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The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo’s odyssey from absurdist theatre troupe to new wave octet
Night Flight’s “Take Off to L.A. Rock” — which originally aired on May 9, 1987 — featured a closer look at some of the bands which had already made their mark in Los Angeles during the 1980s, including Oingo Boingo. Watch their mid-80s-era promo video for “Just Another Day,” directed by Stephen R. Johnson, in our Night Flight special, it’s streaming over on Night Flight Plus.
At the time this episode aired, Oingo Boingo — who began life as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo — had already been one of L.A.’s best-kept secrets, and although they had finally achieved measurable mainstream national success, mostly due to their appearances on multiple movie soundtracks, the eight-piece New Wave outfit had never quite developed the kind of devoted fanbase they had in their hometown of L.A.
They’d had a pretty good run for awhile, for sure, lasting from the late ’70s until the mid-’90s, but they would never quite achieve the same level of mainstream success of, say, Akron, Ohio’s DEVO, another ’70s/’80s-era band they were frequently compared to (mainly because, at least in the beginning, they also had a pretty goofy stage presence).
In L.A., they remained a huge concert draw — particularly on Halloween each year, and occasionally they even played to sold out rock club audiences, sometimes appearing on the bill as “Clowns of Death” or “Mosley and the B-Men” — and as time went on, they began to attract a diverse following because of their insistence on experimenting with their sound, which mixed up a lot of musical genres, including pop, New Wave, ska and “world music” (Balinese polyrhythms, West African melodies, etc.), always emphasizing big band-tinged horn-driven arrangements.
Through a serendipitous and circuitous circus-related series of events, Oingo Boingo weren’t formed by Danny Elfman, the band’s eventual lead vocalist, but by his older brother Richard, whose first paying gigs were as a Afro-jazz and Latin percussionist — from the age of eighteen, in the late 1906s — with a group in San Francisco.
They later landed a gig with the Cockettes’ Nocturnal Dream Show, whose sold-out shows packed a huge old Chinese opera house on the weekends.
Soon Elfman was writing material for them to perform — the Cockettes parodied old musicals — and Elfman was likely desiring then to branch out on his own.
Before that happened, however, he was asked to play percussion with a French avant-garde performance art/music troupe, led by Jérôme Savary, called Le Grand Magic Circus.
Six months later, the circus troupe — who ended up attracting Peter Brook, the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as an executive producer — suddenly had a much larger budget to work with, and a permanent home in an 800-seat theater in Paris, France.
In 1971, the circus troupe invited Elfman to join them (he was 21 at the time) and so he moved to Paris, and when his younger brother Danny was out of high school, age eighteen, he moved to Paris to join his brother, who had fallen in love and marry the circus troupe’s lead performer, Marie-Pascale Elfman.
Danny Elfman joined the troupe too, for three months, performing in a show called “Zartan,” which marked the first time Danny would write compositions for public performance in a musical setting.
Although he had no previous musical training or musical background, Danny took to public performance immediately. Richard has called him a “musical genius” many times.
In 1972, Richard and Frenchy decided to move back to Los Angeles, where they quickly founded their own musical theater group, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (MKOB), along with Richard’s high school friend Gene Cunningham, Steve Bartek, Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez, Matthew Bright, Sam “Sluggo” Phipps, Leon Schneiderman, Dale Turner, Billy Superball, Josh Gordon, Ernie Fosselius, Miriam Cutler and Brad Kay.
Richard came up with the name by combining two things that he says just “popped into [his] head”: a fictional secret society (“The Mystic Knights of the Sea”) on the old 1920s-era Amos & Andy radio show, and an R. Crumb comic book character, a dapper fellow called “Boingy Baxter,” who bounced up and down when he walked.
The MKOB — originally they’d decided to only perform classics that weren’t being performed by anyone elsewhere, no original material at all — played a hodgepodge of ear-tickling musical styles ranging from big band to ballet and beyond.
They were inspired by music from the 1890s all the way up to the 1950s, with the MKOB employing as many as fifteen musicians at any given time, playing over thirty musical instruments, including some instruments that had been built by bandmembers themselves.
Danny Elfman — who had traveled on to Europe and Africa to spend some time studying percussion instruments — eventually returned home to L.A., after first contracting malaria.
He joined the MKOB six months after they’d first formed, becoming their musical director, adding some of his own musical ideas — he played the violin, xylophone, trombone and other instruments — including adding elements of Balinese gamelan dance and Russian ballet.
The group performed in whiteface and garish clown makeup, and they added comedic elements too, of course, which is why you’ll occasionally read about comparisons to Spike Jones, Cab Calloway and even Frank Zappa, but they’d truly struck upon an original and unique sound, and they were certainly not like any other music group in L.A.
Early in their career, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo were described by the daily L.A. newspaper Herald Examiner (which published its last issue on November 2, 1989) as “critically maligned but wildly popular,” chiefly to teenagers.
A photo accompanying the article showed that there were eight members of the “multimedia theatrical troupe” — who staged “elaborate Dadaist extravaganzas” — posed in pairs, wearing four different outfits: “two guys in business suits, looking apprehensive; two frightened clowns; two super-cool New Wavers; and two confidently smiling barrio types, one an authentic Chicano, and the other Danny Elfman.”
An L.A. Times article in 1973, meanwhile, reviewing the band’s early shows, called “Astro Comedy Chronicles,” characterized the performance as “[Thornton Wilder’s play] The Skin of Our Teeth as it might have been written by Jean Cocteau and performed at the Lido de Paris, not from a script but from rumors.”
The MKOB began to attract a very loyal following in L.A. and were soon playing shows at the Whisky a Go Go and other L.A. venues, drawing huge crowds to their sold-out performances.
Some of their famous fans during the group’s early years included a young parody performer named “Weird Al” Yankovic; actor and member of the L.A.-based improvisational comedy team the Groundlings, Paul Reubens (“Pee Wee Herman” to his many fans just a bit later), and a very young filmmaker, Tim Burton, who was attending CalArts at the time.
Few recordings from this early period exist, although, in 1976, the MKOB released a doo-wop styled novelty record about kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, “You’ve Got Your Baby Back,” backed by “Ballad of the Caveman.”
Both were written and sung by Danny Elfman (both songs were featured in the 1976 Martin Brest film Hot Tomorrows, and the band also appeared in the film, performing “St. James Infirmary” and “42nd Street”).
That same year the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo made their infamous appearance as contestants on TV’s “The Gong Show.”
The MKOB won the first place grand prize — scoring 24 points out of a possible 30 — with an unhinged, byzantine performance that featured Danny Elfman on trombone and his brother Richard in an exhaust gas-spewing rocket costume, along with an ornate, colorful dragon.
In 1977, Danny Elfman and the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo appeared in a movie about a mentally ill teen girl who retreats into a delusional fantasy world when her real life problems become too much to bear, called I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. The band appear during the girl’s hallucinatory dream sequence.
Their exposure to the world of filmmaking certainly must have left an impression on Richard Elfman, whose interests began shifting more towards cinema after five years of live musical performances, and he began working on what would be his first film, a Night Flight fave called Forbidden Zone.
Read Night Flight’s interview about the film with Richard Elfman here.
The film — based upon the stage performances of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo — was co-written by Richard Elfman and fellow group member and future filmmaker Matthew Bright, who is credited in the film as Toshiro Boloney.
Their screenplay can really be seen as a tribute to the theatrical show performed by Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, a mixed up world inspired by 20th Century surrealism, guerrilla theater, parody, improv, rock video, cartoon satire, street dance, and the drama of the absurd.
Forbidden Zone — with its painted backdrops and minimalistic sets, switching back and forth between inspired scenes that riffed on Max Fleisher-esque cartoon animation, Busby Berkely choreography, German expressionism (particularly 1919’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece Modern Times, Italian director Federico Fellini’s artsy avant-garde films, and early 1920s jazz shorts — created a cinematic experience that truly defies conventional synopsis.
The film remains one of the wackiest 73-minutes of black and white cinema you’ve ever witnessed (the film has since been re-released by our content partner MVD in lurid, living color), with Danny Elfman, as Satan, singing a modified version of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” (with lyrics modified for the plot).
His brother Richard, the film’s director, also appears in the film, singing “The Yiddishe Charleston” from the 1920s.
Of course, much of Forbidden Zone‘s success benefited from the participation of other members of the multi-talented Elfman extended family, including Richard’s wife, Marie-Pascale Elfman as “Frenchie,” and Richard’s grandfather, Norman Bernstein (billed as Herman Bernstein), in a small role as “Mr. Bernstein, the Old Yiddish Man.”
Even Richard Elfman’s accountant appeared in the film as “Gramps Hercules,” but he was billed as under the name “Hyman Diamond” because Elfman had no idea whether or not he wanted to be credited.
The film’s stars, however, were the late great Susan Tyrell, and her lover at the time — the 3-foot 10-inch tall French actor Hervé Jean-Pierre Villechaize — who was a roommate of Matthew Bright’s at the time.
Villechaize, who was warned by his agent not to appear in the film, not only acted and signed his checks back to the production so they could use the money, but also lent a hand in painting the film’s sets.
Forbidden Zone attained cult fame and provided Richard Elfman with the experience working on films, while it simultaneously introduced the world to the music of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (listen to the band’s demo recording of “Forbidden Zone” here).
With Richard focused now on filmmaking — it would be several years before Forbidden Zone was actually released into theaters — he passed the MKOB’s baton of leadership over to younger brother Danny.
In addition to composing the film’s soundtrack — a direction he would continue to pursue as he career developed — Danny Elfman had many ideas about the band’s direction as well.
By 1979, Danny Elfman began to move the band away from its wacky theatrical cabaret style and towards a more pop/rock format that embraced the New Wave sound while adding elements of his own musical interests, which included high-velocity ska and reggae (Danny was a huge 2-Tone fan), Balinese gameland xylophones and quirky lyrics.
With their new direction and transformation — shifting the focus away from theatrics and more on the music itself — the band slimmed down to a still rather large rock octet, with Elfman (lead vocals, various instrumentation); Steve Bartek (guitars); Richard Gibbs (keyboards); Kerry Hatch (bass); Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez (drums); and Leon Schneiderman, Sam “Sluggo” Phipps and Dale Turner on horns.
It was decided this new lineup also needed a name change, and so Elfman shortened the band’s name to Oingo Boingo, which allowed for some of their previous history to remain with the band’s future endeavors.
Practically overnight it seemed they were now playing at rock clubs, to packed-to-the-rafters audiences, and those of us who saw Oingo Boing in L.A. during this period — the late ’70s, early ’80s — can remember it as a time when everyone seemed to be wondering the same thing: “When is this band going to get signed to a record deal?”
Meanwhile, Oingo Boingo began to make their first widely-distributed appearances on vinyl, with a song (“I’m Afraid”) showing up on the Rhino Records’ rock and new wave compilation, L.A. In: A Collection Of Los Angeles Rock And New Wave Bands, the cover art parodying the Alien movie which had become a huge hit.
Oingo Boingo eventually released a very limited edition (130 copies) promo-only record produced by the band themselves, imaginatively titled Demo EP, which they distributed to A&R people at major labels and radio stations, hoping to get themselves a record deal.
The demo featured some of the band’s best-loved songs at the time — “Ain’t This the Life?,” “Only a Lad,” “I’m So Bad,” and a version of “Forbidden Zone” which doesn’t appear anywhere else (the film’s soundtrack features a truncated version of the tune).
Each cover was spray painted, with a different design on each copy, though known copies also included an Oingo Boingo flyer which read “Modern Music For Modern Reptiles.” (The EP is so rare that very few members of the band ended up with copies).
They were turned down by just about every label until someone who worked on the production of one the EP’s songs brought it to L.A.-based I.R.S. Records, a new-rock imprint distributed by A&M Records, who decided to release a slightly-altered version of the four track EP in 1980, their first official release.
“Only a Lad” earned the band their first airplay when it was added to L.A. FM powerhouse station KROQ’s playlist, and the I.R.S. label’s founder, Miles Copeland, became their manager.
The I.R.S. EP and “Only a Lad”‘s success ended up attracting the interest of A&M Records, who signed the band in 1980 (the same year that the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo’s musical soundtrack to Forbidden Zone was finally issued, years ahead of the movie’s actual theatrical release).
In August 1980, Oingo Boingo appeared at the Santa Monica Civic at what was billed as URGH!: A Music War — along with three other I.R.S. acts, the Go-Go’s, the Cramps and Skafish — for what was meant to be a movie/soundtrack tie-in deal to help to promote the label.
Our contributor, Chris Morris, went to the shows, and wrote about it for Night Flight in 2016 (he apparently didn’t have a very good time, though).
It’s interesting to note that in the November 1, 1980 edition of Billboard, in an article announcing that A&M had signed the band to a multiyear contract, the publication said that it was “ironic” that Oingo Boingo were “now hitting the charts after working in relative obscurity in its native Los Angeles for nearly a decade.”
The article further detailed how the band — described by Billboard‘s writer as playing “neurotic music” — were also noted for having had its share of troubles, “including a loss of some of its audience when it adopted a more rock style and when it shortened its name.”
In 1981, A&M released the band’s first full-length album, Only a Lad, which featured a re-recorded version of the title track that had appeared on their demo and I.R.S. EP.
The band also appeared in the 1981 film Longshot, performing an unreleased song “I’ve Got to Be Entertained.”
In hindsight, it appears to us now that A&M weren’t quite sure what to do with their new signees or their recordings, initially marketing them as a hyperkinetic ska-flavored New Wave band you had to see to actually “get.”
Mostly, it seems now, the band’s many appearances on countless television shows and movie soundtracks was a kind of strategy to get their music heard by TV and movie theater audiences, who might then go out and (a) buy the film’s soundtrack, and maybe (b) buy some of the band’s own albums while they were at it.
It was a frustrating couple of years for the band.
In a lengthy article in Billboard (“Oingo Boingo’s Odyssey from Theatre to Rock,” October 16, 1982), Elfman spoke about their struggling to break out of the L.A. band area to reach a wider audience, claiming that when the band began focusing on just music, they lost 90% of their audience (that seems a tad bit high).
“We had to make our own scene,” Elfman told Billboard:
“Back in 1978-79, there was an L.A. new wave sound that was completely minimal, and we were doing something completely different. There was a lot of hostility from all the powers in the press. There was a seven-part article in the L.A. Times about the L.A. club scene, in 1980, by which time we had become one of the three top drawing acts in the city, but we were never even mentioned as existing in the scene.”
“We realized that we created our own scene. The kids and us were our scene, apart from whatever establishment. The fact that we are not part of the L.A. new wave scene is not something that we are ashamed of.”
Speaking of the press, L.A. critics (including Chris Morris) pretty much seemed to hate Oingo Boingo’s new direction, which was described as pandering to teenage tastes for commercial ends, something which Elfman vehemently denied, saying:
“On the contrary, when we started up, one of the reasons it was hard to get signed was because they said our music was too complex for a young audience to understand: rhythmically, melodically, and lyrically. And, as the kids out here discovered us on their own, we were surprised. We had almost begun to believe what they had been telling us. But we came out with our first EP and it was [with] the kids that we caught on.”
Elfman ended up writing a song about all the negativity from the critics (“Imposter”), whose primary targets were reportedly L.A. Times music scribes.
Breaking outside of the L.A. area — where they would sell between 8,000-10,000 tickets for every show — proved to be quite difficult for the band, causing many a devotee to proclaim that Oingo Boing just weren’t a band that everyone was ever going to fully understand.
Reviewers mostly described them as “quirky,” “bizarre,” and “sarcastic,” mostly because their songs — some of them about masturbation, pedophilia, religious damnation, and the walking dead — weren’t likely to appeal to a wider mainstream crowd, but that just made their L.A. following feel that much more loyal to the band.
In 1982, A&M released Nothing to Fear, and they followed that up with 1983’s Good for Your Soul, both containing tracks that received extensive dance-club play (supported by videos that appeared on MTV and other music video outlets), notably “Private Life,” “Nothing to Fear,” and “Wake Up, It’s 1984.”
While their albums sold relatively well — and the band spent much of their time on the road, touring the country on numerous tours to promote the records — the sales weren’t quite what the label were expecting.
In 1982, Oingo Boingo’s song “Goodbye, Goodbye” was released on the Fast Times at Ridgemont High: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack, arriving in the bins on July 30th. The album peaked at #54 on the Billboard album chart.
Years later, there was also a short-lived 1985 TV sitcom, “Fast Times,” which featured a series theme song by Danny Elfman.
During 1982 and ’83, Oingo Boingo also appeared at the US Festival concerts, in Glen Haven, CA, which we told you about here.
Whenever the band returned to L.A., their homecoming shows were always a big deal, so much so that they were playing bigger and bigger venues each time they hit the stage. The band frequently made “secret” club show apperances too (which weren’t really that secret), often playing under assumed names like “the Mystic Knights” (not to hard to figure that one out), “Clowns of Death” or “Mosley and the B-Men.”
Oingo Boingo also became notoriously known for their annual Halloween spectaculars, usually held large sheds like Irvine Meadows, and Universal Amphitheatre.
It was also during this same time that their music began to show up in animated short films by Sally Cruikshank, another Night Flight fave (her films, including “Make Me Psychic,” regularly were part of our programming).
Oingo Boingo’s song “Don’t Go in the Basement” — appearing in her 1987 film Face Like A Frog - featuring a score by Danny Elfman, but the band was billed as “the Mystic Knights.”
Danny Elfman, meanwhile, grew more and more disenchated with being in a band that was so critically derided, and he began working (along with the band) on tracks that were later decided would be better suited to a solo album.
The band’s new manager, Mike Gormley — who had just left the position of VP of Publicity and Asst. to the Chairman of A&M — negotiated their release from A&M and the band were free to sign with a new label.
In 1984, three of their tunes, “Who Do You Want to Be?,” “Something Isn’t Right,” and “Bachelor Party Theme,” appeared in the Tom Hanks movie Bachelor Party.
The latter two songs also appeared on the film’s soundtrack album, released by I.R.S. Records, while Oingo Boingo was making their switch from A&M Records to MCA Records.
In the August 10, 1985 edition of the weekly music biz bible Billboard, Elfman talked a bit about the band’s disappointment with parent label A&M, saying:
“A&M had it in their minds that we were an oddity, and treated us like an audity,” adding that Tom Trumbo, who was then Vice President of A&R at MCA Records “felt that, although we’re unusual, we’re still something that should be treated as if we’re right smack in the center.”
Trumbo had been courting the band since he worked in A&R at Chrysalis Records, way back in 1980.
The deal was sealed in part, however, because MCA was going to release Danny Elfman’s 1984 solo album, imaginatively titled So-Lo, which A&M had passed on releasing (the album yielded a minor hit, “Gratitude,” which had ended up on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack).
With the move to MCA, Elfman was also able to focus on what he really enjoyed doing, which was composing music, and writing songs, for movie soundtracks, one of the very first being 1985’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
In 1993, Elfman told one writer that he hadn’t met either Tim Burton — the film’s director — or Pee Wee Herman, the film’s star, even though both had professed to have been big fans all the way back to the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boing days:
“I had no connection with Tim. I had never met him before the interview for he called me for an interview and I didn’t know why. I don’t know how someone could see this rock band [Oingo Boingo] and think, ‘This dude could do my orchestral film score.’ It defies logic, as far as I’m concerned. It’s one of the great mysteries of my life — I would never have had the guts to ask someone with my background to do that job. And when I did it, I fully expected to screw it up.”
Elfman brought in guitarist Steve Bartek to orchestrate for him, and the score they did turned out to be exactly what Burton was looking for.
Oingo Boingo’s biggest hit, it turns out, would be another song for yet another movie, “Weird Science,” the title track to John Hughes’ 1985 teen comedy Weird Science.
The band’s video for the song, however, was not one of Elfman’s proudest moments. In this interview with Huffington Post Live, Elfman explained that he was embarrassed by the “Weird Science” video because it’s the one video that he wasn’t really involved in during pre-production because he was working as a film composer and was too busy to get involved (he’d co-directed most of the band’s videos up to that point).
Elfman says that he told the director he’d just show up on set to perform, which he did, but he regrets doing that now because he didn’t like the way the video turned out:
“What I end up with is this really, really embarrassing thing… and of course today, everything follows you forever, and so I’m watching ‘Beavis & Butt-head’ later, and ‘Weird Science’ comes on and I said, ‘Oh, I so deserve this.'”
Elfman thought the video was “stupid.”
The track was added to their album Dead Man’s Party their fifth and thus-far biggest album of their career, and the title track — another big hit for the band — also ended up in another movie, Rodney Dangerfield’s comedy Back to School.
The album art — and single covers too — for Dead Man’s Party featured an homage to the Mexican festival Day of the Dead.
In the August 23rd edition of Billboard, an article titled “Soundtrack Craze: Mixed Reviews” talked about how Oingo Boingo’s many appearances on mid-80s soundtracks had helped to introduce them to a wider audience. Larry Solters of MCA Records told the publication that “Before ‘Weird Science,’ Oingo Boingo never had a single that broke outside of L.A. Even though their theme song for ‘Weird Science’ only midcharted, it helped us in exposing them to a national audience.”
The leadoff track on Side A of the album, “Just Another Day” (#85 Billboard‘s Hot 100, in 1986) — however, is the tune we featured in our “Take Off to L.A.” episode.
It was also featured in a movie, at the beginning of the 1985 film That Was Then… This Is Now.
The lyrics — from the point-of-view of a paranoid schizophrenic who imagines the end of the world has come, but decides, ultimately, that it was “just another day” (in L.A., one would assume):
I had a dream last night:
The world was set on fire
And everywhere I ran
There wasn’t any water
The temperature increased
The sky was crimson red
The clouds turned into smoke
And everyone was dead
In their review of The Best of Oingo Boingo (20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection — a compact disc featuring just eleven tracks — the PopMatters website said this about the song:
“A lone xylophone opens the dark and delicate song about agoraphobic paranoia with front man Danny Elfman’s booming baritone weaving its way through seemingly impossible rhymes, demonstrating musical genius with every single beat.”
The video was directed by Stephen R. Johnson, who we told you about in our Talking Heads Video Profile (he directed their “Road to Nowhere” video), and he also directed the Dire Straits “Walk of Life” video too (we told you about that one here).
Stephen R. Johnson holding his MTV “Moonman” awards
Johnson, by the way, would end up directing an episode of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” which was also titled “Just Another Day,” airing on October 11, 1986 (the episode title was later changed to “Cowboy Fun” when it was released on VHS ten years later, because much of the episode focused on Cowboy Curtis, but the original title was re-instated in 2004 when the episode was re-released on DVD in 2004).
Despite their commercial success, mostly coming from their inclusion in popular movie soundtracks, Oingo Boingo were unable to capitalize on the band’s success, and future releases — 1987’s BOI-NGO, 1988’s Boingo Alive, 1990’s Dark at the End of the Tunnel, and 1994’s Boingo (by then the band had dropped the “Oingo” part of their name that same year) — failed to blow up the charts.
There were more shifts in the band’s sound too — away from the use of horns and synthesizers in favor of more guitar-oriented rock — but Oingo Boing finally decided to call it a day.
On Halloween 1995, they threw a farewell concert for all of their devoted L.A. fans for which they reverted to their earlier musical style (they also went with the name Oingo Boingo for this last gig, held at the Universal Ampitheatre in Los Angeles).
Danny Elfman, of course, would go on to become a hugely successful film composer, his music appearing on the soundtracks for numerous Tim Burton movies, notably Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.
Just last year, the city of Los Angeles declared that Wednesday, April 20, 2016 (in other words, “420” day) would be “Oingo Boingo Day,” and Danny Elfman was honored in a ceremony at City Hall (our invitation must have been lost in the mail).
It was the first time in twenty years that the entire band had appeared together.