Revisiting the 1990s Swing Revival

There’s a thing in pop culture called the 20-year nostalgia cycle. It explains why kids in the 2000s got really into ’80s music, and why there’s now renewed interest in all things Y2K. But back in the late ’90s, young people across America upped the old-school ante and fell hard for swing, a genre that hadn’t been popular since before their parents were born.

Seemingly overnight, flannel shirts and baggy jeans were out; raincoat suits and fedoras were in. Horn-tooting bands like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and the Brian Setzer Orchestra were all over the radio. The Gap’s “Khakis Swing” ad inspired couples nationwide to sign up for dance lessons—no doubt hoping they’d be able to fly through the air like the pros in the commercial.

This unlikely swing renaissance reached its peak in 1998 and fizzled out by year’s end. Nearly a quarter-century later, it’s such a strange blip on the radar that younger folks—and even some oldsters who were there—are baffled by the whole thing. In late 2021, Twitter user Simone Smith went viral by asking, “Can a Gen X please explain why y’all got really into swing music for like 2 years in the ’90s?”

Eddie Nichols

Royal Crown Revue performs in Mountain View, California in 1998. / Tim Mosenfelder/GettyImages

To understand how and why ’40s music blew up midway through Bill Clinton’s second term, it’s useful to rewind about a decade. The neo-swing movement began in Los Angeles in 1989 with the Royal Crown Revue, a group composed largely of former punk rockers. Members included Mark and Adam Stern (and their younger brother, Jamie) of the pioneering LA hardcore band Youth Brigade. On lead vocals were Eddie Nichols, a streetwise New York City native who grew up digging the Sex Pistols and Frank Sinatra in equal measure.

With key input from Mexican-American sax player Mando Dorame, whose grandfather had been an LA zoot-suiter, Royal Crown Revue developed a “gangster bop” sound rooted not in big-band swing, but rather in ’40s-era R&B precursor jump blues. (Most “swing” revival bands were actually playing jump blues.) Nichols topped off his crew’s tunes with hardboiled lyrics inspired by pulp novels, film noir, and his own misadventures.

Royal Crown Revue found their footing as the first generation of SoCal punks began aging out of their combat boots and leather jackets. With their sharp vintage threads and upbeat music, the group offered tatted-up twenty- and thirty-somethings an alternative to the alternative—a countercultural movement based on midcentury Americana. As they gained popularity in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Royal Crown Revue helped to establish a thriving underground scene that couldn’t stay secret forever.

Zoot Suit Rioters

The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 were an odd inspiration for Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ jaunty swing album. / Anthony Potter Collection/GettyImages

By 1994, Royal Crown Revue had built such a local buzz that director Chuck Russell tapped them to appear in the comic book film The Mask, starring Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz. The following year, after replacing the Stern brothers with more seasoned musicians, Royal Crown Revue signed with Warner Bros. and seemed poised to take neo-swing to the next level.

Unfortunately, they never really got their mainstream moment. Warner Bros. wasn’t sure how to market a swing band, and when Jon Favreau asked to cast the group in swingersthe 1996 low-budget indie movie he wrote, co-produced, and starred in, the label reportedly demanded a music licensing fee that would have broken the bank—so Favreau went to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, a swing outfit from nearby Ventura who had recently taken over Royal Crown’s residency at Los Angeles hotspot The Derby.

Led by singer-songwriter Scotty Morris, another ex-punk, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy weren’t as dark and edgy as the Royal Crown Revue. But they had terrific songs, two of which they performed in swingers. As the 1996 box office flop found an audience on home video, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy parlayed their newfound fame into a deal with Capitol Records. Even without a major crossover single, their 1998 album American Deluxe went platinum, and they wound up playing the Super Bowl with Stevie Wonder and Gloria Estefan in January 1999.

Meanwhile, two other neo-swing bands were making inroads on pop radio. One was the outrageously named Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, twisted ironists from Eugene, Oregon, who’d been challenging listeners since 1989. The Daddies weren’t exclusively a swing band; they dabbled in everything from funk to punk to ska. But when fans started hitting their merch booth asking for the album with the most swing songs, the band’s manager had a great idea: The Daddies should compile an album of all their swing stuff, plus a few new tunes in that style.

The result was 1997’s Zoot Suit Riot, an indie release later picked up by Mojo Records. On the strength of the title track, which cracked Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40, the album went double platinum. It’s an especially astonishing feat when you consider that “Zoot Suit Riot” is loosely based on the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, wherein US servicemen on shore leave in Los Angeles viciously attacked young Mexican-Americans known as pachucos. The racially motivated violence was due in part to the pachucos wearing zoot suits, fabric-heavy outfits that defied wartime cloth rationing. In “Zoot Suit Riot,” Daddies frontman and songwriter Steve Perry uses the riots as a metaphorical backdrop for a song meant to galvanize the neo-swing community. It went over a lot of people’s heads.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra performs in the East Room of The White House.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra performs in the East Room of The White House. /Pool/GettyImages

Far less conceptual was the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s cover of the 1956 Louis Prima favorite “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.” The original Prima appeared in the Gap’s “Khakis Swing” spot, which premiered in April 1998, so it’s no surprise Setzer’s rendition flew up the charts when it arrived two months later. Setzer had previously resuscitated rockabilly as the frontman and guitarist of ’80s hitmakers Stray Cats, and he infused his big-band swing with plenty of his trademark ’50s-style fretwork. “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” hit No. 23 on Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40, and the album The Dirty Boogie went double platinum.

Rounding out the list of swing bands that sold in the millions were Squirrel Nut Zippers. Unlike their supposed peers, the Zippers were from the East Coast (North Carolina, to be exact), and they didn’t play the jumpin’, jiving music that had hepcats sipping martinis out in Hollywood. The Zippers favored the hot jazz of the ’30s, as well as old-timey blues, country, klezmer, folk, and more. They were eccentric Southern weirdos who were forever branded “swing” when their 1996 calypso oddity “Hell” caught fire on alternative radio and pushed their album hot into unexpected platinum territory.

That makes four neo-swing bands with platinum or better sales. It was a classic example of major labels discovering a vibrant underground phenomenon and selling it to the masses. But that doesn’t fully account for why, in 1998, so many teens and twenty-somethings found themselves drawn to the music and fashions from a pre-rock era.

Swing functioned as a reaction to the angsty, schlubby grunge that had been dominant for so long. Remember that swing’s 1998 pinnacle came one year after ska—another style of upbeat, horn-powered dance music played by dudes in suits—enjoyed its brief moment in the sun. Instead of moping and moshing, young ska and swing fans had the opportunity to put on decent clothes and go out dancing, perhaps with a partner. For once, girls could participate in alternative music without having to worry about getting groped or pummeled in the pit.

The backdrop to all of this was the boomtime that was the late ’90s. Following the ugliness of the Gulf War, the Los Angeles Riots, and the economic recession that ran from 1990 to 1991, America enjoyed a brief window of peace and prosperity in the years preceding 9/11. The jaunty sounds of neo-swing fit the optimistic national mood like a finely tailored pinstripe suit.

Of course, neo-swing wasn’t just timely—it was also timeless. The scene classic American imagery that had never stopped being cool. The aesthetics encompassed the zoot-suit ’40s, the greaser ’50s, and the Rat Pack ’60s. It was Humphrey Bogart, Bettie Page, Cab Calloway, Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, and Billie Holiday; custom cars, Zippo lighters, sailor tattoos, and elaborate cocktails.

The music and clothes harked back to a nonspecific golden age before Starbucks and shapeless fiberglass cars, when things were a little sexier and less homogenized. It was a search for style and sophistication and a new (old) way to get your kicks. That impulse lives on, even if neo-swing is a distant memory.

To learn more about the brief time when bands with suits and saxophones were all over MTV, check out Kenneth Partridge’s book Hell of a Hat: The Rise of ’90s Ska and Swing, out now on Penn State University Press.

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