Dead Man's Party
On Halloween 2015, Danny Elfman got onstage at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and did something he’d sworn 20 years earlier he’d never do again: play Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party.” You can understand the reticence: So closely had his career been hitched to the band’s annual run of October shows that fans used to stop him on the street and tell him they’d see him on Halloween, to which Elfman—a refreshingly unsentimental guy who was, at the time, leaning in to his future as a film composer—took to firing back, “How do you know?”
Elfman wasn’t trying to be mean. If anything, the response was born of a kind of philosophical principle. Growing up in LA, he’d gorged on monster movies and Looney Tunes soundtracks—cheap thrills meant to be spat out once the flavor was gone. As a high school dropout traveling in West Africa, he watched corner dance bands make music out of whatever they had—a sense of showmanship that thrived on improvisation and disposability; the party that develops without plan. Later, he’d arrange depression-era cabaret jazz for a band whose lineup included a beer-can celeste and a percussion kit made of car parts. In other words, why get locked into permanence when you could do something crazy and move on?
Released on October 28, 1985, Dead Man’s Party marked the moment that the band graduated from New Wave novelty to something like a real concern. Elfman’s vision had gotten more eclectic, but his songwriting had gotten more straightforward, too, splitting the difference between New Wave quirk (“Dead Man’s Party,” “No One Lives Forever”) and big-screen synth-pop (“Stay,” “Weird Science”) in a way that reined in their mania.
As for the Halloween thing, Elfman was no goth. If anything, the spirit on Dead Man’s Party was closer to Mardi Gras or Carnival—holidays where people can slip the confines of their day-to-day lives and surrender to a kind of collective delirium, flirting with death, animism, and all varieties of occult weirdness without having to reckon the true implications of any of it. If the sound is macabre, it’s macabre in good fun—more “Monster Mash” than Michael Myers. And why not enjoy it? Death is forever, but life—that’s another story. Once asked why his music was so dark, Elfman said it was only because the light hurt his eyes.
A couple of months before Dead Man’s Party came out, Elfman made his debut as a film composer for Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Like Elfman, Burton handled horror with a sense of lightness, camp, and color; the two forged one of the more inextricable composer-director relationships in modern movies (Batman, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas). “Weird Science,” the closing track on Dead Man’s Party, featured centrally in the John Hughes movie of the same name. A few years later, Elfman would get a call from Simpsons creator Matt Groening to ask if he wanted to compose the show’s theme, a job Elfman finished in the car on the way home from the meeting, and which he would later describe as the three notes that pay his health insurance.
In other words, Dead Man’s Party was both Oingo Boingo’s peak and the beginning of their end. Still, they’d go on to play annual Halloween shows for nearly 10 years, a tradition that became a pilgrimage for Southern Californian revelers, costumed or otherwise, cementing the album not just as an annual outing but as a moment that brought a sense of old-fashioned showmanship to New Wave. Some nights last forever.