June 8, 2010
#24: Swing Revival
Aside from the crass commercialization of the underground rock scene of the 80s, the invention of “alternative” music, and the subsequent deluge of thinly-veiled, entirely corporate rock groups sent to piss on Kurt Cobain’s grave, the 90s were a hotbed of ill-advised genre revivals. Every couple of years, something that had already been done came back. These revivals were alternately good (punk-ska melding the positive vibes and dance-y rhythms of 2 Tone with punk rock’s manic energy), and horrible (while “Boy bands” may not seem like the real stuff of revival, the Backstreet Boys, et. al, reminded me of nothing more than the New Kids on the Block, version 2.0). In the case of the former, the revival happened on the underground – it was great to live in Detroit in the mid 90s, seeing ten or fifteen different ska bands every weekend, and not being bombarded with it on the radio – until the end. In the case of the latter, the revival was all over the mass media, radio and television coated with slickly produced teen idol pop (and if you were just a few months too old for the New Kids on the Block, version 2.0 wasn’t even bad in a good way. It was just bad).
A truly weird genre that came back into prominence in the 90s, though, was the swing revival. Overlapping the punk ska scene and the Boy band juggernaut, there were a couple of funny years in there where it was somehow cool to put on a zoot suit, consume cigars and fine whiskey, dance in an antiquated and difficult-to-master way, and eke out a living selling pencils and dice on street corners. Okay, not so much that last one, but swing WAS a completely period fetishistic movement based as much around aping the fashion of the day as it was about the music; which, itself, was not updated from the music of the period, beyond heightened production values.
The movement, as far as I can tell, began with the 1989 formation of Royal Crown Revue-who you may remember as the “Hey! Pachuco!” band Jim Carrey grooved to in The Mask. For a few years, Royal Crown Revue and their ilk (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, etc.) served a strange, commercial-yet-not-in-your-face role as “the band that plays when something zany/hip happens” in movies and commercials. To be fair, though, this was how most ska bands that transcended the underground scene made their first impression on the commercial map-remember the Mighty Mighty Bosstones as the cool dance group that Alicia Silverstone and friends groove to in Clueless, or the rally band at Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s home games in BASEketball (a role that Reel Big Fish ultimately played in real life, too, briefly providing theme music for the Florida Marlins in the late 90s).
Somewhere in there, though, and probably due partially to ska’s ascension to mainstream attention, swing music grew in popularity from some kooky music you heard on commercials to real hitmaking radio music in its own right. Royal Crown Revue never really hit the charts, but Big Bad Voodoo Daddy had a big enough hit with “You and Me and the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)” to appear on the halftime show at Superbowl XXIII. Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, an Oregon based rock band that jumped on the swing bandwagon just in time to sell two million copies of their Zoot Suit Riot album, had a massive chart hit with that album’s title track. Former Stray Cats frontman Brian Setzer, performing under the name Brian Setzer Orchestra, led a 17 piece band for a good ten years before having a ubiquitous hit in his rendition of Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.” Squirrel Nut Zippers, who were more of a blues, jazz and klezmer oriented group that was often lumped in with the swing movement, had a handful of killer singles, including “Hell.”
And that was kind of it. With a couple of other exceptions, there wasn’t really that big of a scene revolving around the swing revival. I’ve often thought one of the downfalls of ska music (and one of the reasons the horn-less punk ska movement lasted as long as it did) was that, the more members your band has, the harder it is to stay on the road. Ska’s ultimate Achilles heel was an eight piece band getting paid the same as a three piece band. Add in the fashion and the lifestyle (fine whiskey, cigars, etc.) associated with swing, and it’s doubly harder than playing ska. The bands I’ve just mentioned, plus a few other regional successes, were more or less all she wrote. The revival faded away by the turn of the century, more or less forgotten now.
In my first year in college, the fun thing to do every Friday night was to go to this out-of-the-way club for their Swing night. There, a DJ played new and old swing records, everybody got dressed up and did their best to ape the dance moves of the period. During our Spring Break, the punk DJ at my college radio station went on vacation to New York, to go check out the scene and see a bunch of cool bands. He came back and convinced the promoters of Swing night to book this band he’d heard in the city, this big swing band called World Inferno Friendship Society. The promoters bit, and this fourteen piece band came to Kalamazoo one Friday night. Of course, for anyone who’s heard World Inferno, calling them a “swing” band is a complete ruse-the band holds considerably less in common with swing than even the Squirrel Nut Zippers. The band were met harshly by the crowd, who booed and jeered. One guy specifically kept informing me and my friend (who seemed to be the only people in attendance who liked the band) that, “This is NOT swing.” I can’t help but think that this narrow mindedness, prohibitive expense of lifestyle, and disinterest in expanding musical palette was what killed the revival before it could blossom into a lasting microgenre. I hope Cherry Poppin’ Daddies invested their royalties.
Next week: What the Insane Clown Posse once meant to a forward-thinking, musically inclined Detroit kid. Not kidding.
by Brook Pridemore