.Oingo Boingo: Ranking the Albums

As Oingo Boingo Former Members returns to Mountain Winery, here’s a frighteningly in-depth look at a unique band’s legacy

Almost 30 years after Oingo Boingo broke up, its legacy is a study in contradictions. It was a cult band whose lead singer, Danny Elfman, found mainstream success as the greatest film composer of his generation. Its mix of rock, punk, ska and international rhythms was written off as bizarre in the group’s early years, but helped inspire one of the most popular musical movements of the late ’90s in third-wave ska. Boingo’s most famous song, “Dead Man’s Party,” didn’t even chart when it was released as a single in 1986, but went on to become the unofficial anthem of Halloween in the U.S. and beyond.  

The devotion of the band’s following is legendary (cue the American Dad joke about “obsessive Oingo Boingo fans circa 1985”), and it’s been clamoring for a reunion for the last three decades. According to Elfman, we’re not going to get one, but the guy has always been a contrarian. He’s been playing Oingo Boingo songs at his solo shows, with accompaniment from the band’s former lead guitarist Steve Bartek, so we can always hope.

The next best thing to a full reunion is the loose ensemble Oingo Boingo Former Members, organized by the band’s beloved drummer Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez. Bartek often joins, as do key players in the group’s history like bassist John Avila, keyboardist Carl Graves and sax player Sam “Sluggo” Phipps. The line-ups are filled out by new members, but their secret weapon is lead vocalist Brendan McKian, aka Brendan McCreary, who is best known for contributing to the soundtracks of films like Godzilla: King of the Monsters and TV series like the 2000s remake of Battlestar Galactica (his brother Bear McCreary also worked on the music for Battlestar Galactica, and so did former Oingo Boingo keyboardist Richard Gibbs).

I saw Oingo Boingo Former Members when they came to Mountain Winery last October, and McKian is stunning. He manages to channel Elfman’s delivery and style without being a carbon copy or a simple impressionist. He’s more like a Danny Elfman from an alternate universe.

Oingo Boingo Former Members is back at Mountain Winery again this weekend, and hopefully it’ll be a Halloween season tradition here. As a bit of an obsessive Boingo fan myself (okay, a huge one) hearing the songs Hernandez and company pick for their set—leaning heavily on Oingo Boingo’s early material, of course, but including classics from throughout their career, along with some deep cuts—got me thinking about the band’s albums, which I have played countless times since wearing out the cassette tapes in high school.

Which ones have held up the best? Which ones are unfairly overlooked? In the end, I compiled this way-too-detailed ranking of all of their albums (and one EP) from 1980-1996. Whether you agree or disagree with the list—or are just discovering these records for the first time—I hope it inspires some listens and puts you in the Halloween mood.

11. Oingo Boingo EP, 1980

Four decades later, this is the only Oingo Boingo record that feels like an artifact. It was released after the band reorganized from the experimental music and theatre collective the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, which had appeared on The Gong Show and was featured in the cult film Forbidden Zone (produced, co-written and directed by Danny Elfman’s brother Richard, who would go on to direct Oingo Boingo’s first three music videos). After Danny took over the Mystic Knights from Richard in 1976, the truly out-there ensemble put out a novelty single about Patty Hearst called “You Got Your Baby Back,” and also appeared on the soundtrack to Forbidden Zone (the film which began Danny Elfman’s career as a film composer, and also allowed him to play the Devil, in a foreshadowing of his performance style as Oingo Boingo frontman). By 1979, Danny was ready for a more conventional rock band, which is the only context in which you could ever call Oingo Boingo conventional. This EP, which was originally recorded as a demo and then released by I.R.S. Records (with a cover of bluesman Willie Dixon’s “Violent Love” swapped in for “Forbidden Zone”) is a document of the new group finding its sound, but all four songs were done better on subsequent records: “I’m So Bad” on Farewell, “Ain’t This the Life” on the soundtrack for Urgh! A Music War, “Only a Lad” on Oingo Boingo’s debut album, and “Violent Love” on Boingo Alive

10. Boingo, 1994

The band’s last studio album isn’t as bad as many fans thought at the time. But it was a huge late-period shift in direction, dropping the horn section and jamming through tracks two to three times the length of their previous work. That’s not a problem in itself—the album’s two best songs are its incredible eight-minute opener “Insanity” and the 16-minute closer “Change” (although the shorter live version of the latter on Farewell is admittedly better). The real problem is that while some of the band’s records had a weak song or two, it’s a whole different thing when that song is almost 10 minutes long, like “Pedestrian Wolves.” Let’s just say it’s the only Oingo Boingo record I don’t still listen to all the way through. The bummer is that the band seemed to think they needed to catch up with where music was going in the grunge and Green Day era, but the truth was the other way around—within just a couple of years of this album (and Oingo Boingo disbanding the next year), music would finally start to catch up to them with the punky third wave of ska.

9. Boingo Alive, 1988

It was a strange idea to record a live album on a soundstage with no audience, and the end result is that it doesn’t sound all that live. I actually saw Oingo Boingo play in 1988—my first big rock show—and I can attest they sounded way more insane and punk rock than this. It seems like Elfman and company, with their track record of impeccably put together albums, might simply not have been ready to release something as messy and chaotic as their high-energy live shows were at the time. On the other hand, while many of the songs sound almost indistinguishable from their studio versions, a few of the re-arrangements are better than the originals, especially “Violent Love” and “Goodbye, Goodbye,” which had only previously been released on a soundtrack. In addition, the standout older song “Cinderella Undercover” got its debut release, and the then-new “The Winning Side” only ever appeared here.

8. Farewell: Live From the Universal Amphitheatre—Halloween 1995, 1996

As a genuine Oingo Boingo live album, this is more like it. The double album captures their raw performance style, and while the studio versions will always be the go-tos, I’d argue that the thrashing takes on “Controller” and “Who Do You Want to Be” documented here might be better. Truly, it was a gift to the band’s fans, and those fans should go all the way and seek out the Farewell DVD so they can experience (or re-live) Oingo Boingo’s hugely important visual aspect—Elfman’s intense delivery (which was notably less satanic by this point, but just as compelling), the costumes, the puppets, and the unique instrumentation. That includes the horn section, which returned for the final shows this set was culled from.

7. So-Lo, 1984

This was technically a Danny Elfman solo album, but it was also Oingo Boingo’s bridge record between the early A&M releases and their move to MCA for Dead Man’s Party, since the rest of the band played as session musicians (so did Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers). It holds up pretty well, although songs like “Sucker For Mystery,” “Cool City” and “Lightning” seem more like Oingo Boingo b-sides (apparently the latter two actually were, having originally been considered for the previous year’s album Good For Your Soul.) Others like “Everybody Needs” and “The Last Time” now sound like Elfman taking the opportunity to experiment with new ideas that would pay off nicely on Boi-ngo and Dark at the End of the Tunnel, respectively. As for essential Oingo Boingo songs, So-Lo has “Gratitude” and “It Only Makes Me Laugh.”

6. Nothing to Fear, 1982

One thing that makes Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek’s leap from cult rockers to film composers and arrangers so unsurprising in retrospect is their ability to take whatever material Oingo Boingo had at the time and construct the most sonically compelling album possible out of it, and that talent is on full display here. The album’s four best songs (“Grey Matter,” “Insects,” “Private Life” and “Wild Sex (In the Working Class)” are frontloaded for maximum impact, while its weakest, “Running on a Treadmill,” is tucked away at the end of side one. Side two is wonderfully surreal, with “Nothing to Fear (But Fear Itself)” demonstrating the breathless levels of dread, anger and outrageousness that defined Oingo Boingo’s best songs from this era.

5. Boi-ngo, 1987

This is Oingo Boingo’s most underrated album, and I’ve never quite figured out why. Maybe it’s because it was the follow-up to their breakthrough Dead Man’s Party, and expectations were high. Maybe longtime fans didn’t like the way the synths and other electronics were put front and center in a way they hadn’t been before. But that’s a strange reaction to this record, since those elements were used so effectively on its best songs. “Elevator Man” was a revelation to 15-year-old me, and how it never became one of their best-known songs, I don’t know. Same with the pulsing “Pain,” which at least got a much-deserved dance-mix 12.” There’s just so much good stuff on this album that doesn’t sound like anything the band ever did again—the extended a capella segment of “Where Do All My Friends Go,” the unabashed, not-even-dark love song “Not My Slave,” and a freaking accordion on the best song, “We Close Our Eyes.”

4. Dark at the End of the Tunnel, 1990

The title is misleading; on this most uplifting and hopeful of Oingo Boingo albums, there was definitely a light at the end of the tunnel. Once he got over his initial need to be snarky about absolutely everything, Elfman started mixing some genuinely caring songs into the band’s work, and this album features several of his greatest. I’m not talking about love songs exactly; they’re more songs of love and support for the listener. This is an overlooked reason that Oingo Boingo had such a tight bond with its fans; they loved the band, and the band loved them back. While Elfman could write about alienation and fear like nobody’s business, he could also write about finding the strength and courage to push through those things to true happiness. “It Only Makes Me Laugh” and “We Close Our Eyes” are two gorgeous earlier examples, but arguably this entire album is about breaking through the pain and trauma of everyday life. It all starts with “When the Lights Go Out,” Oingo Boingo’s second-best Halloween banger after “Dead Man’s Party.” It’s almost a sequel, in fact—while its predecessor is about getting in the door to the party on the other side, “When the Lights Go Out” is about what you find when you get there. “Out of Control” is, in my opinion, the best anti-suicide song ever written, while the rest of the album constantly poses dark questions about our existence and then provides life-affirming answers. This structure builds through “Skin,” “Glory Be,” “Flesh ‘N Blood,” “Long Breakdown,” “Run Away (The Escape Song),” and “Right to Know,” and is capped off with the band’s most soulful and life-affirming song, “Try to Believe.”

3. Only A Lad, 1981

Their debut full-length is the rawest album Oingo Boingo ever did, and the closest they got to capturing their live energy in the studio. Elfman has admitted that he was out to offend everyone at the time, and each song is like him going at one target after another, from juvenile delinquents to utopian idealists to fascists to socialists to music critics to perverts. It’s all very performative—and usually hilarious. “Only A Lad,” “On the Outside,” “Controller” and “Nasty Habits” are not just four of the band’s best songs, but four of the best songs to come out of the postpunk ’80s, period.

2. Good For Your Soul, 1983

Considering this was Oingo Boingo’s third album in three years, it’s hard to imagine how it came out this good. Somehow, they managed to capture the definitive version of everything they’d been trying to do in their early years. It leaned into the punk (“Who Do You Want to Be”), the ska (“Fill the Void”), the paranoia (“Wake Up (It’s 1984)”), and the sonic experimentation (“Cry of the Vatos”). Most of all, it fully embraced the horror vibe that the band had been toying with since it started. “Dead or Alive,” for instance, is a short-fiction shocker in song form. Is it the beginning of the zombie apocalypse? A grotesque haunting? Or just all in the narrator’s head? There’s no way to be sure. It’s basically creepypasta before there was creepypasta, and so is “Pictures of You,” which plays like something out of the NoSleep Podcast as the narrator tries to weigh the risk-benefit of committing himself to a partner who might be murderous, and also dead. “No Spill Blood” is a catchy and weird tribute to the 1932 film version of H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau, and I’ve always assumed the album closer “Little Guns” was an homage to the Stephen King short story “Battleground,” but I could be wrong. In any case, it’s no surprise Oingo Boingo changed up their sound significantly after this record, because I can’t imagine how they could have done it any better.

1. Dead Man’s Party, 1985

To me, this album’s opener “Just Another Day” is the sound of alt-rock coming into being right before your ears. Where Oingo Boingo had always thrown itself into musical and lyrical extremes in the past, this time Elfman seemed to stand still and let the spookiness of everyday life wash over him. Bartek’s soaring guitar set the tone for a song that is always on the edge of blacking out into paranoia, but somehow maintains its balance. Elfman’s lyrics are so vivid they can give you chills, but also so stoic they’re almost Zen. Next is the title track—what’s incredible is not that it is now a ubiquitous Halloween anthem, but that it took so many years for that to happen. The band’s Cali fans got it immediately, turning Oingo Boingo into the official party band of All Hallow’s Eve by the mid-’80s. The song’s world domination took quite a bit longer, building a little bit every year until it reached critical mass in the late ’90s or so. Ironically, “Dead Man’s Party” is better known now than the band itself—it has passed on to another level of cultural significance where it kind of belongs to everyone. What most people don’t know is that the rest of this album is just as good. It’s hard to even pick a favorite song, since there’s not a bad one in the bunch. For instance, the only reason that “No One Lives Forever” didn’t get the attention that “Dead Man’s Party” did as a Halloween party song is that it’s not so much fun scary as actual scary. “Stay” has found its own place in pop culture as a sincere love song straight from the band’s heart of darkness. And, of course, there’s the album’s closer “Weird Science,” which—despite the fact that Elfman himself never liked it—will always be a fan favorite (and has been given life again at Oingo Boingo Former Members shows). While Oingo Boingo never made an album that sounded exactly like this again (did any of their albums sound the same, though?), it remains the perfect mix of the band’s early, visceral music with the more refined explorations that were yet to come.

Oingo Boingo Former Members performs Saturday, Oct. 8 at Mountain Winery in Saratoga. The 6:30pm show features openers Annabella’s Bow Wow Wow, Josie Cotton and the Untouchables. Tickets are $39.50 and up. mountainwinery.com.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for this! Time for me to listen to it all front to back. (I don’t think I ever have).

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