The Soundtrack to My Octobers: Oingo Boingo's Dead Man's Party

It's an annual tradition: when October rolls around, it's officially Oingo Boingo season. Well, let me back up a bit. For me, it's always Oingo Boingo season. They're my favorite band of all time, despite being defunct since the late 90's. For the uninitiated, Oingo Boingo is the brainchild of Danny Elfman, who is better known these days as the composer of the score of pretty much every Tim Burton film, the guy who created the theme for both Batman and The Simpsons, and just basically a divine gift from the heavens above that none of us are worthy of.
Before all that, there was Oingo Boingo and their weird, anarchic new wave/ska/surf/punk sound that sounds like it should be absolutely terrible when I describe it that way. They were far greater than the sum of their parts. Basically, they skewered social mores and explored strange and dark topics with biting humor, infectious hooks and more trumpet and saxophone than you can shake a Cherry Poppin' Daddy at. And lo, it was good, as they crafted a catalogue of catchy tunes covering topics ranging from capitalism to warfare to the differences between reptiles and samurai.

In 1985, they created what is essentially the quintessential Halloween album, not to mention their most commercially successful album (coincidence?), the seminal Dead Man's Party. The cover art alone gives a good indication of this:


Gaze in awe at the incredible Dia de los Muertos aesthetic they've got going on here. This was the 80s version of Coco...which, given the infamy of certain proclivities in the 80s, still likely had something to do with "coco" in one form or another. It's a joyous, macabre spectacle before you even hit "play." And from then on, it's just gets better. In celebration of the Halloween season, please join me now in taking a quick track-by-track look at this marvelous work and see why it so perfectly encapsulates the spooky days of autumn for me.

1. Just Another Day


This is absolutely the perfect intro for this album. The song begins with a synth line that sounds like someone playing a xylophone made from a dinosaur's rib cage, and then the guitars and vocals kick in to create a searing, moody atmosphere. "Just Another Day" is a dark masterpiece, and lets you know you're in for quite a ride.
As an aside: many hardcore Oingo Boingo fans consider Dead Man's Party their "sell-out" record, where they signed to a major label, adopted a more polished sound and dropped much of the searing social commentary and satire of their previous albums.  They had become a dead man's Duran Duran, they said. Though there is some merit to these observations, I feel these criticisms are pretty overblown. The fact is, the band's sound had clearly been evolving through the course of their previous albums, and this feels more like a natural evolution than anything. Sure, they embraced some of the pop trends of the era, but when the result is so spectacular, what's the harm?
When people say that Oingo Boingo turned into Duran Duran on this album, this is probably the song that they're principally thinking of. Are there elements here reminiscent of songs like "Hungry Like the Wolf"? I mean, yeah, I could see that, but what difference does it make? This song is amazing and stands on its own. The best bands evolve with the times and elevate their sound along the way.
In any case, "Just Another Day" is hardly pop fluff. Look at these lyrics:

I had a dream last night,
The world was set on fire.
And everywhere I ran,
There wasn't any water...
The temperature increased,
The sky was crimson red,
The clouds turned into smoke,
And everyone was dead.


Sometimes when I hear songs, my mind instinctively shifts into another mode. Instead of merely hearing the song for what it is, I visualize a scene to accompany it, like a particularly self-serving music video. I still remember when I first listened to this song, back in the mid-90s when I was still in the very early stages of fleshing out my Henry Garrison material. This song made me picture a very clear moment in the plot that I'll likely never use, as it has no place in the narrative as it developed. Regardless, it played out very clearly to me, like a movie scene. The setting for this particular future deleted scene? Hell itself. That should tell you all you need to know about the evocative power of "Just Another Day." Duran Duran my ass.

2. Dead Man's Party


You want Halloween in a song? Here you go. I mean, seriously, this song feels like it was created specifically for the purpose of amusing costumed revelers on All Hallow's Eve. It's infectious, high energy, and replete with eerie motifs. It's about a party full of animated corpses, for Pete's sake. In fact, I'm pretty sure Danny Elfman read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark right before writing this song, since it contains a very overt reference to the story "Room for One More" and a possible reference to "Clinkity Clink."The only way this song could play more to my specific interests is if Bobby Brown busted out a rap verse in the middle somewhere. And I know I'm not the only one who loves it, as it's become something of a holiday classic. For example, I'm pretty sure it was playing in the background during a Halloween party in an episode of Clueless. Ah, the halcyon days, before Stacey Dash was ruined for me. Would that we could be so innocent again.

3. Heard Somebody Cry


Now we're firmly out of radio single territory, and can examine the deep cuts here. "Heard Somebody Cry" continues the supernatural theme of the album with an offbeat song referencing ghosts, mysterious screams in the night and ghostly footsteps in the hallway. At this point you begin to realize that Oingo Boingo has basically distilled Disneyland's Haunted Mansion into album form, as they lead you on a spooky/fun romp through the netherworld that never gets quite too disturbing. Though the harried narrator of this song clamps his hands down over his ears and refuses to believe in the poltergeist haunting him, we as listeners know better, gasping in rapturous fear as we pass through to the next scene in this attraction.

4. No One Lives Forever


As the video above insinuates,  this song was featured on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre II soundtrack. And that was a perfect fit for it, a grimly comic song about the inevitability of death coinciding with a film wherein death is ever-present and often absurd. I mean, this song is literally about the fact that you and everyone you know will someday die and rot in the ground. To wit:

Let's have a party
There's a full moon in the sky
It's the hour of the wolf
And I don't want to die


Very "live for the moment," but in a substantially more badass way. Elfman evens mockingly reminds you of the fact that your own lifespan may seem unfairly short, but is actually a relative eon compared to that of your beloved dog, who gets maybe a decade before his twilight years set in. It's dark, dark stuff, propped up with pounding piano and sinister vocals, yet it stays energetic and propulsive throughout. This romp through the darkest corners of the mind will make you want to seize the day...while simultaneously peeking over your shoulder for any hints of  the Reaper's looming presence.

5. Stay


Slower and softer than the previous songs, "Stay" is nonetheless perhaps the ghostliest entry on this album. Spectral synths fade in and out, floating above guitars and horns as Elfman sings what sounds like a particularly obtuse love song. He wonders on the chorus if he and the object of his affection can make it through just one more night. The thing is, given the eerie instrumentals behind the song, one can't help but wonder if this is merely a lamentation of a volatile romance, or if there might be something far scarier going on here. After all "if we get through one more night" could be interpreted in a number of ways, including in terms of just basic survival. There's a fine line between romance and Resident Evil.

6. Fool's Paradise


This is where, to me, the album undergoes a massive tonal and thematic shift. After the spooky songs we've thus far been blessed with, "Fool's Paradise" just feels...different, somehow. More generic, perhaps? It's hard to put my finger on. All I know is that, after five songs laden with ghosts and skeletons and whanot, we've got a guy lamenting the fact that something he has spent a lot of energy seeking out isn't all it's cracked up to be. I mean, I think that's what it's about...the lyrics are so cryptic that it could be about a trip to Baskin Robbins for all I know. It's still a very fun, enjoyable song, don't get me wrong, it just seems to signal a departure. Or maybe not. But we'll get to that in a bit.

You can see why I never became a professional music critic.

7. Help Me


"Help Me" is...interesting. It's not a bad song, not at all, but on an album with a song about the Grim Reaper tearing the soul from your dog, you'd expect a song titled "Help Me" to have a little more bite. Instead, it's fairly light and poppy, even if the narrator delivering the lyrics seems rather displeased with his situation.
What stands out to me most is that this song, particularly in the chorus, has this pseudo-gospel feel that was inexplicably popular for a while in the 80s, and you half-expect it to end with Danny Elfman imploring the listener to donate just $200 to his church so that he can heal a sick child with his magic touch. Which he probably could do, but still. Honestly, this song would have fit in better on Oingo Boingo's album Boi-Ngo (not to be confused with their completely different album Boingo) (yes, really), where pretty much every song sounds like it should be playing during a movie montage in which a good-natured corporate shlub endures a number of small inconveniences that make him late for work. It's an enjoyable listen, but it also marks the point in the album where you wonder when the ghouls are going to show up again.

8. Same Man I Was Before


The album segues back into its supernatural theme with this song, where the narrator assures us he's "not the same ghost [he] was before, but [he converses] with the spirits." We're definitely back to thoughts of the afterlife with this one, though in my opinion it's probably the weakest song on the album. I'm just not quite sure what to make of it. You've got some sassy female vocals that pop in from time to time, a buttload of saxophone and an inexplicable vibe. Parts of  "Same Man I Was Before" sound like they came from a Ranma 1/2 OAV, while other parts sound like New Order making a theme song for an 80s sitcom about a wacky medium. But hey, it's fun.
Full disclosure: I have a weird theory about this section of the album: that "Fool's Paradise," "Help Me" and "Same Man I Was Before" are actually a conceptual trilogy. This requires a dive into the lyrics and sequencing, but I think it pans out. If you will indulge me for a moment...
In this theory, "Fool's Paradise" describes a man's postmortem visit to heaven. Despite a lifetime of struggling to attain this eternal reward, he cannot help but be disappointed in it. Everything is too perfect, too peaceful, too dreadfully dull. "Now that we've found this precious place, how do we keep from going crazy now?" he laments. And thus, he wanders back out of the pearly gates in search of a destination more agreeable to him.
By the time we get to "Help Me," we join this same man as he finds himself in quite a different location: hell itself. As he bemoans his years-long thirst and a steadily rising temperature, he begs for someone, anyone to help rescue him from his plight. Paradise bored him, but the inferno shows him torments far worse than the tedium of the immaculate.
Finally, "Same Man I Was Before" shows this man once more walking the earth, having rejected the possibilities offered by the afterlife in favor of wandering his own path. He is, quite literally, not the same man he was before, reborn and with a new perspective. A pretty unusual one at that, but frankly, he's earned it.

Of course, there are many holes in this theory. For one, it requires a very literal interpretation of the lyrics, which may not be the best course of action for analyzing a rather subversive band. For another, it relies on my own personal opinion that the three songs seem oddly placed on this album, which may not be a concern for other people. And finally, I'm literally coming up with bizarre theological fan theories for a 33-year old new wave album that contains a six-plus-minute-long song that serves as the theme from a movie about using science to 3-D print out actual living hot chicks from a computer, so clearly I've lost my mind and should not be trusted. Speaking of which...

9. Weird Science

If there was one thing America loved more than Australia in the 1980s, it was science. From popular music to blockbuster cinema, the idea that science could make the impossible a reality was deeply ingrained in pop culture. Oh, to recall the golden era where scientific data was respected and acknowledged. In any case, "Weird Science" perfectly showcases its titular era-specific genre and closes out the album on a powerful note. This one has it all: ghostly synths, a toe-tapping beat, samples of Dr. Frankenstein himself screaming. It's the cherry on top of a spooky sundae, an anthem for bubbling beakers of mysterious green fluids and buzzing electrodes, reanimated corpses and dark stormy nights.
Taken as a whole, there no denying the Halloweeniness of the album...it's practically like pouring a jack-o'-lantern in your ear canal. The fact that Oingo Boingo's final performance before disbanding back in 1995 was on Halloween is telling. Whatever minor quibbles I may have about this album are ultimately irrelevant, nitpicks gathered as trick or treat prizes during our decades of excursions together. It wouldn't be October without Oingo Boingo, whose audacious, bizarre brand of rock continues to resonate from beyond the grave. They deserve to be celebrated. To quote the band themselves from "No One Lives Forever"...

Drink to bones that turn to dust.


Joey Marsilio is currently enjoying his October. Almost as much as you might potentially enjoy his debut novel, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior. Almost.

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