Needle Drop: Bill Hicks, Rant in E-Minor Variations

Comedy has a long history on vinyl. The recording of comedy routines goes back before even vaudeville, much less before Netflix began pumping out a seemingly endless stream of comedy specials. Comedy albums were really the only outlet besides a nightclub to hear a comedian’s full set. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, albums by Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Shelly Berman, and Bob Newhart set the table for what eventually morphed into records directed more toward college kids. Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Steve Martin, and Cheech & Chong all expanded their reach beyond clubs and theaters and into the mainstream with their albums.

But as concert films, videos, and cable specials became the norm, the demand for comedy albums shrunk. With the stand-up comedy boom in the 1980s, even network television got into the game and while albums were still released, with so many artists vying for the spotlight of television, their impact wasn’t as prominent

One of the comedians who stood out during this era was Bill Hicks. Hicks’ story isn’t exactly show-biz fairy tale material—a stand-up since he was 16 years old, he toured extensively throughout the country, spent time in New York and Los Angeles before traveling to England where he found the success that eluded him in the States.

Hicks had two major album releases in his lifetime—Dangerous, recorded in New York City in 1990, and Relentless taken from one of his performances at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival in 1991. A One Night Stand special on HBO aired in 1991 as well as multiple appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. Another television special, Revelations, recorded in front of a very enthusiastic crowd in England for Channel 4, debuted in 1993 and his career started to pick up some momentum when he was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer. He died on February 24,1994.

Alright. Now the good part. Not unlike a lot of artists ahead of the curve Bill Hicks became bigger in death than he had been in life. His name appeared in the liner notes of Radiohead’s The Bends and the band Tool honored him with audio clips and references to his act in the lyrics for the title track of their Ænima album along with a tribute to him in the liner notes.

In 1997 two new releases appeared on Rykodisc Records, Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor. Both feature music performed by Hicks and Kevin Booth, interwoven with live bits recorded around the country. This was Hicks’ final project—to make a comedic concept record.

While the music does a good job to set the mood and the piece as a whole works, there is a part of the listener that just wants to hear the whole performance. Should that be the case, you’re in luck—Rant in E-Minor Variations has just been released in a sleek 2-LP set by Comedy Dynamics featuring the entire uninterrupted show, including portions that weren’t included in the original.

In the 23 years since he died Hicks’ name has become revered among comedy nerds. Never the most commercially successful comedian of his generation, he is often recognized as the best. His combative nature with the audience almost became a staple of his show. While the audience is receptive in this performance (as opposed to his Flying Saucer Tour Vol. 1 release) there are still moments where there are audible groans and awkward applause breaks because of the uncertainty as to where the joke is heading.

A lot of comedy tends to age poorly, and while some of the pop culture references here date the material, themes based upon probing the human condition and all its hypocrisy is universal—so much so that a good portion of it is just as fresh today as it was when he recorded it. Swap a few names out with today’s news scroll fodder and one sees how some things never really change.

When any artist dies young, part of the inherent sadness is wondering what else they would have achieved, and it is hard not to wonder what Bill Hicks would have thought of 2016. If you listen closely to this album however, you can probably figure out that answer for yourself.

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