In Defense of the Swing Revival: Why America Flipped for '40s Sounds in 1998
This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, Kenneth Partridge writes about the conditions that led to the unlikely revival of swing music in 1998 pop culture, and why the moment had more to offer than you might remember 20 years later.
For a little while there in the late ‘90s, it actually looked like everything was going to be OK. The first half of the decade brought war, recession, riots, terrorist bombings, and endless talk about bloody gloves. But suddenly it was 1998: The economy was booming, and a presidential sex scandal was the biggest threat to the nation’s well-being. America was ready to come inside and learn how to jive an’ wail.
In April 1998, the Gap premiered its soon-unavoidable “Khakis Swing” commercial, starring pretty young people Lindy-hopping in casual wear to the cool sounds of Louis Prima’s 1956 classic “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.” Two months later, The Brian Setzer Orchestra released The Dirty Boogie, featuring a suped-up big-band swing-abilly version of that very Prima tune. The same week Boogie dropped, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies reached their Mainstream Top 40 chart peak (No. 32) with “Zoot Suit Riot,” a ’40s-style dance-floor filler with a quirky modern-rock edge.
Two hit singles plus a ubiquitous TV spot make three, and that made neo-swing a bona-fide pop-culture phenomenon. As Setzer and the Daddies burned up the charts, Americans young and old signed up for swing-dance lessons, hoping to flip and twirl like those Gap kids. It was more than just a reaction to grunge, the significantly more dour form of alternative music that ruled the early ‘90s. Neo-swing was a reflection of the national mood.
This mainstream rediscovery of ‘40s-era swing and jump blues had been years in the making. In 1996, genre-blurring North Carolina sonic recyclers Squirrel Nut Zippers released their sophomore album, Hot. Early the following year, they scored a smash Alternative Songs hit with “Hell,” an amalgam of hot jazz and calypso that was sufficiently brassy and archaic to qualify as “swing” to teens with little knowledge of pre-rock music. Also in 1996, the film Swingers introduced L.A. lounge culture to a national audience, though it took a few years for the low-budget indie flick to become a Blockbuster rental fave.
The climactic dance scene in Swingers centers around Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, another band that scored big in 1998. Even without a ubiquitous radio hit -- “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three Tonight” stalled at #31 on Alternative Songs -- the Southern California group earned platinum sales for its major-label debut, Americana Deluxe. In early 1999, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy performed with Stevie Wonder and Gloria Estefan at Super Bowl XXXII, marking the very height of the unlikely swing revival.
Then came the inevitable backlash. There was no major turning point -- the movement just kind of fizzled out, as these things do. Radio and MTV moved on to the next thing. None of the follow-ups to the big ’98 albums sold as well as their predecessors. A swing band in 2000 was about as cool a hair-metal group in 1991. Looking back on neo-swing through cynical 21st century eyes, it’s easy to fixate on the faddish aspects of the movement and lump the whole thing in with the “Macarena” craze or “Mambo No. 5.” But neo-swing wasn’t invented by Gap marketers or MTV or major labels. Much like third-wave ska, which blew up a couple years earlier and paved the way for perky horn-powered dance music, the swing resurgence grew out of a legit underground subculture -- one closely linked to punk rock.
The band most responsible for launching the swing revival in its earliest days was Royal Crown Revue, which formed in L.A. all the way back in 1989. The initial lineup included siblings Adam and Mark Stern, founders of the seminal SoCal punk band Youth Brigade. Led by the indelible Eddie Nichols, a charming tough-guy crooner who'd work the stage like a prizefighter, Royal Crown Revue was an outlet for aging punks in search of a new scene. The group found a home at the King King in L.A. and later Club Deluxe in San Francisco, the capital city of West Coast retro culture.
Neo-swing’s early scenesters weren’t just into old music. They committed to a lifestyle that prized midcentury automobiles, clothing, home decor, and social customs. In the 1998 book Swing! The New Retro Renaissance, author V. Vale describes the movement as “cultural rebellion in its most subversive form: one that uses the symbols of the status quo for its own intents and purposes.” It was a reaction to the drab, corporate disposability of life in the age of Starbucks. The zoot suit and wallet chain became the new mohawk and combat boots.
As the scene gained steam, Royal Crown Revue attracted a wider audience. They appeared in the Jim Carrey comic book movie The Mask in 1994 and signed to Warner Bros. soon after. They also landed a weekly gig at The Derby, the L.A. nightclub that became synonymous with the neo-swing scene. The group eventually ceded its Wednesday night residency to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, who made friends with Jon Favreau and fortuitously landed a spot in Swingers.
In addition to releasing two excellent Warners albums, 1996’s Mugzy’s Move and 1999’s The Contender, Royal Crown Revue played the Warped Tour in 1997 and 1999, bringing their jacked-up jump blues, “hard-boiled swing,” and honking ‘40s R&B to teenage punkers across the land. The only other big-time swingers to play Warped were the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, a band that should probably appear in the story of neo-swing with an asterisk next to their name.
Formed in Eugene, Oregon, in 1989, the Daddies didn’t make their name playing swing. They made their name playing swing and ska and funk and punk and pretty anything else frontman and chief songwriter Steve Perry (no, not the Journey guy) could get a handle on. Sometime in the mid-’90s, fans started coming to the merch booth asking which Daddies CD contained the most swing. That gave their manager an idea: Why not compile all the swing tunes from their first three albums, record a few new ones, and meet the public’s demand?
Thus was born Zoot Suit Riot, which peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard 200 in July 1998. At the peak of their success, the forward-looking Daddies tried to distance themselves from any kind of nostalgia movement. “I can’t fully take us out of the retro classification, but we harp on the fact that we’re contemporary music, trying to push boundaries and constantly goose this music in the ass as far as rockin’ out,” Perry told the Broward Palm Beach New Times. But the fact was Perry wrote killer neo-swing tunes. And this was no easy feat: While there was a ska band in every American suburb with a high school jazz band, swing took a degree of musicianship that haters of the genre still fail to recognize.
After neo-swing went belly up circa 1999, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies went back to doing what they’d always done: playing swing powerfully, but not exclusively. They confused a lot of their newer fans with the 2000 genre buffet Soul Caddy and took a hiatus soon after. They regrouped in 2008 with Susquehanna, another stylistically diverse outing, then rounded up all their ska songs for the 2009 compilation Skaboy JFK. Interestingly, they’ve returned to jazz and swing on their three most recent albums: White Teeth, Black Thoughts (2013), Please Return the Evening (2014), and The Boop-a-Doo (2016). None of these latter-day releases have graced any Billboard chart.
Squirrel Nut Zippers are also swinging again, albeit with an all-new gang of musicians backing singer and bandleader Jimbo Mathus. In March, the band released Beasts of Burgundy, their first new album in 18 years. It was inspired by New Orleans, much like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s 2003’s set Save My Soul, one of several conceptual works that have helped that band stay relevant by playing performing arts centers in the nearly two decades since that Super Bowl spotlight. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy paid tribute to Cab Calloway on 2009’s How Big Can You Get? and three guys named Louis -- Armstrong, Jordan, Prima -- on last year’s Louie, Louie, Louie. Credit singer and mastermind Scotty Morris with maintaining the original BBVD lineup and building a fanbase that’s never stopped coming out.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra has followed a similar path, releasing theme albums (film noir, Mozart, Christmas) and touring every year around the holidays. Setzer celebrated the orchestra’s 25 anniversary with a show at the Hollywood Bowl last summer and hinted there might be new music in the works. He’s also kept busy with his first love, rockabilly. Last month, he reunited The Stray Cats at the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend, and this summer, he’ll keep things nice and greasy with his Rockabilly Riot tour.
Sadly absent from the scene is Royal Crown Revue, who hung tough in the ‘00s but took an extended breather about five years ago. Singer Eddie Nichols performed with saxophonist Mando Dorame at the Viva Las Vegas in April, so there may be hope for a reunion somewhere down the road. It’s also worth noting that Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, who formed in San Francisco in 1989 and played a key role in the early-’90s scene, are still going strong with their vivacious mix of jazz, swing, and blues.
Given all the changes to the music industry and the world in general, a third coming of swing seems unlikely. If this stuff ever did go Top 40 again, there’d likely be think-pieces and Twitter debates about cultural appropriation. And perhaps not without reason: Swing is a form of jazz; its sounds and fashions evolved out of the black community. While the the swing of the ‘30s and ‘40s was popularized by both black and white musicians, and enjoyed by all segments of the American population, the ’90s revival was mostly white bands playing for white audiences. Now that consumers of pop-culture are more mindful of such issues, conversations about neo-swing would almost certainly be more political today than they were in the ’90s. You can imagine something like “Zoot Suit Riot,” a playful song about the truly ugly racially charged Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, receiving extra scrutiny.
That all being said, there’s still an appetite for swing. The rockabilly cats and kittens who attend festivals like Viva Las Vegas continue to dig a little Louis Prima jive with their Gene Vincent hiccup and twang. Last week in New York City, swing lovers boogied down on the deck of the USS Intrepid -- an aircraft carrier built way back in the original swing era -- as part of the third annual Intrepid Battle of the Big Bands. On a related note, NYC is also home to a thriving hot jazz scene focused on the music of the pre-swing era. The depression-era duds worn at get-togethers like the New York Hot Jazz Festival are a little less flashy than zoot suits, and it’s easy to see why the earthiness and authenticity of ’20s and ’30s music might appeal to alt-country fans, steampunks, and hipsters of various stripes.
Subcultures are one thing, but swing remains embedded in America’s broader collective memory. That might explain why more than 3.4 million people subscribe to the YouTube channel of Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, a collective of musicians that does old-timey jazz and swing (and soul and doo-wop) version of modern pop songs like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” Postmodern Jukebox is fairly gimmicky and often silly, but indeed, memes and viral videos are the cultural currency of 2018. If swing can find a flicker of life in that landscape, there’s a chance it’ll reach kids too young to remember Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Squirrel Nut Zippers. What this music has to offer young people in the age of Trump is open to debate.
The original ’90s neo-swingers sought a return to stylishness and social dancing. Punk kids moshing to “Zoot Suit Riot” on the Warped Tour in 1998 heard fast and catchy music that made sense alongside NOFX and Rancid. Swing can be countercultural or pure escape. Both of those things sound pretty great right now.