fri 01/03/2024

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Charlatans | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Charlatans

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Charlatans

Essential tribute to San Francisco’s wayward musical pioneers and their recently departed member Dan Hicks

The always stylish Charlatans in 1965 with Dan Hicks (fourth from left)Courtesy Ace Records

Music is no exception to the rule that history is littered with winners and losers. In commercial terms, however they are looked at, San Francisco’s Charlatans were losers. They issued just one single in 1966 and a belated album in 1969. While the world hummed along with Scott McKenzie’s "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" in 1967, these pioneers of the city’s scene were without a label and left adrift in the rush to sign Bay Area bands.

Big Brother & the Holding Company, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape and Quicksilver Messenger Service saw their stock rise, but The Charlatans were stuck in low gear.

The Charlatans had formed in late 1964. At this point, the only San Francisco band raising the city’s musical profile were The Beau Brummels, who hit the national charts with “Laugh Laugh” in early 1965. Although their voice was their own, The Beau Brummels were nonetheless an American response to The Beatles. The Charlatans had other ideas, looked to their own country’s own music for inspiration, and soon became the first of the bands defining their home city as the hub for America's alternative musical voice. In terms of historical importance, they were a winner. 

The Charlatans The Limit Of The MarvelousThe new vinyl-only The Limit of the Marvelous sets out to recreate the album The Charlatans could have released in 1967. Although its 15 songs were issued on CD in 1996, the version of “I Saw Her” is a previously unheard take. Despite their slim contemporaneous discography, they recorded copiously from 1965 to 1968, and the 1996 collection mostly drew on these then-unreleased recordings. The Limit of the Marvelous is the first time the prime-era Charlatans have been heard on album as they could have been in the Sixties. A nice-looking release with a vintage-style sleeve and coloured vinyl, this is essential for any fan of the band, the era and their milieu.

It is also indispensable for everyone with any interest in the evolution of what was later dubbed Americana. The Charlatans look telegraphed where they coming from: old-time garb, the hats of yesteryear, bootlace ties and waistcoats. In thrall to a fabled America of the past, the band was also well aware of how music was changing. The song they chose as their first single in 1966 was the first-ever cover of Buffy Sainte Marie’s 1963/4 drug analysis “Codine”. The proposed band-devised ad (pictured below left) tagged the single as a “remedy for a drugged market.” This was too controversial and "Codine" was elbowed in favour of its B-side version of Robert Johnson’s “32-20”, which became the top side instead.

The Charlatans Codine adBalancing the present with the past, the wilful Charlatans melded the two. When they released the Robert Johnson cover, it had only been widely available since 1961 – the blues guitarist’s songs were not yet the default choice for white bands that they became. Everything about the Charlatans was idiosyncratic.

On The Limit of the Marvelous, the August 1965-recorded demo “Jack of Diamonds” stresses the degree to which The Charlatans were exceptional. This sandpaper-rough, full-tilt romp though the blues-folk song could have been recorded yesterday. If a current band had this edgy an approach to America’s music, they would immediately stand out. Twenties-styled titbits like “Steppin’ in Society” have worn less well though. Their wayward path was their own. As they obstinately declared on the modal-based 1967 track “We’re Not on the Same Trip”

In covering all the bases of what inspired them from blues to country, from jazz to vaudeville, The Charlatans were inconsistent. This is what made them – and makes them – hugely significant. There would have been a San Francisco scene without them. The Great Society, The Mystery Trend and the nascent Grateful Dead emerged in 1965 and also pointed the way forward, but The Charlatans got there first and constructed the eclectic foundation for what came later in the city. They also laid the ground for Americana. If ported a couple of years ahead and shifted to an East Coast, up-state New York base, The Charlatans would have given The Band a run for their money.  

The Limit of the Marvelous celebrates a wonderful band in style. It is also a fine tribute to their multi-instrumentalist member and prime songwriter Dan Hicks, who died of cancer on 6 February. May he rest, and may The Charlatans forever get their due.

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