The Swing Thing's As Chummy As A Great-White Feeding Frenzy.
By Stephen Seigel
AUGUST 31, 1998: IF IT DON'T mean a thing if it ain't got that swing, then lately Tucson has become one of the most meaningful places on planet Earth. Unless you haven't been to a club recently, or turned on your radio, or seen the Gap TV commercials ("Khakis swing!"), you're well aware that there's a swing renaissance going down in this country. What you may or may not be aware of is that, as residents of Tucson, we're living in the eye of the swing hurricane.
The whole thing probably started around a decade ago when members of California punk band Youth Brigade decided to form a big band that swung with punk intensity. That band, Royal Crown Revue, began making appearances at Tucson's Club Congress in the early '90s, instantly winning local audiences over with high-energy shows that both lampooned and paid homage to the traditional zoot-suited swing of the '20s and '30s.
Today, the band is regaled as granddaddies of the '90s neo-swing movement, influencing the dozens of bands that've followed in their wake. In fact, the majority of new swing bands hail from the West Coast, a likely consequence of Royal Crown's relentless touring of the Western states.
It was in the beginning of 1997 that the proliferation of swing bands came to the attention of Tucson's Jack Vaughan and Rusty Jones, who had just started Slimstyle Records in order to put out ska releases by bands like local heroes Dave's Big Deluxe. They also realized that virtually none of the neo-swing bands were signed to a record label. Having the prescience to shift the focus of their own label, the two began talking to many of the bands. "Every recent musical trend has had a label backing it," Vaughan explains. "Grunge had Sub Pop, ska had Moon Records, and we decided to try and become the label of the swing movement." So far, they've succeeded.
Initially signing four of these bands--Blue Plate Special and The New Morty Show (both from California), New Jersey's Crescent City Maulers, and Tucson's own Hipster Daddy-O & The Hand Grenades--the label has come an awful long way in less than two years. The entrepreneurs recently secured a distribution deal with BMG, one of the three largest distribution companies in the world; and one glance at Swing Time magazine--the tastemaker bible of the swing scene--reveals Slimstyle's the only existing label with a true presence in the movement.
The label's most recent release, distributed nationwide on August 11, is a compilation put out in conjunction with Swing Time. Swing This, Baby! is a virtual who's-who of the swing renaissance. In addition to all of the aforementioned bands, the roster includes Cherry Poppin' Daddies, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, England's The Big Six, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the band made famous by their appearance in 1996's quintessential hipster film, Swingers.
Swing This, Baby! is the first and only comprehensive compilation of '90s swing, and unquestionably places Slimstyle on the crest of the wave. (The label also recently released Street Swing, an instructional video about swing dancing.) Still, Vaughan is unsatisfied with the label's position: "I'm worried constantly that another label with more money is going to come along," he says. "Plus, major labels are starting to sign some of the bands. It's really amazing. Bands that we were thinking about signing for $10,000 three months ago are now telling us to talk to their lawyer, who tells us they're looking for $150,000." That's how fast this whole thing has blown up.
The music itself is virtually irresistible, and appeals to an extremely diverse mix of people. The secret seems to be the hybridization of traditional swing, updated with influences from a variety of genres including ska (Cherry Poppin' Daddies), rock (Hipster Daddy-O & the Hand Grenades), punk (Royal Crown Revue), Latin rhythms (Bio Ritmo), and rockabilly (Brian Setzer Orchestra). In other words, this ain't your parents' (or grandparents') swing.
On the other hand, it's still got that swing core; and many jaded naysayers shrug off the movement as being hopelessly retro. Perhaps the question we should ask is, "What kind of social climate allows such a naive, 70-year-old genre of music to become the hip 'new' thing?"
The 1950s and early '60s were an optimistic time in America. Everything centered around the future--modernism and all it entailed. Americans were fascinated and perplexed by the idea that someday, somehow, someone might actually walk on the moon. The mid-'60s brought the murders of the two great cultural leaders of that era, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. In 1969, amidst the turmoil of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, and the volatility of the civil rights movement, America was riveted to the TV as Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind.
The impossible had been accomplished, and in that great sense of achievement, the notion that anything could happen next asserted itself. But what actually happened next was the Watergate scandal, and the tragic consequences of conflict in Vietnam: the resignation of a president in shame, and the fractured withdrawal of U.S. troops from a violent conflict with no resolution. Disillusion set in, and the future no longer seemed so bright. In a 15-year span, America turned from a nation of optimists to a nation of cynics.
The only place to find our lost optimism was our past. And so it made perfect sense when, soon after, America tuned its collective cathode rays to Happy Days, a show which portrayed a time when we were blissfully unaware of our impending pessimism, when our primary concern was appearing cool enough to find a date to the sock hop. Our modern love affair with everything retro had begun.
The '80s saw a resurgence of hippie culture by a generation whose only possible link to Woodstock was that it was the scene of their conception. A few years ago, we waded through a '70s revival (as if disco and bell bottoms weren't painful enough the first time around). Currently, there's a perverse appreciation for '80s culture resurging, as evidenced by the proliferation of "80s Nights" at clubs everywhere.
Perhaps the defining cultural moment of Generation X--the Seattle-centered grunge scene of the early '90s--was a signpost of the nihilism of that age group. It was concretely original, and at least in theory, a rejection of everything that came before. But when the smell of teen spirit was bottled by Calvin Klein, grunge became as meaningless as everything it originally rebelled against, forcing its original disciples to seek out alternatives to the trademarked and co-opted "Alternative."
This countercultural splintering again led down retro alleyways, resulting in the stylings of the cocktail nation and the third wave of ska. Which brings us back to the swing thing: a backlash against the anti-showmanship, angst-ridden, male-centric tendencies of grunge, combining the suave cool of the cocktail nation's vintage clothing, the sheer fun and danceability of ska, and true, complex couples dance steps, the likes of which we haven't seen since at least the disco era.
This also means that, finally, there is a musical/club movement equally as appealing to women as men. (Vaughan calls swing, and the dancing that accompanies it, "the singles connection of the '90s").
But just how long can we expect this current frenzy to last? A recent visit to one north side club's "swing night" provides a few clues. The club's patrons--primarily ranging from age 25 to 35--seem to have little, if any, sense of playing a part in the subculture. Instead, this mainstream spawning ground is teeming with people who traded in their Hootie and the Blowfish CDs for the latest Dave Matthews Band release a couple years back. Clad primarily in t-shirts and Gapwear, the occasional zoot-suiter in this context appears less trendsetter, more fashion victim. Most of the clubgoers arrived early for the free swing lessons, and all of them look like they're having a hell of a good time.
Point being, this once-subcultural phenomenon has gone mainstream with lightning speed; and with that widespread appeal, industry opportunists hover behind the movement like ambulance-chasing lawyers in search of the big score. In between, die-hard trendsetters and fad-happy followers vie for space on the crowded dance floor.
Complicating things even further, Vaughan points to swing's intense "burn cycle." Because it's taken swing only a year or two to reach the mainstream status that took ska seven years to achieve, no one really has any idea how long it will last. However, Vaughan also believes that the time and monetary investments of dance lessons and vintage clothing might encourage its staying power. In other words, swing now or forever hold your peace, for tomorrow you might be learning to mambo.
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