All About the '90s Swing Revival

From Moshing to Lindy Hopping, This Throwback Sound Was Hep

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Kirk Olson via Creative Commons

The late-‘90s swing revival combined punk-rock aesthetics with reverence for horn-driven dance music from the 1930s and 1940s. Most of the best-known songs of the revival were upbeat, brassy and charmingly anachronistic. Fashionable garb such as suspenders for the men and polka-dot dresses for the women was as much a part of the flourishing scene as was the music. From the underground to the GAP, the swing revival was a happy-go-lucky subgenre of ska that defined the 1990s.

Origins and Innovators

Front man and conductor Brian Setzer had long been a fan of throwback sounds. In the 1980s, his band Stray Cats borrowed from the rockabilly vibe of the 1950s. When that trio, famous for its “Stray Cat Strut,” dissolved later in the decade, Setzer eyed inspiration from even earlier times. Perhaps the Cold War’s icy end was so akin to the uneasiness of World War II, it was fitting that the popular music of that time should resurface. Setzer wanted to thaw out audiences force-fed a diet of hair metal and robotic synths, and get them dancing again. Enter the Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1990, a massive collective of canary singers, blowin’ brass men and the jazziest drummers this side of Gene Krupa.

Around the same time, Los Angeles’ Royal Crown Revue strapped on its saxes and wallet chains, leaning more on a hardcore mentality than that of a dance hall inhabitant. The brainchild of Youth Brigade’s Mark and Adam Stern, RCR were a sneering, tough-guy group, manned by goodfella singer Eddie Nichols.

Fellow Southern Californians Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies emerged independently soon thereafter, warming up clubs accustomed to wailing guitars with their own brand of brash rock. The movement was born, but it wouldn’t come to full maturity until almost 10 years later.

Swing Is So Money

Leave it to another medium to allow the swing revival to infiltrate the masses. Jim Carrey’s zany live-action cartoon, The Mask, featured songs from the Setzer Orchestra and the Revue. But it was the Vince Vaughn outlet Swingers that brought the music genre to the forefront.

Though set in modern times, Swingers glamorized old-school styles of the 1960s and populated its soundtrack with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The swigging jive of “You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)” had an immense amount of swagger, when most bands in 1996 were writing self-effacing lyrics about not being able to get the girl. BBVD could nab the girl— and yours, too, if you weren’t hep enough.

MTV took to the rising movement, peppering its video lineup with the animated “You & Me,” as well as clips from Cherry Poppin’ Daddies (“Zoot Suit Riot”) and the suit-and-tie ska-swing amalgam the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (“The Impression That I Get”). The Warped Tour, the annual summer punk rock touring festival, enlisted the Bosstones, Royal Crown Revue, Hepcat and other like-minded, horn-heavy groups. Other swing-oriented collectives, such as the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the female-fronted Save Ferris, enjoyed minor radio and video success, as well.

The dominance of swing crested in 1998 when Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” made it onto a GAP commercial. The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s cover of that rambunctious number then earned a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group. And in 1999, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy played the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXIII.

Hanging Up the Dancing Shoes

What goes up must come down, and when popular rock music gave way to more aggressive and garage styles in the early aughts, swing fell out of favor. But many of the pioneering participants of the ’90s revival still wow audiences around the country.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy released Rattle Them Bones in 2012 and continues to tour on the album, making appearances on Dancing with the Stars and writing songs for beloved children’s show Phineas and Ferb.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra rages on with its tradition of playing holiday-time concerts around the United States. Its last official recording was 2009’s .

Royal Crown Revue found itself in a couple of legal battles in the late 1990s regarding its name, involving the Amazing Royal Crowns and Royal Crown Cola. (RCR won both.) The band plays sporadic shows, while drummer Daniel Glass released a DVD in 2012 exploring the evolution of drumming in popular music.