There are lots of people who can point to music on the shelf. Some like to light candles to it, others seek only to snuff them out. Dan burned them all brightly, and here is his tale.
(Elvis Costello, from his foreword to Hicks’s memoire I Scare Myself)
Dan Hicks was defiantly unfashionable in the 60s and 70s, reaching back into the past to create a new mix of acoustic folk, country, jazz and comedy, often without a drummer, at the height of acid rock. He had dabbled in the music of his time, drumming for California psychedelic band The Charlatans, but in 1967 he reinvented himself as bandleader and raconteur with his original lineup of Hot Licks.
Original Recordings was their debut album, and was introduced to me by a flatmate in 1976. Being an Incredible String Band fan, I didn’t give a monkey’s nut about genres and categories, and it was only later I realised this was innovative, at least at the time it was released for mixing the country, folk and swing genres.
From the opener Canned Music I was captivated by the languid tone and the call-and-response backing vocals. The self-deprecating humour ‘my baby went and left me for the drummer, I guess I’ll never solve that mystery’ wasn’t lost on me either.
The second song is all in the title How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away? I’d heard the title in an album by a standup comic called Uncle Dirty (Bob Altman) where he spoofs country titles like I’m Sorry I Made You Cry But Your Face Is Much Cleaner Now. I wonder if Hicks heard that and decided to write the song? Anyway it’s a great development of the title.
The third track, however, was the one that made me sit up and take notice. No comedy in I Scare Myself, just an extended two-chord epic with soaring violin and whisper-to-shout dynamics. Violinist Sid Page ‘A modal, serious, sober, soul-searching tune’ that became a highlight of the stage show and was later covered by Thomas Dolby and, er, my Hungry Ghosts and Norman Lamont and the Innocents.
In this live version from a 1989 reunion, he throws away the vocal, but the guitar and violin are amazing.
Other highlights of the album:
- the chugging but somehow plaintive and hypnotic Waiting For the 103
- the dreamy Slow Movin’
- the lovely singer/backing singers dialogue on Evenin’ Breeze:
Dan: … Ever since she said goodbye
Singers: Goodbye to you?
Singers: And you couldn’t stop her?
Dan: No, no, no
Singers: And so she made her getaway
Dan: But she’ll be back!
This live version is an absolute treat in every way from the fantastic guitar and violin to the great vocal delivery. See if you catch the little quote from Bonanza in one of the guitar solos!
Dan Hicks died of cancer in February 2016.
More about Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks
I’m a Hicks man!
The more I listen to this, the more I recognise its influence on me as a singer, writer and arranger. There’s the self-deprecating narrator of, well, just about any of my lighter songs. My fondness for violin. The laconic vocal delivery. The importance of backing vocals. It’s all very much there in Green Lights All The Way.