June 1986: Oingo Boingo Go 'Back to School,' Throw "Dead Man's Party"

Danny Elfman and some creepy friends.
Photo Credit
Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

Though its lyrics are fit for spooky season, Oingo Boingo's beloved "Dead Man's Party" really made a splash in June of 1986 - a year after it was released - when it featured in the comedy flick Back to School.

At the time, the West Coast art-punk band were enjoying their greatest success yet. Their fifth album, Dead Man's Party, was prefaced by another single accompanying a teen comedy: the theme to John Hughes' Weird Science. By the end of 1985, "Science" became their only hit on the Billboard Hot 100, while the album crawled to No. 98 on the Billboard 200 - their highest placement yet.

The title track to Dead Man's Party took inspiration in part from E.F. Benson's ghost story "The Bus Conductor," about a spooky hearse driver who, as in the song, "says there's room for maybe just one more." Par for the course for a band well-known for annual Halloween live shows. But frontman Danny Elfman was quick to point out the secret to their charm wasn't scares or skeletons, but the band's own energy. "Anything else we do around that is just not that important or crucial to the show," he told the Los Angeles Times ahead of their Halloween 1986 performance. "As always, there will be little bits of visual things. But we won’t rely heavily on them - as we never do."

Indeed, the video for "Dead Man's Party" instead focuses on performance as well as clips from Back to School, a blockbuster comedy starring Rodney Dangerfield as a wealthy divorced dad who decides to enroll in his son's college. The members of Oingo Boingo even perform the song during a raucous party in the film. It was, of course, an easy task to get Elfman and company in the movie, as Elfman was also working behind the scenes on his second major assignment as a film composer.

Elfman's screen work, including Batman, The Simpsons and The Nightmare Before Christmas, has arguably eclipsed his time as a would-be rock star - not that Elfman seemed to mind. "We don’t aim for the Top 10," he confessed to the L.A. Times in 1986. "To do that, God, I don’t know what we’d have to do, but it would be scary. The stuff that’s destined for Top 10, to aim for that, for me, would be aiming for the lowest common denominator, and I wouldn’t even know how to do that.”

Though Elfman left Oingo Boingo behind for good in 1995, "Dead Man's Party" has been an unlikely link between his musical styles. On Halloween 2015 - exactly 20 years after Boingo's final show - Elfman and Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek closed a live concert at the Hollywood Bowl, featuring music from The Nightmare Before Christmas, with a special performance of this ghoulishly delightful track.

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