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Sex, cars and videotape: ZZ Top look back on Eliminator

ZZ Top were a boogie-blues band barely known outside the US – until they recorded Eliminator, slammed into fifth gear and took over the world

Memphis in the early spring of 1982 was hot, sticky and humid, same as any other year. However, change was most definitely in the air for three Texan gentlemen who had assembled in the city, however briefly, to lay down the basic tracks for what would be their eighth album. Up till then, Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, collectively ZZ Top, had made music together that was as true to an American tradition as pumpkin pie; music steeped in the electric blues pioneered by the likes of Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and the two Kings: BB and Albert. Yet at that precise moment, ZZ Top found themselves at a crossroads in their career. And as their leader, Gibbons at least had determined that they plough a new path.

It was Gibbons who formed the band in his home town of Houston, backed up by his dutiful manager-producer, the entrepreneurial, enigmatic Bill Ham. The first line-up of ZZ lasted just long enough to cut a single in 1969, a modest chugger titled Salt Lick, and secure Gibbons and Ham a deal with London Records. After which bassist Hill and drummer Beard, already bar-band veterans, were brought on board. The trio’s third album, 1973’s Tres Hombres, was their breakthrough, with a string of short, sharp and soulful records following that all together made them the biggest cult band in the States. This first chapter reached its apex with 1976’s Tejas and the ensuing Worldwide Texas Tour. A 19-month-long, 96-date trawl across the US, it found them performing on a giant stage made in the shape of the Lone Star State and bedecked with such native wildlife as cacti, longhorn cattle and a pair of glowering black vultures.

Burnt out from this epic undertaking, the band broke off for a two-year hiatus, during which Gibbons roamed around Europe, Hill visited Mexico and Beard had an extended sojourn in Jamaica. The fact that ZZ Top meant diddly overseas allowed the three of them to travel in complete anonymity. Although when they returned to Texas they had secured their future indelible identity, with Gibbons and Hill having both grown out their beards.

Their 1979 comeback album, Deguello, stuck fast to formula and sold a million. But Gibbons had picked up a prototype Fairlight sampler/synthesiser on his travels and began using it to experiment with new sounds. The next album was 1981’s El Loco, upon which the band’s staple classic rock diet was supplemented by such unhinged left-field oddities as Groovy Little Hippie Pad and Party On The Patio, both mangled out of Gibbons’s new toy.

“Without question there’s some crazy, interesting-sounding stuff on that record,” Gibbons says today, from his perch on ZZ’s tour bus as it winds its way around the European festival circuit. “The intrigue of these new-found contraptions was by then just starting to catch on, but we didn’t have a teacher or guide, we didn’t even have an instruction manual. I was just pushing buttons and found something that sounded kind of trashy.”

“But we’d always done that kind of thing,” insists Hill, the cadence of his Texan drawl a beat quicker that Gibbons’s mellifluous burr. “Very early on, I walked into the studio one time and found Billy on the floor, pumping the pedals of an organ with his hands, just shadowing a bass part of mine. That was a very primitive version of what we went on to do.”

El Loco, though, proved to be too jarring for ZZ’s heartland audience and sold less than half as much as its predecessor. Hauling their unloved album around Europe later that same year, Gibbons happened into a club late one night and was struck by the spectacle of a throng of people dancing to the Rolling Stones’ elastic-limbed funk-a-thon Emotional Rescue. Gibbons’s elders by a half a decade and more, the Stones had just then recast themselves as fresh, vibrant, even sonic explorers, as his own band had got stuck in a rut of their own making.

“To me Billy is a true genius,” offers Terry Manning, who engineered ZZ’s records from Tres Hombres to 1990’s Recycler. “And not only musically, but also as a human being, if there is such a definition. He’s extremely philosophical, a deep thinker and musically very aware. He started to analyse why ZZ didn’t get played in dance clubs, and concluded that they were not up to the required rhythmic capabilities. He asked me what we could do. I started going to clubs and studying beats. The market had changed quite a bit from blues-based rock’n roll. So I came up with some ideas we could implement to make a very different album.”

THEY GOT LEGS

What happened to the ZZ Top video girls – the objects of many a schoolboy’s fantasies?

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