Music Perspective The Tattoo

When punk and Big Band clash

BRISTOL, Connecticut, U.S.A. — Neo-swing, the latest pop genre to turn teen angst and raw sexual energy into sugary pop tunes, gold records and crowded dance floors, will, inevitably, eat itself.

This revelation, sadly, came to me while watching television. In an interview with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a hot jazz band who are often said to have been on the forefront of “new swing,” were speaking out against the “movement.” It cheapens what they’re trying to do, they said.

It simply had to happen.

The Zippers play roots jazz and big band with a 90s sensibility -have for years. With the invasion of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Voodoo Daddy and a dozen other, lesser-known groups riding in the crashing wave of the swing invasion, the Zippers are ready to jump ship.

Similarly, Swing/Ska veterans Royal Crown Revue recently vented their frustration with the commercialization of the genre. “It’s hard,” RCR guitarist James Achor told SPIN magazine recently, “when [Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’] ‘Zoot Suit Riot’ is on the radio and you wrote the same song, except ten years ago. We used to be, like, a traveling freak show. Now it’s not so hard because we’re preaching to the converted.”

The Zippers point out that many of the bands scoring hits with swing tunes are unaware of their roots — primarily Ska-Punk outfits following the herd to where the grass is green. The kids dig it, however, and scores of new bands are emerging to chase the youth demographic across the country, beating it senseless
with trumpets and fedora hats.

“We were Punk kids,” Voodoo Daddy front man Scotty Morris admitted to VH1 last month, “and we wanted to bring that to swing — you know, give it that edge.”

And there’s the trick. Blink and you may miss it. What’s happening here is nothing new, but something more prevalent these days. Countless bands, with varying degrees of skill and success, are fusing Punk Rock edge and energy with classic genres thought to be incompatible in search of a new, chart topping animal. Punk itself comes and goes, its pop epitome being radio casualties

Green Day and punk-fad survivors The Offspring. However, mixing three chord, garage band flavor and a timeless genre can produce all sorts of interesting things.

At its best it is an exciting and unpredictable formula, spawning acts like Elvis Costello, The Violent Femmes and, more recently, Ben Folds Five — a trio raised on groups like The Clash and The Pretenders — going at classic Piano Rock with both guns. At its worst, the Punk Infusion Formula is a vicious monstrosity, chewing up its practitioners, mostly new or unknown bands, and spitting them out.

To wit: after the fizzling of his first Infusion group, 80s new wave darlings The Stray Cats, Brian Setzer joined the new swing wave in going for the throat of American pop culture this year with his “orchestra.”

With Setzer at the helm (leading with an electric guitar and gravity defying quaff in typical punk fashion) the group released its breakthrough album, the Dirty Boogie. The terribly snappy album and the hype surrounding it is exactly what one might imagine the outcome to be should Benny Goodman and Joe Strummer raise an infant, throw it to the wolves of MTV and VH1, and take 10% for services rendered.

Setzer’s an old pro at this sort of thing. The Stray Cats, in their heyday, blended Rock-a-Billy swagger and Punk aggression, cutting out when the scene got old.

“I was walking down the street, ” Setzer recalled in an interview earlier this year, “and I saw a bowling shirt in the display window at Sears. That’s how I knew it was time to pack it in.”

“Initially we were just emulating all these old records we’d find.” Explains RCR’s Achor. “We listened really hard and tried to write what sounded like the style to us. Nowadays, the bad part of the scene is when people say, ‘Your record’s not authentic.’ we never set out to make an authentic record. What does it mean to do a really nice imitation of something that once was? How does that make me any different than an Elvis impersonator?”

Punk kids having fun with old Glenn Miller records, Elvis impersonators, or serious artists? Which do the bulk of the neo-swing bands represent? All depends on who you ask, it seems.

And there’s the problem.

The squabbling and dissention among the bands, the restlessness with fans and with the scene … it’s just beginning to show through, wearing thin like the soles on a pair of cheap saddle shoes. As bands refuse to play with one another, taking pot shots at each other in Rolling Stone, and the fans become equally divided on issues of authenticity and style, the whole thing seems ready to fizzle, daddy-o. Get your kicks now, swing kids.

It can’t last long.

Joe Wilbur is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

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