48. Oingo Boingo - Who Do You Want to Be?

When you have an older brother who's into music (and parents who aren't so much), the first bands that you like aren't really yours, they're his. I like Rush because my brother liked Rush. I like U2 because my brother liked U2 (although I ended up loving U2 way more than he does). His influence on my musical tastes, especially my early musical tastes, can't really be understated. He exposed me to all sorts of bands that were under the radar and talented. The funny thing is that if the band actually became popular, his interest usually waned, while I continued on enjoying their music. So although his tastes don't influence mine as much anymore, his philosophy still does. I'll give any music a listen to and try not to dismiss it just because I don't like "that kind of music."

But as an early teenager, I wanted bands that were my bands. Bands that Scott didn't care for, but they did speak to me. I embraced new wave music independent of my brother and one of the bands 75]that became one of my bands was Oingo Boingo. I listened to a lot of radio on KROQ, the iconic alternative radio station in Los Angeles, and Oingo Boingo was a band that KROQ played a lot. The more I heard, the more I liked. They had what seemed like fifty guys in the band, with everyone playing with precision but also with abandon. The songs were complex yet approachable and the lyrics were controversial and strange. Contradictions abounded with Oingo Boingo. They played some seriously punk minded songs, but also had keyboards, a full horn section and even broke out the xylophone for their song "Grey Matter."

Even as a teenager, I was into musical complexity and production. I would listen to songs on headphones and try and isolate certain instruments or production techniques. In another life, I may have ended up a sound engineer at a studio somewhere in L.A. So Oingo Boingo gave me hours and hours of enjoyment with those huge 80's cans over my ears, savoring every nuance. And while there are too many great Oingo Boingo songs for me to mention, their greatest comes off their 1983 album Good for Your Soul, and is called "Who Do You Want to Be?"

The album version of "Who Do You Want to Be?" is good, but the definitive version really is the one that appears on their album Alive. Quick plug - if you like Oingo Boingo at all and do not have Alive (released in 1989), I can't urge you enough to get it. Since Oingo Boingo is such a good live band, they decided to record Alive live in the studio. Each song is a live recording, but with studio quality production. The result is a stellar double album that captures the magic of their live show but sounds amazing. So buy it today and you won't be disappointed. Okay, back to our regularly scheduled blog entry...

First you have Steve Bartek's frantic guitar opening. Then the guitar is punctuated by John "Vatos" Hernandez's blistering drums. Finally, there's the wailing solo by the trombone section. That's right, a trombone solo. And it's awesome. There's even another trombone solo later in the song. Oingo Boingo lets all of its musicians shine, and the horn section is no exception. Taking a page out of the ska handbook (and maybe taking it a step further), Oingo Boingo uses horns liberally in almost all of their songs. In their live show, the horn section doesn't just sit around for the few songs that they're used, those guys get one heck of a workout.

"Who Do You Want to Be?" starts at a fast pace and never slows down. Even the instrumental breakdown two-thirds in with Bartek's guitar is still at that feverish pace. Oingo Boingo is full of world-class musicians and if you listen closely, you'll hear all sorts of musical complexity from every single instrument, from the bass to the horns and everywhere in between. Vatos' drums are a gunshot throughout the song, propelling you along like the freight train's locomotive. It seems so often that bass players pull the short stick in songs, just holding the rhythm section down and adding fullness to the guitar part. But in Oingo Boingo, bassist John Avila does the dirty work but also gets to flex his musical muscles often. In "Who Do You Want to Be?" there aren't too many examples of his bass acumen, but it's still there if you listen for it.

Vocally, Danny Elfman handles the lead vocals (as well as being the primary songwriter), but the band has some great vocal arrangements. You don't hear it as much in "Who Do You Want to Be?" as you would in "Only Makes Me Laugh" but Steve and John add some vocal depth to a strong melody which has lyrics to match.

Considering it was written in 1983, the lyrics for "Who Do You Want to Be?" are absolutely prophetic. Back then, before reality TV and 150 channels, you actually had to be talented in something to be put on television. In today's America, people can be famous just for being famous and nothing else. Would Paris Hilton have made the slightest media blip in 1983? She would've been another spoiled brat walking down Melrose or 5th Avenues, full of herself and blissfully ignorant of the real world that surrounded her. Now it's the same, but that attitude is amplified across the airwaves and broadcast into the rooms of impressionable little girls who want to be just like her.

The song starts with these lyrics, a right cross to the jaw of Paris Hilton and her ilk:

Who do you want to be today?
Do you want to be just like someone on TV?

For an America that uses television for escape, Elfman nails the satire with these lyrics:

Oh boredom is so terrible, it's like a dread disease
Nothing could be worse
Than when there's nothing on TV
I'd rather be a cowboy than to stare blank at the walls

I have to admit that I like watching TV, so these lyrics jab at me as well. I like getting "lost" with the passengers of Oceanic 815 and have to admit that Survivor is regularly on my DVR. But I also get out of the house and take my kids to the park for running and swinging, so I'm not completely hopeless. And Danny Elfman isn't beyond satirizing himself as well. He takes shots at the politically powerful and even lead singers of rock bands (I think Bono might concur). The last verse ends with:

Would you rather push the buttons
And be feared by all humanity
Or perhaps you'd like to be a bum
Do you wanna be stupid, just like me!

The song ends as it began, with a blast and it's over. Three minutes, twenty-one seconds of non-stop action and every one of those seconds is fast and fun. So here's hoping I can turn the tables and get my brother to like a band that I like. So Scott, go pick up Alive. You work at a record store so it shouldn't be too tough to find. If you don't like it, I'll pay for it. If you do, then we've come full circle. No pressure, though...

The video below is really weird, but it's the Alive version of the song, so that's all that matters. I think if you're a little high, this video might just be what the doctor ordered. I'm not advocating drug use, mind you, but I understand....

(Fun Fact #87: Oingo Boingo lead singer Danny Elfman may be better known now for his work post band, even if you might not have known it. Elfman has gone on to be a prolific film composer, doing 62 scores to date with no sign of slowing down. And many of them you know. He's done almost every Tim Burton movie, including Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Batman, and Planet of the Apes. But he's also done the scores for Dick Tracy, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mission: Impossible, Men in Black, all the Spider Man movies, Terminator Salvation and the upcoming Green Hornet movie. He's been nominated for four Academy Awards but is still looking for his first win. Bonus fun fact: Elfman's bandmate in Oingo Boingo, guitarist Steve Bartek, does all of the orchestrations for Danny's movie scores.)
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