What Maniacs Like to Do
“Let’s turn the night into day,
Let’s start a fire in an alleyway,
Let’s all go crazy by and by,
And let’s all pray to the cat’s eye!”
—Danny Elfman, “When the Lights Go Out”
No, no, no. Bad MCA! The last thing you want to do is open your very own Best O’Boingo with “Weird Science”. A great new wave explosion though the song may be, it’s probably the least exciting track the band ever produced. Possibly having something to with the song needing to somewhat suit its position as the title track of John Hughes’s 1985 experiment in teenage fantasy, it lacks that classic cutthroat approach to song construction the band built its career on.
Now track three, there’s a good kick off. “Just Another Day” is a perfect example of Boingo brilliance. 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. It’s at this point in the disc, not at the beginning, when you start to wonder why Boingo never hit it really big.
Oingo Boingo’s lack of big time success is one of the great mysteries of music. Pulsing with excitement, blissfully energetic and smart to a fault, as an eight-piece act complete with a three-man brass section, Boingo defined musical ingenuity. The band experimented with sounds rarely heard in popular music, taking listeners down the darkest of back streets, exposing their secrets and fears in often surprisingly upbeat style. It’s true, perhaps, that the major prerequisite for Boingo fandom is slight oddity, causing many a devotee to proclaim the band’s relative failure on the rest of world “just not getting it”. Which is probably accurate—after all, songs about masturbation, pedophilia, religious damnation, and the walking dead probably do require a very specific audience.
Take for example, one of Danny’s finest lyrical moments:
Your sons and daughters, innocent, lay sleeping in their beds,
They’ll catch them when you’re not around and smash their little heads,
If you think it just a dream, or that it isn’t fair,
Just look around outside your door, the clowns are everywhere.
Though “Clowns of Death” is not included in this collection, it’s a sterling example of Elfman’s bizarre outlook on life. His societal commentary rationalizing human frailties seems on the surface disturbing, when it is, in actual fact, scathingly satiric. He really is a step ahead, so frighteningly self-aware and over-conscious of the insincere and contradictory world around him.
He writes in such a way that he can talk about the heights of love in one breath and horrific inner (and outer) torment in the next without ever needing to change tempo. He can reassure you your fears are normal, before berating you for taking it all so seriously. His unique vocals give him a messianic quality so that it’s hard not to agree with everything he says for fear of nighttime reprisal by way of serious dream haunting.
Elfman’s genius lies, though, in his steadfast grip on dissolving social structures and perceived individual limits with smart irony and caustic wit often only thinly masking rather bitter resentment.
Quite a few of the songs included on the MCA collection reflect this careful understanding. “Grey Matter”, for example, touches on Elfman’s disregard for the shallowness inherent in a society ruled by advertising, while “Private Life” centers on the idea that reliance our beliefs, our interests and desires to categorize ourselves is both ridiculous and dangerous, and “Only a Lad” is a complex piece of work damning the American justice system.
These songs are only a spattering of Boingo’s socially conscious specialties, yet they represent the best of what the band is capable of.
Included here also, are some of Elfman’s fancier tracks, “Dead Man’s Party” (featured in the Rodney Dangerfield’s, Back to School), “Dead of Alive” and “When the Lights Go Out”, each great party songs with Danny lightening up just a little thematically, but still as strange as ever—I still can’t work out exactly what the “cat’s eye” is and why I’m “praying to” it, but I’ll be damned if I’ll question Danny.
This album is by no means comprehensive, definitely not a Boingo “best of” in any sense (see Dark at the End of the Tunnel for that), but it’s a good primer for anyone unfamiliar with the band’s work. Just remember to take a flashlight.