Most of us are familiar with Danny Elfman from his scores for Tim Burton’s films, Jack’s singing voice in Nightmare Before Christmas, or the theme music for The Simpsons. Or maybe through his new wave band Oingo Boingo’s hit songs “Dead Man’s Party” or “Weird Science.” But that’s not what this article is about.
This piece is here to document and honor the weird, wild and wonderful work made by Danny and his 12-piece avant-garde old-wave performance art troupe. Scarcely documented, hard to explain, and too eclectic for mainstream success, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo carved a unique spot for themselves with their caffeinated ragtime, garish makeup, monster costumes and rejection of all things modern.
In 1970, Danny’s older brother Richard was living in Paris and performing as a percussionist with Le Grand Magic Circus. The group needed a violinist, and eighteen-year-old Danny jumped at the chance, touring Europe with the group for the summer. Shortly after, Danny headed to Africa to study polyrhythms and percussion by wandering from town to town and playing with local musicians.
“I had my nineteenth birthday crossing the border into Nigeria, “ he recalled. “The border guards all sang me ‘Happy Birthday.’”
He traveled from the west end of the continent to the east for a solid year before coming down with malaria. He was flown back to the U.S. for treatment and recovery. By then, Richard had married the lead performer of Le Grand Magic Circus, Marie Pascale. The two had moved to Los Angeles to form their own musical theater troupe. They called it The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, a mixture of an Amos n’ Andy reference and phonetic gibberish. Danny was immediately enlisted as their musical director. Richard recalls:
“My guiding musical vision for the group was ‘nothing contemporary.’ We faithfully re-created GREAT music that audiences could no longer hear live anymore — Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Django Rheinhardt, Josephine Baker, and did totally original, off-the-wall compositions by Danny, including numbers using an array of percussion instruments that he and saxophonist Leon Schneiderman created for the group.”
The Mystic Knights lineup would vary from show to show; often having as many as 15 performing members swapping up to thirty musical instruments during their set. The show took a classic cabaret format, mixing theatrical bits and comedy skits with the songs. Absurdist narratives and homemade creature costumes were woven into the musical performances. Danny would lead the band dressed as Satan, welcoming the audience into ‘Hotel Hades’ for the evening.
Recordings from this period are rare, usually live, and poor in fidelity, but the crowning achievement of this era of the group would be the raunchy art-house film Forbidden Zone.
Written and directed by Richard Elfman, the film encapsulates the spirit of Mystic Knights’ live show, mixing in inventive stop-motion, video collage and dadaist comedy bits. This would be Danny’s first film score, arranged by guitarist Steve Bartek and performed by The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.
“We were very successful doing that multi -media cabaret twisted show that we ran, and we were offered backing from a major theatrical family to take it on the road. It was what I was working for, but unfortunately at the same time I was losing my inspiration for the show. I was writing this stuff, getting waves of inspiration, but it just wasn’t fitting in.”
From this point, Richard stepped away from the group to pursue a film career, and left his brother Danny in at the helm.
In 1979, Danny would eventually reformat the project to being a musically focused band, leaving the theatrics and costumes in favor of a more lightweight, flexible and sustainable music project. The name was shortened to Oingo Boingo, the lineup reduced to an octet, and they quickly became a critical pillar in the Los Angeles new wave scene.
Both Tim Burton and Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) were fans of Oingo Boingo, and approached Elfman to score Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
“I had no connection with Tim. I had never met him before the interview for he called me for an interview and I didn’t know why. I don’t know how someone could see this rock band [Oingo Boingo] and think, ‘This dude could do my orchestral film score.’ It defies logic, as far as I’m concerned. It’s one of the great mysteries of my life — I would never have had the guts to ask someone with my background to do that job. And when I did it, I fully expected to screw it up.”
It was the first studio film opportunity for both Elfman and Burton, and it turned into a natural collaborative partnership for decades. Elfman, growing weary of touring, was able to transition into the life of a film composer.
The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo lasted for nearly a decade, and consistently defied definition, categorization, and general common sense. That ends up being the fate for most projects as eclectic, collaborative and inventive as this one — they can only happen in a certain time and under certain cultural climate.
For now, we can just absorb the little documentation we have of this wild musical theater troupe, and hope for spiritual successors in the future. I’ll leave you with the finale song of the original show, featuring a wonderful accordion-backed farewell serenade by Danny himself.
I’ve compiled my favorite Mystic Knights bootleg recordings I’ve found into one YouTube playlist if you’d like to dive into what’s available of their music. If I’ve missed any from this era, or if you’ve found better quality recordings, definitely send them my way and I’d be happy to add them to the bucket.
The video above is a great representation of the group’s earlier performances and appearances. Context for each song and performance is unclear, other than the black-and-white film clip, which is cut from Hot Tomorrows.
The group did release one single in 1976 — a tongue-in-cheek doo-wop novelty song about the public’s split opinion on Patty Hearst’s kidnapping.
Here’s a clip of behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage of unknown origin. It’s great to see their process, and it ends with some rare footage of devil-Danny leading their version of Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.”
And lastly, a clip of their winning performance on The Gong Show in 1976.