The Swing Revival, Pt. I, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy & Brian Setzer Orchestra

There were many sub genres of rock music that presented themselves to the masses in the wake of grunge. Plenty of genres exposed themselves to the harsh judgments of critics and the no as harsh ears of mass market radio listeners. The music world was in search of a new genre that would rise from the ether and capture the hearts and minds of sock hopping kids and discotheque-ing adults alike.

Unfortunately, that never happened. Instead, the record companies spent millions throwing money at any band or scene that showed even the smallest kernel of promise, hoping to get in on the ground floor of whatever would replace grunge. The thinking seemed to be, "wouldn't it be stupid to be the guy who turned down the next Nirvana? Don't be that guy!" Of course, there was never another Nirvana, and one could argue that--for various reasons too complex and boring to go into--no rock craze since has taken hold of the nation like grunge did in 1991.

But that didn't stop them from trying. They tried, oh god, how they tried. Some attempts more valiant than others. A quick list: ska (The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Save Ferris), pop-punk (Green Day, Offspring), jam bands (The Dave Matthews Band, Spin Doctors), roots rock (Counting Crows, Wallflowers), , superfluous-numbers-in-our-name rock (Matchbox 20, Blink 182), U2/R.E.M.-biting earnest bald guy rock (Live), electronica/techno (Fatboy Slim, Chemical Brothers, Moby), even alt. country--however briefly (Old 97's, Wilco). Some of these scenes and genres had fleeting moments of popularity, and a lot of the more talented bands stuck around even after their scene expired. But of all of these genres, the neo-swing revival seemed the most inexplicable, uninvited and, frankly, uncalled for.

Begun--like most inexplicable trends--by some hipsters, the swing revival has its roots in Southern California, dating back to the year of our lord 1989--the year a band calling themselves Royal Crown Revue formed in L.A. and began playing their own rock-based version of "jump blues"--a pre-rock musical style of up-tempo blues played by a group consisting of guitar, double (stand-up) bass, drums and a horn section (saxophone, trombone, trumpet, etc.). Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was formed by lead singer/guitarist Scotty Morris the same year (Cherry Poppin' Daddies, though also formed in '89, were stuck in a Faith No More funk-rock phase and it would be a while before they transitioned to swing). Both bands featured musicians who had cut their chops playing in and around the Southern California punk and alternative scenes and had traded in their safety pinned t-shirts and black 501s for zoot suits and black and white spectators.

Vaguely influenced by the rockabilly-punk crossover trend of the '80s popularized by groups like Brian Setzer's Stay Cats and fueled by Generation X's (the generation, not the band) insatiable thirst for nostalgia--even things they were too young to even be nostalgic about--the swing revival was small at first, contained mostly to Los Angeles lounge clubs frequented by 20-somethings looking for something more restrictive, formal and classically cool than the "who gives a shit? Flannel's comfy" aesthetic popularized in the grunge era.

And who can blame them? Grunge was sad and dour and brought to mind images of overcast skies and rain and suicidal kids with long, oily hair wearing plaid on their backs and Doc Martins on their feet, drinking cheap beer and singing about heroin, whereas swing brought to mind old-timey Rat Pack-like clubs where you could engage in complicated dance moves with a sexy lady, don a pin-striped suit and fedora and get loaded on dry martinis. It was all more than a little tongue-in-cheek, and in no way was it built to last.

But while the swing scene had been gaining momentum in the early '90s, it wasn't until 1994 that neo-swing began its five year plan to take over the rest of the country, starting, oddly enough, with the Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask. The retro, cartoonish nature of swing music matched the film--about a man who discovers a mask that turns him into a '30s era cartoon--perfectly. Royal Crown Revue appeared in the film performing "Hey Pachuco" (or as I call it, the Chips Ahoy! theme song) during Carrey's swing dance number with a gorgeous, young, and surprisingly healthy-looking Cameron Diaz. Of course, while the music and scene were memorable, most people don't look to Jim Carrey comedies for the next music/dance crazes, so the scene didn't take off just yet. Nonetheless, the seeds of swing were planted in the minds jackass 13-year olds running around, talking with their butt cheeks and saying "SSSSSSSMOKIN!" a lot.

Ironically, the very film that helped push the swing scene into the nation's consciousness also happened to be a send-up of the L.A. swing scene and all its pretensions. 1996's sleeper hit Swingers--the film that made Vince Vaughn a household name and started a decade of douchebags using words like "money" and referring to the objects of their affection as "beautiful babies." It also has the dubious distinction of popularizing the exclamation "Vegas, baby!" which is now shouted by every single white male under the age of 70 the very second he hits the strip.

Directed by future Jumper filmmaker Doug Liman, the small indie film used the mid-'90s L.A. lounge/swing scene as a backdrop for the tale of Mikey (Jon Favreau), a wannabe actor/comedian who has just been dumped by his longtime love and drifted out to the left coast in order to start over with his old buddy and fellow struggling actor, Trent (Vaughn). The film deftly and brilliantly rides a fine line between making the viewer think the whole lounge/swing scene is kinda cool, and not-so-subtly mocking the entire conceit of a scene that would birth such ridiculousness. Characters like Trent and Sue (Patrick Van Horn) are downright silly in their unironic worship of the Rat Pack aesthetic--or their version of the Rat Pack aesthetic--using it to snag as many "beautiful babies" as possible. Favreau's character is an outsider attempting to learn the strict but nonsensical rules of dating in Hollywood and fit in with this strange world where a club is only hip if it's a place no one has heard of and is nearly impossible to locate, and a man is only as cool as the car he drives (Mikey drives a red Chevy Cavalier). The still-unknown Big Bad Voodoo Daddy appeared in a pivotal scene in the film, where Favreau meets up with the unlikely gorgeous swing scenester Heather Graham--and SPOILER ALERT FOR A FIFTEEN YEAR OLD MOVIE--she turns out to actually like him. Watching the film as an adult, it seems crazy that anyone would take Favreau's screenplay as anything but an all-out parody of these type of too-cool-for-school hipster attitudes, but the film's influence reached young white males in a way that few indie films not directed by Troy Duffy manage to do. (Note: director Liman's follow-up film Go is also a similar, albeit darker, mockery of LA's next late night scene--the ecstasy influenced rave scene).

And while the swing scene in L.A. was old news by the time Swingers became a home video classic, the rest of the country was just starting to catch on. The cult success of the film birthed two soundtrack albums, featuring a mix of swing music new and old. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy had three featured tracks on the first soundtrack album, one being their future single "You & Me & The Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)."

1998 featured the release of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's hit album Americana Deluxe (also erroneously known as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy as, confusingly, Americana Deluxe isn't featured anywhere on the cover art). "You & Me & The Bottle..." was a minor hit, reaching 31 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. BBVD never scored any other hits, but they remained a popular live act and according to Wikipedia, played one of the Super Bowl halftime shows, though absolutely no one has any memory of this taking place.

The popularity reached its zenith with a Gap ad for khakis, in which a bunch of young white people jumped, jived and wailed to Louis Prima's classic "Jump, Jive and Wail." The ad was renowned not just for the impressive swing-inspired dancing and well-dressed college kids, but for the special effect utilized in the commercial that I referred to at the time as "when they do a freeze frame and then the camera spins around, but everyone is frozen, and it's really crazy," but has since become known as "bullet time" thanks to its famous use in that equally crazy scene in The Matrix.

In what seems like the smartest move by a marketing department ever, former Stray Cats' front man Brian Setzer released a cover of Prima's song as the first single from his Orchestra's 1998 album The Dirty Boogie. While the band had been together since 1990 and released two prior albums, Dirty Boogie became a massive hit for the band, peaking at #9 on the Billboard album charts. Likewise, the Orchestra's cover became a smash, and was directly responsible for thousands of college students hurting themselves during unsuccessful attempts to do the Lindy Hop while wearing loose-fit khakis.

(TANGENT! not really worth mentioning, but that video features early '90s legend, Mr. "SHUSH!" himself, who is best known these days for being the star of this impossibly brilliant .gif--NOTE: if you don't get this reference, you are probably too young or were too much of a snob in 1993 to appreciate the merits of a Pauly Shore/Sean Astin comedy)

Setzer's song cracked the Billboard Hot 100 at #94 and went as high as #23 on the Top 40, and performed equally well in the UK. But Setzer's success was just the beginning of the US's brief flirtation with swing music...

Next week: 1998 and 1999 sees swing take the nation by storm (or at least by strong shower), causing a zoot suit riot of sorts. Having been well lubricated with a couple of years of ska horns courtesy of Ms. Stefani and others, Middle America was finally ready to let swing music do its worst, opening the gates for a couple of talented, non-swing centric bands to have massive success with one non-representative swing hit each. In other words, pigeonholing at its worst. Good times!


Berni said...

Interesting. There was a documentary sbout the original swing movement and the later revival called This Joint Is Jumping.

bltkmt said...

I like to think that Joe Jackson's "Jumpin' Jive" was the thing that really started this mini-revival. It was the best recorded effort as well...great album.