David Bowie? I never cared that much for him. Some catchy songs, but he wrote about aliens and space travel. How many songs has Bob Dylan – as a useful measure of quality – written about aliens or space travel? Zero. I rest my case. And Lemmy? One hell of a guy, clearly, but really just the one song. Maurice White? A mightily polished artist, but though I admire the quality of Earth, Wind and Fire there was not much there to love. And as for Glenn Frey … well, I refer you to the Dude’s contemptuous dismissal of the Eagles (before a taxi driver ejects him for his car for not liking them) in The Big Lebowski.
But Dan Hicks was something else. The latest casualty among those in the entertainment industry who have sadly departed these past two months, Dan Hicks was an original. His group Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks (just about the greatest name for a band ever) were formed in 1967 and lasted through two incarnations until 1973, when Hicks decided he’d had enough of leading a band. At a time when his San Francisco peers were indulging in blues jams and psychedelic extravaganzas (Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner is another victim of 2016’s purge of rock’s retirees), the Hot Licks purveyed a unique blend of jazz, swing, country and gypsy music. It was as though Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grappelli had turned up in late 60s Haight-Ashbury. But that would not have been enough. The special ingredient was Hicks himself, with his deadpan humour, his sharp sense of a catchy phrase (verbal and musical) and his self-mocking yet sincere demeanour. As Tom Waits said of Hicks (so someone told me on Twitter), he was “fly, sly, wry and dry”.
The Hot Licks in their classic line-up were a six piece – Hicks on guitar and vocals, John Weber (guitar), Jaime Leopold (stand-up bass), Sid Page (violin) and vocalists Sherry Snow and Christine Gancher (later replaced by Naomi Ruth Eisenberg and Maryann Price). No drummer, note. They released four albums, sounding completely counter to the counter-culture, but also counter to everything else. Their best known number is ‘I Scare Myself’, with its eerie mixture of foreboding and pleading, topped by an exhilarating violin solo. There’s the louche ‘Waiting for the “103”‘; the delicate homage to the old-fashioned that is ‘Canned Music; or the frankly bizarre ‘Jukie’s Ball’ (how many pop songs do you know that feature an introduction by a talking dummy?). Hicks’s music had its occasional loopy side, but the best of it – which means most of it – is tuneful, uplifting and completely catchy.
The group reformed in later years, but it was those first six that set the mould and established the repertoire. Dan Hicks had a singular voice, and if he and the Hot Licks will never attract listeners in their millions, you feel there’s always going to be someone listening to them long after the best efforts of their peers find themselves no longer played on Spotify. True originality never fades.
If you’ve not encountered Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks before now, you have such a treat in store. Here’s a few of my favourites, enough surely to whet any appetite.