My parents took me to some concerts when I was a kid, but Oingo Boingo was the first concert I cared enough about to get to myself—which is saying something, since I wasn’t even old enough to drive back in 1988.
But at least one of my high school friends was, and she drove us four hours to see Boingo at the Greek Theater in L.A. I knew every line to every song, and sang them all at the top of my lungs like the obnoxious teenager I was. To everyone I ruined that show for, consider this a long overdue apology. I was pretty sure that night that life was not going to get any better.
It did—I mean, I’d never even had a bagel by then, let alone sex. But still, it was one of those “first concert” experiences you never forget.
The weird thing is, me and my other friends in Central California who liked Oingo Boingo thought they were, like, you know, superstars. Maybe not a household name, but c’mon, “Dead Man’s Party?” “Weird Science?” “Only a Lad?” Who didn’t know Oingo Boingo’s crazed, spooky, ska-influenced take on New Wave?
A lot of people, it turns out. In fact, Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez, who was Oingo Boingo’s drummer, and has brought together some of his former bandmates to play the Boingo oeuvre as Oingo Boingo Former Members—which comes to Mountain Winery in Saratoga on Saturday—says that outside of L.A. (where heavy play on pioneering alternative-rock station KROQ did kind of make them local stars) and pockets along the West Coast and in the Southwest, the band never really did make a dent before breaking up in 1995—and for good reason.
“It was always kind of a cult band,” says Hernandez. “It never really got a chance. We had a reluctant rock star in the band, Danny Elfman—he only liked to tour for six weeks after an album, and that’s all we would do. So what would happen is people would want us to come back in three months, and we wouldn’t do it. They’d want us to come back in a year, and we’d say, ‘No, we won’t do it, because we’re doing another album.’”
Elfman is now of course better known for being possibly the world’s most in-demand film composer, his decades-long collaboration with Tim Burton, and being the singing voice of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas. After sustaining hearing damage from years of playing rock shows, and deep into his composing work, he swore off ever returning to Oingo Boingo again. And he wasn’t sure he wanted anyone else to, either.
“This is not something that Danny wanted to revisit. We didn’t start out on friendly terms when I said I wanted to start playing the band’s music again,” admits Hernandez. “We had to fight with lawyers and all kinds of stuff to even say that we were Oingo Boingo. First we did the tribute to Halloween, and then I said, ‘Danny, let me just say Boingo Dance Party,’ and he goes ‘Uh, alright.’ And then it was, ‘Danny, let me just say Oingo Boingo Dance Party, how’s that?’ ‘OK.’ And then five minutes later, ‘Danny … ’ Finally, he goes ‘Why don’t you just call it Oingo Boingo Former Members? You’ll cut right to the chase.’ Two years later, I finally listened to him. So that’s our current name. Handpicked by him.”
The reconstituted band—now featuring Boingo superfan Brendan McCreary on vocals—plays songs from every era of the band. Besides the “hits,” they also play a lot of fan-favorite deep cuts. Hernandez has been surprised to see a new generation of fans in their 20s and 30s at the shows—who also know all the words.
“We played the Whiskey, and I was sitting there going ‘Who are these people?’” he says. “They were all singing along with ‘No Spill Blood,’ ‘Only a Lad,’ ‘We Close Our Eyes,’—‘Good For Your Soul’ even.”
Though Oingo Boingo never had a pop breakthrough, the band had a huge influence on the ’90s ska revival that came later. Though they never got a lot of credit for it in the media, guitarist Steve Bartek—who is also part of the Former Members group—says that doesn’t matter much. He’s been impressed and gratified that bands like No Doubt (who wanted him to produce their second album) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have so freely acknowledged their debt to Boingo. “The fact that the musicians say those things means a whole lot,” says Bartek. The members of Oingo Boingo don’t worry about their legacy, he says. “No one’s sad that we were a little ahead.”
For better or worse, Hernandez says, the band’s off-kilter, apocalyptic-dance-party songs—especially social-protest-tinged ones like “Grey Matter,” “Nothing To Fear (But Fear Itself)” and “New Generation” are as timely as ever.
“It holds up,” he says of the band’s music. “It was written during the Reagan administration, and not much has changed. It’s the same crap that we’ve been going through all this time, so all those songs are pretty relevant today.”
Oingo Boingo Former Members perform with the Tubes and Dramarama on Saturday, Sept. 28, at Mountain Winery, 14831 Pierce Rd., Saratoga. 7pm. mountainwinery.com.