A great deal of Beck's influences are wrapped into "Hotwax" - all of which make it one of his finest compositions yet.
The music here is so varied and fun, it's like Beck and the Dust Brothers just went all in, but still maintain complete control. Over a bed of slide guitars and stuttering clavinet, Beck sings the first verse. The first break is a short one, and is just a buzzing synthesizer. The next verse is a little longer, and contains some excellent slide guitar. Mixing these slide riffs with the funky rhythm is again an off-shoot of the "Loser
" sound. A longer break follows the second verse with some crazy harmonica, rock guitar and some scratching. The final verse contains some great piano riffs, before the song ends with the Enchanting Wizard of Rhythm showing everyone the rhythms of the universe.
Lyrically, there's little bits of folk America all blended together expertly, along with personal in-jokes. As Beck explained once:
There's a lot of those colloquialisms from the traditional folk songs. Like there's all those songs about Old Dan Tucker, the fine old man who washed his face with a frying pan, and then there's another song about how "it takes a worried man to sing a worried song." I just kinda blended them in "Hotwax." So it's, "It takes a backwashed man to sing a backwashed song, like a fryin' pan when the fire's gone." So little bits creep in there. It's just because I spent so many years playing those songs. They're in the blood.
Beck follows that line with a reference to hanging out with his band. The lyric about "Saturday night in the Captain's clothes". . .could it be referring to the picture above? I wouldn't doubt it. The song does refer often to image issues (it takes a backwash man to sing a backwash song, dressin' up in Captain's clothes, wishin' you were livin' like a hitman, etc.). Surely this is something Beck was constantly conscious of, especially in the way his career took off as a slacker/one-hit wonder.
Beck was asked directly about what "spreading disease across the land" refers to by SPIN magazine (1996) and he said, "it's like spreading the funk. When you come to our shows, you catch it."
The song continues travelling around, exploring America, observing "Cadillac pants," "karoake weekends," "country westerns," "silver foxes," the Alamo, all the while exploring this idea of image. Silver foxes are trying to be someone else also, in their "flashdance ass pants." Even karaoke is a brief attempt at being someone you're not.
Played live 202 times:
January 5, 1996July 10, 1996July 16, 1996July 21, 1996August 16, 1996August 20, 1996August 21, 1996August 25, 1996August 27, 1996August 28, 1996
...and 192 more
Earliest known live version: January 5, 1996
Latest known live version: April 16, 2023Pre-Odelay Jaundiced Honchos early version
Little bits of "Hotwax" showed up on stage in the year or so prior to the release of Odelay
. One early semi-reference to the lyric came on July 29, 1995 while Beck was playing with the Lollapalooza tour. He was recording Odelay
both immediately before and after Lollapalooza, so surely he was writing some of these songs around then. In the middle of "Beercan
," he shouts "Sweatin' like a jack-ass in the jack-ass backwash land..." In fact, listening to a number of shows from 1995 will turn up a number of ad-libs around the word "backwash," even an entirely new song
The first real performance, however, that I am aware of, came on January 5 1996, down in Australia. He was doing an acoustic set on Stage 2 of the Somersault Festival. A few audience members shouted for "Beercan
," but since Beck didn't have a band, he couldn't do anything like that. Instead, he brought a fan from the crowd on the stage to beatbox for him as he rapped the first verse of the unreleased at the time "Hotwax." He did not do the chorus, and tried to move into the second verse, when it quickly fell apart.
1996-1997 Odelay tour Frying Pan version
As with most all of Odelay
, come the lengthy world tour, Beck played "Hotwax" quite often. It does not sound too different from the album. I think they use tapes to make it sound even more exact like the album (some of the samples, slide guitar, piano bits). The only real difference is the long break in the middle of the song, which sometimes got kind of noisy and feedbacky.
A few months into the tour, the band also added an outro section to "Hotwax" which consisted of Beck chanting "I get down / I get down / I get down all the way!" This part would eventually show up in "Little Drum Machine Boy
." By the time they got well into the Odelay
tour in 1997, this "I get down" part could get really long, and often included some of the actual "Little Drum Machine Boy" raps too. January 12, 1997 for example has a great long version like this.
1998-1999 Community Service version
Interspersed between some Mutations
touring, Beck played a few "rock" shows. At each of these gigs—March 21, April 24, May 6, May 16 (1999)—"Hotwax" was included.
2000 Tender Horns version
Then on the Vultures tours of 2000, "Hotwax" was rarely performed. But there were a handful, as they played it 8 times only. The song still included "I get down/I get down all the way" but was not nearly as rowdy as it was in 1997.
2003 Radar Systems version
Beck's rock tour of the summer 2003 saw "Hotwax" again become a regular part of the set. But they mostly played it pretty straight, except for Beck's inserting of a beatbox/harmonica jam at the end (which sometimes included "Hot In Herre
2005-2006 Razorblade Shoes version
On the Guero
tours of 2005 and 2006, "Hotwax" was again played fairly regularly. Some of these were again pretty faithful to the usual live versions (and still included "I get down/I get down all the way").
Not all though... in the summer of 2005, Beck started playing his slide guitar, a little bluesy solo instrumental. This would quickly turn into a dusty version of "Hotwax" with his band, but they would only do one verse. The first break in the song would turn into another song (usually "Nicotine & Gravy" or "Hell Yes"), which they would turn into another song, and bam, instant "Hotwax" medley!
Beck hasn't played the song on his Modern Guilt tours of 2008/2009.
2010-2014 Way-Back-When version
Beck toured sporadically in 2010-2013, but in 2012 picked "Hotwax" up and started to play it at his shows again. The arrangement stuck very closely to the album, except with an extended outro which sometimes included "I get down" singalongs and always included Beck dropping a shambolic guitar solo (that he said he found in the street from 1987). This guitar solo version was also played a small handful of times in 2014 on the Morning Phase tour.