Six Strings (Of Words) From ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons
Photo by David Piacitelli
The call I’d been waiting for came in the middle of the night.
Yes, I was told: Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top’s legendary guitarist/vocalist/Right Reverend of the Gritty-Assed Blues was available for an interview, but it would be brief. The band was somewhere between Tennessee and Europe in a time-warping supercharged ’33 Ford coupe (don’t be asking me the obvious questions involving the Atlantic Ocean and such – this is ZZ Top we’re talking about) and we wouldn’t have much of a connection.
A few hours prior, Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard had shown the midnight masses at Bonnaroo how to blow their tops in true Texas fashion and blasted off for the other side of the pond to spread the joy.
“Cool,” I figured. “I’ll hone my list down to the meat of the matter and enjoy a chat with Reverend Bill.”
There was a complication with that: my interview would have to be via e-mail on my end, transmitted over some sort of shortwave signal to an old tube radio aboard the band’s ’33 coupe. Apparently, Billy could then dictate answers back to me from the Ford’s cockpit that I’d receive in printed form.
If you’re going to be in this racket, you have to be flexible, boys and girls – and typeset words from the Reverend were far better than no words at all. “Let’s do it,” I told my contact. “Let me know when we have a connection – I’ll be standing by.”
I sat back and pondered the pile of music on my desk. And – Lord have mercy – what a pile of music it was. ZZ Top: The Complete Studio Albums (1970-1990) read the cover of the box, and it is as advertised: the band’s first ten studio albums, offered up with their original mixes. The collection begins with the grunt and growl of “(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree” leading the way into 1970’s ZZ Top’s First Album and concludes with the wukkawukkawukka synth pulse and geetar snarl of Recycler‘s “Doubleback” from 1990. In between is a whole lot of music from the trio the world has come to know as “That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.”
Now, let’s say when you hear “ZZ Top” your brain immediately flashes to ‘80s-vintage MTV videos featuring long-legged gals and guys with wicked long beards and shades doing cool synchronized hand gestures and head nods, okay? There’s no denying it: Gibbons, Hill, and Beard are responsible for some iconic videos that managed to combine science fiction and sex with glass pack mufflers and nasty blues riffs – all tied up with a thick bow of synthesized sound that dominated the grooves of 1983’s Eliminator, ‘85’s Afterburner, and Recycler. But if that’s all you know about ZZ Top, you’re missing out. And one of the cool things about The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990 is it lays things out in a manner that makes perfect sense – with the music doing all the talking.
ZZ Top is first and foremost a blues band, boys and girls – always was and, I’m pretty dang sure, always will be. Dig the first minute-and-42-seconds of “Brown Sugar” on First Album when it’s just Billy Gibbons and his raw-toned guitar: them’s Texas-style blues, fo’ sho’ – but there’s a Hendrixian twist to things (the man comes by it naturally, as we will hear) as well. And when Hill and Beard join in, the three commence to drive the beast wide-open along that sun-baked dirt road that weaves through Electric Ladyland just as naturally as can be.
Rio Grande Mud (1972) and ‘73’s Tres Hombres kept things rolling in that same manner. The trio wasn’t above overdubbing some extra guitar to fill things out – but if you’ve ever seen them do tunes such as “Just Got Paid Today” in a live setting, you know that Rev Bill can throw a slide on one of them big ol’ fingers and do his own style of rhythm/lead weaving just fine, thank you very much. Beard’s drumming is always powerful but never overpowering – and Hill is the ultimate sergeant at arms who guards the groove, no matter how wild and wooly things get. Ever been blown away by the Phish lads jamming their way into “Jesus Just Left Chicago”? Spin the original on Tres Hombres and you’ll know what they’re aspiring to.
1975’s Fandango was a hybrid that dedicated one side of the original album to what the liner notes referred to as “captured as it came down – hot, spontaneous, and presented to you honestly, without the assistance of studio gimmicks.” Listen for yourself: that’s three pairs of hands and feet making all that noise (along with the throats of Gibbons and Hill) – and that’s all that is required. On the studio side, played the blues with perfect ache (”Blue Jeans Blues”), strutted like the Faces in their prime (“Balinese”), and slammed out powerful riffs laced with grease and grit (“Heard It On The X”). It was obvious: the Top was rolling.
1976’s Tejas marked the beginning of a period of transition and experimentation for the band: they began to explore the possibilities of the studio setting, letting the tunes free-range their way into broad-ranging sonic spaces (dig the Spanish-flavored drift of “Asleep In The Desert” and the jazzy mists of “El Diablo”) – while never losing their grip on where they came from. By the time the band laid down the tracks for 1979’s Degüello, they’d totally opened the door to blending keys into their sound on a regular basis (with Hill doing the honors). Their cover of the Sam & Dave classic “I Thank You” kicked the album off in fine clavinet-coated glory; “Dust My Broom” proved they could still just plug in and grind it out when they wanted to.
That clavinet might be thought of as the gateway drug to the synthesized sound that was to follow. El Loco (1981) definitely offers up an early instance of synth weirdness with “Groovy Little Hippie Pad”. (And what the hell goes on with that creepy Darth Vader-like voiceover on “Heaven, Hell or Houston”?) At the same time, listen to the guitar break on “Tube Snake Boogie” – the tone and vibe feel like Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan at the same time. The road ahead was wide-open for the band at that point – but it always led back to Texas.