Sometimes what a sad clown has to say is no joke.
Listen to "Just Another Day"
One of Music's great ironies is that bands that tend to write humorous songs are bands that seem to have sad endings. Gaining attention with a "novelty song" is a mine field strewn with the cadavers of bands on the run from the one-hit-wonder Gestapo. Funny is rarely taken seriously, and that is why clowns wear make up. You can't expect to leave the bar with a girl's phone number if she knows you've been making balloon hats all day.
Much of what makes an enduring rock record lies in our ability to not understand the whole of it completely. Lyrics shrouded in mystery and metaphor, and vocals hidden behind reverb and echo, with some mumbling for effect, allow you to listen repeatedly without burning yourself out on the song. Songs with a punchline do not aim to be subtle, so getting hit over the head with it gets old very soon. The clearer the message, the more expendable the music. This is why Bob Dylan is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the guy who wrote "Happy Birthday" is a tool whose name nobody knows.
Any good joke has a set up, and the preamble to Tommy Tutone's showstopper "867-5309" was their 1980's eponymous debut album. This under the radar collection of grainy, yet fun songs played just like a Top Secret/Classified document would read; some real juicy nuggets with a thing or two that seem out of place. Columbia Records promoted the album in trench coat style as well, offering the record like a stolen watch for $3.99. Oddly this laissez-faire strategy had some effect, getting the album to # 68. "Angel Say No" does an effective job spotlighting the closing moments of a relationship that has deteriorated and the song bounces with its sad realization. With enough guts to be a rock record and fun enough to be a hit, the song reached the edge of the top 40, disputing the common notion that Tommy Tutone was a one hit wonder.
Listen to "Angel Say No"
Oingio Boingo was a band that was serious about being funny. Launching on the Gong Show as "The Mystic Knights of Oingio Boingo", they have the pedigree to amuse but with the heart of a serial killer, methodical yet spontaneous, with ability to go from tickle to torture in the snap of a snare drum. Skimming the surface of the forbidden zone with mania and deadpan, this band was the menu item that you did not go into the restaurant for, but had to have once you got there. Songs were delivered with enough precision and fervor that you never knew if they were kidding or not.
If you are gifted with a sense of humor and a soul of darkness, balancing comedy and tragedy is not only attainable but desirable, allowing you to have a longer run in the music business. The laughs will get you noticed, however, we know it is the drama that gives your band a credible stance. So, after cross pollenating these two extremes in 3 albums and one "So Lo" record by the group's leader and songwriter, Danny Elfman, Oingio Boingo effectively merged all of the elements together for 1985's "Dead Man"s Party." The songs with the sly humor (and soundtrack placement) received most of the exposure on radio and the seemingly endless array of music video channels arriving on the scene. "Just Another Day" was released as the second single, and even though it was hidden in plain sight as the lead track, this perfect theme song for the bipolar disorder high school dance only reached #85 on the Billboard 100. A dense song about the emptiness of having nothing to look forward to and the stark reality of looking over your shoulder to see nothing following you--this, to me, is one of the band's finest moments.
Listen to "Just Another Day"