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Let’s All Remember The Late-’90s Swing Revival

It’s Weird ’90s Week on Stereogum. All week long we’re looking at the strangest musical moments and trends of the decade. Check out more here.

One month in 1998, long before Alternative Press was a strictly emo-only concern, the magazine put Squirrel Nut Zippers, the North Carolina swing revivalists who’d scored an out-of-nowhere radio hit with “Hell,” on its cover. I’m doing this from 18-year-old memory, but I’m pretty sure there’s a part in the profile when a couple of the band members’ wives dance, at a party, to “The Metro,” Berlin’s 1981 synthpop hit. The Alternative Press writer thinks this is the worst shit ever. He mocks “The Metro” — and, by extension, the people who love it, including the band members’ wives or girlfriends — for personifying the worst excesses of ’80s pop. “The Metro,” to the writer, is chintzy, fake, and synthetic. It means nothing. By contrast, the music of Squirrel Nut Zippers is steeped in history. It’s organic and authentic and deeply felt. It means something. Well, joke’s on that guy. Eighteen years later, “The Metro” remains an unassailable synthpop classic, and Squirrel Nut Zippers are a punchline. Precious few of us will ever admit to liking them. So it goes.

I’m not picking on Alternative Press in particular here. Plenty of us felt that way at the time. There was a full-bore swing revival happening, one that briefly left a deep impact on alternative radio and convinced people that it was a good idea to own a zoot suit. Squirrel Nut Zippers were, for a time, the biggest of those bands, and they were also the best. But there were more, each with a shittier band name than the last. Royal Crown Revue. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.

I loved this shit. I loved it so much. In my high school newspaper, I wrote that Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Hot was the best album of 1997. I wanted to honor the album so much that I ignored that it had come out in 1996. (My #2 of the year was Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly.) In maybe a two-year span, I saw every one of the bands from the swing revival big four live. In the summer of 1998, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy played a free radio-station afternoon show in Baltimore, and I ended up randomly seated between my then-girlfriend and an ex. So I wasn’t just into the swing revival; I was also dating girls who were into the swing revival. So I watched Swingers many, many times, and I may have even spent a couple of days trying to talk like that. And I was one of many.

Looking back, it’s hard to figure out how all this shit happened, but there are some threads to pick at. After grunge began to pass out of favor, this stuff seemed like its polar opposite: sharp rather than slovenly, crisp and efficient rather than wild and intuitive, knowingly silly rather than deadly self-serious. Within the rapidly atomizing alt-rock universe, there was a hunger for something smooth and sophisticated. A few years before the grunge revival popped off, there was the deeper-underground but just as silly lounge revival, with Combustible Edison releasing music on Sub Pop and a ton of Esquivel reissues coming out. But if you’re looking to blame the swing revival on anyone, blame Hollywood.

Consider, if you will, the 1993 movie Swing Kids, in which Christian Bale and Noah Wyle, among others, play jazz-besotted teenagers torn apart by the rise of the Third Reich. It ends with Robert Sean Leonard emotionally yelling the phrase “Swing Heil” over and over. I saw this movie in the theater, and I mostly remember being bored. The wartime-melodrama stuff meant basically nothing to 13-year-old me, and the movie didn’t effectively convince me that it should. What I do remember were the dance scenes: Intricately choreographed tableaux of kicks and spins and flips and swirls. It looked fun.

I probably shouldn’t even be admitting this shit in public, but the lindy hop scenes from Spike Lee’s Malcolm X left an even deeper impression. They were even more vivid and elaborate than the Swing Kids scenes, and they were way more colorful. Lee had more fun documenting the street-hoodlum roots of Malcolm Little than he did with anything else in the movie, and even though the entire thing was great, those scenes were the ones I remembered the most. This has to be the most clueless white-kid thing in the whole fucking world — going to see Malcolm X and falling in love with the fucking swing-dancing scenes — but there it is.

And then there was The Mask, an unbelievably dumb movie that I should absolutely not be mentioning in the same breath as Malcolm X. This was, of course, Jim Carrey’s 1994 follow-up to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and it went even further toward establishing him as quite possibly the biggest movie star in the world for a minute there. (If you take away nothing else from this article, take away this: The ’90s were weird.) The one scene from the movie that everyone remembered — even more than the scene where the dog wore the mask and turned into a monster dog — was the one where Carrey, resplendent in a banana-yellow zoot suit, pulled a making-her-movie-debut Cameron Diaz into an absurd, surreal, Tex Avery-inspired dance sequence while the Royal Crown Revue played “Hey Pachuco.”

For perspective, pachucos were Latino kids in the ’40s, many of them gang members, who faced hellacious discrimination in ’40s Los Angeles. The zoot suits they wore were conscious rebellion against the wartime austerity that the American government demanded. America wanted them to do with as little as possible, so they used as much material as they possibly could in their suits, a punk-rock fuck-you from decades before punk rock was ever a thing. The zoot suit riots of 1943 were racial hate crimes: Returning American sailors and marines, on shore leave, mercilessly beating anyone they could find with a zoot suit. And here were the Royal Crown Revue, playing a song about pachucos so that Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz could dance in a dumb kids’ movie. This — the inexorable ways that hard-fought historical identity becomes kitsch — would be a theme in the swing revival that followed.

The scene that’s held up the best, perhaps despite the involvement of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, is the climactic dance scene from 1996’s Swingers, in which Jon Favreau finally overcomes his crippling breakup by spinning Heather Graham around a bunch of times. It’s a great scene in a great movie. And for a while, the Swingers soundtrack was nearly as inescapable as Pulp Fiction’s, despite so much of its running time being given over to distinctly non-swing tracks like the Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces.” Swingers left a cultural footprint that those other movies never would. To this day, you will still sometimes see dudes referring to things as “money” when they mean “cool.” Vince Vaughn became a movie star because of Swingers. Jon Favreau launched a career that would lead him to the director’s chair on Elf and Iron Man. And Big Bad Voodoo Daddy would, for a minute there, slide into light rotation on modern-rock radio.

By the time Swingers made it to VHS, where teenagers like me discovered it, things were already in motion. It wasn’t just the movies; things were happening in music, too, that made something as far-fetched as the swing revival suddenly seem popular. There had been the cocktail revival — never exactly a popular phenomenon, but something considered cool enough to lay some groundwork. There had been the half-ironic alt-rock embrace of Tony Bennett, who went through a career revival largely by singing exactly the way he’d always sung but doing it on stages where younger people would see him. (In 1995, I saw Bennett play a surprise-guest set at an alt-rock radio-station festival, taking the stage after Soul Asylum and before the Ramones’ headlining set. Courtney Love had also put in a surprise appearance earlier in the day. Bennett sang three songs. People moshed. Strangers passed me blunts. It was a different time.) And, more important than anything else, there was ska.

I already wrote about this a bit in my 20th-anniversary piece on No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom last year, but nobody knew where alt-rock was going to go when the grunge boom died down. There was a sudden influx of alt-rock one-hit wonders. There were a lot of people who sounded like Beck. There were groups like the Toadies and the Presidents Of The Unites States Of America, essentially novelty acts who were briefly inescapable. There were Korn and the Deftones, whose popularity would lead to the nü-metal takeover, which in turn would eventually lead to the post-grunge surge that would effectively destroy alt-rock radio forever. There was the small quote-unquote electronica wave that was supposed to take over but never did, at least not until dance music became a corporate commodity more than a decade later. And then there was California pop-punk, which gave way to ska.

Ska made it safe for swing. Ska had horns and ties and greased hair and checkerboard patterns and painful lyrical jokes and athletic dancing and big, dumb hooks. It basically already was swing; the stuff that was hitting in the mid-’90s certainly couldn’t have been any further from the herky-jerk Jamaican dance music of the genre’s first wave, or even the punk-informed UK skinhead stomp of its second wave. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the most viscerally entertaining non-Cypress Hill act on the Lollapalooza 1995 main stage, wore enormous plaid suits and porkpie hats and pocket watches, and they had a hypeman whose dancing was as close as you could get to the lindy hop without actual lindy hopping.

The swing groups that came along and briefly made it big seemed like outgrowths of California’s ska scene, but they weren’t. They’d all been around for a while. Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy were both formed in 1989 in Southern California, both by products of the area’s punk scene. Royal Crown Revue even released their first album on BYO, the same label that released seminal records from bands like Youth Brigade and 7 Seconds. (Mark Stern, one of the band’s founding members, had been in Youth Brigade.) Both Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy were regulars at the Derby, the LA club where Jon Favreau swung Heather Graham in that Swingers scene. And both embraced the aesthetic wholeheartedly, going full cheese with it.

Squirrel Nut Zippers, meanwhile, didn’t have much to do with those two bands, and they were probably humiliated to see themselves compared with those bands constantly. The people in Squirrel Nut Zippers were North Carolina hipsters. They released their album Hot on Mammoth Records, which made them labelmates with Juliana Hatfield and the Bats. Andrew Bird, who would later find tasteful-indie fame, was an “honorary member” of Squirrel Nut Zippers, whatever the fuck that means. They didn’t dress in ring-a-ding-ding period garb, though they weren’t averse to suspenders or wide collars. If you’d asked them at the time, they probably would’ve told you that they weren’t a swing band, that they were keepers of the American music flame. They would’ve said that they drew just as much from Dixieland and jump blues and klezmer. They took themselves more seriously than the other bands. But in “Hell,” they scored a bigger novelty hit than Royal Crown Revue or Big Bad Voodoo Daddy ever managed. They were better and less cartoonish than those other bands, but they were ultimately just as catchy and silly.

Of the bunch, the only real crass careerists were the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, from Oregon, who started out as a ska-punk band whose live show once included a riding mower mounted with a spraying dildo. (Again: the ’90s.) They’d always dabbled in cheeseball pastiche swing, but after Swingers came out, they had their eureka moment. When the band was on tour opening for Reel Big Fish, their manager noticed that kids were coming up to their merch table and asking which of their albums (they already had three of them) had the most swing on it. He convinced them to compile all their swing songs into one album, and that album became Zoot Suit Riot. Mojo licensed it, and it went double-platinum.

“Zoot Suit Riot,” the song that blew the band up, took the racist gang attacks of the ’40s and summed them up thus: “Run a comb through your coal-black hair.” All of those bands had sanitized history, of course. They were white guys bringing back a sound that had been black and Latino, and the politics of wearing a zoot suit in the ’90s were not exactly what they’d been in the ’40s. “Zoot Suit Riot” was a bad song, but it did its job. It used a historical moment as grist for novelty, jumped on a trend that was ready to explode, and turned the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies into the biggest band of this particular mini-movement.

This all happened quickly, but it also happened slowly enough that I’m not sure when I realized that it was a big fad, destined to flame out with the quickness. Over what was probably a two-year period, I saw every one of those bands — Squirrel Nut Zippers at a radio-station festival, Royal Crown Revue at the Warped Tour, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the aforementioned free afternoon concert, and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies when they headlined a show at my college, with the Pietasters and Ozomatli opening. Of all four sets, the only thing I really remember is Royal Crown Revue frontman Eddie Nichols doing jumping splits at the Warped Tour stage. Immediately before their set, while Sick Of It All were playing, I saw the biggest skinhead brawl I’d ever seen in my life. After that, those jumping splits felt like a nice reprieve.

I’d like to say that I knew better by the time that Cherry Poppin’ Daddies show came around. At that point, it was pretty obvious that this whole thing was pretty much over. In 1998, the Gap used swing dancers in a Matthew Rolston-directed commercial set to Louis Prima’s original “Jump, Jive, And Wail” for a high-profile khaki campaign. The ad was an early use of the “bullet-time” effect, a year before The Matrix. Brian Setzer had surfed a revival wave to stardom before; in the early ’80s, his Stray Cats rode a rockabilly craze to MTV fame. And after that Gap commercial, his Brian Setzer Orchestra scored a radio hit with a “Jump, Jive, And Wail” cover. Both the commercial and the Setzer cover were inescapable.

Meanwhile, at the 1999 Super Bowl Halftime Show, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy performed alongside Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, and Savion Glover. That same year, the Ugandan-German singer Lou Bega used swing-revival signifiers in “Mambo No. 5,” one of the most irritating global hits in the history of recorded music. The party was very clearly over. And yet, there I was at that Cherry Poppin’ Daddies show in 1999. I definitely told myself that I was going for the openers, or that I was going because it was so rare to see anything other than a hardcore band coming to Syracuse. But I still stuck around for the headliner. So I don’t know, man. Maybe you had to be there. And if it hasn’t aged as well as “The Metro,” honestly, what has?