Royal Crown Revue
The unheralded fathers of the swing revival ... and probably the best of 'em
Most people say that the explosion of the revival of swing music of the late 1990s can be traced back to one moment... and in that one moment, it was Royal Crown Revue playing in the background.
Remember the 1994 movie The Mask? The one with Jim Carrey in the ridiculous yellow suit and green mask, acting as over the top as he possibly could? Remember the impossibly young Cameron Diaz in that movie, her first big break, still with the glow of youth around her?
The scene in that movie that really stuck with me was the one in which Cameron and Jim danced together to an excellent swing song, using the steps that my grandpa used to use with grandma back in the day. Yet like the rest of the movie, there was a sense of something very modern inside and along with all of the retro sound, a catchy little infectious hook that stuck in the back of the minds of millions of moviegoers as they walked out of that film, humming a song that, sadly, most of them would never hear again. Yet by the end of the decade, three distinct bands capitalizing on that neo-swing sound would crack the top ten, introducing the music of Louis Prima to the modern world.
It all started with The Mask, though, and the song in that scene was Hey, Pachuco! and the band was Royal Crown Revue.
The band formed in 1989, the direct brainchild of Eddie Nichols. Eddie was a down-and-out punk musician from southern California who had grown tired of the hair bands and the soon-to-break-out grunge. Eddie was a big fan of earlier sounds and times and spent his time listening to records by early rockabilly artists and swing bands and watching films like A Streetcar Named Desire.
Eddie knew tenor saxophonist Mando Dorame from his days in the Los Angeles club scene and knew that the man could tear up a mean solo that would fit perfectly right in the middle of a Louis Prima record, so he called up Dorame and pitched him on the idea: swing music with a modern bent. Dorame got ahold of a few classically trained musicians he knew while Eddie looked up some of his punk acquaintances, and the group began jamming in late 1989 to an eclectic mix of sounds. Traditional swing was a big part of it, but punk, rockabilly, and doo wop were all part of the mix, essentially grafting the music of 1950 onto some elements of post-punk rock.
The lineup was very much in flux in the early days, but the core of the group remained Eddie and Mando. The group became a popular fixture of the Los Angeles club scene in 1990, playing some raucous shows at various music venues in the city of angels. Perhaps some of their popularity was found in the fact that they were playing something completely different than everyone else; the scene was mostly full of tired hair metal bands and unskilled punk groups.
Kings of Gangster Bop was released on BYO Records in 1991. The independent label, as such labels often are, was willing to take a risk on a new sound, and it rather paid off. The album sold very well in southern California and received just a touch of play on such stations as KROQ. The album featured early versions of two songs that would be forever tied to the group: Hey, Pachuco! and Zip Gun Bop.
The group's live acts were becoming something of a sensation and a small group of young Los Angeles music fans were beginning to dig out their granddad's old zoot suits and bury themselves in the style. Royal Crown Revue was very much into this aesthetic and by the release of the album were often seen dressed in late-1940s/early-1950s styled clothing, from the full swing painted ties and zoot suit look at times to the "longshoreman" Stanley Kowalski tighty whities and rugged unshaven look at others.
The growth of the aesthetic could be seen in the 1993 film Swing Kids that, although it didn't feature Royal Crown Revue, summed up their aesthetic, mixing together elements of 1940s culture and music with that of the early 1990s. The soundtrack was almost a perfect selection of swing standards from Benny Goodman and Louis Prima, but when the producers of The Mask came looking for someone to perform original swing music for a key scene in the film, they looked for someone with a bit of a modern touch.
All it took was a listen to the first song of Kings of Gangster Bop and a quick screen test for the producers of The Mask to immediately place the band into the movie in an uncredited blink-and-you'll-miss-it role. However, the song Hey, Pachuco! was featured prominently in the movie, albeit in a slightly updated form from the Kings of Gangster Bop record. This new recording was easily the most memorable musical moment from The Mask and earned a spot on the film's soundtrack album.
Hoping to capitalize on their brief blip of mainstream success, the group recorded a demo tape, Hollywood Tales, while The Mask was in post-production and as soon as the film appeared in theatres, they began to shop that tape to every single record company that would give them the time of day. Luckily, several were interested and they were able to secure a rather strong two album deal with Warner Brothers records.
Mugzy's Move came out in 1996 and was seemingly timed to perfection to take advantage of the swing revival that was now burgeoning, with dozens of swing bands out there practicing their craft in California and elsewhere. The film Swingers was released that year, featuring a great swing number at the end of the film featuring one of Royal Crown Revue's contemporaries, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the hot jazz group Squirrel Nut Zippers actually had their video for the song Hell playing in heavy rotation on MTV. The sound was blowing up.
Unfortunately for Royal Crown Revue, their album didn't. Mugzy's Move is perhaps best described as a "gangster bop" album, from the album's hardboiled cover art to the song selections. This album is perhaps the group's best one, featuring seminal versions of their songs Hey, Pachuco! and Zip Gun Bop. Unfortunately, the album simply didn't succeed on the charts; it sold a fair number of copies, but the number was perhaps disappointing to Warner Brothers.
This failure was something of a blow to the band, who had believed that the album would take off. The group resolved to write a catchy single that would attract the ears of potential listeners and license it for regular commercial use, a technique used with great success by such artists as Moby.
Barflies at the Beach was released as a single in late 1997 and was perhaps the closest that Royal Crown Revue would get to mainstream success. The song saw some radio play across the country and some very limited play of the video on MTV (which featured Eddie dressed in a tighty whitie at the beach, looking like a bum). Most notably, the song's main hook was used in a number of commercials in 1998, including a very subtle advertisement for Wrigley. The group made all sorts of appearances around this time, including a memorable one on Conan O'Brien.
At almost the same time, the band released a live album, Caught in the Act, which featured Barflies as the second track, along with their raucous live renditions of the other songs in their catalogue. It's an enjoyment to listen to mostly due to the raw excitement of the recordings, but for a long period when Barflies was vaguely popular, it was the group's only in-print album.
The Barflies single was popular enough that Warner Brothers re-issued the Mugzy's Move album in early 1998 with Barflies added as a bonus track and was itching for the group to finish up their follow-up album, which Warner hoped would contain some catchy songs to follow up the success of Barflies with.
What they got... well, was a bit different.
The Contender was the album that got the band dropped unceremoniously from Warner Brothers. Released in 1998 and timed to capitalize on the peak of the swing revival, the album... missed it's market.
Rather than producing more catchy swing music like the group's contemporaries like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin' Daddies, the band went in a somewhat different direction. Whereas Mugzy's Move was all about the 1940s-style gangster bop, The Contender was a much more mature album focusing on the working stiff of the 1950s. It's imbued with the earliest strains of rock music and some twisted creative elements of the swing sound, but the whole thing comes with a world-weary maturity that the earlier album didn't have. This album is very interesting, but it was almost self-guaranteed to not meet with much mainstream success.
The title track, The Contender, was perhaps closest to a follow-up to Barflies, but the later song is a raw anthem to the gritty world of 1950s boxing, an ode to the Rocky type. Other songs were similarly well-executed: Port-au-Prince is an ode to Bettie Page, and Walkin' Like Brando was a tribute to Marlon Brando circa On the Waterfront. The group also did a straightforward cover of the jazz classic Salt Peanuts. These songs were a completely different aesthetic than what came before and though the album got a great deal of critical acclaim, the album met with underwhelming success.
By the end of 1998, the band found themselves without a record label but with a strong desire to keep the music alive. They formed their own label, RCR Records, and got down to business.
Walk on Fire came out in late 1999, the group's first release after falling off of Warner Brothers. The album was entirely recorded on vintage circa 1950 instruments and equipment, giving the album the sound of some of the very earliest rock records, like Rocket 88.
This album has a very retro feel to it that somehow comes out as simultaneously classy and also grimy, much like a Frank Sinatra movie from the 1960s when he was living in Vegas and did all of the shots in one take. It's a nice mix of sounds from early rock to jazz influences and, yes, a bit of that ol' swing flavor. The takeaway track here is She Walks on Fire, the soundtrack to some lost James Bond movie.
Since Walk on Fire came out, though, the group has been pretty quiet, only releasing a live album (2000's Passport to Australia) and a rarities collection (2004's Greetings from Hollywood, which has five tracks from their 1994 Hollywood Tales demo tape). I sincerely hope to hear more from them soon.
To give a full history of the comings and goings of this band would be excruciating. Suffice it to say that Eddie Nichols (vocals) and Mando Dorame (sax) have been the core of the group. The most consistent lineup of the group includes Jim Jedeikin (alto sax), Scott Steen (trumpet), , Mark Cally (guitar), Dave Miller (bass), and Daniel Glass (drums).
If you want to download some songs by the group, get these seven. They sum up the band better than my words ever could. All of the songs are available on the iTunes Music Store, so you can sample thirty second snippets without stealing the music or paying a stinkin' dime.
Hey, Pachuco! (from Mugzy's Move)
Zip Gun Bop (from Mugzy's Move)
Barflies at the Beach (from Mugzy's Move)
The Contender (from The Contender)
Walkin' Like Brando (from The Contender)
Port-au-Prince (from The Contender)
She Walks on Fire (from Walk on Fire)
If you give one a try, give them all a try. They outline one of the most original and creative groups of the past fifteen years, one that was copied six ways to Sunday and yet are still around, making music that your granddad would tap his toes to... and you might, too.
I bought strongly into the swing revival, dressing in retro 1940s and 1950s clothing found in the back of moth-eaten used clothes shops. Of all the groups, only Royal Crown Revue is still ringing in my ears. Or else we may have to make some cement boots for ya', and then make ya' walk on water.