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The Dark Side of Swing

Cherry Poppin' Daddies vocalist Steve Perry -- not to be confused with the Journey frontman of the same name -- just got off the stage. As part of the punk- and ska-flavored Warped Tour, his band finished performing at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City minutes ago, and Perry's now on the band's bus, talking on a cell phone about the audience's favorable response to the Daddies' devilishly brash style of neo-swing.

"We have a song called 'Ding-Dong Daddy of the D-Car Line,' which is about a polygamist," he explains. "They've seen us before, so they start cheering when they hear that song -- it's all about Salt Lake City."

A swing song about a polygamist? Not too shocking, when you consider that the swing and jump music of the '30s and '40s often reflected the more ribald, hedonistic side of life. In fact, the band's name came from a song lyric found in a collection of 78-rpm records called "Copulatin' Rhythm." But a closer look at the Daddies' lyrics reveals topics more arcane than those featured in your typical swing tunes.

Beneath the band's trotting bass lines, upfront brass, and shuffling rhythms are tales of abusive, alcoholic fathers; revenge sex; Mercedes Benz-driving phonies; and the "snake that circles your leg" and "makes your body parts shake." These subjects help to make the high-energy swing of the Cherry Poppin' Daddies distinctively '90s and represent a conscious effort on Perry's part to lend the songs relevance.

"I like swing, but I'm definitely not a nostalgia person," he claims. "I'm a modernist. I want things to be modern. It bugs me when people are 'moon/June' lyrically, or depending on cliches. I hate it."

Neither the moon nor June are found in the Daddies' lyrics. "Drunk Daddy," a fast-paced rave-up driven by a double-time snare drum and soaring horns, deals with neighbors calling Mom -- who married a "big asshole" -- a "whore," and contains this chorus: "Drunk Daddy broke my fingers/Drunk Daddy done kicked my head/Drunk Daddy smashed my sister/Turned my whole world red (blood red)." Perry won't go into details, but he admits that alcohol has played a role in his life. But his lyrics, he says, are not strictly autobiographical; rather they're a representation of the world around him.

"The Daddies' music is about trying to overcome situations that are very difficult," he explains. "The father-son themes were a useful metaphor for getting that across, that angst. All the stuff I write is fiction. There are elements of autobiographical stuff, the alcohol and such things, but in general I think of it as my neighborhood growing up. These are characters that I knew and thought about."

In an attempt to modernize swing, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies -- which includes Jason Moss (guitar), Daniel Schmid (bass), Tim Donahue (drums), Dana Heitman (trumpet), Sean Flannery (tenor saxophone), Ian Early (baritone and alto saxophones), and Dustin Lanker (keyboards) -- have done a remarkable job of helping turn on the MTV generation to a musical style that recalls Duke Ellington, Louis Prima and zoot-suited hepcats. The Daddies' music combines the bright-sounding horns and quick tempo of swing with the four-beat rhythms and racy scenarios of jump music, also known as jump blues, and wraps up the mix in a stylish package. Their latest CD, Zoot Suit Riot -- The Swingin' Hits of the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, a compilation of swing songs from three independently released CDs plus four new cuts, is No. 17 on Billboard's Top 200 chart and has gone platinum. Both Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly have declared the Daddies leaders of the neo-swing movement, which manages to recall the innocence of the '30s and '40s while allowing the hot-blooded passion that was repressed during that era to rise to the surface.

But Perry, age 34, isn't happy with the "neo-swing" label. He says that its retro undertones both nullify the Daddies' unique take on swing and discount the other influences, especially ska, evident in the band's music. "I can't fully take us out of the retro classification, but we harp on the fact that we're contemporary music, trying to push boundaries and constantly goose this music in the ass as far as rockin' out," says Perry, who writes the band's songs and produced Zoot Suit Riot.

As do other neo-swing leaders, such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's Scotty Morris, Perry describes himself as an ex-punk rocker who was raised on a steady diet of Black Flag, Meat Puppets, and Circle Jerks. Originally from Binghamton, New York, he spent his early twenties in Eugene, Oregon, where, as a college dropout, he worked a construction job during the day and played with Saint Huck, a "jangly garage-rock band" at night. He first got into swing in the late '80s, during a particularly difficult time in his life. "I had a relationship that was going down the shitter," he says, "I was drinking too much, I had no prospects, and I had a house where I slept in fiberglass insulation. It was bad."

Not so bad, however, that he couldn't try writing a swing song. The result was "Cherry Poppin' Daddy Strut," one of the 14 tracks on Zoot Suit Riot. "The first few rehearsals of that song, it was like, 'Wow, this is good shit,'" he recalls.

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.