I first got turned on to ZZ Top like most, from the album Tres Hombres in 1973. And at the time, like most, I thought this was just a good-time boogie band with little under the surface. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. And as subsequent albums were released I began to realize the incredible genius of Billy F. Gibbons and company.
If you look up ZZ Top on Wikipedia it describes them as humorous, with “barrelhouse” rhythms, distorted guitars, double entendres and innuendo.
Of course all of that is true, but it just scratches the surface.
As a guitar player myself, the first thing I began to understand about the deeper parts of the band was how much care was taken in getting the most fabulous tones out of an electric guitar possible. Whether it was overdriving amps, using gain and fuzz pedals, going for a clean sound, or somewhere in between, Billy Gibbons is heads, hands and feet, above many of the guitar legends that have come before him.
Take a listen to this gem: “Blue Jean Blues “ from Fandango!
ZZ Top – “Blue Jeans Blues” (Remastered):
This is a re-mastered version, which elevates the guitar tone even more. If you look at the original post on YouTube you will see that it has over four and a half million views! That’s incredible for a track that did not become a bona fide hit record. But it has a large following because the song embodies everything ZZ.
First, the gorgeous guitar tone and the tastiest of licks from Gibbons; second, the genuine in-the-pocket-feel of the track delivered by Frank Beard on drums and Dusty Hill on bass; and third, the very simple but genius lyrics.
The guy in the song runs into his old girlfriend and sees her wearing his long-missing blue jeans. At the end of the song he says how happy he would be to get them back — because “If I get back those blue jeans, you know my baby be bringin’ them home to me.” He obviously misses his jeans but would like the girl back even more — if the jeans come back, the girl is coming with them. How clever to write a song like that.
Moreover, as I say, Gibbons’ blues playing and delicate touch on the guitar, are some of the best ever recorded.
Like many other rock bands, although ZZ has some big hit singles, like “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Sharp Dressed Man,” fans know most all of their other great material from listening to the band’s albums, seeing live shows, and from listening to rock radio over the years before formats solely started playing just the greatest hits.
ZZ offers songs like “Just Got Paid,” “Waitin’ For The Bus,” and “Arrested For Driving While Blind” that are common themes for the working man and woman, and they delve into other dimensions with songs that seem to be about absolutely nothing special at all. Yet they’ve still become fan favorites because of their rock and roll or dance beat tempos, and their extremely clever lyrics. Take “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Sleeping Bag,” or “TV Dinners” as examples. These are popular songs that we love to sing along with. But who the hell could get away with writing a song about TV dinners?!! THEY do, and it’s great. “I like the enchiladas and the teriyaki too, I even like the chicken if the sauce is not too blue.”
Hell, they even have a song about a color — “Chartreuse”! Crank this baby up. There’s nothing in the world like the crunch of ZZ Top, and in this clip you can also appreciate the fine touch that the “Reverend,” (as he’s sometimes called) Billy Gibbons has for soloing. Just the right notes are played to move you but don’t overtake the song itself. Gibbons is a consummate master of taste.
ZZ Top – “Chartreuse” (Live At Montreux 2013):
When you really begin to dissect a lot of ZZ’s recordings, you realize just how many backing tracks there are, where the guitar is featured, yet in such different ways you wouldn’t know that they are guitar at all.
For instance, in the studio version of “Cheap Sunglasses” during the breakdown after the initial chords are played, the “woooo, woooo” sound you hear is made by sliding the finger up the D string to a higher register. Drop the volume, accentuate the bass and mids, put a little echo delay on it, and voila! So many arrangements feature these kinds of otherworldly sounds and uses for the guitar to make music that you might think has been created with keyboards or other instruments.
Gibbons is fabulous at creating layers of sounds with just guitars, and his song arrangements are genius. So what might be a simple twelve bar blues for some, he turns into musical art. There is always some funky change-up that takes you to another place and keeps your interest. Just as Eric Clapton is a guitar virtuoso, Billy Gibbons is a virtuoso at how to get the ultimate tone and most uses out of the guitar as an instrument.
In my opinion, Billy doesn’t seem to get his full due when guitar players are discussed. I believe that is because he never strayed from ZZ to do solo projects, or even be a guest guitarist on other artists’ albums. The same fate happens to others as well, like Neal Schon. The guy is brilliant, but always just a little overshadowed by the huge mother ship of Journey with all those countless sing-along hits.
I go way back with this “Little Ol’ Band From Texas” to the time I was the western regional album promotion man at Columbia Records in the mid 70’s. I loved the band so much I used to promote their albums to my FM rock stations in California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington State, and Colorado, even though they weren’t on my label. I was such a devotee that after working all my Columbia records I made sure the stations were playing the latest ZZ Top offering because I wanted to help spread the word. These actions somehow got back to their manager Bill Ham and all of a sudden I found myself being welcomed at shows like one of the family. I would talk to Ham every now and then and give him my unbiased reports on how things were looking in each market. He called me his “secret weapon.”
In 1979, ZZ Top signed with Warner Brothers records, but the relationship got off to a rocky start. The label, known for being ultra artist friendly and very sensitive to each artist’s creativity, somehow just couldn’t get a handle on ZZ Top — just didn’t quite understand them. They wanted to throw a welcoming party for the band on the Queen Mary (ship/hotel) docked in Long Beach. Ham said, “Great! Because it’s a bit of a drive let’s pick up all the music and program directors and all of our disc jockey friends in limos and take them to the party.” Seems like a no brainer, right? Well for some reason (couldn’t have been money, we all had tons of money in those days to do whatever we wanted) the label balked and said no.
The band had made good friends with all of these radio folks over the years and showing them anything less than traditional southern hospitality was unthinkable to Bill and the band. So, the night of the party, Bill and the band PAID for all of the limousines and picked up all their radio friends. And when you walked into the party there was a huge sign at the entrance which Bill put up on an easel. It read: ZZ TOP WELCOMES WARNER BROTHERS TO THE WEST COAST.
I know, because I got invited to the party. And if the sign wasn’t enough to throw the Warner execs off, they all wanted to know what a Columbia guy was doing at their party!
I assured them that I wasn’t working any Columbia product amidst all the radio people gathered there — I was just a friend of the band. They kind of looked at me sideways but bore under it, just like the uncomfortable feeling they got looking at that sign. As you can imagine, all of this didn’t make the relationship with the band and Warner Brothers any better.
I first got to know Billy personally backstage at a concert in southern California. We were introduced by a mutual friend and just started talking as natural as can be about music, cars, and guitars. I couldn’t believe how nice and unassuming he was.
This was in the 80’s and he was showing me a new sound-effects device called a Zoom that Jeff Beck had turned him on to. It was a small black box that you could wear on your belt and it had tons of different gain, reverb, and delay settings. This was a major breakthrough at the time — way before modeling amplifiers that can make you sound like you are plugged into any amplifier you like. He was getting some brand new and unique sounds that were perfect for ZZ Top. “Always gotta stay one step ahead of the kids, you know.” Some of those sounds that Billy became fond of were the basis for the legendary Eliminator album and for Recycler, which followed.
Eliminator boasted the biggest and baddest new sounding ZZ Top ever. This next level of sound for the band along with some enormous hit singles were a game changer for guitar sounds in general, over-the-top lyrics, and ZZ Top’s career. Bill Ham sent me an advanced cassette — it blew my mind. I had never heard anything like it before, the sounds, the songs, and the dance beats used in this fashion to create a new kind of rock.
I asked Bill if I could play it for some radio people. He said, “Sure, spread the word!”
It turned out that there was a big radio convention taking place in Los Angeles and at least 15 to 20 key Program and Music Directors, disc jockeys, and consultants were all on the same plane along with myself heading from JFK to the convention. I was so excited about this album that I played tracks from it for every one of those people. Their eyes were bugging out — music people know hits when they hear them. By the time our six-hour flight was over, Eliminator was set to explode on FM rock radio.
I told Bill, “This thing is going to go big, and go big fast.” He loved it. The album was the buzz of the convention as the Warner people were now also playing it for some folks. Again, they weren’t thrilled that I’d played it for the people on the plane but they were genuinely thrilled at the excitement that was building. When the album was released it exploded onto the charts pushing everything else backwards, including my own shit! Whoa, maybe I tried too hard — ha, ha.
I’ve always believed that whatever you want to say about ZZ Top, they are at the very least, the coolest band in the land.
Here is a little known fact. The title of the song “Tush” does not refer to a gal’s backside (as in the Yiddish word with the same pronunciation), and as most people believe. In fact, it comes from a slang way of saying “plush” or “luxurious”. The band explains there are three words that mean something that is ultra-deluxe, “Plush,” “Rico,” and “Tush.” Tush, being the finest of the fine. I love slang, and musicians with their own languages and cool phrases—ZZ personifies the coolest of the cool. Like their simple sweeping arm motions in their renowned videos, the way Billy and Dusty walk in syncopation on stage, or when Gibbons makes introductions like, “Tonight we’re going to be quoting from the book of Kings — that would be Freddie, Albert, and B.B.”
And if you want a triple dose of ZZ audio to warm you up before the show, I highly recommend the 3 CD box set, Chrome, Smoke, and B.B.Q. It has all the songs you love plus a few extras and all of the tracks have been re-mastered. I listen to a few tracks almost every day. And when I do, just like the song says,…
”I Can’t Stop Rockin’!! ”
© Paul Rappaport 2019