Swing, Swing, Swing
How '40s Dance Music Came Back in the '90s
Goodbye grunge, swing's the thing." So reported The Wall Street Journal last February. While the stodgy, button-down Journal will never be accused of having its finger on the pulse of pop culture, it might be on to something here. And Swing!: The New Retro Renaissance--the product of a publishing company that specializes in documenting culture movements and out-of-mainstream trends and personalities--makes an even more convincing case for the return of big bands, big suits, and big ballrooms. It might indeed be time to turn off Pearl Jam and turn on Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls," to tune out MTV and tune in AMC.
Swing music and dance were born on the East Coast--incubated at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in the '30s (when Baltimore-born drummer/bandleader Chick Webb ruled the roost). Sixty years later, the West Coast is sending them back to us. It seems a handful of Californians took up fedoras and saxophones about a decade ago, and today the retro-swing stylings of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies have infiltrated the nation's modern-rock airwaves. San Francisco now has dozens of swing bands playing clubs packed to the rafters with wildly dancing, vintage-togged couples. Following the format of previous V/Search books, Swing! is an "oral history," presented via Q&A interviews with the leading bands, dancers, writers, and record-label owners.
Why swing? Why now? The book tackles these issues early on, both in its windy introduction and an interview with Michael Moss, publisher of scene-chronicling Swing Time magazine. The retro movement, we learn, is "rejecting corporately dictated consumption," while partner dancing "reclaims a vital form of social interaction" (in an age when people look for love on the Internet). Swing is "a way to yell back at" the "degeneration of popular music," as symbolized by performers who make it big "with a drum machine and a few rhymes." And if swing is largely just good-time party music, Moss is not apologetic: "It's nice to go to a concert and listen to music that isn't bombarding you with how awful the world is." And perhaps he cuts to the core of the matter when he intones that after 40 years of guitar-driven rock, "This music sounded so incredibly fresh--it sounded brand-new."
While revivals are ubiquitous in pop music, this might be the first postrock retro movement that harks back to a prerock era. However, the term "swing" is already as meaningless a descriptor as "alternative." The book explains early on that along with the '30s and '40s dance music (the original swing), "swing" now covers the revival of jump blues (à la Louis Jordan), country swing, hot jazz, even rockabilly. Essentially any roots-oriented music using horns and/or acoustic bass with rhythms that allow for partner dancing can be squeezed under the "swing" umbrella. (And for better or worse, the swing scene has considerable overlap with the martini, lounge, exotica, and cigar fads.)
The Royal Crown Revue, a seven-piece Los Angeles group (which opened for the B-52s and the Pretenders at Merriweather Post Pavilion last month) is one of a dozen or so bands interviewed for the book. Formed in 1989, it is often credited with pioneering the swing revival. (Many neoswingers also give props to Joe Jackson, who released his big-band album Jumpin' Jive in '82). The Revue, which includes a three-piece horn section, mixes jump blues, rockabilly, and even doo-wop, though it lists Louis Prima's Las Vegas lounge-act sound as a prime influence.
Like many musicians in Swing!, Royal Crown vocalist Eddie Nichols has a punk-rock background (starting in '84, when he was a roadie for the band Rigor Mortis). Swing appeals to erstwhile punks he says, because "it's something you can grow older with" (gray-haired mohawks being rather ridiculous). Others say the punk-to-swing shift was a reaction to a "rebellious" counterculture that had become mainstream. "If you walked down Haight Street in '92 wearing a zoot suit you got a hell of a lot more looks then if you had 40,000 tattoos and piercings," Moss says.
Other bands presented include the nine-piece New Morty Show, led by pompadour-wearing trumpeter Morty Okin, and Lee Press-on and the Nails, which performs what it calls "jump-swing from hell." The band does a swing version of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" (which "swings better than it ever rocked" according to a Swing Time review).
Technology helps many of the former punkers and rockers handle the challenges of arranging this music. Lee Press-on--who can't read music and doesn't play a horn--manages to create the charts for his six brass players on a computer. But then, all of the machinery in the world can't mask the fact that, unlike most punk rock, swing ultimately requires musical skill. (And if swing continues to grow, the "nerds" from high school band class might be the ones, as some rappers put it, "getting played, paid, and laid.")
Swing! also takes a look at the dance revival that has bloomed alongside the music and fashion. Here the movement takes a nod from punk's DIY ethic. Dana and Mango from the dance duo Work That Skirt are completely self-taught, creating most of their own moves. They now teach this self-styled "street" or "club" swing dance to others. And you could say the physical nature (and dangers) of punk's stage diving, slam dancing, and crowd surfing are reborn in some of swing's extreme acrobatic dance moves and aerials. "It's all fun until somebody breaks an ankle," Dana says.
Perhaps the neoswing movement's most interesting aspect--and one that clearly sets it apart from punk, grunge, rave culture, and any other musical/fashion happening of the past 30 years--is that it's intergenerational. "There are people from 1976, and everybody's just as fully into it as the next," Dana says. Swing! interviews octogenarian Frankie Manning, who pioneered swing dance back in the 1930s (and still teaches it today). Many of the new bands feature veteran swing players. San Franciscobased Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers includes a 73-year-old sax player.
Of course you don't have to be an inveterate musical purist to have some reservations about this revived (and revised) music. While disco's trashy beats can resurface time and time again with impunity (who's going to argue that "Boogie Oogie Oogie" has been compromised if it's used to sell roll-on deodorant?), swing is another matter. Noted music author Donald Clarke calls the swing era "a high-water mark in American popular music." The Penguin Guide to Jazz labeled Duke Ellington's swing-era output "some of the finest 20th-century music on record." It would be great if the retro-swing movement sparked a renewed appreciation and interest in '30s and '40s music. It would be terrible if this vaulted canon is cheapened, bastardized, trivialized, commercialized, or generally fucked over by a zealous, greedy marketplace and packs of bandwagon-jumping, bad musicians.
Swing might already be overheating out West. Now that the clubs are packed and the once-cheap vintage clothes are priced for profits, some of the scene's pioneers have bailed out. Moss explains how swing's sex-delineated retro aesthetic--men in three-piece suits, women in demure dresses--was also in part a response to the Gap, with its aisles of drab, baggy, unisexual clothing. Now the Gap is running commercials using swing music. (Can swing deodorant ads be far behind?)
Baltimore hasn't been a wallflower in the movement; City Paper examined the city's burgeoning swing-dance scene in a cover story more than two years ago ("Swing Time," 4/10/96). Local dance instructors report a continuing surge of interest. But swing dancing takes a lot of room--room that rock clubs and even discos rarely have. San Francisco was lucky to have Bimbo's 365, a capacious old nightclub that was pretty much mothballed until the swing thing started. Size matters in swing, and since most ballrooms were bulldozed decades ago, it's a problematic issue.
While Swing! is largely a bright, jazzy tome about folks having fun, ultimately there's something a little sad about it all, as it chronicles a generation giving up on itself to ape how its predecessors dressed, danced, and jammed. Suppose that back in the '30s Webb, Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, and the rest chose to emulate turn-of-the-century ragtime instead of create their own musical magic. Vale calls swing "a way of life well-suited for the next century." That might be a rush to judgment. We'll just have to wait and see (and hear) how this classic old art form fares against the machinations of today's music world.