Swing, Kids!

A Revival Tries To Make History of Its Own

Khakis swing. So do Chips Ahoy! cookies and Toni Tennille. So do legions far too young to have experienced it first-hand, people whose parents didn't listen to swing. Tattooed punks are swapping leather jackets, mohawks, and Doc Martens for double-breasted suits, fedoras, and spectator shoes. As I presume you've noticed. The mass appeal of the swing renaissance (for simplicity's sake, neo-swing) is cresting, so it should be staggering to its deathbed any time now. On the other hand, veteran subcultural anthropologist V. Vale, calculating the considerable effort involved in acquiring the appropriate threads and learning intricate dance steps, gives the movement another six years. We shall see.

Critics have rightly nailed neo-swing bands for sins both musical and aesthetic: historical partiality (most play jump blues; none play Miller or Basie swing, much less Ellington swing), semiotic wandering ('30s musical genre, '40s sound, '50s drinks), and lack of inventiveness. You could add preciousness, an alarming reliance on Louis Louis covers (after the Jordan and Prima catalogues are exhausted, what then?), and annoyingly overlapping nomenclature: Big Six, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Full Swing, Indigo Swing, Acme Swing Company, Swingerhead. (Not to worry, clarity is at hand--the Amazing Royal Crowns recently agreed to change their name, ceding the field to Royal Crown Revue!)

Still, musical puritanism misses the fun that's on offer here. There's a pre-ironic '40s cheer to the best of this music, a never-say-die optimism that's the best nostalgia. At the same time, since most are still punks, neo-swingers barb their hooks. When not celebrating the scene (a good half of neo-swing tracks), they turn their eyes to drug addiction (Royal Crown's "Mugzy's Move") or alcoholism (Cherry Poppin' Daddies' "Drunk Daddy") and they make fun of poseurs (Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's "Mr. Pinstripe Suit"). Like punk, neo-swing has democratized coolness in important directions, making stars of self-proclaimed "band geeks" and allowing audience participation to become part of the show. Though this isn't a subculture where fans can leap the gap and become performers right away, the movement's early adherents gaped in collective wonder at styles of dress, dance, and ways of thinking they were discovering for the first time; only in the last year or so has commercial success widened the space between performer and fan.

But let's step back. Vale's encyclopedic oral history Swing! The New Retro Renaissance (V/Search), an indispensable guide, makes 1989 neo-swing Year One: L.A.'s Royal Crown Revue put the suits-and-songs shtick together and undertook nonstop West Coast tours--soon to include San Francisco's HiBall Lounge, neo-swing's CBGB, whose ecumenical present-day spirit is well-documented on HiBall Records's HiBall Lounge Sessions, Vol. I. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy coalesced about the same time in Ventura, as did the Cherry Poppin' Daddies in Oregon--though their outfits came later. All three groups managed to survive prolonged indie-circuit orbits before hitting the big time. (The Daddies' Zoot Suit Riot is their fourth album; Royal Crown's new one their fifth; Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's their third.)

Why 1989, the same year as N.W.A? Since many of Vale's interviewees complain about rap, perhaps it's unsurprising that the movement's so white. In fact, maybe that's the point: neo-swing's love of dress-up (look for the "Union Made" label,not some ersatz reproduction!) and preoccupation with violence (zip guns, the Zoot Suit Riots) give whitefolk a taste of gangsta, only without those troublesome social-relevance calories. Nothing worth a Senate hearing here, folks, just a buncha bums. Keep moving, please.

Which, truth be told, isn't much in keeping with the music's heritage. Lewis Erenberg's intermittently exciting Swingin' the Dream (Chicago) and David Stowe's theoretically savvier Swing Changes (Harvard) stress swing's activist, race-mixing roots. Both swing partisans and New Dealers believed passionately in liberal democracy and equality of opportunity as the most basic of American ideals--"a native true spirit of music," Otis Ferguson rhapsodized in 1936. Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert marked swing's cultural coming-out, most significantly when a quartet that included black musicians Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton took the stage. Swing kids invented youth culture by crossing the color line just as enthusiastically, a phenomenon, Erenberg argues, "that bridged the gap between races and classes... a creolization." (Weirdly, even Glenn Miller drew large black audiences.) In the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, white sailors brutally beat pachuco swingers they accused of molesting white women. When the war ended, bop's brainy anticommercialism made big bands musical dinosaurs, and by 1948 the swing era had come to a close.

Neo-swingers protest that their music means now what it did in 1938: a return to community, optimism, and positivity after grunge's drudgery and atomizing self-hate. (When they demand "here we are now, entertain us," neo-swingers aren't kidding.) But what kind of community, and on whose terms? If neo-swing, as Royal Crown Revue singer Eddie Nichols tells Vale, is driven by "fascination with what America used to be," Vale's '40s are glossier than they should be: "American design genius... widespread ideals of 'democracy,' plus a drive to continuously implement technological advancements... all combined to raise the quality of life for millions on a scale hitherto unprecedented in history."

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