“When ‘Hell’ broke, it took everyone by surprise, not just us,” writes Tom Maxwell, formerly of Squirrel Nut Zippers, in his new memoir Hell—named after the hit single the band released in 1996. “The lyric, the melody, the style, and the production values were obstinately different from, say, Hanson. I took it as a good sign. Maybe this would break mainstream radio open a little bit and make room for diversity.”
Maxwell had reason to be optimistic. If 1991 was the year grunge broke, 1996 was the year Cocktail Nation did the same, albeit in a smaller, peppier, and more snappily attired way. Also known as the Swing Revival—regardless of the fact that the genre’s most popular band, Squirrel Nut Zippers, could barely be said to play swing music—Cocktail Nation became the jazzy, Lindy-hopping alternative to alternative rock.
Free of distorted guitars, unkempt hair, or anything remotely resembling flannel, a slew of backward-glancing outfits like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Love Jones, and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies peddled a debonair sound tailored toward sipping gin rather than shooting heroin. They drew from the brassy bounce of swing, hot jazz, jump blues, and various other distinct styles indigenous to the early 20th century, all mashed together into a reductive, throwback lump—kind of like what grunge had done with punk, classic rock, and metal.
One of the earliest and best of the Cocktail Nation bands, Combustible Edison, even released its bubbly debut album, 1994’s I, Swinger, on grunge’s defining label, Sub Pop. It seemed to mark a sea change. Quirk and quaintness were the order of the day; teenage angst had paid off well in the wake of Nirvana, but scowling, scruffy miserablism suddenly seemed as passé as ’80s hair metal.
Squirrel Nut Zippers’ “Hell”—jaunty, striking, unthreateningly surreal—made it into the MTV Buzz Bin in 1996. That helped propel the group’s second album, Hot, toward its eventual platinum-selling status. In a sweep of synergy, Doug Liman’s Swingers hit theaters that year; the film not only launched the careers of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, it popularized the retro-bro look of thrift-store bowling shirts, secondhand wingtips, grandpa’s pomade, and, of course, the music of Cocktail Nation. Vaughn and Favreau spend the majority of the movie migrating like lounge lizards from one ersatz speakeasy to the next, ultimately winding up at a Big Bad Voodoo Daddy gig—where true love is just a hop, a skip, and a jump-jive-an’-wail away.
What would later become Cocktail Nation had been fizzing under the surface years prior to the breakout success of Swingers and “Hell.” It was partly informed by the way-back-when sensibilities of garage rock, surf rock, rockabilly, and ska—plus a fresh appreciation for the space-age jazz of vintage exotica composers like Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Juan García Esquivel—all of which flourished on a subterranean level in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Comics like Daniel Clowes’ hardboiled homage to trash culture, Lloyd Llewellyn, gave the nascent movement an instantly identifiable graphic style; Clowes also provided cover illustrations for a slew of retro-leaning bands at the time, many of which unwittingly paved the way for Cocktail Nation to follow.
David Lynch’s Twin Peaks helped spark a similar, time-in-a-bottle note. “Audrey’s Dance,” one of the steamiest songs from Angelo Badalamenti’s atmosphere-rich soundtrack, is a missing link between old-school exotica and Cocktail Nation. Even more telling, the show’s penultimate episode, 1991’s “Miss Twin Peaks,” features an alluring, straight-off-a-Les-Baxter-album-cover burlesque routine by Robyn Lively, whose character is a contestant in the town’s annual beauty pageant. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the winner of the Miss Twin Peaks contest is played by Heather Graham, who would go on to star in Swingers.) In the episode, Lively’s performance is introduced as “contortionistic jazz exotica”—a tagline that fits Cocktail Nation like an elegantly discarded evening glove.
Unsurprisingly, Swingers—a film that centers on a grunge-era revival of a Rat Pack-era aesthetic—has not aged well. Neither have most of the groups that were reluctantly pushed under the Cocktail Nation umbrella. The entire genre smacks of manufactured trend-mongering, not always a recipe for timelessness. If a second wave of bands had jumped on the success of “Hell,” there might have been a chance for the phenomenon to grow into something as enduring as, well, ska-punk, at best. That never happened—although there are traces of Squirrel Nut Zippers’ nostalgic, sepia-tinted image in newer, folk-rock groups such as Old Crow Medicine Show and The Avett Brothers (two bands who, like Squirrel Nut Zippers, have roots in North Carolina). Instead—as with grunge, a form of music that was in its own way retro—Cocktail Nation became an evolutionary dead end.
In Hell, Maxwell remembers how the whole Cocktail Nation trend more or less collapsed beneath the weight of its own feather-boa frivolity—not to mention its rigid rules and signifiers. By the end of the ’90s, he writes:
“There was a new subset of people coming to our shows. They dressed in a kind of uniform. The men sported two-tone shoes, suspenders, high-waisted pants, wide silk ties, and fedoras. The women wore clunky heels, printed dresses, heavy red lipstick, and Bettie Page bangs. They would push their way to the front of the stage and aggressively clear a space, alienating the regular fans. During the show, they danced the Lindy Hop and the Charleston, flinging each other around and making “hot-cha” jazz hands. Sometimes they would admonish us for our tempos being too fast. We called them the Swing Nazis.”
He’s clearly referencing The Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. Still, “Nazi” is a particularly baited word to use when talking about people dressing up and acting like it’s still the 1940s—especially when it’s happening in the wake of 1993’s Swing Kids, the Hitler Youth-meets-Footloose film that influenced the Swing Revival every bit as much as Swingers. It’s not hard to see why Swing Kids held such sway. Bearing about as much historical accuracy as Hogan’s Heroes, Swing Kids reduces the struggle against one of the most insidious evils humankind has ever known to a romanticized fight for your the right to party—one that ultimately plays out on the dancefloor to the effervescent tunes of Louis Prima and Duke Ellington.
Maxwell jokes when he talks about those so-called Swing Nazis at Squirrel Nut Zippers shows, but he makes a point. The Clinton Administration circa 1996 was liberal, at least ostensibly; Cocktail Nation was painfully conservative. It was also painfully escapist. Riding high on the decade’s economic prosperity, the American listening public had opened its heart to novelty by 1996. That year, for instance, Los Del Rio’s unkillably silly earworm “Macarena” topped the singles chart for an incredible 14 consecutive weeks. “Hell” is no “Macarena,” in terms of either sound or sales, but the fluke success of both reflects a yearning for decadent, exotic otherness, whether in the form of another place or an earlier time.
Ironically, there wasn’t much for Americans to escape from in the relative peace and affluence of the late ’90s—apart from, say, the nü-metal insurgency led by Limp Bizkit and Korn. The stakes were that low. Accordingly, Cocktail Nation never struck as deeply as grunge did, and Squirrel Nut Zippers ended up being a one-hit wonder. With the Internet beginning to transform mainstream culture in the late ’90s—and the specter of the year 2000 knocking at the door—Cocktail Nation may as well have been the 20th century’s last, convulsive, reactionary hurrah. At least it was a snazzy one.