100 tracks from the first twenty years of “that Little ol’ band from Texas” By Luke Torn…
As high-minded concepts from low-aiming modern primitives go, ZZ Top, the blues-and-boogie trio that arose from the ashes of the Texas garage/psych scene at the dawn of the 1970s, are a wonder of nature, a genuine pop culture phenomenon. Simple to the extreme—not to say simplistic—the group (singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, drummer Frank Beard) has parlayed a penchant for amped-up John Lee Hooker rhythms, gonzo guitar, and a rare knack for reinvention into four-decades-plus of sustained, oftentimes absurd, madness and mayhem.
The Complete Studio Albums conveniently collects ZZ Top’s signature work—their first 10 albums—reverting to long-unavailable original mixes for three titles (first two albums, plus 1976’s Tejas), cutting out in time to skip their sketchier, post-Warners era.
Arriving just as ’60s social upheaval was bisecting into ‘70s introspection and hedonism, proto-Top headed decidedly in the latter direction, greasily riffing on the popular power-trio approach of the day (cf. Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Grand Funk Railroad), attaching teenage lyrics of drugs, booze, and wild, wild women to filthy electric blues templates laid out by the aforementioned Hooker, Elmore James, Slim Harpo, T-Bone Walker, Albert King, and so on. Other than Gibbons’ teeth-rattling guitar, they were unflashy purists, harboring few concessions to pop ornateness. Oddly enough, ZZ Top might have been most notable—circa their ‘80s arena-rocking prime—for everything they weren’t.
“Brown Sugar,” a sprawling, raucous bloozer from their 1970 debut, is as accurate a Top blueprint as any: leering sexuality (see also: sexism, misogyny), Gibbons’ slurred, drunk-as-a-pirate vocals, grimy guitar blasts reverberating through the song’s midsection, and a roiling rhythmic undertow. Then there’s “Backdoor Love Affair”: See above, but string it tighter, and push the tempo a bit. Repeat when necessary.
As they evolved—a relative term here—they sharpened their stubborn individualism, carving out comic portraits, as on Tres Hombres‘ “Waitin’ for the Bus,” of sad-sack characters beaten down by the system, just trying to get by. But mostly their protagonists, sad sacks or not, just wanted to get drunk, high, and laid. As such, ZZ Top proved the perfect elixir. You really didn’t need to think, other than where the next joint and tequila shot were coming from. And in this, ZZ Top excelled: Endless sex-and-drug double entendres and catchy sing-song slogans—stretched out in exalted redundancy via boogie-til-your-eyeballs-fall-out stomps.
Their sonic trademark for the next decade set, ZZ Top set about sharpening up their repertoire. 1972’s Rio Grande Mud mostly repeated the first album’s formula, but on 1973’s Tres Hombres they hit their stride, sometimes pushing their blues into funkyland. Gibbons’ stabbing riffs are sharper here, and surprising attempts at balladic moderation–like “Hot, Blue and Righteous”–poke through. If the crackling, metalloid “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” was an idealistic statement of purpose—Gibbons machine-gunning frantic riffs in all directions—it was “La Grange,” Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun” retooled for white Texas kids headed to the brothel, that nudged the charts, pushing them aboveground, into pop consciousness.
Fandango! was 1975’s entrée, and though it contained the prototypical ZZ Top single—“Tush”—it was weighted down by a just-ok live side. The tired-and-drained Tejas portended a kind of dead-end, especially given that white-boy blues bands, historically speaking, are hardly adept at reinvention.
But three years of woodshedding—during which disco and punk whizzed by—witnessed a new trajectory. Degüello (1979) and El Loco (1981) presented new, sleek, modernized thumpa-thumpa, liberally spiked with heretofore undetected comic distance and self-deprecating humor. Signature songs, FM staples – “Dark Sunglasses,” “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” “Pearl Necklace,” “Tube Snake Boogie”— were duly minted, extending their raunchy repertoire, and proving a weird theory: The more ZZ Top dumbed it down—the more beloved they became, the more their legacy grew.
This revelation came in handy: Eliminator and its cheap knockoff Afterburner were stoopid taken to new heights; see, especially, “TV Dinners,” “Velcro Fly,” “Woke Up With Wood,” for god’s sake. But within their nefarious mix of bludgeoning, metronomic (headache-inducing) hi-tech beats, synth washes, machine-cut guitar licks, and hairy, cartoon videos—were irresistible, airwave-ready hooks, escapist fodder nerve for the MTV minions: “Sharp Dressed Man“, “Gimme All Your Lovin'”, “Legs”, “Sleeping Bag”, raced up the charts, monuments to ’80s cheese. Ultimately, the stereotype backed them into a corner; 1990’s Recycler completed the trashy trilogy, but barely registered—an afterthought—beckoning yet further new-look incarnations.