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.”
This isn’t wrong, but it’s only half the story of a decade lived under war clouds and fallout. There are other ’40s out there: both James Ellroy and Walter Mosley, for instance, refuse to respect the received period mythology. Despite the occasional nod his way (Brian Setzer’s “Hollywood Nocturnes” namechecks an Ellroy collection for atmosphere), none of the neo-swingers grapples with Ellroy’s vision of the era as one of feral capitalist expansion underwritten by savage, and tacitly licensed, state violence against inconvenient minority populations. Nor do they hear Mosley’s postwar L.A. speaking from the ground up in the voices of all those “spades” their beloved Philip Marlowe sneers at throughout Farewell, My Lovely.
“Back in the ’40s, swing was punk rock,” Big Bad Voodoo Daddy leader Scotty Morris has said, and Vale calls neo-swing “cultural rebellion in its most subversive form.” But neo-swingers idealize sharpness, looking their best–an achiever’s manifesto. If refusal was the definitive punk gesture, neo-swing’s is acceptance. Mix and match and call it a lifestyle: that’s what neo-swing, like consumer culture, sells these days. It’s a music of situations and moments, too shallowly rooted for the total way of being it advocates. A comparison with Joe Jackson, the movement’s unacknowledged godfather, is instructive. His singing is execrable, of course–who knew Louis Jordan was, deep down, an adenoidal Englishman?–but Jackson’s 1981 Jumpin’ Jive was content to be a one-off that faithfully recreated the music’s tone and timbre. The first punk to unearth swing, Jackson crafted an impressive replica, then moved on. His more fervent descendants sing better and speed everything up–neo-swing’s “Funky Drummer” is Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing,” with its big beats and ode to the joys of making music. The result is better pop than Jackson’s: loud, catchy, a manic assortment of eras and styles.
But it’s still the patchiest of patchworks, especially to anyone outside the subculture. Your generic neo-swing album starts fast, with loud drums to lead off; then one or two Prima/Jordan tunes; a midtempo opportunity for the singer to croon (occasionally a ballad); instrumental workouts where the horn players strut their stuff, almost always involving “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”; a raft of jump blues, usually about the scene, dancing, and the band itself; and a pair of art-cred forays into calypso, mambo, or r&b. Except for a few zoot-suit references, neither history nor the contemporary world make sustained appearances. This eclecticism-for-its-own-sake quickly cements into formula. Compilations like the recent Swing This, Baby! (Slimstyle) and Hipsters, Zoots & Wingtips: The ’90s Swingers (Hip-O) offer little true variety as they swing from one band to the next, the sameness of approach growing steadily more oppressive.
Similar problems arise, as you might expect, on single-artist albums. The raffish Cherry Poppin’ Daddies boast Steve Perry, neo-swing’s savviest singer, his sardonic croon nicely underplaying a live-action Tex Avery persona–complete with wolf-whistling horns and smarmy/ironic lyrics about his snake “swervin’ down your hall.” (Avery, the renegade ’40s illustrator whose lustfully popping eyes, bulging hearts, and lolling tongues struck his bosses as a mite too phallic, is as inescapable a neo-swing icon as Louis Prima: Jim Carrey’s big dance number with Cameron Diaz in his Avery homage The Mask featured Royal Crown Revue, and the back of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy depicts one of Avery’s wolves in full leer.) Like all the swinger singers, Perry’s a historian by necessity, with a personal fondness for ska and Billy Eckstine, and he’s got an eye for a droll story: “Ding Dong Daddy of the D-Car Line” derives from an old article about a train conductor who married 16 different women. Still, all the cartoonish tomcatting and strutting wear out their welcome.
Strangely, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy aren’t Avery-esque on record; their songs tend toward evanescent, good-natured melodiousness–fun bubbles. A typical problem: the Crescent City Maulers, whose Screamin’ (Slimstyle) does get off some good randy lines, are also too polite for their moniker. Both the wry Blue Plate Special and the versatile, listener-friendly Indigo Swing make lightness count for more. A Night Out With Blue Plate Special (Slimstyle) skitters into weird, unpredictable corners; my favorite explores the suffering of Paul Drake, Perry Mason’s tireless assistant. Indigo Swing’s All Aboard! (Time Bomb), meanwhile, pulls off an uncanny simulation of a small combo, circa 1948: Johnny Boyd has the constrained, bell-like yearning of postwar America down perfectly. Still, when they rewrite Wynonie Harris’s “Grandma Plays the Numbers” as “Baron Plays the Horses,” the shift in context hurts: the black urban commonplace packs more ritual force than some white guys bopping over to the track.
Perhaps good faith isn’t the answer. Having hit on oldies as a respite from punk almost 20 years ago, veteran faker Brian Setzer now poses so expertly that it’s become a second skin. The Dirty Boogie (Interscope), his hybrid of punchy big-band (13 horns!) and rockabilly guitar, brews up well, and he covers both Louis Prima (“Jump Jive An’ Wail,” neo-swing’s best Prima cover) and his Stray Cats past without embarrassment. Live, Setzer’s utterly shameless, deploying an army of tired gestures (arm thrusts, leg kicks, goofy routines by the band) in the blithe, not unreasonable confidence that sheer panache can put them over. Swinging everything from the Clash to the Beatles, he’s the missing link between Prima and postpunk.
You can roam further, if you dare. Dem Brooklyn Bums’ There Goes the Neighborhood (YouGottaProblemWitDis) boy-bonds into self-parodic Onyx territory, defending the hood with baseball bats and pretending the world is a Brando flick in six testosterone-overdose toons. That’s probably enough: Hipster Daddy-O and the Handgrenades, the “gangsters of swing,” run a rocked-up but essentially similar formula into the ground on Armed and Swingin’ (Slimstyle). The New Morty Show’s cheese-swing on Mortyfied! (Slimstyle) is wittier: blithely accepting everything written before today into the canon, they swing Metallica, spice their Billy Idol medley with samba piano, and jab metal riffs or Yiddish in the middle of swing tunes, making sarcasm hummable.
If it’s growth you’re looking for, neither jokes nor re-creations will serve. But Royal Crown Revue’s new The Contender (Warner Bros.) inadvertently reveals the narrowness of neo-swing’s artistic horizons. The oldest band on the scene, Royal Crown make the catchiest records; both ’96’s zippy Mugzy’s Move and the live Caught in the Act hold up to repeated listens, sonically at least. And if anything, the new one’s more flavorful than before: the usual covers (a Louis Jordan calypso and “Stormy Weather,” done as a lightweight shuffle) and guy stuff (archaic tough talk, boxing) for the purists, but also a bop chestnut, a boppish takeoff from the James Bond theme, and a Runyonesque tall tale. Still, it’s glaring how, except for the Bettie Page tribute, which fingers the predicament behind a career in porn, Royal Crown can’t find a way out of subcultural fantasy. “Walkin’ Like Brando” celebrates movies as role models–this album takes nothing from life.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers, Haight Street’s favorite band, who return with Perennial Favorites (Mammoth), aren’t precisely swing revivalists, but they get lumped into the craze because of their period fashion. Like Hootie and the Blowfish, the Zippers follow up their breakthrough by getting pissed at everyone who bought it. (“You will really ape and clown when you realize the dough they’re shelling out for this deal,” sneers the first single, “Suits Are Pickin’ Up the Bill.”) Hot had some joy and an authentic revisionist viewpoint–death wish as the drive behind 1920s ebullience–but the new album feels italicized and sour, as if the band resents the success of its own aesthetic.
As two of its newest products reveal, right now neo-swing is running full speed toward a dead end of its own choosing. The road doesn’t have to end there–revivalism can be creative if it writes new endings to old stories, as grunge did with hard rock. But if it doesn’t find anything beyond refuge worth taking from the past, this particular movement’s doomed to become a game of dress-up as sterile as the ’70s revival or the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. What’s ahead–weirder obscurities, yet another Brando tribute? So they beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.