SoCal Halloween memories of Oingo Boingo

When I was a teen in Southern California,  Halloween meant two things:  Knott’s Halloween Haunt and Oingo Boingo.  As I stated in my Knott’s Gateway article, these two parts of my growing up are core to who I am, to the things that I love still today, and they have become a part of my family as well.

So lets start not at the beginning, but at the recent.  If you managed to attend the inagural Midsummer Scream in July, and also attended the Saturday night costume dance party, you got to see Johnny Vato’s Oingo Boingo Dance Party in action.  Many of you who were too young to experience the band before their famous farewell performance in 1995, got a taste of what was, and I heard the exact same thing from many of you afterwards…”I get it!  It was amazing!” and most importantly, “I hope they come back next year!”


Yeah, you have to see Oingo Boingo live to understand.  Not even video of their performance gives you a real feel for what Halloween was like.  No it was like an annual visit to a dark and spooky carnival of amazing music, mosh, and otherworldly performance art.  Yes to understand even part of the phenomenon perhaps we need to travel far far back to a magical time when the band wasn’t a band at all, but a performance art troupe known as the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.


Predating the cirque shows that now saturate Las Vegas and the rest of the world, The Mystic Knights (formed in 1972) were an avant-garde collective of musicians and performance artists that put on shows here in Los Angeles, performed on (and won) the infamous Gong Show, and provided music for founder Richard Elfman’s 1980 cult classic film Forbidden Zone.  It’s not for everyone, and offensive to many, but if you understand the references to classic cartoons and like them fused with tin pan alley music, new wave humor,  irreverence, sex, and Hervé Villechaize (yes Tattoo, of Fantasy Island fame), you are going to going to have a great time.  Most importantly however you will see the roots of the no stone left upturned, subject too taboo, or take anything too seriously credo that drove the band for the next 15 years.


To hear Danny Elfman describe how he became involved, Richard just told him he was going to do the music for the movie, and being the good younger brother that he was, Danny just accepted it and did it.  Since this is the family friendly portion of HorrorBuzz, I won’t post footage of Danny performing his tribute to Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher (titled Squeezit the Moocher) here, but it was vintage Danny Elfman performance work; the twisted served up with a demented twinkle in the eye, and of course extreme inventive musical excellence.


It was a great time for musical variety in the early 80’s.  Groups like Madness, and The Specials were breaking through and bringing Jamaican ska music into the clubs and onto the alternative radio waves as well, and as Richard left the group to pursue film making, Danny was looking to transform performance art, with hours of preparation and theater load in, into a band that could be up and ready to play in a venue “in an hour.”




The Mystic Knights of title was ritually dropped, and the band simply became Oingo Boingo.  And the music went from performance art eclectic  to new wave eclectic.  It wasn’t quite Ska, it was unique.  There were elements of dark and heavy classical music, there were references to long maxresdefaultforgotten childhood melodies, but whatever they produced it was always dance-able.  If you were looking for ballads you had the wrong band, though I am sure they could have played them if they wanted to.  They had horns, guitars, synthesizers, drums, accordions, and other crazy looking percussion of all shapes and sizes (including bone xylophones from time to time)  and song lyrics that were satirical, layered, and complex.  When Danny wrote about Capitalism, he wasn’t celebrating it, he was skewing it,  when he wrote about little guns, he was pointing at the tiny minds behind them.   Listening to their catalog it seems like they could cover jsut about any musical influence but they definitely skewed towards the wonderfully dark spectrum of sounds, and ironically their  style invoked all the horrific and  colorful carnivalesque feeling of a Mexican Day of the Dead  processional.



I first heard the band on KROQ…was blown away with songs from the Only a Lad, and Good for Your Soul albums, but….

(After that rather long introduction) My first real “gateway scare” was Halloween, 1985 at the Pacific Amphitheater.   The audience a mixed bag of the most high energy people I have ever seen, on drugs?  many perhaps, but more to the point everyone moved to the music.  So much so that I didn’t realize there was a mosh pit down front (parents you might have to explain that one to your kids because it’s still beyond words for me)   My parents (God bless them) let me go with a friend and his dad.  Danny looked delightfully possessed most of the show, and I don’t think I stopped dancing for one moment the whole night.  I wish I could say it was my first concert, but it was the first concert I attended where the songs sounded almost the same as they did on the album, wonderfully polished, and it created a hunger to see live music deep in my soul that will never go away.

A few years later I managed to meet Johnny Vatos backstage,  I was a drummer in high school and a huge fan, and he was the most encouraging and kind person, so when I heard several years ago he was bringing members of the band back together to “revisit” some of the Halloween magic,  I dragged my wife to the show.  I’m happy to report she caught the infection, and we see them every chance we get.  Danny has graciously passed the baton and the band now fronted by the young and vibrant Brrendan McCreary, who I truly believe is one of the only people in the world who does the vocals justice and also is able to channel some of that same insane energy from the past.   With Sam “Sluggo” Phipps leading the horn section (and occasionally performing an amazing “No One Lives Forever”), and a rotating (wonderfully open door) lineup that often includes virtuoso bassist John Avila, and longtime Danny Elfman collaborator (and guitar god) Steve Bartek.  It’s a different experience, set list, time travel trip every time.  And don’t worry if one of the original members isn’t there for some reason, Johnny has incredible depth on the “bench.”  His son Freddy Hernandez is every ounce a great a musician and as nice a guy as his dad, and Mike “The Spike” Glendinning is a personal favorite because of the energy he brings to the stage.


So it’s almost haunt season, and this year the band will be performing three concerts in Southern California.


The Rose

Pasadena, CA
Friday Oct 28th 2016


The Coach House

San Juan Capistrano, CA
Saturday Oct 29th 2016


The Canyon Club

Agoura Hills, CA
Sunday Oct 30th 2016

If you miss the way Halloween was, or never got a chance to experience all that it was back when Oingo Boingo were the kings of Halloween, do yourself a favor and check them out.   Come in costume, prepare to have the doors blown off all these venues, but don’t expect a mosh pit (the medical bills after are way to high.)

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