Oingo Boingo was a critically acclaimed American New Wave rock band better known for their influence, soundtrack contributions, and high energy Halloween concerts rather than their chart successes. The band was led by songwriter/vocalist Danny Elfman, who later achieved substantial renown as a composer for film and television. The group's format was changed twice, once in 1980, and again in 1994; the band retired in 1995.
The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, formed in late 1972 by Richard Elfman, was a musical theatre troupe in the tradition of Spike Jones and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, performing an eclectic repertoire ranging from Cab Calloway covers to instrumentals in the style of Balinese Gamelan and Russian ballet music. The name was inspired by a fictional secret society on the Amos 'n' Andy TV series called "The Mystic Knights of the Sea." Most of the members performed in whiteface and clown makeup; a typical show would contain music ranging from the 1890s to the 1950s, in addition to original material. This version of the band employed as many as fifteen musicians at any given time, playing over thirty instruments, including some instruments built by band members. Few recordings from this period exist, although they did produce a novelty record about kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, "You've Got Your Baby Back." As Richard's interest shifted to filmmaking, he passed leadership of the band to younger brother Danny Elfman, who had recently returned from spending time in Africa playing violin and studying percussion music. They gained a following in Los Angeles, and appeared as contestants on The Gong Show, winning the show with 24 points out of 30 without getting gonged .
When the group began to move away from its cabaret style towards a more pop/rock format, Richard Elfman decided to capture the essence of their live shows on film. The result was the 1980 movie Forbidden Zone. Filmed in black and white with a cast mostly made up of band members and friends, the movie's music and visuals elaborated on the spirit of the Mystic Knights' concerts. In one scene Danny, as Satan, sings a version of Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" with modified lyrics integrated into the plot of the film. In another Richard sings the 1920s novelty song "The Yiddishe Charleston." The movie attained cult status, captured the essence of the Mystic Knights, and provided a springboard for the film and music careers of Richard and Danny.
Various reasons for the band's transformation from musical theatre troupe to rock band were given, including cutting costs and increasing mobility, exploring new musical directions (such as Danny's interest in Ska and New Wave), and a desire to perform music that didn't need theatrics to support it. The name was shortened to Oingo Boingo for the Rhino Records "Los Angeles Rock And New Wave Band" compilation, L.A. In, featuring their song "I'm Afraid."
Early success for the group came in 1980 with the song "Only a Lad" from their eponymous EP. The song aired frequently in Los Angeles on KROQ and complemented the station's then-unusual New Wave format. Although the song was classified as New Wave and was compared to Devo, Oingo Boingo defied categorization. Their use of exotic percussion, a three piece horn section, unconventionial scales and harmony, and surrealistic imagery was an unconventional combination. Following regional success of "Only a Lad," the group released its first full length album, also titled Only a Lad, in 1981.
The band is best known for appearing on a number of soundtracks in the early- to mid-1980s. Their most well-known song, "Weird Science", was written for the John Hughes movie of the same name, and was later included on their 1985 album Dead Man's Party. The song was one of the band's least favorites. It was rushed out of the studio for the film before they were finished with it, and it was almost never performed live. The band made an appearance playing their hit "Dead Man's Party" on stage in the movie Back to School. Three more songs from Dead Man's Party were used in soundtracks: the song "No One Lives Forever" was featured in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, "Stay" was used as the theme music for the popular Brazilian soap opera Top Model, and "Just Another Day" opened the 1985 film adaptation of S.E. Hinton's That Was Then, This Is Now. Oingo Boingo also appeared in the 1981 film Longshot, performing their unreleased song "I've Got To Be Entertained". (for more soundtrack appearances, see below under "Soundtracks and references in popular culture")
In 1993 the band was once again pared down. This incarnation saw the dismissal of the horn section and the addition of guitarist Warren Fitzgerald for the recording of their final album (Boingo), although the permanent brass players and various percussionists continued to perform with the band in concert.
Oingo Boingo amicably parted ways after their annual Halloween concert in 1995. The final concert is available on both audio and video recordings.
" Quite simply... the time was right. After 17 years together, it finally occurred to me that we had survived about 16 years longer than I had expected... pretty good by any standards I think. It's been good, crazy times, and I'm always amazed how loyal our fans have been, but I think it's better to let things go before they turn sour. Also, scientifically speaking, modern research has recently proven that after a band has been together longer than a decade, the risk of the dinosaur factor kicking in increases exponentially each year thereafter. In short, it's been fun. Adios Amigos.
– Danny Elfman"
Since then, frontman Danny Elfman has continued to find success in his career writing film scores, particularly in collaboration with director Tim Burton; he almost exclusively employs Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek as orchestrator. His film scores have included Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Good Will Hunting, Proof of Life, Men in Black, and dozens more. Elfman also wrote the themes for more than a dozen TV series, including The Simpsons, Batman: The Animated Series, Desperate Housewives, Tales from the Crypt, and Sledge Hammer!. His trademark composing style gives an Oingo Boingo feel.
Vatos formed a concert show along with Sluggo, Bartek, and Avila in California. The concert show features performances on Oingo Boingo's most popular songs. This has led to speculation about a reunion.