidden Zone’ (soundtrack eventually released 1980). The movie’s producer was Richard Elfman whose younger brother Danny was a member of a bizarre theatre/comedy troupe called the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo. The theatrical, not to mention bizarre, elements of the member’s background would strongly inform the style and image of the band in years to come (Elfman himself had spent several years studying theatre and orchestral music in France which would also prove a strong influence). During the long production process the musicians began playing live on the club scene, and soon shortened their name to Oingo Boingo (easier to print on billboard posters and flyers).

Their early music tapped into the burgeoning new wave scene, and featured a full brass section in support. Danny Elfman was the front man and singer/songwriter for Oingo Boingo, and the band’s line-up also comprised Steve Bartek (guitar), Kerry Katch (bass), Rich Gibbs (keyboards), Johnny ‘Vatos’ Hernandez (drums), with the horn section of Sam Phipps (tenor sax), Leon Schneiderman (baritone sax) and Dale Turner (trumpet/trombone).

The group soon built up a strong following on the thriving L.A. club scene, and gained notoriety for their strange, oft times macabre image and stage antics. Musically Elfman was the key, offering up a curious mix of elements from a diversity of styles incorporating R&B to Balinese music and everything in between. The theatrical component of Elfman’s writing style was also a strong influence on the Oingo Boingo sound, and it’s clear that the band provided a valuable training ground for Elfman’s later work in film. With such eclectic building blocks in the Oingo Boingo formula, comparisons were drawn to Frank Zappa and fellow goofy, new wave act Devo, among others.

In 1980 Oingo Boingo released a self-titled four track EP (US#163) on the fringe I.R.S. label, and soon after came to the attention of the major labels, which led to a contract with A&M Records. Their debut album ‘Only A Lad’ (US#172) was released in 1981, and sold well in and around the band’s home state of California, but didn’t translate to national sales - a challenge that would become problematic for Oingo Boingo over the next decade. During 1982 Elfman contributed his first song to a film soundtrack, via the inclusion of the Oingo Boingo track ‘Goodbye, Goodbye’ in the popular teen comedy ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’. The same year the band switched over to MCA and released their second album ‘Nothing To Fear’ (US#148), but mainstream recognition still eluded them.

Following 1983’s album ‘Good For The Soul’ (US#144), which featured the singles ‘Wake Up (It’s 1984)’ and ‘Nothing Bad Ever Happens’, Oingo Boingo said goodbye to both Gibbs and Katich, but hello to new bassist John Avita. Soon after Danny Elfman tried his hand at a solo album with the aptly titled ‘So-lo’ registering barely a blip on the popular music radar in 1984. But it seemed as each year passed Elfman’s writing became more prodigious and the confines of Oingo Boingo couldn’t contain the sheer volume and scope of his work. The group continued to raise its profile through contributing tracks to the films 'Beverly Hills Cop' - 'Gratitude’ - and in 1985 scored their first Hot 100 hit with the title track from the John Hughes’ comedy 'Weird Science', starring Anthony Michael Hall, Kelly Le Brock and one Bill Paxton (see earlier Martini Ranch post). ‘Weird Science’ peaked at #45 in the U.S. and a few months later climbed even high on the Australian charts to #39. Oingo Boingo soon had their second Hot 100 hit with ‘Just Another Day’ (#85).

Oingo Boingo’s next album was a truer reflection of Elfman’s penchant for the strange and macabre. ‘Dead Man’s Party’ (OZ#65/US#98) was released in mid ‘86 and featured Oingo Boingo’s biggest chart hit in Australia, ‘Stay’, which managed a brief stay at #30. The band appeared in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy film ‘Back To School’ performing the title track from their latest album, but the lure of scoring an entire motion picture would command much of Elfman’s time and energy.

During the period of the mid 80s Danny Elfman struck up a friendship with then up and coming movie director Tim Burton. The two shared an obvious affinity for the darker, mildly twisted and eccentric, and Elfman soon began collaborating with Burton on his motion pictures, starting with 1985’s ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventures’ followed by Burton’s breakthrough 1988 film ‘Beetlejuice’. Over the course of the next twenty years Elfman and Burton would collaborate no fewer than a dozen times on blockbuster films as 'Batman'(1989), ‘Edward Scissor hands’ (1990), ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas' (1993), 'Mars Attacks!'(1996), 'Sleep Hollow'(1999), 'Planet Of The Apes' (2001), 'Big Fish' (2003) and 'Corpse Bride' (2005) to name a few, establishing one of the most prolific composer/director partnerships in Hollywood history. But I necessarily digress.

Elfman continued to front Oingo Boingo throughout the late 80s, with the 1987 album ‘BOI-NGO’ (US#77/OZ#98) giving a hint of a further name shortening to come. In 1988 the newly named Boingo released a double album ‘Boingo Alive’ (US#90), which strictly speaking wasn’t a greatest hits package and wasn’t a live album. Instead Elfman and the rest of Boingo rerecorded a selection of tracks from their cache of previous work and threw in a handful of new tracks. The album wasn’t recorded live per se, but was captured as a ‘live’ in studio performance by the band. It yielded the US#14 Modern Rock Track hit ‘Winning Side’. A bona fide best of titled ‘Skeletons In The Closet’ (US#150) was also released in 1988.

‘Dark At The End Of The Tunnel’ (US#72) saw the light of day during 1990 and realised the singles ‘Out Of Control’ and ‘When The Lights Go Out’ (US#15 Modern Rock Tracks). Elfman had also penned the theme tune to a new animated comedy on the Fox network called ‘The Simpsons’.

In 1993 the band signed to the Giant label and released their final studio album ‘Boingo’ (US#71), which yielded the US#23 Modern Rock Track hit ‘Hey!’. After more than seventeen years together and seven studio albums, Oingo Boingo performed a memorable farewell concert at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre, appropriately enough on Halloween 1995, with a double album released to commemorate the event (US#188).

Elfman has maintained a strong collaborative partnership with Oingo Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek, who has acted in the role of orchestrator on a number of Elfman’s film scores over the years (Bartek is also a much in demand contributor to film scores in his own right). Though Danny Elfman is now recognised as one of the film industry’s most prolific and acclaimed music composers, with a swag of awards and nominations, and over fifty film scores to his credit, both he and his band Oingo Boingo should not be forgotten as one of the most innovative and vibrant new wave acts to emerge on the U.S. scene during the 80s.

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