Rarely has it been ultimately advantageous for a band to affiliate with a suddenly hip musical movement. Cool, maybe, sometimes even financially rewarding, but not exactly good for career longevity. Witness the abrupt demise of successful Eighties big-hair bands such as Warrant, Poison, and Mstley CrYe at the onset of the grunge movement in 1991. Likewise the sudden trashing a short half-decade later of many of the grunge groups when the masses apparently grew tired of the gloom and doom they so often purveyed.
Without question, public opinion alone does not end a previously popular artist's career. Record companies and their allies at radio and other music-marketing outlets such as MTV have much to do with this routine changing of the guard, probably more than we know. Not that those commercial institutions can force us to hang on to an artist we're tired of, or to show enthusiasm for a genre we just don't care about. Case in point: Early last year we were all informed, in advance no less, that the next big thing, the next musical marvel that would have us all queuing up at cash registers, was electronica. In a show of support for real music, most of us, quite literally, didn't buy it. As a result, the music industry has been left in a puzzled state for much of the past eighteen months, unsure of itself, lacking direction. In the absence of a dominant movement orchestrated by, governed by, and generating big bucks for our would-be corporate masters at Sony, Warner Bros., et al., members of the musical underground stepped into the void.
And they brought us ska. As an art form, ska had been biding its time since the early Eighties, when Madness and the Specials became MTV darlings, scrappily surviving in small circles through the efforts of dedicated bands and independent labels such as New York City's Moon Ska Records. Major labels caught on; soon ska was everywhere. After the huge success of ska practitioners such as No Doubt, smashmouth, and Sublime last year, even more groups materialized. (To be fair, many ska groups that suddenly had the public's ear had been performing the music for years.)
With or without industry pressure, though, all musical movements eventually lose steam and often return to the underground. The ska craze too will pass. But that won't negate the fact that its emergence was a tremendously good thing. In the end, it was the will of the people, more or less, that determined ska would jump to the forefront of our musical conscience. And now it's happening again, with another underground genre that major labels are finding increasingly difficult to ignore, not that they haven't tried. That music is swing.
True, South Florida is a little behind on this one, but we're catching up. Modern swing has overtaken much of the West, packing clubs in every major city from San Diego to Seattle. It's got a strong following in Denver and Phoenix. It's exploding in Chicago, throughout Ohio, even down south in Atlanta. New York City boasts several swing clubs, as do Philadelphia and D.C. And at long last, swing is making its way to Miami, with swing nights popping up at several locales, including Groove Jet and the Raleigh Hotel in South Beach, La Fontaine and the Hungry Sailor in Coconut Grove, Hooligan's in Kendall, the two O'Hara's locations, and Fu-Bar in Fort Lauderdale.
To be sure, swing is primarily dance music, but on a deeper level it's much more than that. With its bleating horn sections, up-tempo jump-blues foundations, and lighthearted and often silly scatting vocals, swing is an antidote to the depression foisted on us by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains, or to the artifice of boom-booming electronic music. Swing is fun music for people who, whether they dance or not, are just plain bored with angst and sickened by Nineties disco.
The modern swing scene has thus far been spearheaded nationally by just a handful of groups: Royal Crown Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Squirrel Nut Zippers, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. All were born of a desire, mostly by former punk musicians, to find an alternative to alternative. And while admittedly the kingpins of a very retro revolution -- the primary influences on modern swing are Forties legends Louis Prima, Louis Jordan, and Cab Calloway -- these artists have attempted (with varying degrees of success) to move the music into the modern age.
"We wanted to reach a rock audience, as opposed to being a karaoke band for swing dancers," says Cherry Poppin' Daddies frontman Steve Perry (no, not that Steve Perry). "We wanted to evolve the music, make it a contemporary hybrid."
Perry, a University of Oregon dropout, formed the band in 1989 to play the college bars around Eugene. His method of contemporizing swing was initially to place full-bore swing compositions side by side with ska and punk tunes on his band's three early-Nineties indie releases. The group, which soon found itself thriving on the West Coast circuit, would regularly risk angering swing fans by playing ska and punk tunes in the middle of an otherwise swingin' set. Their punk and ska attitudes did spill over into the group's big-band-influenced arrangements, but fighting swing's rising popularity by performing a 50-50 mix of swing and ska-punk in their live shows finally got old. Last year the band signed with Mojo Records (distributed by Universal) and, recognizing a growing swing scene, agreed to compile the swing tunes from their three indie discs on Zoot Suit Riot: The Swingin' Hits of the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, while simultaneously downplaying their other influences. Should that be considered crass commercialism? Probably, but after the album's release in February, the title track became a hit, the requisite video showed up all over MTV's 120 Minutes, and the album sold a million copies, so Perry and his crew aren't complaining.
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Though the octet had been touring the West for years as, at the very least, a pseudoswing band, it was preceded into the national arena by Squirrel Nut Zippers with their 1997 hit "Hell," by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's lengthy scene in the seminal 1995 flick Swingers, and by Royal Crown Revue and their turn in Jim Carrey's 1994 blockbuster The Mask. Before those successes unfolded, however, Perry took inspiration from a 1992 show the band played in Los Angeles with Royal Crown Revue. "It was the first time we ever saw another band playing swing," he recalls. "It was a revelation: 'Here's another band that does what we do.'"
Even six years later, there aren't a lot of bands exploring the mix of jazz and jump blues known as swing, though considering national ad campaigns -- a recent ad for the Gap featured Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive, an' Wail," and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has reportedly filmed a commercial for Coca-Cola -- and the nationwide club dance craze, that is rapidly changing. Locally, only a few bands, including Jump 'n' Jive (which performs weekly at both the Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood O'Hara's locations) and Bootsie Baby (which plays La Fontaine in the Grove), have given the genre local exposure. The Cherry Poppin' Daddies is the first of the major-label swing bands to visit South Florida: The eight-piece band played at the Cameo Theater this past April and at Fort Lauderdale's Squeeze in June 1997. They will reach a considerably larger audience August 5 at the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre when they perform at the Warped Tour.
For much of the Warped Tour audience, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies will, no doubt, seem somewhat strange. The band's pinstripe suits, fedoras, and spectator shoes are not the accouterments of modern punks. The upright bass has rarely been used outside the realm of rockabilly, and the horn section, which has seen a strong resurgence thanks to ska, has been given even more prominence in swing. Technically the music is not far removed from ska; ironically, that fact gives the genre both its immediate familiarity and credibility, and, by the very nature of that immeasurable cool quotient, conjures up the dim specter of its inevitable doom.
The Warped Tour takes place Wednesday, August 5, at Pompano Beach Amphitheatre, 1806 NE 6th St, 954-946-2402, with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Rancid, Bad Religion, the Specials, Reverend Horton Heat, NOFX, Sprung Monkey, and Civ. Doors open at noon. Tickets are $21.