As the days grow shorter and nights get longer every day is Halloween for music fans! There’s much to be said about being all dressed up with nowhere to go. This year, dress anyway you want because there’s a place you can go. That’s right, the legends are back. Who are these irresistible creatures who have an insatiable lust for all things that go bump in the night? It’s Oingo Boingo Former Members.
The question we’ve all been asking ourselves is this: Is this the same Oingo Boingo from back in the day? The answer is YES! (with an asterisk*). It’s been a journey, but Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez got the band back together (*less one guy). How did he manage to do it? Persistence, persistence, persistence.
Hernandez, who was born on Sept. 5, 1951, attended a few schools before settling in at San Gabriel High School. Like Mike Ness of Social Distortion, he didn’t have much interest in sports or school elections, it was all about the music. He graduated in 1969 and took his mom’s advice: If he was going to be a jazz or rock drummer, he would need to get a job, and if he played every kind of music, he would always work. He also listened to the advice of his high school band director, Bill Wadelton, who told Hernandez that if he got selected to join the Los Angeles City College (LACC) band, he would make it in the music business.
He listened to his mother and his band director and eventually joined the LACC band under the leadership of Bob MacDonald. It didn’t take long for Hernandez to develop into the monster drummer now better known as Johnny Vatos.
His life has been surreal; how many people can say they befriended a local video clerk named Quentin Tarantino? YES, that really happened! But Hernandez’s life changed forever when he joined Oingo Boingo in 1978. Danny Elfman’s band evolved out of The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo performance troupe formed in 1972 by his brother Richard.
By the late ’70s, music was changing, shifting from disco and hard rock to new wave. The new genre was being ushered in by a local radio station on the rise, KROQ-FM. “The ROQ’s” Freddy Snakeskin and Jed the Fish were among the disc jockeys championing new wave.
“I love Boingo,” Jed the Fish said during a recent conversation. “Their music surprised and took you on a journey. No band before or since delivered such profound, theatrical originality. I was lucky to have their music to play on the radio.”
Snakeskin called Oingo Boingo “a quintessential SoCal KROQ band. We played their music even before they got signed to their first record deal.”
During the band’s (and some would argue KROQ’s) heyday in the 1980s, members played high-velocity new wave, rock and ska tunes. The early Oingo Boingo featured guitar god Steve Bartek; Kerry Hatch on bass, Sam Phipps on saxophone, Dale Turner on trumpet, Leon Schneiderman on alto/baritone sax; Hernandez on drums; and front man Elfman on lead vocals, guitar, percussion, sitar, vibraphone, trombone and violin.
As the story goes, Elfman gave his sidemen nicknames. Phipps got “Sluggo” and Hernandez was at first “Batos,” but they settled on “Vatos” and BOOM! … a legend was born. With KROQ’s support, Oingo Boingo went from Gong Show winners to sharing the stage with some of the biggest bands at US Festival 1983. That same year, Vatos earned his trademark look from innovator Annette Macfarlane. She was one of the first stylists to integrate lines and designs into hairstyles. She went to work on Vatos in ’83 and still shapes his mohawk and colors his hair.
The band became even more infamous with the addition of bassist/percussionist/vocalist John Avila. With a solid lineup in place, Halloween shows became an Oingo Boingo trademark. Sets at Universal Amphitheatre and Irvine Meadows were unreal. As time went on, their music catalogue exploded with songs such as “Ain’t This the Life,” “Only A Lad,” “Little Girls,” “Grey Matter,” “Who Do You Want to Be,” “We Close Our Eyes,” “Not My Slave,” “Sweat,” “Just Another Day,” “Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me,” “Wild Sex (In the Working Class),” “No One Lives Forever,” “Dead Man’s Party,” “Violent Love” and “Goodbye-Goodbye.” They became so popular, before you knew it … they provided the theme song to Weird Science and were featured in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School.
Boingo was a juggernaut out West, but they weren’t as popular east of the Mississippi according to Vatos. All good things eventually come to an end, and we got the news in 1995 that the band was done. Elfman went on to do movie scores full-time after having already hit it big with the films Batman, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands. He would go on to score Good Will Hunting, Men in Black and The Nightmare Before Christmas (which also features him on vocals), among many others.
Bartek kept busy as a composer as well, writing music for films such as Tales from the Crypt, Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion and Mission Impossible, as well as working with Elfman on Good Will Hunting.
Avila went on to create the band Food for Feet and played with Neville Staple of the Specials. He produced records as well, locally for icons Reel Big Fish and Suburban Legends. Vatos is a chameleon to say the least. He’s been in other bands such as Avila’s Food for Feet and Tito & The Tarantula. He appeared in Midnight Run and reunited with Tarantino in From Dusk Till Dawn, where he got to work alongside George Clooney. As a side note, the Tito & The Tarantula album Little Bitch was dedicated to Johnny’s mom.
While the guys worked on other projects, Oingo Boingo fans prayed for a reunion. They even started a movement to get them on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ballot; that day hasn’t come just yet. It should also be noted the band’s fans come from all walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds, and they’re multi-generational.
What’s even better: Fans’ prayers didn’t go unanswered. In 2005, Vatos put together a Boingo tribute show. That performance included former bandmates Bartek, Avila and Phipps with trumpeter Brian Swartz. This version featured as front man Brendan McCreary (a.k.a. McKian). Back then, McKian was working with his brother Bear McCreary on scores for the revamped miniseries Battlestar Galactica. (Bear would later find fame as composer of AMC’s The Walking Dead and Starz’s Outlander.) The brothers were huge Oingo Boingo fans and before you know it, McKian became the lead singer.
With a successful relaunch, there were whispers of Elfman’s return. Those whispers were quashed in early 2007 as Elfman announced he would not come back. He revealed he had developed irreversible hearing loss and was concerned about further damage if he kept playing live; nobody blamed him for tapping out.
Due to legal issues, the band’s name had to be addressed. After coming to the decision he wouldn’t be returning, Elfman gave Vatos permission to use the name Oingo Boingo Dance Party. This is where this story takes an odd turn. It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Over the years, a few Oingo Boingo tribute bands emerged. These bands try to mimic the original Boingo sound/style. Entertaining as many of these bands are, a perception developed that some had aligned themselves with the originators’ legacy. That’s where the story goes off script. As Oingo Boingo Dance Party started playing more gigs, it became increasingly clear that the number of Boingo tribute bands created a challenge. Sadly, it got to the point where Vatos was being asked by show promoters to prove Oingo Boingo Dance Party was not just another tribute band.
As a result of the ambiguity, Vatos worked out another band name with Elfman. What emerged is Oingo Boingo Former Members (OBFM). This incarnation combines the new and the classic. While tribute bands try to mimic Boingo every way possible (right down to Elfman lookalike singers), OBFM doesn’t try to do anything but be themselves. With a great voice, good looks and fantastic showmanship, McKian delivers, with the band providing a fresh sound to songs we already love.
Over the past two decades, I’ve been fortunate enough to see both versions of Boingo, and I say this with upmost respect and gratitude to Elfman: McKian honors the band and their fans, which is important. Vatos is as good as ever on drums, Bartek and Avila are electrifying and “Sluggo” kills it on sax. They are joined by Carl Graves, who lights it up on keys; Mariel Austin, who tears it up on trombone; Mike “The Spike” Glendinning, who shreds on guitar; Freddy Hernandez, who slaps the bass; and Swartz, who brings it home on trumpet.
I have a theory that a music scene is best defined by its unique place in time. While I can never give justice in words alone to describe the experience of a Boingo show, just know the theme personifies Halloween, and the music is without comparison. As for Vatos, he’s been reborn so many times, he can’t remember them all, but being in OBFM might be one of his favorite band incarnations. Check out this band while you can, it’ll be a once in a lifetime experience. OK, maybe twice in this place in time.
Oingo Boingo Former Members Halloween Party at The Canyon and the Saban, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; wheremusicmeetsthesoul.com. Thurs., Oct. 31, 6 p.m. (doors open) & 9 p.m. (headliner). $34-$58. Under age 18 must be accompanied by a paying adult; also at The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930; thecoachhouse.com. Fri., Nov. 1, 6 p.m. (doors open) & 8 p.m. (show). $40. SOLD OUT!