From time to time, people have mentioned to me that Oingo Boingo (or rather, The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo) once recorded a version of “St. James Infirmary,” but I hadn’t be able to find it. Out of the blue last week I got an email from T.J. Clark, down in Texas, offering up that very tune. It so happens that when I was a kid (in Texas, actually), I was a huge Oingo Boingo fan, and saw them live at least twice that I can remember. I even interviewed lead singer Danny Elfman for my college paper. (I’m neither proud nor ashamed of any of this; just telling it like it is.) Anyway, the band eventually had a bit of a hit with “Weird Science,” then sort of fizzled out, and Elfman, is now an extremely successful composer of film scores.
Despite my (now basically lapsed) fandom, I never had much of a handle on the Mystic Knights thing. I was dimly aware that it Oingo Boingo started out as some kind of theatrical show in Los Angeles, more of a crazy revue than the rock/new wave/whatever band that I eventually saw. The “St. James Infirmary” performance dates back to that period, and giving it a listen, it seems pretty heavily influenced by Cab Calloway’s take on the tune. I believe it was recorded in 1977, or 1978. In my attempt to figure that out, I found a couple of interesting things. The most significant one was a video of the very same performance, which someone has uploaded to YouTube. Check it out here — if you have the bandwidth, and you’re not at work or something, because once you click on that link it takes you straight to the video.
Evidently whoever posted this on YouTube basically videotaped a TV set showing an extra on the DVD version of a film called Forbidden Zone. I’d never heard of that, but according to the inevitable Wikipedia entry, it was a “science-fiction/comedy/musical” released in 1980, that enjoys some cult status. Elfman is in it, playing the devil, and it was directed by his brother Richard. Wikipedia says: “It is a peculiar but winning combination of 1940s big band and jazz music (characters lip synch to Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker and others) and original music. The influence of Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1930s (such as Betty Boop) on the film is obvious to those familiar with them. ” I thought that was interesting, given the Fleischer-made Betty Boop cartoon featuring Cab Calloway’s version of “St. James Infirmary,” which I wrote about earlier.
Additional clicking leads to a page in which the Ain’t It Cool News guy breathlessly reveals that a sequel is in the works, and will include “Danny back as Satan by way of Calloway – but this time doing his take on the classic ST. JAMES INFIRMARY BLUES!!!” Then again that “news” broke in May 2005, and it’s hard to say whether it’s for real. It’s not really clear to me why Danny Elfman would bother. But who knows? Stranger things etc.
Big thanks to T.J. Clark of ToSeize Creations for the tune.