It’s a long way from the dive bars of Texas to the global stadium circuit, yet ZZ Top managed to navigate their way via American FM radio, wildlife-strewn stages and MTV video staples. While they’re not always the first act that springs to mind when you think of Southern Rock, they are by far and away the most successful and most enduring. Led by Jimi Hendrix-endorsed guitar player Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top have cut a unique dash through rock music over half a century, with the line up of Gibbons, bass player Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard remaining unchanged throughout, and their commitment to blues rock remaining undimmed.

Winning the hearts of music fans across America by the traditional method of almost constant gigging, ZZ Top released a string of strong blues rock albums throughout the 70s, before the dawn of a new decade saw them adopting up to date recording and production techniques. This revised sound was married to a series of music videos of questionable taste, but which nevertheless saw them on regular rotation on MTV, and introduced them to a whole new audience. With this renewed wave of interest ZZ Top finally cracked the charts in Europe, and they’ve been a global concern ever since.

The Climb to Stardom

The snappily titled ZZ Top’s First Album has all the hallmarks of a debut album of the early 70s. The sound is basic and uncluttered, the song writing can range from the simple yet solid to the flimsy, yet throughout it all it’s obvious that Gibbons had paid his dues in previous years, and that Hill and Beard were no slouches either. The power trio approach lends itself to an unfussy and economical sound that doesn’t hang about in comparison to their Southern rock contemporaries who were stretching jam based numbers to mind-numbing lengths. Even at this stage in their career, ZZ Top were comfortable with their position in rock and roll’s firmament, updating rock and roll and the blues for the early 70s rock crowd, and not getting bogged down in ambitions any loftier than drinking, partying and hanging out with women.

If you’re only aware of ZZ Top’s later work, then their debut is a refreshing listening experience, and a fascinating document of their roots and early sound, while hinting at the greatness that was to come. Granted, there’s nothing here that you could consider timeless, but it is not without its period charm, and is the album on which they occasionally do sound not dissimilar to their Southern Rock peers. 

While ZZ Top’s First Album wasn’t a game changer, it was an accurate reflection of where they were as an act, hinted at a well of untapped potential and rock and roll good times to come, and confirmed that they still had plenty of room to evolve. It’s an album of enjoyable rock and roll boogie, with a hint of the stronger Southern fried flavours to come.

The weird thing about ZZ Top’s second album, Rio Grande Mud, is that it sounds for all the world like a debut album. There’s an unpolished earthiness about it, which means it remains pretty much rooted in the same sounds and influences as ZZ Top’s First Album. The trouble is, not many of its ten tracks leap out at you as a real step forward and progression from their debut, in fact, taken as a whole Rio Grade Mud just doesn’t have the tune count and hit rate as their debut album. Maybe it was second album syndrome, maybe it was a conscious attempt to hold back their best new material for an album where they would be a concerted push into the charts, either way, for me at least, their debut had better tunes.

Rio Grande Mud is the sound of ZZ Top continuing to pay their dues and learning their craft as musicians and songwriters, as well as finding their way around the recording studio. It’s the sound of a band working towards greatness, honing their sound and preparing for the big push to catapult them on to the next level of rock stardom. It’s an album that confirms their sound and their values rather than makes any major leaps forward.

If you loved their debut, then there is nothing on Rio Grande Mud that is going to change your mind about ZZ Top, though you will probably return to their previous album on a more regular basis.

While previous couple of albums had been an effective run-up, Tres Hombres is where the career of ZZ Top really took flight. This is the album that saw them metamporhise from solid Southern-friend boogie rockers, to emerge as one of the finest rock bands on the planet.

Despite the lean and never-changing power-trio line up, Tres Hombres is a big greasy, high calorie, rock album and sounds like the work of a bigger line up. The licks are chunky, the rhythm section is anything but lightweight and the whole album still weighs in at a flab-free thirty five minutes. Even now thirty five to forty minutes is the optimum run time for a studio album – if it runs to over forty five minutes, chances are there’s something you can edit out.

Of course, “La Grange” remains a staple of classic rock radio, but Tres Hombres is about a lot more than that one breakthrough hit. “Waiting for the Bus” segueing into “Jesus Left Chicago” is one of the classic intertwining of songs and is a highlight of this album, which in turn has also ensured that they’re almost always twinned on stage as well.

Tres Hombres made ZZ Top one of the biggest bands in America, though it would take them the best part of a decade for them to make a lasting impact in Europe, and by then it was also synth-rock, glossy videos featuring scantily clad ladies and hot-rods and beards the size of doormats. Tres Hombres is a very different beast to the one that ran rampage over MTV through the 80s. It’s an organic, blood-pumping beast and all the better for it. 

Big in America

After the success of Tres Hombres, ZZ Top were very much on the upswing. They were being hyped as America’s hottest rock band, were a brilliant live act and were poised to conquer AM radio across the United States. How to consolidate this success? Why not release a half live / half studio hybrid album and cover all the bases by confirming what a brilliant live act they were, while also slating the hunger for new material?

Fandango! opens with a smoking version of “Thunderbird”, a brilliant live rocker which might have lacked the appropriate energy in the studio. However, after this promising start, there’s a distinct drop in quality on the live material, as it eventually finds itself relying on the second most annoying cliché of live albums of the 70s after the drum solo, the rock and roll medley. It’s an unnecessary indulgence when the band had so much solid self penned material even at this early(ish) stage of their career, and the rest of the album is an uphill struggle to recover from this drop in quality.

The studio material on the second half of the album tries its best to regain the lost ground, but the majority of it falls just short when compare it to the material on Tres Hombres, and what should have been an album of confirmation and consolidation just about manages to maintain a holding pattern. The song that confirms that they still had the intangible ‘it’ factor is closing track Tush, one of the band’s best songs and a well deserved hit single for the band.

Fandango! has a great opening track and a superb closing track, the trouble is between those two career highs is far too much filler when at this point in their career it should have been killer. It’s a fair 70s rock album, but a bit of a disappointment after the great Tres Hombres.

With Tres Hombres and Fandango! establishing ZZ Top as one of the USA’s premiere rock bands, the trio found themselves catapulted onto the arena circuit with their stripped down rhythmic rock and roll boogie, where they rubbed shoulders with the likes of Aerosmith and Kiss. While the majority of their arena rocking peers wowed audiences with their flamboyance, ZZ Top went an original, if somewhat questionable route, with their stage show to promote 1976’s Tejas, filling the stage with Texan wildlife and subsequently wondering if that had been such a good idea.

The thing is, while promoting Tejas ZZ Top had to do something to distract from the fact that their latest album just wasn’t quite as good as Fandango!, and waaaay below their high water mark of Tres Hombres. It was as if, once they had ascended to the top flight of American rock bands, they weren’t exactly sure as to what to do once they had got there. While most of ZZ Top’s 70s output is at least a solid slab of enjoyably riff heavy Southern Rock, Tejas genuinely struggles to leave much of an impression, especially when compared to the albums that they had released in the previous couple of years. Individual tracks struggle to stand out on Tejas, and the album as a whole seems to slip by unobtrusively.

Maybe it’s because ZZ Top felt that they had taken their sound to its natural conclusion and they were wanting to get a bit more ambitious, but for me at least, Tejas is a bit of a misfire.

Onwards and upwards though!

Deguello is something of a stand-alone album for ZZ Top. Whereas all their earlier albums albums were re-released on CD in the latter-half of the 80s slathered in drum machines and electric reverb, and their next album, El Loco, was a dry-run for the rest of the globe-gobbling 80s, Deguello was for a long time the only prime-period ZZ Top album you could buy where the percussion wasn’t utterly dominated by drum machines and 80s production. 

What Deguello is dominated by is cover versions, which are studded liberally throughout the album. The most instantly impressive of these is their version of Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You”, which kicks off the album, before classic ZZ Top service is delivered with “She Loves My Automobile”, which as the title suggests, pays homage to the band’s twin obsessions of girls and cars, and in this case, a girl obsessed with a car, which I guess is this band’s ideal subject matter.

Next track, “I’m Bad, I’m Nation Wide”, is one of Deguello’s best known numbers. There seems to be no obvious reason for this, as it’s a solid song, but it’s no more catchy or commercial than anything else on here. It is immeadiately over-shadowed by the slow-burning blues rock of “Fool for Your Stockings”, which is certainly not the most politically correct song, but it does feature a couple of ice-cool guitar solos by Billy Gibbons.

Then it all falls to pieces with “Manic Mechanic”, which is one of the band’s worst songs by some considerably margin. It’s a full-on ‘what the hell were they thinking?’ moment, where you can only put it down to the band getting over-excited as they messed about with new production methods and studio trickery. As bad as ZZ Top’s later obsession with 80s production methods would get, we should never forget just how bad “Manic Mechanic” is.

Slips in quality control such as this aside, the first side of Deguello establishes it as an enjoyable straight-up rock and roll album. It also must have sounded oddly refreshing at a time when disco and punk held sway and ZZ-Top’s stadium rocking contemporaries were becoming mired in AOR hell.

The second half of Deguello side-steps any notion of trying to be anything other than a good time rock and roll album. From “Dust my Broom”, to the rightly celebrated “Cheap Sunglasses”, where production techniques are again faffed-around with, but this time not to the detriment of the song. “Cheap Sunglasses” has always been a great ZZ Top song on an overlooked ZZ Top album. That’s always been Deguello’s fate though. It’s a great rock and roll album, but it’s not one that has been a critic’s favourite, so it’s always been unfairly overlooked. As you listen to closing mid-paced rocker “Esther be the One”, you wonder how this tight and economical rock album by one of America’s premier rock bands hasn’t enjoyed more plaudits over the years. It comes in, does what it does with the minimum of fuss despite the odd lapse of focus and then calls it a night before it outstays it’s welcome.

If your mental image of ZZ Top is of furry-gutar-wielding, drum-machine obsessed, MTV sell-outs, then Deguello is the album that could very well change your mind.

The MTV Years

While El Loco may not be one of ZZ Top’s most popular albums, it is one of their most significant, as it is the point where they turned towards the electronically enhanced sampler-heavy rock that would see a surge in their global popularity for the rest of the 80s in earnest.

From the goofy artwork alone, you can tell that El Loco is not an album on which Gibbons, Hill and Beard are taking themselves particularly seriously, and opening with a song titled “Tube Snake Boogie” only underlines this. This is the sound of a band with a well established sound realising that times and tastes are changing and that they needed to do something to keep up with the times before they started to look like hopelessly out of touch dinosaurs like so many of their peers. Obviously ZZ Top embraced new recording methods and technology, shifting their sound from a little Ol’ Blues Rock Band, to a Little Ol’ Blues Rock Band that had gone on a shopping spree in their local Radio Shack.

The thing is, in the excitement of experimenting with the new technology and recording techniques that were now available to them, ZZ Top got distracted from writing much in the way of great tunes. The previously mentioned “Tube Snake Boogie” is a fun, if slightly crass opener, and closer “Party on the Patio” is enjoyable, if somewhat simple, boogie rock, but still a number that would have been hugely improved if they’d stuck to their original analogue sound. Outside of that “Pearl Necklace” is one of the lyrical nadir’s of the band’s obsession with racy double-entendres, and is one of the more damning examples of male rock musicians really needing to get a grip of their sexual politics. It’s a shame really as “Pearl Necklace” is actually one of the stronger tunes on the album.

With a move away from their hugely enjoyable guitar-dominated hard-rocking blues boogie, El Loco is one of ZZ Top’s weaker albums, but it was a vital signpost for the direction of the band’s career over the next decade.

If you’ve only ever heard of one ZZ Top album, chances are it is Eliminator. Publicised by a series of promos featuring hot rods and scantily clad ladies, these videos received regular airplay on the infant MTV, thereby launching ZZ Top to the very top of the rock music food chain.

It also didn’t hurt that ZZ Top were one of the few old school rock bands that successfully adapted their sound to the contemporary enthusiasm for drum machines and samplers. True, it lost much of the charm of old-school ZZ Top that had been so evident on albums like Tres Hombres and Deguello, and Dusty Hill and Frank Beard became merely bit-part players in their own band, but it breathed new life into a band where many of their contemporaries were barely clinging on to commercial life.

Smartly the songs on Eliminator had been written to suit the band’s new sound, rather than sticking to previously tried and tested writing styles and trying to shape the music around it. “Gimme All Your Lovin'”, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” wouldn’t have been the big commercial hits they were if they had been recorded using the guitar, bass and drums blues rock approach. No, they needed the technology to make them the hits they became.

All credit to ZZ Top, while Eliminator is not a personal favourite of their output, they were ballsy enough to try something radically new with their sound, and while so many of the big rock bands of the 70s struggled, they, along with fellow technology enthusiasts Genesis, thrived. If you are a fan of drum machines, sequencer and synth era ZZ Top, then Eliminator is by far and away their best album from this period.

After an immense global commercial success like Eliminator, it’s perhaps understandable why ZZ Top were happy enough to release a facsimile of that album two years later in revised artwork. The thing is, Afterburner isn’t a particularly good facsimile of Eliminator, as the songwriting took a bit of a dive in favour of fiddling about with ever more elaborate recording technology. 

Commercially, Afterburner did big business for ZZ Top, initially charting higher than its predecessor, but then dropping off the charts much quicker. Still ZZ Top now had a formula for success, and they were going to stick to it, at least for the time being, which no doubt pleased their record label, ensuring that techno-rock lead single “Sleeping Bag” had an elaborate big-budget video which once again pretty much guaranteed regular MTV rotation. The same trick was pulled for third single “Rough Boy” with a video which remains visually impressive today, despite it once again upping the ladies in underwear quota, though oddly second single “Stages” was a pretty by the book generic hard rock performance video, albeit one with (for the time) bleeding edge CGI cut-scenes. With fourth single, “Velcro Fly”, any attempt at impressive visuals were ditched in favour dodgy green screen, stock footage and ladies jigging about in swimwear.

The things is, although some were serviceable, none of these four singles held a candle to those from “Eliminator”, let alone anything ZZ Top had recorded in the 70s, and the rest of Afterburner was little more than filler. It was evident that ZZ Top were now about all about MTV rotation, dabbling with technology and a whole lot less about the greasy blues-rock boogie which they had done so well for so long.

While it is perhaps understandable that a rock band may want to create a facsimile of their greatest commercial success, surely when it becomes obvious that that facsimile is pretty flimsy, the solution shouldn’t be to make a facsimile of the facsimile.

Apparently prior to the release of the awfully / perfectly named Recycler, ZZ Top had declared an intention to revert to a more guitar orientated sound. What they actually produced was a watered down version of Afterburner, which itself was a watered down version of Eliminator. Oh, and Billy Gibbons’ guitars were pushed just very slightly more to the fore.

Recycler is a rather sad, soggy mess, with little of the badly aged yet accessible 80s pop sound that had made the previous albums remotely bearable. This was ZZ Top’s nadir, with only the questionable “Woke up With Wood” (ZZ Top again, not exactly grasping subtleties of sexual politics) and closing track “Doubleback” being of any vague merit.

Following the release of Recycler ZZ Top would reset, reduce the reliance on technology, become less commercially successful, and start the long slow journey to the beloved veteran rock act the they are today. Given where they were, to actually make that journey successfully is no small miracle.

Compilations

The ZZ Top Six Pack is one of the most horrific re-releases of the CD era, where ZZ Top’s pre-Deguello albums are remixed with Eliminator style electronic drums and rhythms. To rub salt into the wounds, none of the original mixes of these albums were available on CD for decades, so if you were picking up a copy of Tres Hombres or Tejas on CD, you were getting the ZZ Top Six Pack versions. The same goes for the big selling Greatest Hits compilation from 1992, which puts an immense amount of emphasis on the band’s 80s MTV period, and the few tracks from the 70s are the horrible remixes.

Some of these wrongs were righted in 2004 on the Chrome, Smoke & BBQ box set, and the Rancho Texicano compilation, which featured remastered version of the original mixes of songs from the 70s, with Rancho Texicano being a solid alternative to the 1992 Greatest Hits set, albeit one that lingered too long over ZZ Top’s 80s outputs, when by this time fans were more focused on their 70s material.

2013’s the Complete Studio Albums 1970 – 1990 box set pulls together all of ZZ Top’s albums from the first half of their career, with its major selling point being that it rights the wrongs of the hideous Sixpack. That the original mixes of ZZ Top’s First Album, Rio Grande Mud or Tejas were not made  available on CD until this box set is a travesty and an unforgivable dick-move by the record label. Thankfully ZZ Top and their record label have seen the error of their ways in recent years, and and not only are the original mixes available in this competitively proved box set, but they are now also available individually and in the Cinco: The First Five LPs box.