by Rush Evans
That exposure to sounds kept ZZ Top’s minds open, but it wasn’t a calculated business move to change creative direction. It was simply organic.
“I don’t know if there was much thought to design it as much as it just occurred. One of the key pieces to the sound is the fact that as musical instrument manufacturers starting inventing new contraptions to play on, we embraced them with a sense of experimentation,” remembers Gibbons with a laugh. “Of course, as the old saying goes, we instantly threw the manuals out the window. So a lot of that stuff was purely experimental, and at the same time we didn’t hesitate to embrace it. It was really interesting.”
It was interesting, and it took all three players to get the best out of each other. Again, it was Beard’s drum beat that drove “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” and Hill’s bass line that drove “Sharp Dressed Man.” With those two furious tracks, they knew they were onto something fresh, new and exciting.
It was the same three guys on the same instruments with the same incredible knack for tidy, sharp riffs, but something was different, even beyond the new contraptions.
“One element that helped make Eliminator what it turned out to be [was] a key sense of focus toward timing and tempo,” says Gibbons. “There’s a lot of value in finding a good groove. When you’ve hit the sweet spot, you want to stay in it. You don’t want to lose it. That’s one thing that helped that record: its sense of timing.”
Timing was only the first detail that drove Eliminator.
“The second thing is there was a lot of attention aimed toward developing a fierce guitar tone, where before some of the guitar sounds were a little cleaner,” says Gibbons. “This record, top to bottom, is absolutely fierce in the guitar department. Those guitar sounds were raging. We experimented with a couple of amplifiers. We came back — it sounds so simplistic — we came back to using the tried-and-true Marshall hundred-watt amp head, and that did wonders to regain that ferocity. Once it started to gel, the three of us were keen on making sure everything was working together. Not only was the guitar taking on this ferocious character, Dusty fell in line and cranked up the wattage on the bottom end, as well. By and large, the collective work was really a great moment of exchange between the three of us.”
As the mighty Eliminator tracks were coming together in ’82, another of the biggest rock stars of the day was making the record that would change his music and career forever, and he was facing the daunting reality of immeasurable musical impact. Bruce Springsteen knew that his new batch of jangly and grandiose songs would make what he called “The Loud Noise,” and that awareness gave him pause and conflicted hesitation over when and how to release what would become the Born in the USA album.
The guys in ZZ Top had no such dilemma. They were facing a similar future, not aware of — and therefore not intimidated by — the impact of their own “loud noise” from a blockbuster album.
“We had a very strident sense of confidence with the completion of the studio sessions,” says Gibbons. “Each track held some meaningful moment that, collectively, we suspected was gonna be well-received. Didn’t quite know that it would fly over the moon like it did! But it was a work that we felt really confident in marching forward with. It was cool.”
It was cool. Eliminator hit the street in 1983 sporting a badass flaming-red hot rod (a 1933 Ford coupe) as the cover model, a car that starred in a trilogy of videos that dominated MTV and all popular culture throughout the year.
“Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs” found the guys in matching cheap sunglasses and smooth moves, while leggy Playboy models (yes, several of those girls were centerfold Playmates) pranced and danced to great visual effect. Hand gestures in unison with minimalist steps (not exactly dancing, but they did have choreographer Paula Abdul working the moves out with the guys), lent humor to the proceedings.
The new style, presentation and attitude made those songs sound even better. The band’s new image was filled with equal parts mysterious chic and cheesy kitsch. Two more songs, “Got Me Under Pressure” and the synth-driven “TV Dinners,” were radio hits, as well, the latter with yet another memorable video, this time with a gremlin crawling out from beneath the aluminum foil on a frozen dinner (for those who remember life before microwaves).
“I Got the Six” maintained the group’s ongoing propensity for clever sexual innuendo that had started back in the ’70s. The album’s brash title was the first in a long time without a Spanish touch, though Gibbons would joke that it was actually called “El Liminator.”
The girls, the car, the beards, the sunglasses, the flash, the raunchy fun and just the right amount of new technology in the studio made ZZ Top the most recognizable rock stars in the world. They had become the arbiters of cool; they were bad (in the good sense), and they were definitely nationwide. Even Johnny Carson sported the shades, beard and ball cap when the guys performed on “The Tonight Show.”
by Rush Evans