They took their name from Texan bluesman ZZ Hill, thus ensuring their status as last placed band in any music encyclopedia, but ZZ Top have been at the forefront of Texan blues for well over 30 years, and for a while there were one of the most instantly recognisable, in sound and look, hard rock bands that walked the planet. Yet the ZZ Top most of you have seen in the videos from the smash hit Eliminator album were a far cry from the band who formed out of the ashes of the Moving Sidewalks and American Blues. Led by the spellbinding guitar of Billy Gibbons (once described by Jimi Hendrix as being “the finest guitarist of his generation”) who was ably supported by the solid rhythm groove of bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, ZZ Top didn’t even have beards on their 1970 ZZ Top’s First Album debut nor 1972’s Rio Grande Mud. By that time, however, their dirty hard rock and blues was taking shape, with Francine and Just Got Paid gaining notice. It all gelled with 1973’s excellent Tres Hombres, which went Top 10, and boasted such classics as Jesus Just Left Chicago, Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers (later covered by Motörhead) and the riotously infectious La Grange, about Texan whorehouse Gracie’s Chicken Farm. They followed it with the half-live Fandango in 1975, which featured Tush, perhaps their best-known pre-Eliminator moment and the lacklustre Tejas a year later, after which they embarked on the ambitious Worldwide Texas Tour, on which they were joined on a Texan-shaped stage by live cattle and rattlesnakes (imagine Health & Safety allowing that these days). Top then took a three-year break, returning in 1979 with the fiery Deguello. Alongside a cover of Elmore James’ Dust my Broom there was the excellent Cheap Sunglasses and I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide, as well as Gibbons and Hill sporting the long beards the band are now famous for (ironically, Frank Beard merely sported a moustache). El Loco was even better in 1981, with Tube Snake Boogie and Pearl Necklace emphasising the fun, party-rock side of the band that would reach its zenith two years later. 1983’s Eliminator’s timing was perfect. Accompanying such infectious boogie anthems as Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs were a set of promo videos perfect for the fledgling MTV featuring the band and their now famous vintage red coupe that helped shoot the Top to the top of the charts. They remained there with 1985’s Afterburner, but the reliance on synthesized sounds was too much for many. 1990’s Recycler redressed the balance somewhat, notably on the classy My Head’s In Mississippi, but they shifted labels from Warners to RCA for 1994’s Antenna, after which they began to lose commercial ground on their early 80s headway. 1996’s Rhythmeen and 1999’s XXX are two of the weakest ZZ Top efforts ever, showing a band hopelessly out of touch, not only with current trends but also with their own heritage, but somehow the trio got everything back on line for 2003’s excellent Mescalero. Delve into much of ZZ Top’s rich back catalogue and you’ll find a band with far more to offer than the ‘little ol’ band from Texas’ tag they once gave themselves.
Metal Detector: ZZ Top
They have two members with beards and one member called Beard who doesn’t have a beard. But that’s not all. ZZ Top also have the meanest riffs in the west.
CHROME, SMOKE & BBQ
True, it ignores the band’s tenure on RCA, concentrating on the trio’s Warners years, but there are a lot of ZZ Top fans out there who will tell you it’s only the WB material that you want to bother with anyway (those fans are flat out wrong, like, but never mind, eh?). Either way, this sumptuous four-CD box set that was released by the label in 2003 is the ideal package for those fans with a few sheets to spare. Beginning with Billy Gibbons’ pre-ZZ outfit the Moving Sidewalks, as well as featuring the Top’s debut single Salt Lick, all of the band’s major hits from Tush and La Grange to Gimme All Your Lovin’ and even a handful of rarities such as a Spanish version of Francine, a live Cheap Sunglasses and a dance mix of Legs! Inside you’ll find a booklet packed with historical photos of the trio, and, if that’s what floats your boat, the whole thing folds out into a diner with its own ZZ Top figures. Give ’em all your money or what?
To be honest, ZZ Top haven’t exactly done themselves proud since 1983’s smash hit Eliminator. Both Recycler and Antenna had their moments but the follow-up to their biggest-selling album battles it out with Rhythmeen (1996) and XXX (1999) as the worst they’ve released. We plump for Afterburner because while it may have one or two decent songs on it (Can’t Stop Rocking, Sleeping Bag and Planet Of Women for example), the over-reliance on the synthesised new-wave sound the band melded so successfully with their gritty blues on Eliminator tends to catch in the throat. The dance-inflected Velcro Fly and Lap Of Luxury’s blatant rewrite of Gimme All Your Lovin’ are just too much to take, whilst the simpering ballad Rough Boy is about as far away from what ZZ Top are really about as you can get. Even the schoolboy smut of Woke Up With Wood is lame compared to earlier attempts like Tube Snake Boogie.
A tequila rush of blood to the head.
Despite being one of the most popular hard rock bands of the 80s, the 90s did not serve ZZ Top well. Their new label seemed to lose interest when the band turned their back on the synthesized sound that had brought them success with Eliminator, and they actually had trouble even getting their records released here in the UK. 2003’s Mescalero didn’t arrive, then, over-burdened with hope or expectation. If it had been, most ZZ Top fans would agree the band would have risen to the occasion. From the opening bite of the gritty title track to the closing notes of Liquor, ZZ Top are back to doing what they do best. That is, roadhouse blues with an occasional modern slant. Yet it doesn’t sound like a band trying to forget their recent past but rather celebrate their classic sound in the modern day. At 17 tracks it is a blush too long for a ZZ Top album, but this still remains their best for some time.
For a band with such an infectious sense of humour as ZZ Top, the video format was always going to offer the band a chance to play out their tongue-in-cheek ideologies, and never were they more effective than when centred around Eliminator. The themed videos of the young rock fan, fighting against ‘The Man’ with the help of the hirsute trio, some leggy blondes and ZZ’s ever-present red and yellow coupe, will take you right back to MTV circa 1983. This DVD release of the band’s original 1992 VHS saw the light of day in 2004, but sadly features nothing before the days of Eliminator. And admittedly the humour factor wears thin by the time you get to the Afterburner material, though My Head’s In Mississippi from Recycler is well worth a look. Not so the appalling Viva Las Vegas, the sole ‘new’ track lobbed onto the CD release seemingly without a care.
ELIMINATOR KEY RING
One of the lasting images of the Eliminator promo videos was not only the car, but also the keys, handed to the lucky hero by the stoically silent trio to drive off into the sunset with the woman – or was it the women? – of his dreams. The keys hung on a stylish key ring depicting the double Z of the band’s very cool-looking logo. It rapidly became a smart marketing tool given out as a promo item to journalists by ZZ Top’s record company, but as swiftly became available commercially. It appears on the band’s current website (www.zztop.com), but alas doesn’t feature in the online catalogue (handled by an outside organisation). But worry not, it’s widely available on eBay and around the Net. Also, if you’re lucky enough to see the ’Top in concert, the key ring is available at the merch’ stall. For about £15 – quite cheap for such a stylish item!
THE DISCOGRAPHY 1970-2003
1970 - ZZ Top’s First Album (Warners)
1972 - Rio Grande Mud (Warners)
1973 - Tres Hombres (Warners)
1975 - Fandango (Warners)
1976 - Tejas (Warners)
1979 - Deguello (Warners)
1981 - El Loco (Warners)
1983 - Eliminator (Warners)
1985 - Afterburner (Warners)
1990 - Recycler (Warners)
1994 - Antenna (RCA)
1996 - Rhythmeen (RCA)
1999 - XXX (RCA)
2003 - Mescalero (RCA)
ZZ Top had taken a three-year break after returning from their groundbreaking Worldwide Texas Tour as burnt-out as a book of motel matches. When they returned, although both Gibbons and Hill now sported the lengthy beards which would from then on ever be synonymous with the band, their essential sound hadn’t changed too much from 1973’s Tres Hombres. The riffs might have been a bit heavier, the production slightly sleeker, and the band’s irreverent sense of humour much more to the fore, but it was still the same Texan blues band. But the songwriting had come on in leaps and bounds. Cheap Sunglasses, I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide and She Loves My Automobile are the high points, while the production is every bit as razor sharp as the title (‘Deguello’ means to ‘behead’ in Spanish) implies. The ZZ Top of the world-famous variety began here, inspired by all they’d laid down before.
The mad ones go mad.
ZZ Top have always had a sense of humour. For starters it would explain the beards, but look at early hits La Grange and Tush, tongue-in-cheek, blues-stomping revelry both. It was even more prevalent on Deguello and reached its pre-Eliminator zenith on El Loco, which featured the three grinning protagonists on the cover having been fingered by the long arm of the law with bags of weed. That might explain the blatant ribaldry of songs like Tube Snake Boogie, Pearl Necklace or Ten Foot Pole (no surprises nor cash awards for guessing what they’re about). Yet Leila showed a more sensitive side to the band while Heaven, Hell Or Houston reaffirmed the band’s Texan roots (not that those Texan roots actually needed reaffirming). Sometimes quite sublime in its delivery, El Loco might not be ZZ Top at their most raucous but it certainly is the sound of a band who definitely know how to have fun.
The smash hit.
So what you’re asking yourselves is: how can the album that epitomised commercial hard rock in the 80s not be ZZ Top’s finest disc? Well, it almost is, for even if the massive heights the band achieved on the back of this record goes against what you believe in, Eliminator is still a damn fine collection of 11 killer rock tunes. There is little waste, and almost no spillage at all. It takes the songwriting panache of Tres Hombres and the commercial nous of El Loco and marries them with an updated new-wave production sound. But if the songs hadn’t been good enough, it wouldn’t have been the hit it was. Aside from the singles you’ve got the likes of If I Could Only Flag Her Down and Got Me Under Pressure keeping the quality bar raised high. All credit for adding the themed videos to the package, because no-one had done anything like this before ZZ Top tried it, and no one would get away with it again.
(WARNER BROS, 1973)
Tres bloody good
Given the blues is the base upon which all effective rock’n’roll is built, it’s a pretty special band who ply their trade in old-fashioned blues rock and manage to stamp their authority all over that sound. Let alone one that manages to make this blueprint the benchmark of their own sound, a sound which then becomes one of the most successful the world has ever known. It was in America, the home of the blues, that ZZ Top managed this – a band who stand head and shoulders above anyone else as the finest blues/hard-rock band the nation ever produced.
One only has to listen to their third album, Tres Hombres, to see how it all fitted into place for Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard. If the first two ZZ Top albums had been enjoyable yet unspectacular blues rock, the third set in stone what this band was all about. Low-slung guitars, sleazy blues riffs and boogie to rock the hardest of Texan booze joints were allied to some blinding tunes and a production that sounded way more powerful than one might expect from just a three-piece band.
The centrepiece was La Grange, a song about a Texan brothel highlighting the group’s sleazy sense of humour and built upon a John Lee Hooker riff. Yet it is ably backed up by the likes of Beer Drinkers And Hell Raisers – covered by Motörhead on their own 1980 EP of the same name – Waitin’ For The Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago, some of the finest tunes ZZ Top ever recorded. Simple yet effective, neither flash nor fly, the secret here is how ZZ Top laid down their own blue-print which they would follow for the next decade, when, by adding a dose of synthesizers to the basic sound of Tres Hombres, they’d find themselves at the top of the charts once again.
RIO GRANDE MUD (1972)
2) LA GRANGE
TRES HOMBRES (1973)
TRES HOMBRES (1973)
EL LOCO (1981)
12) MESCALERO_ _