The Dark Side of Swing

When Perry formed the Cherry Poppin' Daddies in 1989, they played not only swing, but hard rock and punk tunes as well. They were also not nearly as dapper as they look today. "I had red-white-and-blue hair down to my ass," Perry says. "I used to wear a derby with a hole in the top, and I'd pull my hair through it, and bifocals. I looked like shit."

The Daddies were just as confused musically. Ferociously Stoned, their 1989 debut release, seemed like an attempt to follow in the funk-metal footsteps of Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers while simultaneously introducing swing to a hard rock audience. Songs like "Teenage Brain Surgeon," which sounds like a refugee from a '60s surf-movie soundtrack, and "Lifeboat Mutiny," with its "Penny Lane"-style horns, mix incongruously with the jump-swing sound of the Zoot Suit Riot tracks "Master & Slave" and "Drunk Daddy." Early on, the band was clearly exploring swing as a way to express punk energy while still searching for its own sound.

In the mid-'90s the Daddies cleaned up their visual act. "We started dressing in suits after a gig with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones because Dickie, their lead singer, said to us, 'You guys are a really good band, but you look like a shipwreck up there.' Some of us looked like rock guys, quasi-grunge dudes with ripped clothing, and others looked like college boys. It didn't look good."

For their next two recordings -- Rapid City Muscle Car (1994) and Kids on the Street (1996) -- the Daddies stretched even further musically, blending ska, rockabilly, pop ballads, and Beatlesque tunes with the retro feel of songs such as "Mister White Keys," "Pink Elephant," and "Come Back to Me." While they enjoy taking on a variety of genres, only the neo-swing numbers display a discernible Daddies style, a detail noticed by the band's fans. Perry told the New York Daily News that their swing-related merchandise is the most popular among fans. "We did the Zoot Suit Riot compilation of our earlier swing work just for those fans," he added. "Now that we're getting all this attention, it worries me that we'll be known just for that."

At a recent show at the Cameo Theater in Miami Beach, the Daddies tried to mix things up. In the middle of an otherwise neo-swing set, they played three ska songs for an audience consisting mostly of school-age fans, who moshed obliviously to both the ska and swing. Yet the ska songs seemed wildly out of place, as if Frank Sinatra had succumbed to a fit of amnesia and suddenly thought he was Johnny Rotten.

Perry, still exhibiting a bit of his punk rocker side, refuses to accept the band's status as America's new kings of swing. He says the Daddies will continue to try other musical forms. For him it's an issue of staying true to one's self and not bending to the will of the market.

"On the next recording, we'll make mostly swing songs, but there will also be other songs," he says. "If it's a 15-song record, maybe 5 songs will be good songs, whatever the hell they are, and the rest will be swing songs. We won't lead with nonswing material, but it's a two-way street. If you start being afraid of your fans, then what good is it?"

The Warped Tour -- featuring Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Bad Religion, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reverend Horton Heat, and 27 other bands -- takes place Wednesday, August 5, starting at noon at the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre, 1801 NE 6th St., Pompano Beach. Tickets cost $21 and may be ordered through Ticketmaster: 954-523-3309 in Broward; 561-966-3309 in Palm Beach.

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