As someone who was alive in the 1990s, I recall with fondness the sheer diversity of 1990s radio. It was a time when mainstream rock stations were branching out to include a goodly number of pop genres that they had, hitherto, left unexplored. As such, you would hear, on one station, a rock song, a ballad, a grunge song, a neo-punk anthem, a hip-hop song, and even a curio from the oddball sub-genres that had become popular like swing and jazz. This was a time when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Squirrel Nut Zippers somehow became big.
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A large part of this diversity was mitigated by the soundtrack to Swingers, Doug Liman’s 1996 film, scripted by Jon Favreau, about two would-be twentysomething charmers who try to navigate the dark landscape of the L.A. singles scene. The film staged that singles scene as a hotbed of hipness, where young people assembled to swing dance and to absorb old-world culture through sharkskin suits and standards from the ’40s and ’50s. It was a subset of hipster culture that only Gen-X and Gen-Y remember today.
SoundTreks posits that the world of affected 1940s Las Vegas swing-ready hipness can be encapsulated by the soundtrack to Swingers, a film that both perpetuated and helped define the swing subculture of the 1990s.
Track 1. “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You” – Dean Martin
In the 1990s swing culture, there was a weird aversion to the works of Frank Sinatra. Perhaps Sinatra was considered to be gauche or out of fashion by the mainstream hipsters, so they went with the rat Pack’s second-in-command as their figurehead. Whatever the reason, ’90s swing hipsters lionized Dean Martin and his music – which was usually more playful than Frank’s. Deano also had a sweetness about him that Sinatra lacked. Sinatra was a bit of a cynic. Dean was a charmer with a shtick.
Track 2. “Paid for Loving” – Love Jones
Love Jones is not well-known to the world at large any longer, although L.A. residents may know them as being the regular house band at the music club Largo where they played with the virtuoso Jon Brion. When scouring the L.A. landscape for local swing and jazz bands, Jon Favreau likely either found these guys playing at a club he visited, or, more likely, he was already a fan when he started writing. I’m willing to bet they were written right into the screenplay.
Their jazz is authentic, but feels modern. Love Jones is no throwback band trying to recreate an old sound.
Track 3. “With Plenty of Money and You” – Count Basie/Tony Bennet
“With Plenty of Money and You” is a lounge standard from 1959 which is directly evocative of Las Vegas glitz. It was released by Capitol Records shortly after the release of Swingers as part of Capitol Record’s seminal (and damn amazing) Ultra-Lounge series of records, cementing it as a lounge standard. While it swings, this song’s ancient brand of cool almost feels square by modern comparisons, and it’s interesting to listen to what the cool white people of half a century ago were getting into.
Track 4. “You & Me & The Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)” – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s greatest moment and perhaps their crowning achievement was “You & Me,” their highest-charting single. While there were many bands who became gigantic during the swing revival of the 1990s, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy were undoubtedly the biggest, and their sound came to define what the revival was all about. Indeed, many can likely only name BBVD as the one remembered swing band of the era.
They’re also easily the best. For a few years there, the first BBVD record was standard suburban issue for white teens. Listening to “You & Me” today, you can almost understand why this caught on the way it did. It’s so forceful and upbeat, it’s hard not to dance to it. And, if you were tired of the fashionlessness of the grunge era, you could finally curl up in the high fashion and affected cool of the past. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy made that all possible.
Track 5. “Knock Me a Kiss” – Louis Jordan
A nice, mellow jazz bop from the 1940s. In the context of movies, songs like this tend to be played for irony, and usually accompany down-on-your-luck montages. Out of context, however, Louis Jordan becomes something more. Listening to this soundtrack invites listeners to shed their irony, even if the film itself is about heartbreak and carries many themes of not being cool/rich enough to live the true Swinger lifestyle. Being a swinger in real life requires work and money. Listening to Louis Jordan makes it sound easy.
Track 7. “Groove Me” – King Floyd
After all the swing cool this 1970 funk piece is almost jarring. Almost. King Floyd’s gentle soul groove is like the evolutionary child of what lounge started 25 year previous. In 1970, no one cool was listening to Count Basie. They were drinking cocktails to this. The sound is different. The spirit is the same.
Track 8. “I Wan’na Be Like You” – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Originally written by The Sherman Brothers for the 1967 animated film The Jungle Book, this song works surprisingly well out of context. The original song, performed by Louis Prima (a swing/lounge god unto himself) was about an actual ape who wanted to be a man. Sung by a human, however, it becomes an intimidating song about longing for coolness. Which is kind of perfect for a film like Swingers. It didn’t end up making its way onto a record until Big Bad Voodoo Daddy released their third. (Editor’s Note: Swingers writer and co-star Jon Favreau eventually directed the remake of The Jungle Book, released earlier this year. Neat, huh?)
Track 9. “Mucci’s Jag M.K. II” – Joey Altruda
How to describe the divide between jazz and lounge? Lounge is, perhaps, more structured. More song-like. Jazz, meanwhile, is more intellectual and exploratory. It meanders deliberately. Lounge always has a destination. Also, lounge carries with it a gently enjoyable stigma: There’s something ineffably square about lounge. It’s almost better because it feels out of date. Jazz – at least good jazz – feels more eternal. Cool is the dividing line.
This jazz instrumental is good jazz, and perhaps represents something the character in Swingers can only reach in fleeting moments.
Track 10. “King of the Road” – Roger Miller
Like King Floyd, the inclusion of this 1964 honky-tonk novelty tune is certainly jarring. “King of the Road” is usually relegated to the start of old-timey country-western collections. But, listen to the guitar. You can hear it, can’t you? There’s something pointing toward lounge. The mood is mellow enough that you can giggle along without irony. Putting this song alongside the other tracks on the record make it better.
Track 11. “Pictures” – The Jazz Jury
The Jazz Jury did numerous instrumental pieces that served as a score for the film. Appropriate.
Track 12. “The Thinks I Still Care” – George Jones
Again we’re trekking into “funny” honky-tonk music, and one more of these might make the entire soundtrack record sag a bit, but so far so good. The cold lyrics, while aiming for humor, still reflect something that’s often expressed in old blues and jazz. As above, we can hear the antecedents underneath.
Track 14. “Pick up the Pieces” – Average White Band
Everyone knows this piece, probably thanks to Swingers, although it’s been featured in Superman II, The Falcon and the Snowman, The Spirit of ’76, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Bowfinger (which also, incidentally, featured Swingers actress Heather Graham), and countless others. In 1996 it wasn’t yet a cliché to include “Pick up the Pieces” on your soundtrack, so it gets a pass. Just enjoy the funk.
Track 15. “Go Daddy-O” – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
See “You & Me & The Bottle Makes 3 Tonight.” The size and the effect is the same. Again: It’s easy to see why BBVD dominated the way they did, even if it was brief.
Track 16. “I’m Beginning to See the Light” – Bobby Darin
This is as close as this soundtrack is going to get to a lounge ballad. Crooners like Bobby Darin – the legend – were almost always upbeat, and would actually get flack if they tried anything deeper. Indeed, when Darin himself tried to write a protest song, he was initially laughed off stage. “I’m Beginning,” however is Darin at the height of his crooning powers, and possesses something similar to Dean Martin in his ability to be cool and kind of affable at the same time.
Which is Better: The Soundtrack or the Movie?
That’s hard to say. The film is a portrait of Los Angeles at a very specific time, but its romance might still shine through without seeming dated. The soundtrack, however, is not just the soundtrack to a film, but the sort of record that the characters within the film would listen to. The soundtrack serves two functions, then. It punctuates a hard-lived romantic life, while also serving as just a really great, well-thought-out collection of lounge, jazz, and swing.
I wouldn’t want to excise either from your experience. Indeed, listen to the soundtrack first, and appreciate the cool, cool coolness without any lenses, irony, or interpretation. Absorb the moods wholesale and appreciate what the characters long for once you watch the movie. In a way, the soundtrack serves as an emotional primer for the film. And that’s an impressive feat.
Top Image: Miramax
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.