By Rebecca Bulnes
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It's always tough being ahead of your time, even if you get there by reaching into the past and pulling your shtick from the archives. The swing movement jitterbugging across the country (and only recently embraced by the media) may be seen by many as a retro fad, but to the members of Royal Crown Revue, undisputed pioneers of the revival, the retro tag is an undeserved slam, and the music is no fad.
Though still largely unknown to the multitudes, this Los Angeles-based group has been together for nine years and has just released its fourth album, The Contender. Furthermore, Royal Crown's seven members, often referred to as the Johnny Appleseeds of this again-hip genre, began playing their horn-heavy tunes when Axl Rose (remember him?) was still king of radio. They didn't take that route imagining it would give them a shot at a record deal. In fact they would have been laughed out of nearly every major-label office on the planet. They did it because, nearly ten years before the rest of America caught wind of this thing called swing, they were already deeply in love with the music.
Sure the band learned its chops from the legendary likes of Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, and Louis Jordan (whom many credit as the true progenitors of rock and roll), but as far as guitarist James Achor is concerned, Royal Crown Revue is its own animal. "We're not a nostalgia act," he emphasizes. "We're just trying to be who we are. We didn't live in the Forties, so we can't try to re-create them. We don't know what it was like. We can only make our screwed-up hybrid of it, based on the fact that we've lived through 50 years of other music since Louis Jordan. We don't deny that. We're not looking to be some link to the past. We don't swing like Duke Ellington; we're just Royal Crown Revue."
The Royal Crown Revue heard on The Contender is, in fact, one punchy bunch of musical hooligans, perfectly willing to stretch the boundaries of the style Prima helped define in 1956 with "Jump, Jive, an' Wail." The album's title track, featuring Achor's reverb-drenched guitar, sounds more Sixties surf than Forties big band. Meanwhile the horn section snorts and snarls, throws in a bridge reminiscent of some long-forgotten spaghetti Western, and emphasizes the bad-boy boasts of lead vocalist Eddie Nichols as he sneeringly rants about his pugilistic abilities.
"Walkin' Like Brando" begins with a musical feint: An unhurried intro that sounds like a French pop ballad abruptly gives way to an up-tempo celebration of Hollywood toughs. Continuing the back-alley-brawl imagery, "Zip Gun Bop (Reloaded)," has Nichols warning some mug that he's about to contract a "bad case of lead poisoning." The "Reloaded" version of "Zip Gun Bop" revives one of Royal Crown Revue's signature tunes, which the band has chosen for some reason to record on three of its four albums.
Perhaps that's because the song so neatly captures the group's gangster sensibilities. While radio faves Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Coca-Cola spokesmen Big Bad Voodoo Daddy may lyrically expound the joys of drinking and dancing, and while Squirrel Nut Zippers may tilt toward jocund New Orleans Dixieland, and while ex-Stray Cat Brian Setzer leads his seventeen-piece orchestra through mostly love-struck musical terrain, Royal Crown Revue typically depicts life as seen from a somewhat dangerous street corner.
Characters in the musical vignettes include all manner of scoundrels, flimflam artists, and heat-packin' lowlifes. Figures such as Mugsy, Bennie the Shoe, and "a Cuban cat named Geronimo" populate Nichols's songs, along with quaint idioms such as "peepers," "dough," and "knucklehead." He affects a vocal crustiness that suggests he's about to unleash a couple of left jabs and a right hook at any moment. Even the horns sound pissed off.
"Zip Gun Bop" should probably be a hit, but big-city radio programmers have not seen fit to add it to their playlists. Consequently the band principally responsible for a musical tidal wave (Royal Crown has been touring since the early Nineties) has yet to receive the public acclaim that some of their imitators have. Achor accepts the ignominy of that oversight with only a trace of bitterness.
"The scene and a lot of the bands that are becoming successful are very Johnny-come-lately," he says. "And right now there's more Johnny-come-latelies than ever, which is good, because all the bands are pretty damn good. And it's good for the sake of preserving the only true American art form [jazz, on which most swing is based]. But it's a strange place for us to stand after spearheading it for so long. And there are people out there who have whatever swing record but don't know who the hell we are. Or there are the people who have suddenly become complete authorities on swing in the past year. It's kind of a funny thing."
Not so funny to Achor is the way the music industry -- the entire pop culture machine, for that matter -- will ignore a style for years, then suddenly reverse course and saturate the market with it, even if the innovators are somehow overlooked.