From page 86 of Classic Rock Magazine December 2004
TWO GUYS WITH BEARDS, AND A GUY CALLED Beard who doesn’t have a beard. Those 1980s videos. The car. The keyring. The furry, twirling guitars from Back To The Future III... To many people those things are the essence of the self-styled Li’l Ole Band From Texas.
But such memorable images are far from being the band’s only contribution to rock. ZZ Top – Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard – are certainly among America’s musical elite; a band who took blues rock, gave it a Texan tweak, and have for 35 years made gutsy music that amuses, amazes and gets your body moving.
From their Houston beginnings in 1969 when guitarist Gibbons, then with The Moving Sidewalks, teamed up with bassist Hill and drummer Beard from The American Blues, ZZ have defied convention. They made such an impact with their first three albums – ‘ZZ Top’s First Album’, ‘Rio Grande Mud’ and ‘Tres Hombres’ – that they were soon one of the biggest live attractions in the US. In the mid-70s they proudly had a map of Texas as their stage flooring, and had cacti and corralled livestock on stage with them.
After 1976’s ‘Tejas’, the trio decided on a three-year break, returning in 1979 with the ‘Deguello’ album, by which time both Gibbons and Hill had grown those trademark beards.
In the UK, ZZ Top remained a cult phenomenon...
until 1983’s ‘Eliminator’ appeared from out of nowhere and rearranged the charts. The logic was simple: easy-on- the-ear songs, a modern production, and MTV-friendly videos that had a potent mix of sex, laughs and hardware.
Suddenly ZZ Top were everywhere. Like Aerosmith and Alice Cooper would do later in the decade, ZZ had reinvented themselves. And with staggering success.
Of course, it was never going to last. Within a few years their commercial star was on the wane – at least as far as record sales were concerned. It didn’t bother them.
They even survived a scare when Hill inadvertently shot himself in the chest while taking off a boot (don’t ask).
ZZ Top have become a treasured American institution; icons who love to upset the establishment. And they still make great music.
(Warner Bros, 1973) The band’s third album, and the one that broke them nationally in the US.
And it’s not hard to understand why. The record just overflows with great songs: ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’, ‘Waitin’ For The Bus’, ‘Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers’, ‘La Grange’... these are among the finest moments of early-70s hard rock, drenched in bluegrass bonhomie.
There’s also a filthy snap to the sound that suited ZZ Top perfectly, with just the balance right between running with the songs as if live, while maintaining studio discipline.
The vibe is such that this record comes across with a freshness that still cuts deep. Stylistically ZZ were offering nothing new, but ‘Tres Hombres’ convinced you that the band were exploring hitherto uncharted territory – con artists supreme.
(Warner Bros, 1983) ‘Eliminator’ was the point at which ZZ embraced the modern age, giving their sound a dusting of technology and a sprinkle of electronics.
None of this would have meant anything if the songs fell short, but opening with ‘Gimme All Your Lovin” the record barely dipped as ‘Got Me Under Pressure’, ‘Sharp Dressed Man’, ‘TV Dinners’ and ‘Legs’ raced past in a blur of images and kick-start boogie.
Rarely has there been a record that demanded such instant recognition – and still does to this day.
The iconic videos certainly helped get ZZ mass recognition in the UK.
Which could have backfired with the diehards, had it not been for the fact that ZZ didn’t actually sound or look like they’d compromised at all.
BUT A STEP DOWN FROM THE TOP RUNG
‘Rio Grande Mud’
(Warner Bros, 1972) By the time ZZ got to this, their second album, they had really found their stride and momentum. There’s something warmly quirky about this record, as the blues are taken for a short ride down several dusty roads inhabited by the sort of carnival heroes and fast- buck troubadours with whom the band have had an long-time fascination.
The confidence the three ZZs now had in each other is clear as they shuffle through the queue for ‘Just Got Paid’, lay on the slide for ‘Apologies To Pearly’, and kick into the pressure points on ‘Bar-B-Q’.
Dusty Hill even gets to exercise his throat on ‘Chevrolet’ and ‘Francine’.
Very much a product of its period, what stops this record just a shade short of being essential is that there are occasions when, compared to the best material here, they just fall away from the mark a little.
(Warner Bros, 1979) After 1976’s ‘Tejas’, the band were so exhausted they needed a break. In the end it led to a three-year lay-off. Then the trio hit back with ‘Deguello’, which heralded a glorious return to form.
Refreshed after their rest, ZZ were keen to prove they’d lost none of the grip, drive and spit-in-the-eye laughter lines that had put them on top in the first place. They’d also got together a very strong set of songs: ‘I Thank You’ kicks off in ebullient fashion, and ‘Fool For Your Stockings’, the evergreen ‘Cheap Sunglasses’ (with that insane chorus) and ‘I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide’ all soon became live favourites.
The lyrics are so off-the-wall at times, you did wonder whether Salvador Dali had become their mentor, but it all helped ZZ to prepare for the challenge of a new decade – one to
which they were to rise so magnificently.
(Warner Bros, 1981) The album before ‘Eliminator’, and ZZ Top were displaying hints of what would soon ignite the massive upturn in their profile. ‘El Loco’ was arguably the slickest, sharpest and meanest record the band had done to date, taking everything up a notch from what had gone before.
ZZ Top were always aware of what was going on around them, and by 1981 there was definitely a smell of a major upheaval in music. With this in mind, the band prepared the ground with songs that were slightly more commercially savvy, while never stepping too far away from their roots.
More than a stepping stone to ‘Eliminator’, this album stands tall on its own feet, with ‘Pearl Necklace’, ‘Tube Snake Boogie’, ‘Ten Foot Pole’ and ‘Heaven, Hell Or Houston’ soon to gain vociferous fan approval.
BUT LACKING THE KILLER TOUCH
(Warner Bros, 1975) Yes, it’s got ‘Tush’. And another ZZ masterclass in ‘Heard It On The X’. But there was something slightly unsatisfying about ‘Fandango’, with a studio and a live side (back in the vinyl days). What fans would have preferred is a full live album, or to see the quality hinted at with the studio tracks developed into a complete new record.
The live material motors nicely, fuelled by the usual ZZ stage charisma and energy: ‘Jailhouse Rock’ blitzes, while the ‘Backdoor Medley’ is neatly realised. But just when you’re getting into the stride of this ’ere live thang, ZZ pull the plug and go into studio mode.
And if you don’t know what ‘Tush’ is all about, ask your grannie – you really need to get out more.
By the turn of the century, most people had probably given up on ever hearing a good new ZZ studio album. And then along came ‘Mescalero’. And while it certainly isn’t among the band’s best albums, this back- to-basics recording was a massive improvement on the rest of their post- ‘Eliminator’ output.
Of course, the album is too long –
pandering to the CD generation, rather than trimming away the excess baggage – but there are enough quality moments to make this a decent addition to any ZZ collection: ‘Buck Nekkid’ has the old swagger and humour; ‘Alley-Gator’ and ‘Me So Stupid’ wouldn’t be out of place on ‘Deguello’; and ‘Liquor’ certainly slakes the blues-wailing thirst.
AT ALL COSTS ‘XXX’
There were some really dreadful albums from ZZ during the 1990s, and this one is the worst. A mess, a mistake, a mis-aimed shot intended to haul themselves into readiness for the 21st century.
What worked with ‘Eliminator’, because everything was in place and primed, fails here because there’s an air of desperation about it all. On top of that, the songwriting is simply poor. ZZ Top come across as confounded, and also a little intimidated, by the whole music scene, having seemingly collapsed in a morass of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.
A poor and disappointing way to celebrate ZZ Top’s 30th anniversary.
THE BEST (AND WORST) OF THE REST
THERE ARE FEW BANDS WHOSE back catalogue can be graded as easily as ZZ Top’s. All the stuff pre- ‘ELIMINATOR’ is worth hearing; but with the exception of ‘MESCALERO’, everything that came after that album isn’t worth much at all. So get stuck into their debut, 1970’s ‘ZZ TOP’S FIRST ALBUM’, and ‘TEJAS’ from 1976. Both have more than enough guts and spirit to keep fans entertained, even if the former suffers from a slight lack of cohesion and focus, while the latter has a slight air of tiredness about the production and overall performance.
On the other hand, ‘AFTERBURNER’ (’85) could almost be an ‘ELIMINATOR’ out-takes album, with only ‘Rough Boy’ and ‘Velcro Fly’ even coming close to matching anything on its predecessor. As for ‘RECYCLER’ (’90), ‘ANTENNA’ (’94) and ‘RHYTHMEEN’ (’96), those albums might offer the odd tasty morsel (‘My Head’s In Mississippi’ from ‘Recycler’ or ‘She’s Killing Me’ from ‘Rhythmeen’, for example), but they reflect a band fast running out of gas.
If you’re looking for a compact way to get the band’s first six albums, ‘ZZ TOP SIX PACK’ (’87), has all of them on three CDs.
WE’D LIKE RELEASED
In recent years, ZZ Top have had the aura of a cabaret act about them – in
the best possible sense, naturally.
They’ve covered Elvis’s ‘Viva Las Vegas’, and even gone for a Vegas glitter look on stage... well, to some extent. So wouldn’t it be fun to see them wholeheartedly take the Vegas route for one album, covering standards from the Rat Pack, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Celine Dion and other Vegas-circuit regulars past and present.
Can you imagine Billy Gibbons singing ‘Mac The Knife’, ‘New York, New York’, ‘Delilah’ or ‘Please Release Me’? Marvellous!