For exactly 10 years, Professor Ed Collom, chair of USM’s Sociology department, lived in a completely different world.
In the early 80s where Collom grew up in Southern California, he heard a band on the radio called Oingo Boingo. Not even a teenager, Collom showed some interest. It was a song called “Little Girls,” and it had all the right elements for a future punk: cheeky lyrics, vocals bordering on madness, and keyboards galore. But after getting Boingo’s debut album, it didn’t take him long before he traded it with a friend for an AC/DC album. “I wasn’t really into it that much then,” Collom recalled. Within a few years however, that all changed, and by 1989, he became the drum technician for the band.
It was Halloween night in 1985 at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa, and thousands of people streamed through the entrance, many of them masquerading as skeletons and other haunted spirits. Others wore t-shirts and skull tattoos — some branded with their favorite band’s name. This was Oingo Boingo’s annual Halloween show, and for most fans the shows were synonymous with the holiday. For many, it was also a ritual and a gathering of friends and family. Some would trade bootlegs while other “Boingoloids” would test each others Boingo-knowledge. To an outside observer, this was a gathering that could rival that of a Phish show, or even the Grateful Dead. This was the first time Collom experienced Oingo Boingo live, and for the next 10 years he would dedicate himself to them and associated acts.
“I had only been to a few concerts at that point and when I saw that one, I was like ‘wow, this band is really special,'” Collom said, looking back at that first show. “There was something about the combination of the horn section, the blistering guitar solos, the orchestration, that Boingo sound — and the energy they had was really infectious.”
But despite Boingo’s large following in Southern California, they had limited success elsewhere. And though many people on the East Coast probably haven’t heard of the band, they may be familiar with the band’s leader, Danny Elfman.
When most people think of Elfman, Tim Burton almost always comes to mind. Together the two collaborated on dark and quirky films like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” up to more recent ones like “Alice in Wonderland.” When Collom thinks of Elfman however, he thinks of the precursor to Elfman’s success as a soundtrack composer: the band.
Originally started as a theater group by Elfman’s brother, Oingo Boingo broke into the SoCal punk scene in 1980 when they released the soundtrack for their film, Forbidden Zone, and their first EP. As they started touring, they became known for their dark and theatrical displays, energetic performances, complex instrumentation with a horn section, multiple guitarists and sometimes multiple percussionists. The music was a mix of rock, New Wave, and ska, and their songs were often grim and mischievous, sometimes tackling tougher questions in life and other times falling back on more light-hearted subjects. Some of them may also sound familiar to Elfman’s film compositions; take “Nasty Habits” for instance: The piano and bass lines are very similar to the opening melody for the theme song of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
Though Collom missed the excitement of the band’s growth in the first half of the 80s, it didn’t take long for him to catch up. Soon after the first concert, Collom bought all of their albums, got a license plate that said “2BOINGO” and joined the Secret Society of Oingo Boingo, a fan club that perhaps sounded more mysterious than it actually was. The fan club sent him t-shirts and stickers among other special offerings, but the real treat came when he was phoned in ’86 about a free Boingo TV performance open to Society members. It was that same year Collom began meeting a few of the band members, and it soon lead him to the discovery of another band.
Food For Feet featured bassist John Avila and drummer Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez of Oingo Boingo, and while their brand of music was more straight-forward and less rambunctious, what caught Collom’s interest was their long improvised sets.
“FFF was a much better vehicle for the guys to show off their chops,” Collom wrote on an Oingo Boingo/FFF fansite he now maintains. “Unlike the extreme choreography of Boingo shows, FFF sets were loose. Each member soloed for extended periods. I had never seen Hernandez or Avila play like that before.”
Collom discovered FFF out of his natural interest for Oingo Boingo, and because their shows were a lot smaller, he had a chance to talk with them and help unload their drum equipment. As the gigs persisted, Collom became friends with Avila and Hernandez — they even started paying him for lugging their equipment. By the end of ’87, Collom found himself well-integrated into their circle of trust. It was all too clear when Collom’s mom once said, “John Hernandez is on the phone for you.”
In ’88, ties began to get even closer. Collom started getting backstage passes to Boingo shows from Hernandez and Avila. The more Collom hung around, other members began to recognize him — even Danny Elfman.
Whenever Collom wasn’t at a Boingo show, he was with FFF. And if he wasn’t with them, he was with his future wife Deena or his friends, maybe even attending classes here and there. Despite his unfettered dedication to the two bands, he still managed to have a life, albeit a rocky first year of college. Luckily for him though, the end of school in ’89 brought him his biggest opportunity yet: a touring gig with Oingo Boingo.
For what could be considered the pinnacle of Collom’s experience with Oingo Boingo, it seemed to happen quickly. And his view of the band changed too, sometimes to his disappointment. As the band’s drum technician, Collom got to see the inner workings of the band.
“When you become part of that machine, some of those chills and thrills definitely got lost,” Collom recalled on his time with the band.
One of the things that disappointed Collom was Elfman’s insistence to fully recreate the sound from the recordings, which meant using a lot of prerecorded tracks in the background. Because of this method, no one in the band really had a chance to improvise.
“You couldn’t deviate one beat or else the song was ruined,” he said.
It was easy for Collom to see who made all the shots. He considered the band to be “Danny Elfman and company,” and despite some occasional grumblings, the rest of the members grew to accept it.
By the end of summer 1990, Collom finished his last tour with Oingo Boingo and decided to focus more on his education. He still attended Boingo and FFF shows here and there, but for the most part, the magic was gone, and it was time for him to move onto the next chapter in his life.
Collom’s passion for music lead him to getting business degree in order to work in the industry, but by the end of his undergraduate studies, his view of the business world changed radically.
“I remember towards the end being the odd person out,” Collom recalled. “I was always arguing the other side. There were business classes about free enterprise and making profits, and I was beginning to learn that there were social issues that were much more pressing.”
And this is what lead Collom to pursuing a PhD. in sociology. After receiving his doctorate, the job market brought him to Portland, Maine in 2001 where he became assistant professor of sociology, associate professor and then chair of the department.
Towards the end of 1995, Danny Elfman decided to throw in the towel for Oingo Boingo, leaving more room for his prospering career in film. Considering the impact of the band in his life, Collom made a point to attend those last few shows. He attended a few afterparties and hung out with the band, but for that final show on Halloween night, he decided to buy his own tickets and skip out on the after-party. For one last time, he wanted to experience Oingo Boingo as a fan.
Three or four hours passed, and the concert was done. And so was a world he knew for 10 years.
Collom said he still remains in contact with Avila, Hernandez and guitarist Steve Bartek.
“I felt privileged to follow that band so closely,” Collom reflected. “It was like a dream come true. I ended up working for them, and it was just so close. That was a really tremendous experience, and it changed my life.”