DEEP CUTS: Danny Elfman - "Gratitude"
For someone as prodigious as Danny Elfman, who will close out 2015 after composing the scores for Hollywood blockbusters like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Fifty Shades of Grey, you would think that his solo discography would be ripe for digging. His success with the band Oingo Boingo between 1979 and 1995 is scattered with landmarks that any Ska-influenced, eight-piece, Los Angeles-based New Wave band would have longed for: a placement on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, a blessing from John Hughes after their contribution to his film Weird Science, and a minute-long national Budweiser ad where Danny and the band got to put their stamp on the infamous “This Bud’s For You!” theme.
Age of Ultron also wasn’t the first time Elfman and Robert Downey Jr. were involved in the same project. Here’s a video from 1986’s Back To School featuring RDJ and Rodney Dangerfield dancing around to Oingo Boingo’s semi-hit, “Dead Man’s Party.” Honestly, I don’t have much of a point to make with this video. I just thought the world needed to see it. (This is a running theme through my writing.)
Somewhere in between all of this, Oingo Boingo was signed to MCA Records. Because of a label dispute, the band was either unwilling or unable to release its fourth album on IRS Records. To circumvent this frustration, Elfman decided to release the band’s first album with MCA under his own name, but 1984’s So-Lo is a Danny Elfman solo album in name only: Elfman hired the entirety of Oingo Boingo to record and arrange the record. He wanted to make it clear that this was not a departure in the vein of 60s and 70s Pop music icons setting off on their own--this weirdo redhead is no Diana Ross. According to Elfman in a 1986 interview with The Denver Post, "I designed it so that there was no solo career - there was no tour, and I divided up the songwriting royalties among the band so that if it was a big hit, they'd all participate."
What fans are left with is technically Danny Elfman’s only solo album. Elfman’s Spotify profile doesn’t even list it in his discography--and no, it doesn’t show up with Oingo Boingo’s records either. Not even Elfman’s Wikipedia page lists So-Lo anywhere in his multi-decade history--although the album is mentioned in passing on Oingo Boingo’s page. Elfman used this opportunity of relative anonymity to record previously written material that may not have perfectly aligned with Oingo Boingo’s Ska origins and push the songs toward more of a synth-driven sound. Some of the previously written material--such as the extremely New Wave Ska-sounding “It Only Makes Me Laugh”--offers familiarity for Oingo Boingo fans jumping into what they thought might be a radical change. But it’s the album’s opener, “Gratitude,” that highlights the tonal shift that Elfman was after.
The song is a synth-bass driven track with Steve Bartek's signature Hair-Metal-ish riffs layered in. Bartek's playing has always reminded me a little bit of Marc Ribot's during his stints with Tom Waits, and--like Ribot with the macabre Mr. Waits--it gels perfectly with Elfman's dark twist to the choruses.
”Gratitude” was given two separate mixes for release. The video above is the “short version” included on So-Lo--which is actually four seconds longer than the “full version” given to the Beverly Hills Cop production team for inclusion on the soundtrack. The Beverly Hills Cop mix also features a spoken-word section just after the song’s first chorus, a little less reverb, and a guitar solo in the fade-out. Why these changes were made is really anyone’s guess as Elfman always used the spoken-word bit during live shows anyway.
There are also a few easter eggs hidden away in the official music video. Near the end, as Danny Elfman is being loaded into the electric chair, Oingo Boingo bassist John Avila can be seen holding what may be a promotional copy of So-Lo with a completely different front cover. Fascinating, I know, but this is what I’m here for.
Satan also seems to be an Oingo Boingo fan as he makes a cameo during the poker scene around the 2:00 mark. Elfman never shied away from portraying The Dark Lord, especially in the 1980 independent film, Forbidden Zone, where he dresses up as the Devil and sings an altered version of Cab Calloway's "Minnie The Moocher."
In my opinion, So-Lo--like the previously-covered Debbie Harry solo record Koo Koo--deserves to be thought of as the next logical step in Oingo Boingo’s canonical discography. The band’s next record, 1985’s Dead Man’s Party, was filled with songs that, while not necessarily huge commercial hits, were included in films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and the direct-to-video Casper: A Spirited Beginning. Altogether, So-Lo is too often forgotten as a fantastic piece of the puzzle that inhabits Danny Elfman’s body of work. Elfman, after rising to the challenge of scoring Tim Burton’s 1985 film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, went on to compose themes for The Simpsons, Batman, and Desperate Housewives. Understandably, Oingo Boingo was only able to receive a fraction of his attention after the release of Dead Man’s Party.
Danny Elfman, to me, signifies absolute dominance across all aspects of the recording industry. The man can do it all. In a decade of countless rock stars going solo and continuing to tread water, Elfman pushed himself to try something a little different every time. Even still, he was loyal enough to bring his band with him. You can’t say that about Gene Simmons. (Even though Gene did bring Cher.)