ZZ Top’s brand of Texas blues is a thing of pure musical beauty. In a world where blues rock power trios and two-piece garage rock bands are becoming more and more prevalent, thanks in part to a renewed interest for all things gritty, raw, and loud, ZZ Top can be put near the top of the list of bands that have had a huge influence on a number of modern bands that are enjoying success in a music industry that is slowly regaining its appreciation for real music made by human beings playing instruments.
For more than 45 years, the lineup of Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard has remained unchanged. There’s just something comforting about knowing those three same guys are still out there doing their thing, hitting the streets running, and not beating the masses, like their song “Cheap Sunglasses” so eloquently says, but more ‘feeding’ the masses, with their unique and often imitated style of blues rock. The band got their start in Houston in 1969, originally consisting of Gibbons, organist Lanier Greig and drummer Dan Mitchell. After recording a few songs, including their first official single, “Salt Lick”, Greig was replaced by bassist Billy Ethridge and Frank Beard took the place of Mitchell on drums. When the band couldn’t attract attention from U.S. record companies and took a deal with a U.K. based label in 1970, with which Ethridge refused to sign, Dusty Hill was brought in as his replacement, and the ‘tres hombres’ have been together ever since.
Although I do thoroughly enjoy their sophomore release, Rio Grande Mud, it was their third album, 1973’s Tres Hombres, that brought them to the attention of the general public, brought them commercial success and solidified their Texas boogie rock sound that they would come to be known for. It’s albums like these that make me wish I was a teenager in the seventies! The single, “La Grange”, is now a staple on classic rock radio and has been heard in countless films, television shows and commercials, including my own student film that needed a bad-ass rock song for the epic final showdown between a drug addict and his pushover neighbor. Another stand-out track is the opener, “Waitin’ for the Bus”, which perfectly showcases Billy Gibbons’ knack for using his beautifully overdriven guitar tone to write simple, catchy riffs that, while based in the traditional 1-4-5 blues progression, sound original and contain enough attitude and groove that if you don’t tap your feet or bob your head in some way, you’re just being a sourpuss. Let’s also not forget the foundation that is laid out so firmly for Mr. Gibbons on this entire album, thanks to the fantastic musicianship of Frank Beard and Dusty Hill, who really give the music its boogie feel, especially on a song like “Master of Sparks”, with its driving, sometimes syncopated bass riff that follows the guitar but simultaneously hooks right in with Beards swinging, boogie rhythm and sublimely placed kick drum hits. Did I mention the term boogie? Lastly, I have to mention Dusty’s vocals on “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers”, which add a brightness and sheen to the mix that complements Billy’s grittier, blues growl perfectly.
There’s a reason Tres Hombres was a hit: It’s a really good album, with really good music, made by damn good musicians!
Easily one of my favorite songs from the band’s catalog is “Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings”, which appeared on the B-side of 1975’s Fandango!. That song contains everything I love about Gibbons’ style as guitar player, from its groovy main riff with that signature hook at the end that coincidentally starts the song (Genius!), to the tasteful use of pinch harmonics in his solo, and his meat and potatoes outro riff. I’ve seen Gov’t Mule cover the song live with Billy before, and it was stupefying! The single off the album, “Tush”, was supposedly born from a jam the band had at a soundcheck. If that’s the stuff they pull off when hanging out before a show, just riffing, then they should be recording all their pre-show antics for future ideas.
The 1980s proved to be a very successful era for ZZ Top, probably their best in terms of commercial success! For starters, they came into the decade touring for the album Deguello, which was their first release for the behemoth that is Warner Bros. Records. It also was when Gibbons and Hill decided to grow full beards, an image that has become part of the bands identity, along with cars and beautiful women. Deguello eventually went platinum, and included the singles, “Cheap Sunglasses” and the Sam & Dave cover, “I Thank You”. “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” is one off the album that was never released as a single, but has gone on to become a mainstay in their live repertoire. It’s also just a downright fun song to play if your band is looking to cover some Top.
Just as the band Rush, and many other rock outfits, began incorporating elements of synthesizers into their sound in the 80s, so too did ZZ Top. Starting with El Loco in 1981, the band began experimenting with synths backing certain tracks. “Groovy Little Hippie Pad” is very indicative of what was going on with a lot of rock bands around this time. Not exactly my cup of tea, but being a musician, I completely respect them for stretching their creative legs, and not sticking to the same formula forever, even if that formula was awesome. The single, “Tube Snake Boogie”, remains one of my favorites from this period. Their innuendos are part of what makes them so great, because they never took themselves too seriously, and that’s always important when being creative.
No write-up on ZZ Top can be without mention of 1983’s mega-hit, Eliminator, which included the popular singles, “Got Me Under Pressure”, “Gimme All Your Lovin’”, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs”. They continued to include synthesizers on many of the tracks, and also included sequencers and drum machines. The band took full advantage of the emerging market for music videos, with MTV playing videos for three of the four singles fairly regularly, helping the band to reach a younger, teenage fan base. The worldwide tour that followed took the band to countries they’d never been before. Along with beards, cars and women, the band added another facet to their image: Fuzzy, sheepskin-covered guitars!
The band’s latest release, 2012’s La Futura, was a return to the band’s seventies formula, foregoing the synthesizers for the stripped down guitar, bass and drum sound that got the band where they are today. With Rick Rubin and Billy Gibbons producing, the album contained some of the bands best material in years. “It’s Too Easy Manana” and “Consumption” easily sounded like they could have been written in 1976. When any band has different era’s, in which they spend considerable time trying to experiment and branch off from what made them popular in the first place, whether it’s radically different or played fairly safe, I personally think it makes a band that much more interesting and fun to listen to. You have to give respect to the fact that they were adventurous and took a chance, something we all need to do every once in a while.
ZZ Top is currently on tour in the U.S., with dates going through early June, before they head overseas for a European tour in July. Check out ZZTop.com for all their tour dates and other info!