ZZ Top – Album By Album
ZZ Top’s new boxset, The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990, is reviewed in the new issue of Uncut (dated July 2013 and out now) – in this week’s archive feature, from Uncut’s February 2009 issue (Take 141), Billy Gibbons looks back over the stellar career of the Ramones of Southern boogie. Features Hendrix, the blues, Soft Machine, cars, girls and MTV… “Rick Rubin’s made a promise,” says Gibbons in the laid-back brogue of a Southern gentleman. “He won’t be pushing us into hip-hop…” Words: Alastair McKay
ZZ TOP’S FIRST ALBUM
From supporting Hendrix with psychedelic outfit Moving Sidewalks, Billy Gibbons returns to the blues, with a respectful nod to British power trios.
Billy Gibbons: “We were fresh off the psychedelic plain, having worked the Moving Sidewalks act, which was kind of inspired as an offshoot of some of our heroes – the 13th Floor Elevators. Having launched that bit of business we had a fairly decent regional round of recordings that landed us an opening spot with the Jimi Hendrix tour of 1968, also featuring Robert Wyatt’s band, The Soft Machine. The Sidewalks morphed into a trio, coming off of a four-piece band doing this psychedelic routine. Quite a lot had transpired and in no small part we favoured the Jimi Hendrix and the Soft Machine trio lineup. The Sidewalks’ drummer Dan Mitchell and I found ourselves alone, looking for a direction to turn to having the former keyboard player and the bass player off to the military. They got snatched up. But the good news is the drummer and I elected to stay on the point and we thought that maybe the trio would do us well. [Mitchell was replaced by Frank Beard, while Dusty Hill joined on bass] Keep in mind that not only was there Jimi Hendrix and The Soft Machine, there was some other pretty stalwart trios, like Cream, which were very hard and edgy blues. I guess that was probably the beginning of what later became known as power trios. It’s no secret that it was the enthusiastic and rather forensic inspection of the blues, by British musicians, down to the genetics, that was the salvation of this rapidly disappearing artform. We were actually re-embracing and re-learning ways to become interpreters of what was in danger of evaporating. In essence that took us into ZZ Top land, launching the first album in 1970 [actually released in January 1971], which was definitely a blues-rock experience.”
Nudie suits and Texicana: finally, a hit single with “La Grange”, and the group’s charms are amplified thanks to the arrival of a stack of Marshall amps.
“The first album in 1970 and then Rio Grande Mud in 1972 were the stepping stones towards really refining the direction which resulted in Tres Hombres. That landed us the first Top 10 chart record, ‘La Grange’, being the top-selling single from that, which really brought it to the forefront. That song was about the Waldorf Astoria of whorehouses in Texas, and it was like a green light for us. We just thought, ‘All right, this is us. We can do this.’ Once again, the British to the rescue – we were treated to the discovery of this contraption called a Marshall 100-watt amplifier stack. It was a revelation. It wasn’t just about the noise: the volume was certainly there, but it was all about the tone. That was successfully captured on Tres Hombres. We had found the cornerstone of our sound, which we were able to take on to subsequent releases. That being: a good Fender bass, a Gibson Les Paul, a backline of Marshall gear. We had Mr Frank Beard holding down the percussion slot between these two stacks – doing the best he could to keep up. But it forced us into learning how to embrace the power of the trio. And about the song ‘La Grange’: it’s in a grand tradition. Going all the way back, T-Bone Walker meets Cream meets John Lee Hooker meets Slim Harpo meets The Rolling Stones! There’s a long lineage of that infectious beat. And it’s still workin’!”
Their hardest album, half-live, half-studio with covers of “Jailhouse Rock” and Willie Dixon’s “Mellow Down Easy”, alongside the anthemic “Tush”.
“At the time, a lot of bands were attempting to recreate in the studio what they were exciting their audiences with on the live circuit. The easiest way into it was to do just that: bring in a mobile recording rig and set up some microphones between the bandstand and the audience and try to get what was going down, which is what we did. And we figured that there was enough interest and value in the studio stuff. So, back in the day when there was an A-side and a B-side, it made for a handy way to present the two aspects of what we were doing at the time. By this time we had joined the ranks of all of the big production outfits – we were trying to outdo the next guy. That was a time when bigger was better. For us, it started off as a sparsely populated stage – in terms of both persona and gear – but it wound up moving into the Worldwide Texas Tour, which I suspect could be classed as probably the paramount presentation of ZZ Top. We had the stage cut out in the shape of Texas, angled down to reveal live rattlesnakes, buffalo, longhorn and buzzards. It worked for the time and place and it provided a lot of entertaining moments. We certainly had a good time. On Fandango, the flipside of the studio stuff presented Dusty’s premier piece, ‘Tush’. And don’t leave out ‘Mexican Blackbird’, that was one of our anthems to growing up in Texas, and having to make a pilgrimage to the Mexican border. That song was played on electric instruments, but it certainly had that country thread running through it.”
Slight change in direction, with shades of the Stones’ country rock experiments taking hold in laid-back set…
“Tejas certainly made a statement. There was a couple of really crazy country pieces – ‘She’s A Heartbreaker’, and I think ‘Asleep In The Desert’, which was our one-and-only acoustic offering. It had a kind of spaghetti western sound. We actually don’t own an acoustic instrument, that was done on a borrowed Martin gut string that I think Willie Nelson had left in the studio, and he was coming back after we were due to leave, and go back on the road. So we picked it up and gave it a go. It’s a pleasant, kind of dreamy offering. It’s a composition that certainly falls a little bit outside of the ZZ Top norm, if there should be such a thing. But we enjoyed it. And we had a nice blues shuffle, ‘Arrested While Driving Blind’. We dabbled in a couple of country tunes. It was all working for the time. We took so many leads from our heroes, the Stones, and they were tiptoeing through country rock at that time, which kind of opened the door.”
ZZ take a three-year break before reinventing white blues with horns, beards and “Cheap Sunglasses”.
“There was an attractive offer on the table from Warner Brothers, attempting to lure us into their camp, but in order to do it we had to wait out the existing contract. So we took time out. It was at the end of 1976 and it was going to be a six-month waiting period, which later turned into a year, which rolled into year number two. We needed a break. We had been on the road for seven straight years working 300 dates a year. Dusty went down to Mexico, I was travelling around Europe, Frank went to Jamaica. We were staying in touch by telephone. And at the end of this mysterious break, we returned and walked into a rehearsal room, Dusty and I having sprouted these now famous chin-whiskers. We had gotten lazy and thrown the razor away, and we said: ‘Ah! That’s a fashion.’ Or an anti-fashion. So what started out as a minor disguise turned into a major trademark. Degüello was an interesting bridge from this hard blues trio. It still had the hallmarks of our humble beginnings, but we learned how to create our own three-horn backline, like Little Richard. It was a little more R’n’B than just stone cold blues, and we were starting to work in the girl theme – ‘She Don’t Love Me, She Loves My Automobile’. Cars, girls, fast and loud – those elements were starting to gel.”
Recorded at Ardent in Memphis, Eliminator coincided with the birth of MTV. Cue a series of videos that defined the band’s aesthetic – “cars, girls and fast and loud music…”
“This found us back in Memphis and we were starting to experiment with unusual instruments [synthesisers and drum machines]. We didn’t want to leave any stone unturned so we embraced them as we could. We picked the instruments up with one hand and threw away the instruction manuals with the other. It was a strict study in: we don’t know what they’re supposed to do, so we’ll start pushing buttons until it sounds right. Here we were bringing the T for Texas into the T for Tennessee. Someone said, ‘What is it about Texas music?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s something in the air, in the land. We just know. It is. It’s something undefinable.’ And they said: ‘Well, what about Memphis music?’ It’s a different thing. To understand it, you have to go back to the great exodus out of Mississippi in the 1930s. Keep in mind most folks that wanted out didn’t have automobiles, so they took off on foot. As you walk up through the Delta, aiming north, Memphis, Tennessee was a great resting spot. It’s about as far as you could walk. And Beale Street being right there at the edge of the river, became the hotspot – that’s where the music exploded. There was gin joints, the red light district, you name it. If there was any good stopping place, it was right there. That gave Memphis the blues, and later R’n’B. It’s fair to say that that was the strongest message coming out of Memphis. We fell onto MTV by accident. Frank Beard, the man with no beard, rang me up, and he followed up by calling Dusty, and he said, ‘Hey check it out, there’s a great music show.’ We collectively thought it was maybe a late-night performance, and after about eight hours and staying up all night long I called him and said: ‘When is this concert ending?’ Only to find out later when somebody said: ‘That’s a new 24-hour music channel.’ That was our introduction to MTV. There was such curiosity about it – it was wild, no holds barred, no rules laid, it was total guesswork. But we had diligently worked at wrapping up this series of sessions that became Eliminator. We were trying to dismiss the bad stage habits of speeding up and slowing down, and incorporating that with some really unexpected sound additions. Those two elements, plus some interesting compositions – you combine that with somebody stepping forward and saying, ‘Hey, let’s join this video phenomenon,’ which resulted in that trilogy of ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’’, ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ and then ‘Legs’. And that stamped us forever.”
Fully established as a cartoon band, the Top employ robotic drums and nasty synths, neither of which assist in the appreciation of the single-entendre rocker, “Woke Up With Wood”, or the bizarre “Velcro Fly”.
“There was no changing the facts – we passed up the opportunity to shave the beards off, at the invitation of one of the razor-blade manufactures, we told ’em we were too ugly. And that held through the video years. I said get the camera off of us and put it on those pretty girls. Good move! We were continuing to experiment, musically. The good news is that there was that one cohesive thread that bonded even this next stage of ZZ Top. There was that element of blues that glued it all together. We were all too happy to stretch out and remain in step with what was going on, but we never really left that rootsy background. I think that someday we may succeed in conquering a true tradition. ‘Velcro Fly’ was Dusty’s – he does OK on the keyboards when he wants to. People say some of this record sounds like Prince? It’s very odd – but it still holds up, and we were still the darlings of MTV. For ‘Velcro Fly’, Paula Abdul was our choreographer! She said, ‘Look, I know you guys can get low down with that wicked blues stuff. Now I gotta teach you how to put your feet together…’ Ha! That’s a friendship that’s lasted to this day.”
Naked cowgirls and dark voodoo turn the good ship ZZ around. Cue 2009, Rick Rubin, and The Black Keys…
“ZZ Top has been touted and perceived as this hard blues trio. However we’ve not failed to use modern-day recording techniques, and overdubs have allowed the humble three-piece band to become many times like a five-, six-piece band. Recycler, maintaining that bluesy thread, has a bigger approach. I think the willingness to embrace multi-tracking and some contemporary recording techniques made that record come out the way it did. And that held over for Antenna . We were still experimenting with making a trio into a six- or a nine-piece outfit. Antenna was followed by one of our favourites, Rhythmeen , which is actually the first pure trio recording, followed by XXX  and Mescalero . But now Rick Rubin has thrown his hat in the ring. After a friendship for double decades this is the first opportunity Rick and I have had to come together and see what we can manage on record. I dig the guy and I think that he at least understands ZZ Top. A good solid rock release would be much to our liking. He’s suggested a collaboration with another raw, raunchy outfit, The Black Keys – the duo that’s been making a big noise with just a guitar and a drummer. Then again those early records by Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed had no bass. It was basically guitar and drums. Gimme the backbeat, brother, and I’ll bring on the distortion!”
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