ZZ Top has the right number

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top performs onstage during Skyville Live Presents Guitar Greats featuring Billy Gibbons, Robert Randolph, Charlie Starr, and Charlie Worsham on May 4, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Skyville)

By Rush Evans

The long beards came with album number six. The three members of ZZ Top had worked crazy hard throughout the 1970s, already releasing five albums, touring the world, creating a distinctive sound, and building a reputation as the barnburners of rock ‘n’ roll, a little ol’ band from Texas that rocked harder and tighter than anybody else in a decade filled with plenty of other fine rock bands.

They needed a break. So they took 90 days off. Which turned into two years. And upon reconnecting, Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons realized that they’d both been growing beards without so much as a trim. They hung down to their chests, creating a new trademark look that no one else had. And they made album number six, “Degüello,” on a new label for them, Warner Brothers. It, too, revealed something new, a musical direction that would include all three members playing saxophone. One track, “Manic Mechanic,” was quirky weirdness, featuring a new sound, a deep-voice narration, a staccato rhythm, and automotive sound effects (provided by the band’s own ’64 Dodge Dart). It sounded like nothing the band had done to date, released in November 1979, just in time for a new decade.

By 1983, when MTV was visualizing a generation’s music, those beards and that new sound came in handy, as ZZ Top’s “Eliminator” album pushed them into the musical stratosphere with a string of synthesizer-driven hits that retained the band’s bluesy Texas roots and embraced the new era of music. And the rest is rock ‘n’ roll history.

But before “Manic Mechanic,” before “Eliminator,” before long beards and synthesizers, it was the 1970s, and ZZ Top was just that little ol’ band from Texas with three guys, three chords, thousands of miles, hundreds of clubs and concert halls, And five albums worth of lightning in a bottle.

ZZ Top is still out there. Still playing. It’s the same three guys. Billy Gibbons on vocals and guitar, Dusty Hill on vocals and bass, Frank Beard on drums. They are closing in on five decades together on this rock ‘n’ roll mission, the same musical spirit running through the entire time.

But, oh, that first decade. As ZZ Top continues hurtling forward, they are happily revisiting their past, embracing it with a look back to those first five albums, reissuing them now as a 180 gram vinyl boxed set, “Cinco.” Those records were always intended for vinyl, anyway. That’s how they were first released on London Records, and now, well into the next century, vinyl is back. And so is roots rock ‘n’ roll.

“We celebrate the early days of the band, the middle days of the band and the current days of the band just about every night but this new ‘Cinco’ set is a really great keepsake of our rockin’ roots,” says Billy Gibbons. He’s specifically talking about the band’s recent dates, which are not coincidentally focused on smaller Texas markets, a nod to the towns and times that made them who they are. The towns and times that helped shape the five albums in “Cinco.” “It’s definitely the ‘on purpose’ whirlwind tour. We do our stuff wherever we can and those Texas towns are true bastions of ZZ Top fandom.”

I had seen ZZ Top half a dozen times over the years, always in Austin, Texas, but recently I drove north to Belton, a Texas town close to Killeen, home of Fort Hood. That’s where Elvis was stationed during his Army stint, and maybe that’s why the band closed its show with “Jailhouse Rock” that night. Belton isn’t a big city, but it has an expo center big enough to pack in 6,500 of those fans Billy was talking about. The parking lot was filled with motorcycles and there were more than a few long beards in the stands. Many of them had a Santa-look to them, because they’ve followed the band since those first five records came out.

The crowd did not act its age, and neither did the band, as all rocked together through ZZ classic after ZZ classic, plus a few surprises, like country standard “Sixteen Tons” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady.” (Remember, this band is qualified to play that song for reasons beyond its similar spirit to their own material, as Hendrix gave Gibbons both a guitar and a spontaneous lesson after a gig at which Billy’s pre-ZZ band The Moving Sidewalks opened for Jimi.)

I was listening to a song about another Texas town, “La Grange,” as I pulled into Belton, seeing “ZZ Top” shining from the Expo Center’s marquee. Towns big and small all across Texas are where the guys honed their craft in those magical ‘70s, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that they finally got to play in the town that they’d made famous. “That show in La Grange stands as truly memorable,” says Billy. “We brought ‘La Grange’ to La Grange for the first time and it was a mega, meta success on every level. And yes, they still got a lot of nice girls there.”

“La Grange” and their other early monster hit, “Tush,” came in the encores in Belton, and they sounded as alive as they had in the ‘70s. Those two songs never left the ZZ Top set. But playing them live is a wholly different experience from revisiting the original recordings, which is what the band had to do in order to prepare the “Cinco” release. “Although we get to play most of the songs on a nightly basis, we are constantly reviewing those tell-tale recordings with, ‘How did we do that?’” says Billy. “The test pressings for the ‘Cinco’ set have superb fidelity.”

Billy is clearly on board with the vinyl format’s resurgence. “The sound is period perfect though there’s a convenience factor which must be dealt with. It’s certainly worth the effort to hold onto the tactile experience of vinyl, and, as they say, ‘it’s what’s in the grooves that counts.’”

What was in the grooves of those ‘70s ZZ Top albums was rock ‘n’ roll magic. “The first five ZZ releases really capture the band’s early progression,” Gibbons says. “We just got into the groove and dug deeper and deeper as we pressed on. It was an organic period in sound.”

And here are the five albums of which we speak:

Uno: “ZZ Top’s First Album” (1971): “(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree” opens with a bit of twangy steel guitar before taking the listener into a unique brand of Texas blues. This defined the sound perfectly, setting the stage for what lay ahead.

Dos: “Rio Grande Mud” (1972): “Francine” kicks album number two off with a Rolling Stones feel, a tight hook on a song that should’ve been a hit. Indeed, it was a single (spelled “Francene” on the 45).  Songs about barbecue, whiskey and Chevrolets tied the young trio to the expansive state from which they came, an ocean and half a continent away from the Stones’ England.

Tres: “Tres Hombres” (1973): Once again, the opening guitar lick was as infectious and fiery as anything that had come from across the pond. When “Waitin’ for the Bus” ends, a blues called “Jesus Just Left Chicago” begins, and forever the two shall be intertwined. The discovery of their perfect musical marriage was accidental in the studio, and 45 years later, they would remain tightly interwoven on stage in Belton, Texas as the second and third songs in the set. The rest of the album is pure perfection, and it gave the band its first radio hit, a groovy little ditty about a legendary Texas whorehouse in that shack outside La Grange. When backstage at another Top performance a decade ago, security told me that only one signed item was allowed per fan, but upon seeing my copy of “Tres Hombres” in my hands, Billy Gibbons said, “But we’re gonna go ahead and sign this one for him, too, because it happens to be our favorite record.” Mine, too.

Quatro: “Fandango!” (1975): After the success of the last album, ZZ Top was a big draw in the big ‘70s. Big enough to headline their own ZZ Top’s First Annual Texas Size Rompin’ Stompin’ Barn Dance and Barbecue on September 1, 1974, a concert bill that included Joe Cocker, Santana and Bad Company. It was also the last annual, as University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal was none too pleased when some of the 80,000 rock fans in attendance at the University’s football stadium carved out a Texas-shaped chunk of astro turf on the field. There’s an aerial view photo of this legendary event in the inside cover art of “Fandango!,” the first half of which itself captures the band live, including a three-song medley that showed just how much amazing noise three guys can make on stage. Enough to fill a football stadium. Side two concludes with the second big radio hit, “Tush,” this time with Dusty taking the higher lead vocals.

Cinco: “Tejas” (1976): The fifth album opens very much like the first, with a song that rocks, though with a twangy touch that shall eternally tie these guys to their home state. They even named this record after it. Sort of, anyway, as Texas itself derived its name from Tejas, the word early Spanish explorers used to describe a particular tribe of Native Americans in the territory. As the record carries on through the boogie of “Arrested for Driving While Blind” and the murky mystery of “El Diablo,” the deal is sealed, ensuring ZZ Top’s place with sounds indigenous to the region. Billy sums it up this way: “We’re both ‘of’ and, of course, ‘from’ Texas. It’s a state and a state of mind and it’s with us all the time, anywhere we might be on the planet.”

And play on the planet they continue to do. Billy Gibbons has been the busiest outside of the band, sometimes venturing out to work on other projects. He co-wrote a big, beautiful picture book in 2005, “Rock + Roll Gearhead,” celebrating the pop culture phenomenon that is ZZ Top in photographs of the band, its shows, its guitars, its cars. Because ZZ Top has always been a visual experience, too. He has also done some musical work with others, and that includes his first ever solo project, Billy Gibbons and the BFGs, whose first album, “Perfectamundo,” gave him the opportunity to celebrate his musical roots even further, with a cover of fellow Texan Roy Head’s rock ‘n’ roll classic, “Treat Her Right.” BFG keyboard player Mike Flanigin also tapped his friend Billy to perform on his solo record (along with some gigs), “The Drifter.” Billy enjoys his diversions. “We just try to keep an open mind doing the solo thing or jumping in and working with Flanigin and a host of the many friends we admire. So much the better. It keeps one’s mentality totally flexed and ready to rock. The impact on ZZ Top is absolutely a positive one.”

Billy, Dusty and Frank came together in 1969, the same year they all turned 20, and as they draw closer to that half-century mark as a band, the unified vision remains the same. “It feels good and, yes, there’s a distinct satisfaction throughout decades of doing it,” declares Billy. “We’re always looking forward to the next show.  Speaking of which, that ‘next’ show has been going on for quite a spell and we ain’t changing a thing.”


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