The Hang of Music: Mystic Knights

Intro goes here. Gonna hurry this out, as I intended to get this fixed and done sooner.

So today is when we learn about (The Mystic Knights of the) Oingo Boingo – don’t be put off by the silly name! – and their first album, “Only A Lad”.

OK, backstory: Oingo Boingo were founded as a theatrical music troupe much like, apparently, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. However, ten years on, they were reformed under the one of the old musicians as a New Wave band.

When I first planned this review, I figured that that sort of information would be useful to my understanding of what was going through their heads. It wasn’t, but if you’re a compulsive knowledge sponge like me, you’ll find it interesting nonetheless . Enjoy, true believers!

But here’s where it gets interesting; have I mentioned that you probably know members of the band from TV and film? Have any of you seen “The Simpsons”? The original “Batman” films? Pretty much any Tim Burton movie? (And we’ll get on to “Battlestar Galactica in a minute.) For the uninformed – as in, I imagine, quite a number of people – Oingo Boingo were reformed and fronted by that ever talented singer-songwriter-composer, Danny Elfman.

Oh, Danny Elfman, how I love you! I first realised who he was and how talented he was when I found that he not only wrote the music and lyrics for “The Nightmare Before Christmas”*, but performed the singing role of Jack Skellington. Oddly enough, though, it’s only on “Nasty Habits”, the last track on the album that I’m really reminded of this fact.

“Who, me?”

However, that’s where the similarities stop, as instead of sounding filmic and cinematic like a score – where Elfman had even by this point decided his future lay – Oingo Boingo’s work sounds instead like a lot of other artists of the time. In fact, released in ’81, it sounds very of its time.

For example, if they hadn’t been a troupe many years before this album was released, I’d say that they were heavily influenced by Devo, whose blend of electronic music, odd lyrics and the new wave ethic. Particularly their even-weirder-than-usual songs “Gut Feeling” and “Mongoloid”, as well as their breakthrough hit and excellent song “Whip It”. I also think that Elfman’s vocal delivery – as he only sings on this album, with no instruments to distract him – is very reminiscent of Talking Heads’ David Byrne, especially with the occasional bouts of unexpectedly growled lyrics.

Unlike a lot of those artists, however, the content of this album is very… unique. Being a person who listens to lyrics, allow me to outline some of the themes of the songs.

  • “Imposter” is a snipe at failed artists who become critics, and try to seem cool by name-dropping a bunch of hip, obscure acts in their reviews. Yeah, er, those guys suck!
  • “On The Outside” is about fake hipsters and hippies becoming the norm, and “ordinary people” becoming the outsiders.
  • “Capitalism” levels its gaze upon middle-class socialism.
  • “Only A Lad” is a criticism of our liberal attitude towards criminals – i.e. we make excuses for them, like “they’re confused”, “it’s society’s to blame”, “he’s only a lad“.

I can see a bit of  a right-wing, socially-conservative theme emerging. I’d hate to want to write a review based on conflicting politics though, so I’m going to try and remain as neutral as possible.

Though politically, the last song on that list is actually very interesting. You see this whole album has a lot of similarities with XTC. The New Wave ethic, the vocals, the odd mix of sounds. Along with Devo, XTC probably constitues the other half of what Oingo Boingo sound like. And they too have a song about the leniant court system, and societies ill founded desire to pardon horrible criminals. Give it a listen.

Now, not discussing the music – as both are pretty well constructed, and sound odd and fun – one of the two songs is a complex portrayal of a system that needs fixing and the difficulties of family denial; and the other is a cardboard cut-out of a tabloid rant. Written by Oingo Boingo.

“No Thugs In Our House” is just as condemning of modern apologists for obvious criminals. But unlike Oingo Boingo, XTC manage to show a much more positive portrayal of what we can do without being any softer on the “thug” in the house. It does this by providing us with a character we can sympathise with – the copper banging his head against the door in frustration.

This seems like a huge diversion, but I feel it serves a point. “Only A Lad” is a very angry album. It spears a number of common failings in people and society, and criticises them mercilessly for the harm they cause. It’s ANGRY.

But anger only does good when it’s channelled, when it’s used to build something constructive. This album, by contrast, is not constructive. It’s snide, cruel, petty and callous – not bothering to look into why things got bad like they are/were/whatever. It’s also not funny, and this is I think the biggest problem. All of this inherent cruelty would be much easier to nod along to and to accept if it was clever and amusing. Try listening to Eminem’s punchlines, or to any Bill Hicks or Tim Minchin. Sad, angry, offensive; yes. Funny; GOD YES.

None of this says anything about the music, though. The lyrics are a bit off, but the melody and

The songs where he’s supposedly destroying some person’s argument, they play like the bizarro universe version of this Derrick Comedy skit – they’re just so personalised, and so either fall flat or come off as way too harsh. If I had some reason to believe that he wasn’t serious, or it was a character song, that’d be different. But I have no reason to think that, so I’m calling Poe.

Even their cover of “You Really Got Me” sounds like a cheap sneer rather than a lazy come-on.

I feel like I’ve sort of launched into the negativity very quickly here. And frankly, that’s because it’s one of the most striking things about the album. I was expecting some musical soundalikes (check), I was expecting some good instrumentation (check). I was even expecting a few sinsister undertones. (which “Little Girls” provides on track one – I’ll let you guess how. Check!)

But I wasn’t expecting unchannelled rage. And that actually clouds over the great musical stuff. The diversity of instruments here is good, and I really like their use of the horn section, like the heavily syncopated style such as on “On The Outside”. The rapidly shifting tempo and time signature, most pronounced on the title track is implemented in a way that makes me think, at first that it’s not going to work – so when it does, you know it’s good. Oh, and the last track’s piano/keyboards are wonderful.

Frankly, this album is pretty good. It’s just the bizarrely mismatched tone and content that screws it up, and if you can ignore that, then you’ll enjoy this, I’m sure.

* The best Christmas movie ever, and you should totally be watching it right now, rather than wasting your time reading what some imposter on the internet thinks. Go watch it now if you haven’t already!

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Posted on August 18, 2012, in Music, The Hang of Music and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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