ZZ Top

TrackAlbum  
(Somebody Else Been) Shakin' Your TreeZZ Top's First Album
ChevroletRio Grande Mud
Jesus Just Left ChicagoTres Hombres
Beer Drinkers & Hell RaisersTres Hombres
Hot, Blue & RighteousTres Hombres
She's Just Killing MeRhythmeen
Vincent Price BluesRhythmeen
Fearless BoogieXXX
I Gotsta Get PaidLa Futura
ChartreuseLa Futura

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Contributors: Rob Millis & Keith Shackleton

Though the USA is often famed for going one bigger and/or better than the UK, one area where they have consistently failed is in trumping the Rolling Stones. The Brian Wilson vs Macca contest was closer run, but even that descended into mutual admiration and general raising of the pop music bar generally. But never have Jagger/Richards had a Stateside act to challenge them directly (whatever Velvet Underground fans think!). In fact they’d need two bands to do this, and for my money they are the Grateful Dead and ZZ Top. Both have the brand image (The Stones’ lips logo vs the Dead’s skull and roses theme or ZZ Top’s beards and hot rods) and the tenure (ZZ Top extant; Garcia’s dead, but Bill Wyman left; Equal.) but you’d need two acts as only the Dead had the anti-establishment “bad boys” notoriety and only ZZ Top have the swagger.

And swagger they did, right from the start. ZZ Top’s First Album hit us in 1970 and when (around 1988/89) my old schoolchum and fellow nascent guitar-toter Dave Needham picked up a copy we immediately recognized the same trademark sound as we were hearing on the radio in their then-current releases (Legs, Sharp Dressed Man). It hit us straight away – this band is good and has lasted a long time because there is no bullshit about them. They have their style and it is good, simple rock that people can relate to decade after decade. The girls could dance to it; the boys loved it because they were great visually with their crazy beards, matching guitars and hot rods. Okay, by the mid to late 80s the boys also loved it because there were incredibly leggy girls in the videos. MTV had a lot to answer for.

The one concession to ornamentation from the admirably raw Texan trio on (Somebody Else Been) Shakin’ Your Tree (that opened that first LP and my half of the Topper 10) was pedal steel guitar, but we loved that because it reinforced this was gen-yoo-wine Stateside fare. A guitar-based trio with a different approach – it wasn’t like Cream who blathered on for hours, it was to the point and made you tap a foot not sit cross legged and stroke your chin. It was effing great, that record, and still is. Were I in charge of all ten Topper selections, to respect the gentler size of the combo, Old Man would be my second selection, but as it isn’t making the ten I’ll say a bit about it. Over a gorgeous patchwork of intertwined guitars, Gibbons tells the tale of an elderly chap coming to the end of his days; lovely harmonies towards the end. Lyrically, I always think this a second cousin to The Band’s Rocking Chair – both tell of an old timer who you can imagine sitting on a porch chuckling to himself as the light fades and he nods off again.

I don’t know why but I’ve never found the follow up album, Rio Grande Mud, to click with me anywhere near as much as the two LPs either side of it. That isn’t to say it isn’t an excellent record, more that the other two are stupidly good. It does, however, yield Chevrolet, a real greasy guys-and-their-cars potboiler with those “Hallelujah!” choruses. Some will remember an even more decadent version by the band Stray Dog about a year later, with the great Snuffy Walden on guitar.

Pull up a chair, we’ve got to Tres Hombres. In my view the greatest piece of vinyl that the bluesy end of seventies rock ever gave us. I’m not talking about the likes of Little Feat, The Band or Ry Cooder here, I’m talking about heads-down bluesy rock, but even considered among the lofty, the more melodic moments of Tres Hombres can cut heads.

From the off, it is infectious. The chugging riff of Waitin’ For The Bus opens in style with the song taking various twists and turns on the way, before going into Jesus Just Left Chicago which makes the Topper 10. Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers is a real Saturday night rocker, with bassist Dusty Hill’s vocals shining out (his is the second half of each line you hear e.g. “With my favourite honky-tonk in mind …”). Arguably a much better singer than Gibbons, but we won’t blaspheme here. Both vocalists in twin-lead harmonies with gentler material is a treat, and featured on the closing tracks of each side (I still think in vinyl terms). Hot, Blue & Righteous is my next selection, simply gorgeous – that one IS up there with The Band, Cooder and Little Feat. The gospel influenced shuffle Have You Heard? closes the other side. Along the way we have such treats as La Grange (think John Lee Hooker/Canned Heat/“Spirit In The Sky” and double the speed) and my favourite in many ways (although not on the ten choices as so atypical) and Sheik – a very stark and fresh-sounding track. The whole album is a killer from start to finish.

And therein lies the reason why it took me a couple of goes to write this because after Tres Hombres I’m struggling to think of a whole album that I like nearly as much as the first and third. That isn’t to say their other albums aren’t great, but the bar was set very high with those two. I’m on individual tracks virtually from this point onwards. 1975’s Fandango! was at least helped by being a completely different animal; a mix of live and studio material, rather than Tres Hombres Two.

From here, though, I’ll retire and get the kettle on and leave you in the capable hands of Keith Shackleton who will guide you through the mid-seventies and beyond, better than I, whose appalingly blinkered mind’s eye only sees huge effigies of the sleeves of Tres Hombres and the first LP standing up like Isildur and Anarion at the Gates of Argonath. I’ll let it slip that my Fandango! choices were to be Balinese and Tush just to see if Keith agrees. Must dash.

Rob Millis

 

Thank you, sir. Balinese is a truly great track. I’ve probably heard Tush too many times, and too many times done badly by crappy bar bands, for it to be on my list. Conversely, the version I have on a Live in Atlanta 1982 bootleg just smokes. However, before I get too distracted by that, let’s get down to the nitty gritty, and I’ll start right off by saying Rob and I might not be singing from exactly the same hymn sheet, but we’re definitely using the same hymn book.

Because, for a good long while, it didn’t get any better for ZZ Top. Tejas is … alright. Degüello has one or two funky tricks, a nifty lyric or two, but better than what went before? If it is, why don’t I play it anymore? Becoming more popular, expanding on the basics, trying to place on those damn pop charts – things were changing. You can see the band reaching out for something else and teaching themselves to play sax was only the beginning. Was it Warners pressure, pushing for the big bucks? If it was, it worked. But a terrible price was paid.

Synthesisers. Barely present on 1981’s El Loco, Gibbons’ eagerness to experiment with them changed the tack of the band entirely, and dragged them into their wilderness years. The combination of synthesizer, drum machine and sequencer on the band’s lost-without-trace 80s albums Eliminator, Afterburner and Recycler dealt a fatal blow to Billy, Dusty and Frank from which they barely recovered.

I jest, of course. Horrendously popular, weren’t they? But I was suckered in, by a series of expensive, witty videos starring a ghost car, furry guitars and many long-legged stuff-strutting lovelies. We all were, blinded by ostentation – SEE the videos get more and more extravagant over the course of those three records as the band earn more and Warners spend more. But did the music get better?

I can’t listen to those records now. On his extraordinary hit-album-dissecting blog Then Play Long, Marcello Carlin recently mentioned, in the context of 80s production, “a record which sounded expensive in 1985 can end up sounding horrendously cheap a generation down the line”. And, boy, those ZZ Top records, with their metallic sheen generated by all that shiny electronic doohickery.. no, no, no, they’re just plain wrong. ZZ Top honed their craft for many years in hundreds of sweaty hostile bars having beer bottles hurled at their heads, and to take all that hard-earned talent and skill and swing and have the rhythm section plonk along behind a strict electronically-generated time sequence, and feed Billy’s guitar through a bank of …. stuff! … gah, I was fooled. Some sexy films with couple of shiny cars and a leather miniskirt or two and I was fooled and I’m embarrassed about it.

I tried, dammit. Before writing this, I thought, fair enough, My Head’s In Mississippi … surely that’s lowdown and dirty? Surely that’s a contender? But the production … [shudder] and watching it again, I even hated the video.

The band had lost me, and we didn’t reconnect until 1996, when Rhythmeen popped out. I read an interview with Billy about how they recorded it, and his technique was to form his amplifiers into a circle, with one presumably stressed out microphone recording, and failing to cope, in the middle. “That sounds loud! That sounds like an album I want to hear!” I thought, and it was so: a gritty, evil, dastardly hard rock sound, with a whiff of garage rock, and precious few electronic embellishments, save for judicious blasts of harmonica from one of my favourite harp guys and friend of the band, James Harman (see him here on “Later”, with the boys). Listen to it all, but listen especially to She’s Just Killing Me (also on the soundtrack of the Rodriguez/Tarantino movie From Dusk Till Dawn) and Vincent Price Blues – this is the essence of ZZ Top. Gibbons has that classic Les Paul gold top sound down – if anyone should be called Slowhand it’s Billy, he never overplays and always has great tone. Frank and Dusty just swing here, unencumbered by digital handcuffs. Rhythmeen is a doozy. Buy it.

Then what happened? It all went to custard again. Their 30th anniversary record XXX was a curious grab bag of half-assed live tracks and studio averageness. Sinpusher was just a rework of Pincushion: not really a way you’d want to celebrate your band’s birthday. But it does contain the slovenly, dragging fearsome twelve-bar Fearless Boogie. I forgive them for XXX because of that track.

Up next – Mescalero. Shoulda been called Mess-calero (fnarf). It’s too long and too scatterbrained and too polished. Yes, again. When will they ever learn? I get the Tex-Mex thing and wanting to celebrate those roots, but the gutbucket was in the kitchen cupboard for these sessions and having gained all that ground with Rhythmeen, they went and lost it again.

So after a couple of stiffs like that, what could a band do to pull things out of the mire? Who’s going to empty their heads of fear, uncertainty and doubt? Who’s going to dismantle the band and re-assemble it, piece by piece, into the kind of band it used to be, the very essence of what made it successful all those years ago? Who ya gonna call?

Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? Rick Rubin, that’s who. He’s going to bring his rap attitude and sensibility, and he’s going to turn up the amplifiers until they overload and you can let fly without over-analysing why you do what you do. You just do it. He records the results.

So he, and the band, produce the extraordinary I Gotsta Get Paid, which is a cover of hip hop DJ DMD’s 25 Lighters from 1998. Sounds awful, huh? Sounds just as gimmicky and shoddy as the 80s stuff I complained about above. But no, it’s an astute song selection reformatted to transcend the original and take it to another place – the planet of Hard Rockin’ Blues. Because that hip hop track is just as traditional a blues as anything by Lightnin’ Hopkins or Furry Lewis. A man has to get out there and sell his damn drugs or he won’t have any damn money – that’s the blues, ain’t it?

And then ZZ Top put their heads down, as of old, and just boogie.. one of those almost circular Gibbons riffs powers Chartreuse – hey, it’s a colour and a drink and it rhymes with chocolate mousse, big caboose, and ‘light my fuse’ so that’s the lyrics sorted – and when Billy piles into the solos, good god almighty, you’re in ZZ Top heaven.

Having recorded these early tracks for what would become one of their finest albums, La Futura, Rick and the band were obviously so gleefully happy they dropped the first four songs, including the two above, on a digital EP, Texicali, released a mere three months before the full album. You know, that just wasn’t commercially sensible at all, but this stuff was so good, they obviously just couldn’t resist. And why not, considering what they had in the tank at that time?

La Futura is an absolute belter from beginning to end and, whisper it quietly, my favourite Top record. It is the record I always wanted them to make: no fuss, no frills. Modern recording techniques aid, rather than enhance it. A blistering uncluttered traditional clear sound – man, is it ever LOUD – with no distractions.

Well, maybe one or two small ones. They still do those videos with hot cars and hot girls. Damn!

Keith Shackleton

 

ZZ Top official site

Billy Gibbons and his Beard at the Beardoholic website

ZZ Top biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #347

8 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Sep 10, 2014

    Tough list, and well done, but I’m throwing my hat in for the synth stuff. On one historical point … being Texas boys, they could use the synth with credibility. Had a NY blues band dabbled with synths, or a London one, (or a Sydney one), it’d have been laughed off the stage. Frank, Billy and Dusty allowed the synth to become part of the blues, and it might have (though it didn’t ultimately.) it allows other slick acts like Robert Cray to emerge, and even acts like Eric Clapton could become more comfortable in pop. And wot! no Tube Snake Boogie?
    PS, you might consider Springsteen in your list of American rivals… It doesn’t change your argument much, but it’s worth considering.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Sep 10, 2014

    How about Creedence as an American Rolling Stones?

    • Rob Millis
      Sep 13, 2014

      Too homely!

  3. Andrew Shields
    Sep 13, 2014

    I meant musically rather than lifestylely … Try this! I rest my case. The Stones could easily have written “Proud Mary” and the original influences are similar. Maybe less blues in the case of Fogerty.

    • Rob Millis
      Sep 15, 2014

      Still two bands as a direct replacement then, isn’t it? Agree on Proud Mary (and Ramble Tamble is the best track never written by the Fabs for Abbey Road) stylistically, though.

  4. David Lewis
    Sep 20, 2014

    The US band which comes closest is Guns N’ Roses. Swagger, branding, antiestablishment. Aerosmith too, I suppose.
    And of course, they’re not American but AC/DC

    • Rob Millis
      Oct 4, 2014

      Did I forget the “No shouty, heavy metal nonsense” clause… 😉

  5. Martin Palmer
    Oct 1, 2014

    Oh, good list. For me, Eliminator and Tres Hombres are still the two poles between which the Top spins. With such a massive catalogue, it’s inevitable that there will be points of contention, and I’m another who has a proper soft spot for that synth stuff on ‘Eliminator’. Yes, it is a little dated now, but I thought it was something genuinely fresh at the time – traditional blues-rock, but with that relentless unwavering sequenced pulse behind it. And it brought them a massive new audience: I remember how hotly anticipated that album was, a hit before it was even released. As a guitarist myself, the thing above all that thrills me, particularly in the slower material such as “Jesus just left Chicago” is the purity of tone, and spareness of playing, that Gibbons brings to the sound. Never plays two notes where one will do. And let’s not forget the underlying wit and self-deprecation. Anyone who’s seen them play live – and they are still a killer live band – will be familiar with the tongue-in-cheek showmanship and dry humour they bring to the stage.

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