The 3 Texans have had careers longer than most musicians have lives - they started playing together in 1869. They've been savvy enough to get way rich without selling out - they turned down $1 million each from Gillette to shave their beards. They've been doing exactly what they want longer than anyone can remember and people love them for it.
Everyone knows they're cool. But they don't get the respect they deserve, especially these days. Yeah, yeah, they're in the Rock n'Roll Hall of Fame. Don't hold that against them - it doesn't count for anything, and the kids today haven't managed to pick up on how awesome they are. They're too busy listening to Journey and Duran Duran.
ZZ Top never cared what anyone else thought and still doesn't. They played their blues-roots rock for something like 100 years. They wrote great, slightly dirty songs like "I'm Bad...I'm Nationwide", "Tush", and "La Grange".
And then they started getting weird.
They made an album called "Eliminator". Maybe they were bored after making several dozen solid blues-rock records, each with super-solid singles. Perhaps they were savvy enough to understand what tastes were changing to in the 1980s. I like to think it was instinctual rather than calculated.
For "Eliminator", drummer Frank Beard played to a click track and synced and mixed his live drums with a Linn Drum. They took their buzzing distorted guitars and mixed buzzing sawtooth synthesizers in, chugging sequences augmenting the chugging guitars and bass. It's a breathtaking combo, which sounds both raw and polished, timeless and modern.
"Eliminator" sold over 10 million copies, becoming one of the first albums to be certified "Diamond" by the RIAA. Also one of the last, because since the music business threw itself out a window and genres splintered into a million shards, nobody buys records like that anymore.
A big portion of the album's success came from the fantastic videos they made to go along with it. "Gimme All Your Lovin'", "Sharp Dressed Man", and "Legs" were the quintessential MTV videos. The band appeared, driving the car on the cover of the album. There were (by 80s standards) high production values, short stories of the band turning ordinary losers into cool people, and of course, hot chicks.
These videos, for all intents and purposes, were the 80s. You wanted to be one of the people in the video. Or grew up looking to find people like the ones in the video to sleep with. The videos supported rather than upstaged or ignored the music. They kept similar cast and stories so the videos all felt part of a piece.
They managed to parlay their success into a song on the hottest movie series of the 80s - the Back To The Future trilogy. And they followed up "Eliminator" with an even more synthesized album, "Afterburner".
Not as charming as the previous record, "Afterburner" sort of sounded like the band on autopilot. But that was also perfect for the 80s zeitgeist. It had more of everything, and some big hits as well. "Rough Boy" is particularly nice, with a clear influence from Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" video, and an icy take on a pop blues ballad.
So what's so special about ZZ Top? Well, since their big breakthrough on "Eliminator", countless other rock bands have tried to combine drum machines, synthesizers, and guitars. The bands who have tried to duplicate ZZ Top's brilliant sound include:
- Def Leppard. Their albums with "Mutt" Lange actually surpassed ZZ Top's in technological achievement and sales, but without any of the quirky fun.
- Jesus Jones. They don't know it, but they owe a debt to ZZ Top
- Nine Inch Nails. Trent acts like he's the first guy to think a drum machine and a distorted guitar would go great together, or that a clever video would help sell a record. Sorry, man. ZZ Top FTW.
I ran into Billy Gibbons at a party I crashed in the Hollywood hills in 1991. He did not look well, but I suspect he had probably crashed the party, too. I wanted to tell him how much I liked his music, but he was just so cool and there...I couldn't bring myself to get close enough to say anything.
If I could have said anything, I would have said "I want to ride in the car. I want the hot chicks in the animal prints to do unspeakable things with me. I want to be transformed by the power of rock into the cooler version of me I know is in there. I want to drive down a dusty road to a brick loft with neon and Nagel prints on the walls and an old refrigerator full of beer. And thanks for the music."
Alas, it was not to be. Should I be fortunate enough to be graced with the opportunity again, I will not fail. I will tell him that I, too, am bad...and nationwide.
ZZ Top still around, they're still playing. I suspect they'll be rocking in another hundred years. Rick Rubin is producing their new album. Despite Rick's continuing self-cartoonification, I look forward to hearing what ZZ Top sounds like in AC/DC drag.
Until then, check out this short playlist for an example of their unmitigated awesomeness.
Sharp Dressed Man
I Need You Tonight
I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide
Tube Snake Boogie