Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer In the Swing

By John Floyd

JUNE 1, 1998: 

“We don’t give a damn about the hottest, newest records or fashions coming off the racks. We’re interested in preserving American icons and art forms. It is a lifestyle.”

That shamelessly head-in-sand quote, compliments of Swing Time magazine editor Michael Moss, appears on the back cover of V. Vale’s Swing: The New Retro Renaissance, an exhaustive and often amusing look at how a lot of disenfranchised punk rockers are now spending their time. Having traded their Doc Martens for wingtips, their flannel for vintage gaberdine, their stocking hats for fedoras, the onetime denizens of the punk underground have now adopted as their own the sounds and styles of the Thirties and Forties jazz scene – the clothes, the music (both the vintage stuff and the neo-swing of the Royal Crown Revue, the Crescent City Maulers, Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, et al.), the dancing, the furniture, the knickknacks, the cars, and on and on and on. Published by V/Search, which in its previous incarnation as RE/Search offered up definitive studies on such subjects as J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, B-movies, fanzines, industrial music, and the Cocktail Lounge craze from a few years back, Swing lends voice to the protagonists of this fairly recent trend and traces its origins to a dissatisfaction with the androgyny and mainstream acceptance of late-Eighties punk.

“It makes sense,” says Vale during a phone interview from the V/Search office in San Francisco. “As the punk lifestyle got reduced and dumbed down and re-labeled as ‘grunge,’ and you had both sexes dressing up in big, clunky Doc Martens and cutoff jeans and flannel plaid shirts – dressing like garage mechanics – the next movement would have to be the opposite of that. Social movements arrive out of a need. They don’t just arrive. I think there was a widespread alienation that came with grunge and punk. You didn’t used to see these thousands and thousands of [personal] ads in papers, there was no Internet romance hype. During the late Eighties there was no institution or no rituals through which you could meet people. The swing-dance revival has swept all that away. This is a vital institution – or a ritual, or a rite – that we haven’t had in a long time. And humans are mammals, after all, and they have a need to touch each other. And that definitely is fulfilled in swing dancing.”

Certainly dancing receives a considerable amount of ink in Swing, from Q&A’s with Frankie Manning, the 83-year-old master of the Lindy Hop, to his Gen-X disciples such as the California dance troupe the Flyin’ Lindy Hoppers and the dance-instruction quartet Work That Skirt, along with loads of vintage and contemporary photos of spinning, twirling, and airborne couples. Beyond the hoofers, you get lengthy interviews with members of the Royal Crown Revue (“they were the first!”), the Rhumba Bums, Mr. Lucky, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (among countless other retro-swing groups), and profiles of the record labels and magazines in the U.S. and abroad devoted to this latest spin on the dance floor of nostalgia.

Of course, Vale bristles when questioned about the nostalgia-steeped aesthetic of the swing movement, which, like the Cocktail Lounge revival spurred on by his pair of Incredibly Strange Music tomes, seems concerned more with camp and fashion than anything of real substance. “This is not a wallowing in nostalgia,” Vale insists. “This is a reclamation of history. This whole movement has opened the door to a massive rediscovery of the best of American cultural creativity and history of the 20th century. And we’re near the end of that century, so there is a drive to look back on it and see what really happened. Then you start discovering these great gaberdine shirts from the Forties that were made so well they’re still holding up like new. You find the wildest partner dancing there ever was, and all this great music you’ve never heard before.”

Fittingly, Vale’s extensive labor of love pays homage to the archetypes of swing – the jazzbos, the R&B bandleaders, the blues shouters, and Western Swing pioneers such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. There are terrific interviews with Louis Prima’s longtime saxophonist Sam Butera (who says of his career longevity: “Do you know why God created the orgasm? So Italians will know when to stop!”) and John Coppola (a veteran of Woody Herman’s band), plus a pretty good list of seminal records from the music’s late-Thirties-to-mid-Forties heyday compiled by writer/producer Skip Heller (among them Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing,” and Roy Brown’s “Mighty Mighty Man”). Vale’s “A to Z of Swing Pioneers” offers helpful pointers for young hipsters, with biographical blurbs for Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Lucky Millinder, Dizzy Gillespie, Bennie Moten, and important nightspots such as the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom. (And in case you’re curious, there are no plans for a companion CD a la Incredibly Strange Music. Instead, Vale recommends Capitol’s Jumpin’ Like Mad, a magnificent assortment of bluesy swing and swinging R&B from such masters as Louis Jordan, Nat “King” Cole, Calvin Boze, and Ella Mae Morse.)

The bulk of Swing, however, is devoted to the fanatics who’ve embraced swing not just as a music but as a complete way of life. And passion and enthusiasm aside (these are fanatics, after all), most of them come off as interesting, well-meaning goofballs, drunk on style, high on camp, and most likely stopping by swing en route to the next patch of retro-American kitsch. Also, although many of the bands covered here aren’t that bad, none has yet to do anything different with the innovative sounds set down decades earlier by their idols. Like their neo-rockabilly brethren, there simply isn’t much substance beneath the style. Naturally, Vale disagrees.

“I think these bands are writing more about contemporary experiences,” he argues, “and they’ll most likely be doing even more of that. There was a heavy emphasis back then on innovation and originality in the music and the dancing that needs to be kept in mind as more and more people get into it. And it is a lifestyle. It’s not just about music and dance. It’s about vintage clothes and hairstyles and looking for certain pieces of furniture and knickknacks from the Thirties to the Fifties and driving a certain type of car. The dancing and the dressing up can be viewed as art forms. You can be very creative in the way you dress and look very beautiful. It’s like making everyone into an artist, and of course, people are much healthier when they have some kind of creative outlet.”

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