Before embarking upon my analysis of the swing revival magnates, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, I must cast aside my meta-retro frame for a moment in order to establish some context for our younger readers. The early 1990s were such a strange and exciting time for popular music, and it may very well have been the last time we’ll ever see such a sudden and violent readjustment of the Top 40 marketplace. The year 1989 was dominated by the following;
- glam metal (Bon Jovi, Poison, Skid Row)
- cringe-inducing pop (New Kids on the Block, Milli Vanilli, Debbie Gibson)
- uber-cheezy rappers (Tone Lōc, Technotronic, )
- divas, divas, divas (Madonna, Paula Abdul, Madonna, Madonna)
I just can’t emphasize enough how much the unforeseen popularity of Grunge and Alternative rock toward the end of 1991 changed the musical landscape. I won’t spend too much time dwelling on it because a lot of people who are much smarter than I have thoroughly chronicled its history and significance. Of course, by the middle of 1993 the buzz surrounding alternative rock was wearing off. The Spin Doctors were a household name, and one couldn’t swing a dead cat at the local newsstand without hitting a magazine brandishing Billy Corgan’s likeness. However, new and exciting possibilities were on the horizon and there were many likely genre contenders for The Next Big Thing TM. The front runners were (in no particular order) industrial, alternative metal, hip hop, some unholy combination of the previous three genres, punk rock, and something retro.
This brings us to the fascinating story of Interscope Records, which basically amounted to a major label posing as an independent label. Founded in 1989 as a small alternative label they were quickly acquired by Warner Music Group in 1990, then by Universal Music Group 1996, before merging with A & M Records and Geffen in 1999. Interscope began the 1990s with a roster that read like a line-up for an alternative (heh) universe Lollapalooza, including Bush, Deep Blue Something, Toadies, 4 Non Blondes, No Doubt and Possum Dixon. Instead of doubling down or hedging their bets on one genre, Interscope went out and signed bands from each category of front runners. Here’s a brief list;
- industrial (Nine Inch Nails, My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult)
- alternative metal (Helmet, Primus)
- hip hop (2Pac, Snoop Doggy Dog, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas)
- unholy combination of the previous three genres aka nu metal (Limp Bizkit)
- punk rock (ALL, Rocket From The Crypt)
- something retro (The Reverend Horton Heat, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Tom Jones, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, The Blue Hawaiians)
I know exactly what you’re thinking, “Damn it, man! How can you gloss over Interscope’s roster of utter crap?” In my defense, I came here not to praise Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch, Gerardo (aka Rico Suave) or Shaquille O’Neal, but to bury the sorry lot of them. And yes, Shaq did his best work with Fu-Schnickens. Are you happy now, ya bunch of curmudgeonly malcontents?!? Say whatever you like about Interscope’s attempt to be all things to all genres, but they certainly put out some great retro-sounding albums in the 1990s, each of which will get their own post in due time. This segues nicely into the topic at hand, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s major label debut Americana Deluxe.
By the middle of the 1990s, the stage had been well set for the big band/swing revival. All members of Generation X had a rudimentary knowledge of swing dancing and style provided by the following;
- Accidental exposure to The Lawrence Welk Show while in the company of our Greatest Generation grandparents
- Countless afternoons spent watching syndicated cartoons from the 1940s and 1950s
- Specifically, “The Zoot Cat” episode of Tom & Jerry from 1944, in which Tom fashions a zoot suit out of a hammock and remakes himself into a bona fide hep cat
- As well as the “Solid Serenade” episode of Tom & Jerry from 1946, in which Tom serenades Toodles Galore with “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” whilst playing an upright bass
- Indonesian-Danish synth-pop icon Taco’s cover of “Puttin’ On The Ritz” in 1982
- The Thomas Carter-directed film Swing Kids (1993)
- A living, breathing manifestation of all of the above via Jim Carrey’s epic jackassery in The Mask (1994)
Although Big Bad Voodoo Daddy independently released a self-titled album in 1994, followed by a six song Christmas EP* titled Whatchu’ Want for Christmas, it wasn’t until they appeared in the Vice Vaughn/John Favreau comedy Swingers (1996) that the band was formally thrust upon the collective American pop cultural consciousness. Seeing a band of young guys wearing suits and fedoras playing traditionally crafted swing music, complete with a horn section, while couples tore up the floor swing dancing was absolutely stupefying. Personally, my first thought was “Is this a real band, or are they actors?” They were almost too conceptually perfect, but it didn’t take much research to find out that Big Bad Voodoo Daddy were, in fact, a real band.
When Americana Deluxe was released in 1998, the mainstream was more than ready for its twelve tracks of cocktail-fueled, retro revival ruckus.
- “The Boogie Bumper”
- “Mr. Pinstripe Suit”
- “King Of Swing”
- “Minnie The Moocher”
- “You And Me And The Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)”
- “Jump With My Baby”
- “Maddest Kind Of Love”
- “Go Daddy-O”
- “Please Baby”
- “Mambo Swing”
- “Jumpin’ Jack”
- 12. “So Long-Farewell-Goodbye
The vast majority of the album consisted of big band swing played with an intensity found only in punk rock. This made perfect sense, as front man Scotty Morris cut his teeth playing in Southern California’s Nardcore scene in the 1980s. “Please Baby” and “Mambo Swing” differed only slightly by infusing Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s sound with elements of Latin Jazz. The sole cover on the album was an almost mournful rendition of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher”, which many of us remembered fondly from The Blues Brothers (1980). The absurdly and brilliantly titled “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three Tonight (Baby)” was the most recognizable single from the album, and arguably from Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s entire catalog. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a recurring theme of all things retro in the 1990s was initiation through ironic distance, and the video absolutely nailed it by being remarkably self-aware of the cartoonish associations a 1990s audience made with swing music. It began with an animated sequence involving a Tex Avery-esque wolf wearing a zoot suit while driving his car to the night club where the band is performing, and ended with said wolf getting thrown out of the club and skidding to a halt at the high-heeled feet of a woman bearing a striking resemblance to 1950s pin-up queen Betty Page.
The other official video from Americana Deluxe was “Mr. Pinstripe Suit” which continued to bludgeon the audience with retro imagery. Shot in black and white, and interspersed with clips alluding to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Harry Houdini, “Mr. Pinstripe Suit” successfully linked swing music with German Expressionism. Regardless, “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three Tonight (Baby)” peaked at number thirty-one on the Modern Rock Tracks charts, and the band sold over three million albums before the turn of the millennium. Perhaps their biggest coup was when they played the half time show at Super Bowl XXXIII in 1999. The whole of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s influence was clearly greater than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps the most significant musical ramification of Americana Deluxe was the reintroduction of the horn section and piano to Top 40 music. Grunge and Alternative Rock were entirely guitar driven, and I’m hard pressed to think of any songs outside of sampled hip-hop that even utilized wind instruments? The only relevant piano one was likely to hear in the early 1990s was an ambient after thought to Tori Amos’s breathy and moaning vocal style. While Ms. Amos’s song catalog was impressive, and she was every bit as easy on the eye as she was musically-talented, I reckon that ultimately she inspired more boners than piano lessons.
The popularity of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, on the other hand, really changed the composition of rock clubs. When one walked into a bar in a college town during the early 1990s the stage would be packed with long haired, snarling, shirtless, wild boys wielding loud guitars. All of their eyes were haunted, enraged or bleary from liquor/drugs. When one walked in to the same club the end of the 1990s, roughly one third of the guys on stage looked like band geeks, i.e. guys who played in their respective high school marching bands. They looked like band geeks because they were band geeks. You all know the type, either doughy or scrawny, universally chinless, clean cut, well dressed and grinning ear to ear. After sitting on the sidelines watching the cool and artsy axe-slingers for the first part of the decade, swing revival (and Third Wave Ska) put their unique skill set in high demand and they blew each note as though it were their last. Although, you never saw these guys in “come-hither” soft focus on the cover of SPIN, you just knew they weren’t going to end up taking a self-inflicted load of 12-guage buckshot to the face. More power to ‘em.
This segues nicely into the cultural ramifications of not only Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, but retro revival in general, and the resurgence of the cocktail. At some point, every member of Generation X had to make an uncomfortable and introspective inquiry, “If I don’t die an archetypal rock star death at 27, what the hell am I gonna do with the rest of my life?” While dressing like a vagrant, pounding copious amounts of Natural Light Ice and jumping into the mosh pit was all kinds of fun at twenty-one, it didn’t seem like a valid life choice to carry into one’s thirties and beyond. While there were many exceptions to the rule, as a whole the Baby Boomers didn’t exactly leave us a terribly useful blueprint for aging gracefully. Retro culture provided not only a coping mechanism for enduring a quarter-life crisis, but a logical next step as one transitioned into “respectable” adulthood. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy encapsulated this mindset nicely;
- suits not t-shirts
- cocktails not keg stands
- dancing not moshing
- clever narratives not f-bombs
- humor not anger
As a good friend once remarked to me, “This is the return of grown up culture.”
The likes of Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails may have made us ask some questions, “What else can I be, all apologies? What else can I say? Everyone is gay?” …..Huh? Or even, “Is my whole existence flawed? Does she really get me closer to God?” While many pondered the meanings of these queries as well as the queries themselves, the wisdom of fools ultimately led nowhere and quite frankly wasn’t much fun. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy didn’t directly answer any of these questions, but they certainly provided us with an all-purpose go-to answer. I, your humble narrator, found myself in staunch agreement with Scotty, “A gin and tonic sounds mighty, mighty good to me.”
* Here’s a brief historical aside for our younger readers, back in the 1990s people referred to any musical recording that contained more material than a single, but less than a full album as an “EP”. I’m not sure when this format and term went the way of the dodo, but EPs used to be kind of a big deal.