In the dark days of the early 1970s, when rock was prog and singer-songwriters sang earnestly of love for their ladies, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks were a little ray of San Francisco sunshine. An ironic string band drawing on all kinds of old-time music, from Western Swing and Gypsy jazz to cool crooners and the Andrews Sisters, the group was post-modern before its time. Importantly, it was also very funny. Hicks, who sang and played guitar, wrote cleverly constructed songs about comical characters while the hotshot musicians in the band, such as the wunderkind violinist Symphony Sid Page, riffed off some of the best acoustic music of the era. On the choruses, the girl backing singers - The Lickettes, obviously - billed and cooed like the Brides of Dracula done up as Forties vamps.
Their albums looked like works of art, with tricksy gatefold sleeves, graphics in the style of underground comics, and weird drawings by Hicks himself. On the sleevenotes to the group's greatest production, Striking It Rich!, from 1972, the writer and musician Ben Sidran compared Hicks to the comic book artist Robert Crumb, whose vistas of depression-era streets thronged with vigorously trucking citizens provided the perfect visual equivalent to Dan the Man's songs. Both men, wrote Sidran, "use the mood of the past to rewire your brain for the future" - whatever that meant. For a while, the band's cult success looked like catching on. Hicks - a tall, handsome, intriguingly retro-looking guy - even made the cover of Rolling Stone.
Of course, it never happened. Hicks broke up the band and spent the next 25 years working locally in the Bay Area, while also going through rehab. But now Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks (note the subtle change in emphasis - the Hot Licks aren't "his" any more) are back. There's a very good new album (his first studio recording since 1976), a major British tour starting tonight in Manchester, and a double DVD and CD package out next month. For the new album, the record company, Surfdog, called in some favours: Beatin' The Heat features guest appearances from Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler and Brian Setzer, all big Hicks fans. Now aged 61, and looking like a dissolute version of the mature Clark Gable, Dan Hicks is suddenly a valued elder statesman.
"I started as a drummer playing rock and jazz," Hicks says when I ask about the roots of his music, "and I had a feeling for that, but my guitar playing was folk stuff, just three or four chords. Now, 40 years later, I've got 78 chords, some of them deep-frozen." He continues: "I'd just got out of another San Francisco rock band and I wanted to be more of a folkie, playing so you could hear the words. I liked the Raelets (Ray Charles's backing singers), Mel Torme and the Mel-Tones, a bunch of stuff like that, which was unusual for the time; you can bet Quicksilver Messenger Service weren't listening to Bob Wills records." Like Quicksilver, Dan Hicks' rock band, The Charlatans, were an early mainstay of the San Francisco psychedelic scene.
Indeed, The Charlatans helped start the whole thing off. In the summer of 1965, they played a legendary residency at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, that became a testing ground for the love-ins, be-ins, light shows and drug-fests that followed. "It was a pretty good experience, for sure," Hicks says. "All those sub-culture people, 15 of us in the band and the crew, living upstairs and playing six nights a week. Also, LSD was a big part of being up there. In fact, we actually auditioned on acid. The owner came up and said: 'Would you like your acid now or after dinner?', so we ended up being loaded."
Hicks has no regrets about his hippie days. "I went from being a fraternity guy to my kind of folks, people I could relate to," he says. "It was cool and I dug it, man. As far as I'm concerned it was pretty much all good: Women's Lib, the marches, long hair, everything. The world got hipper and it became an easier place to live in." It's possible to see the Hot Licks as Hicks's anti-hippy band; acid-rock exchanged for old-timey picking and three-part harmony, with The Charlatans' Mississippi gambler-look updated to 1930s Depression chic. Hicks had wearied of Haight-Ashbury ("It was getting kind of gnarly," he says), and moved to the more mellow environs of Sausalito in Marin County.
From the perspective of today, the original Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks seem an important little band. Along with early albums by Ry Cooder, Randy Newman and Tom Waits, the Pointer Sisters and Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, they represented a revival of what might be called art deco music, reflecting a new fashionability for the styles of the Twenties and Thirties. They have also been quietly influential: the band's old record producer, Tommy LiPuma - now one of the most powerful men in the record industry - went on to make nostalgia big business, with Diana Krall and others.
Ironically, the hot licks Hicks once played are now referred to as Americana, a worthy, po-faced, genre with the IQ of a fencepost (to borrow a phrase from the new album). Typically, Dan Hicks checked out early. "I was tired of it, tired of being a bandleader, and our personalities were starting to clash," he admits. In the years since, he has led other groups, played solo, and also made commercials. "I used to write every day too, very prolific. Now, I feel I've written enough, you know what I mean?"' Like Robert Crumb's Mr Natural just out of rehab, you feel Dan Hicks is entitled to do exactly what he pleases.
'Beatin' The Heat' is out now on Surfdog Records. Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks: Manchester Academy 3 (0161 832 1111), tonight; Birmingham Ceol Castle (0121 440 4278), Mon; Chester Telfords Warehouse (01244 390 090), Tue; Borderline, London W1 (020 8534 4444), Thur; WOMAD, Reading (0118 939 09300), Fri & Sat; tour continues to 31 July. The DVD/ CD package 'Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks Featuring an All-star Cast of Friends' is released next monthReuse content