Music

Why Was The ’90s Swing Revival Such A Legitimate Phenomenon?  

Erin McCann
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If you were alive during the mid to late 1990s, congratulate yourself on surviving one of the strangest trends ever to afflict pop culture: the swing music revival. The swing revival '90s craze was everywhere, including movies, music, and even pants commercials. Although it began innocently enough as an embrace of the classic trend, the revival grew to epic heights before imploding within two years. While some people may now laugh at the songs and bands that came out of the trend, the fact that swing music infiltrated the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and even a presidential inauguration meant it held a legitimate place in '90s pop culture history.

Swing music originally grew out of blues, Dixieland, and jazz, and was wildly popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Swing bands usually featured many members and a lot of brass and horns to create energetic and danceable tunes. Swing dancing became a genuine phenomenon, as well, and dances like the Lindy hop encouraged participants to complete elaborate and athletic steps. Although swing's predecessors were music styles that were greatly important to African American history, swing musicians of all cultural backgrounds shared the sounds and often borrowed from one another. Many young people embraced the music as a form of rebellion and wore wild and loose-fitting outfits known as zoot suits to show this. As WWII began, the swing movement waned, partially because the conflict forced people to focus on international relations, but also due to audiences growing to love singers over the sound of big bands.

Swing music never truly ended though, and it experienced several small revivals before the '90s brought the music back into focus. Oddly enough, it came back with more strength than anyone expected.

'90s Movies Like 'The Mask' And 'Swing Kids' Featured Cool, Elaborate Swing Dancing Scenes
'90s Movies Like 'The Mask' An... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Why Was The ’90s Swing Revival Such A Legitimate Phenomenon?
Photo: The Mask/New Line Cinema

Much of the responsibility for the swing revival lies with Hollywood, originally due to movies trying to create historically accurate stories. In his 1992 movie Malcolm X, Spike Lee included an era-appropriate Lindy hop dance scene - an energetic swing dance that began in Harlem in the late 1920s. A League of Their Own, also from 1992 and set in 1948, features a roadhouse dance scene in order to help portray the popular culture of the time - despite Madonna reimagining some of the moves. One year later, Swing Kids based an entire plot around swing music. The story follows young people in 1939 Germany who rebel against the ban on swing music despite its popularity in the US. Although reviews judged the movie to be only average, the elaborately choreographed dance scenes planted another seed of interest in swing music in the minds of many viewers.

By 1994, Hollywood decided to build on this interest by including swing dancing scenes in movies set in the modern era. Although much of the movie's look is retro for stylistic reasons, The Mask includes a flashy swing dance by Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz to the sounds of the real swing revival band, Royal Crown Revue. Swingers, which came out in 1996, also includes a swing dancing scene to a music performance from another swing revival band, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Despite its failure at the box office, the movie was released on VHS around the same time swing music was catching on, and it helped contribute to the genre's revival.

The 1996 Film 'Swingers' Featured The LA Swing Scene As A Prominent Plot Point And A Cameo From Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
The 1996 Film 'Swingers' Featu... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Why Was The ’90s Swing Revival Such A Legitimate Phenomenon?
Photo: Swingers/Miramax

Hollywood's swing-infused Derby club inspired writer Jon Favreau so greatly that it ended up playing a large part in the creation of his film. "As I was writing the script, I didn't have it set in the swing-dancing scene," Favreau recalled. "And I happened to go to the Derby, and I thought, 'Oh my god, what a great place to set the ending...' As I was trying to get the movie made, I was learning how to swing dance so I could do that scene."

He began visiting the Derby with Vince Vaughn, often showing up on the nights Big Bad Voodoo Daddy played. "My girlfriend, Martina, was one of the best dancers there and he started dancing with her," remembered band leader Scotty Morris. "And then they became friends. So we kind of all became friends."

In fact, they became such good friends that Morris agreed to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy appearing in Favreau's film without reading the script. "I had completely forgot about Jon's movie. The week went by, but I didn't read it. It was in the front seat of my truck. And we get to the Derby and Jon comes to me first thing... and he was like, 'What did you think, man, what did you think of the script?' And I just went, 'Yeah, man, it was great, we'll totally do it.' I mean, what else were you gonna do?"

The band not only appeared in the film, but also played during filming while the club was open to the public. "Our performance playing was a real night at the Derby, nothing changed," Morris said. "There were people paying admission, people that were hovering around the dance floor - that's what it looked like that night."

The Squirrel Nut Zippers Scored The First Big Mainstream Swing Revival Hit With Their 1996 Single 'Hell'
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Video: YouTube

Several hipsters from North Carolina formed Squirrel Nut Zippers in the early 1990s. Influenced by punk, they played retro jazz and music closer to jump blues and Dixieland than swing. When they released their 1996 album Hot, no one expected "Hell" to become the massive single that it did. Many people believe "Hell" kicked off the swing craze in the music world after the song charted on the Billboard Hot 100, the album sold more than a million copies, and MTV played the video on repeat, but the suspenders-clad band members had no idea they would become so popular. Members of the group ended up being resentful of the "swing" label, as they didn't see themselves fitting in with the other revival groups of the time.

Vocalist Tom Maxwell remembered:

All the other "swing revival" bands were on the West Coast, these ex-rockabilly guys with tattoos and zoot suits. Then we showed up, this motley collection of busboys from Chapel Hill, with corncob pipes and flies buzzing around our heads. The whole thing stopped being fun in a hurry. Maybe being [sent] from a cannon gets you to your destination faster, but you won't survive the trip. The real shame of it is we had such potential for deep weirdness. I don't mean that in a contrarian way, but I think we were dialed in on a genuinely authentic and unique voice. That all went out the window.

Royal Crown Revue Became Regular Performers At The Derby In LA And Later Wrote 'Hey Pachuco!' For 'The Mask'
Royal Crown Revue Became Regul... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Why Was The ’90s Swing Revival Such A Legitimate Phenomenon?
Photo: The Mask/New Line Cinema

Formed in 1989, the seven-piece band known as Royal Crown Revue became one the leaders of the swing revival. They released their first album in 1991, which featured a version of the 1943 hit "Stormy Weather," and went on to tour as an opener for more metal-oriented acts like Kiss since their chosen genre seemed so out of place at the time. Little did people know the band's fusion of punk and swing would help land them a two-year-long residency at Hollywood's Derby club just two years later. Their energetic shows became popular among people in LA, and their music helped shape the local swing scene. Hollywood enjoyed their sound so much that the makers of The Mask asked them to play during the film's memorable dance scene, and actor and writer Jon Favreau claimed his time spent as a regular at the Derby helped inspire, as well as provide a filming location for, his movie's dance scene. 

Royal Crown Revue's contribution to The Mask was a song titled "Hey Pachuco!" - a reference to 1940s Latino young people who often wore zoot suits in rebellion against discrimination. The song became a huge hit and ended up in Olympic gymnastics routines, a commercial for Acura cars, other films, and several Las Vegas shows. Even the Miss America pageant deemed the song worthy enough to use during their program. Lead singer Eddie Nichols claims the band knew nothing about the history of swing or pachucos when they began writing music - they just liked the sound.

"We didn't know jack," Nichols remembered. "I was into punk, but I was also into doo-wop and Sinatra. I knew a little, but we had to reinvent everything. We had no idea what'd gone before. It wasn't until about three years later, when we started actually researching, that we started to learn [about the history]."