If one knew nothing about Bill Hicks, seeing a copy of Shock and Awe on the shelves in your local record shop might lead you to believe that Hicks is a contemporary social and political satirist, swift to heap scathing commentary onto the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, and America's quest to find Saddam Hussein. And you'd be exactly right, except for one word -- contemporary. Such is the genius of Bill Hicks, a man who has been dead for more than a decade, and yet whose material is still astoundingly pertinent to the present-day state of world affairs. The U.K.-based label Invasion Group, recognizing these "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" similarities, decided to release Shock and Awe during the summer of 2003, a year in which a man named Bush was still the president, fighting in Iraq was once again being waged, and the quest to locate Hussein crept ever onward. The eye-catching cover art (made to look like a screaming newspaper headline) plays up this fact to the hilt, boldly proclaiming such Hicks witticisms as "the only problem the CIA are having is persuading Hussein to fly to Dallas" and "I believe George Bush is the child of Satan."
The recording itself -- which comes from a sold-out performance at the Oxford Playhouse Theatre on November 11, 1992 -- contains some material that has appeared on previous albums (Arizona Bay, mostly), in addition to "new" material previously unavailable on CD. Like most good live performers, Hicks keeps his material fresh by delivering it somewhat differently from night to night; in particular, it is intriguing here to hear how smoothly he could tailor his act to suit a British audience. This show took place a mere week after Bill Clinton had unseated George Bush in the presidential election, and already Hicks has ten minutes' worth of material on this subject that he drops on the audience right from the get-go. "People would say to me, 'Bill, you vote for Clinton, he's gonna raise your taxes. A vote for Clinton is a vote for higher taxes.' See, I have news for you, folks -- the reason I didn't vote for George Bush is because George Bush (along with Ronald Reagan) presided over an administration whose policies towards South America included genocide. So the reason I didn't vote for him is because he's a mass murderer. I'll pay that extra nickel on a liter of petrol just knowing that little brown kids aren't being clubbed to death like baby seals in Honduras so Pepsi can put a plant down there." As usual, Hicks comes across as a leftist social commentator first and a comedian second -- his primary mission seems to be to get people to think for themselves, with American apathy being perhaps his most hated target. "Go back to bed, America. It's all explained to you now. There should be no question about your government's legitimacy. Here, here's American Gladiators. Watch that, and shut up. Go back to bed, America. You're in the land of freedom now." No subject is safe from the Hicks assault, whether it be politicians, fundamentalist Christians, children, the JFK assassination, or Madonna. And yet, as cynical and misanthropic as he could be, one gets the feeling that Hicks loved his audiences (particularly attentive ones) and could just as easily offer an inspirational message in parting ("Is There a Message"). Although it isn't the best starting point for entry into the Bill Hicks catalog, Shock and Awe is another worthwhile title for the already converted to check out. ~ Steve Bekkala