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GETTING DARKER : Oingo Boingo's a Bit More Serious, but Still Up for Halloween

October 25, 1990|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

At Irvine Meadows, things don't go bump in the night around Halloween. They go boing.

For the fifth straight year, Oingo Boingo will be the Halloween season entertainment at the amphitheater, playing a three-night stand this weekend.

The Los Angeles rock band is eminently qualified to preside over a Halloween party. For one thing, leader Danny Elfman has a predilection for writing songs about the spooky, the paranormal and the just-plain-dead.

It's a fascination that began in childhood, Elfman said in a recent interview. As a boy, he used to plaster his bedroom walls with all manner of horrific material from his favorite magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland.

"Every inch of wall space of my room was covered. It drove my mother crazy."

Oingo Boingo's treatment of the strange and the macabre is very much in keeping with the spirit of Halloween. Elfman's songs tend not to brood and glower, but to percolate along with humor and a funky dance pulse (the African rhythms that bubble through Boingo's music can be traced in part to a year that Elfman spent in West Africa when he was 18).

But Elfman and Oingo Boingo also have matured as they've gone along. Their early albums, starting with "Only a Lad" in 1980, were manic, frenetically paced affairs. More recently, the energy has been harnessed and focused in reliably melodic songs. The band's current album, "Dark at the End of the Tunnel," begins to examine seriously some of the darker themes that it formerly would treat jokingly.

Oingo Boingo has the pleasure of being a hometown hero: With a style that fits readily into KROQ's rhythm-happy format, the band has the local popularity to play multiple-night stands at big amphitheaters. But it couldn't attempt the sort of cross-continental arena tour that is standard for pop's heavyweights. The band's appeal has been more localized--a comforting notion, really, in an era of national, even global, standardization of entertainment.

While rock fans in the Northeast may not quite be sure whether Oingo Boingo is a band or some new sort of superball (a situation Elfman attributes to lack of touring there), the band has strong support in the West, in Florida and in Brazil.

"Last year, we played the single biggest concert of our career in a soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro, with about 30,000 people," Elfman said. "Brazil--who could figure that out? I gave up thinking or caring about the commercial side of the industry five or six years ago, right about the time we started to get bigger. I've never pretended to have an understanding of it."

One area where Elfman has become a real heavy hitter is film scoring. Since being offered the job of scoring "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" in 1984, the rocker has had a side career composing music for some of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters, including "Beetlejuice," "Batman," "Darkman" and "Dick Tracy." He also wrote the score for the upcoming "Edward Scissorhands."

While he sees film composing as a lifelong career that will outlast his involvement in Oingo Boingo, Elfman has no desire to combine film music with rock 'n' roll by writing pop songs geared toward the movies.

"I avoid songs for movies these days like the plague," he said. "I think 95% of the songs in movies hurt the movies and have no point in being there."

The last time Elfman allowed an Oingo Boingo rock song to be used in a film, he found the results dismaying. "Flesh 'N Blood," a track from "Dark at the End of the Tunnel," first appeared on the "Ghostbusters II" soundtrack.

Told that the song would suit a scene in the film perfectly, Elfman approved its use. "It was supposed to fit the scene, but it was in the background for no reason, coming out of a radio for 10 seconds. I was really (mad). I'd given up the song for nothing."

With Elfman devoting much of his time to film scoring, Oingo Boingo has spun off a subsidiary in Food for Feet, a dance-rock trio built around Boingo's animated rhythm team, drummer Johnny (Vatos) Hernandez and bassist John Avila. The group records for Orange County-based Dr. Dream Records.

As for Oingo Boingo's future, Elfman said, "We decided way back that we'd stay together just as long as we enjoyed it, and not a minute later. It may be three months, or three more years."

Until then, he knows where to find a crowd around Halloween.

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