While Oingo Boingo never got as big as they deserved, they did have a few big hits, including the titular song from the ’80s movie “Weird Science” as well as “Dead Man’s Party,” via their performance in another big ’80s blockbuster, “Back to School.” Sometimes miscategorized as a wacky retro band, Oingo Boingo has staying power, due in part to singer Danny Elfman’s sinister on-stage charisma, and intelligent, often provocatively satirical lyrics. Elfman told the AV Club in a 2014 interview, “[In] Oingo Boingo, I was really just functioning as a brat, and I liked to provoke. A lot of people hated us, and I kind of liked that.” Yet legions of people actually loved them for that, and do to this day.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2013, Elfman cited hearing loss and tinnitus from too many nights in front of too many loud monitors as the main reason he amicably quit the band in 1995 after 17 years together. But it wasn’t just that; in 1985, director Tim Burton had asked him to do the score for his debut movie, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” which sparked a love of creating music for films. “In the middle of writing a score,” he said in the 2013 interview, “I’m so happy to be creating rather than playing the same songs night after night. I hate repetition.”
Scores of Scores
Elfman has composed scores for 16 of Burton’s movies (per Yahoo!), including “Beetlejuice,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (in which he also was the singing voice of beloved Jack Skellington), “Corpse Bride,” and “Frankenweenie.” He has also worked with directors Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro, and his own brother, Richard Elfman. His IMDb credits are formidable. And in 2019, he even taught a Masterclass course.
Tucked in between composing and fronting a rock band, Elfman also managed to squeeze in the iconic theme song for “The Simpsons.” When Simpsons creator Matt Groening showed Elfman a 2-D version of the opening sequence, Elfman said, “It was totally clear. The energy, the silliness, the characters, it was all there … I literally wrote [the theme] in the car on the way home,” reports Yahoo!.
That was just the instrumental part. Elfman told Marc Maron on his “WTF” podcast, “What I did was the smartest, not knowing it was smart, thing I ever did, was I sang, ‘The Simpsons,’ and I got into [the Screen Actors Guild], and I sang those three syllables. And that kept me in income and insured — health insurance — for the rest of my life. Like, who would know?”
Elfman has also done live performances of his “Nightmare Before Christmas” soundtrack, including Jack’s vocals, around Halloween in California. After a three-year hiatus, the live performance will be back this year, according to Rolling Stone!
In 2020, he had to pivot just like the rest of us
And lately, Elfman’s been making the rounds on podcasts like “WTF with Marc Maron,” and the Canadian-based “Turned Out a Punk,” in which he geeks out about music and his unorthodox journey in the ’70s from surrealist street theatre troupe “The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo,” to wanting to start a ska band, a la The Specials and Madness, and on to what became known as Oingo Boingo. But he’s not just waxing nostalgic; he’s talking to people about “Big Mess,” released in June 2021, which is his first solo record in 37 years (the first one was 1984’s “So-Lo”).
During the unsettling early times of the pandemic, while the rest of us were baking bread, hiking in the woods, or staring at the TV in a haze of existential dread, Elfman’s mind turned toward creating when he and his family moved into their house outside of busy Los Angeles. He had been planning on making a big splash at 2020’s Coachella, but like with most things in 2020, the festival was canceled. He had planned to premiere a new song at Coachella; that new piece would turn out to be the song “Sorry,” the first song on “Big Mess.”
“The Big Mess is Me”
In an interview with Variety, Elfman said, “When I started writing lyrics for ‘Sorry,’ I was shocked by how much venom I had building up in me. I started writing personal songs, which I didn’t used to do much in the past.” Apropos of life during a global pandemic and increasing political and civil unrest, the 18 songs on the album range from the abstractly unsettling reworking of the Oingo Boingo song “Insects,” to the unvarnished political/moral ultimatum, “Choose Your Side.” The sound on most songs is heavy and thick, much like that aforementioned existential dread.
You can watch the nightmarish videos that sprang from the double-album’s songs on Elfman’s YouTube channel and keep up with the prolific artist’s goings-on at his website. “I knew from the start that this wasn’t going to be a neat, easy-to-categorize record,” he said (via Anti- Epitaph) “It was always destined to be this crazy cacophony, because that’s who I am. The Big Mess is me.” Same, Danny. Same.
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