by Rush Evans
With any other band, the story would have ended there, and it would have made sense. There was a new decade underway, a new political climate, and a new musical wave, with clothes and haircuts as electrified as the tech-heavy songs being played — or programmed.
There was also a new TV channel that played music-video clips all day and night, so those clothes and haircuts became that much more important. How could three boogie blues players already in their thirties (and wearing that long facial hair) find a place among the slickly presented and produced musicians of this new generation?
It started simply enough. One day in 1982, after just having begun recording sessions for the next ZZ Top album, Frank Beard (whose Degüello-era beard would not last) called Billy Gibbons and told him to turn on the television. There was an engaging music show on with rock band after rock band singing along to their own songs in different settings, some with a storyline. After being transfixed by this unusual series of songs for several hours, Gibbons called Beard back and asked, “When is this thing over?”
It turned out that the show wouldn’t be over for the rest of the ’80s. MTV and its new musical generation had been born. Whether the three Texans took that next album’s influence from the 24-hour television show or things just evolved in the studio is academic, but something happened, and it happened fast.
Arriving early for the session one day, Beard started hammering out a new rhythm on the drums. It was just as cool as the one in 70 earlier ZZ Top songs, but this one really jumped, and the other two players fell right in upon their arrival. It’s rare that a song is born on the business end of two drumsticks, but that is what happened with a little tune called “Gimme All Your Lovin’.” The same thing happened with a Dusty Hill bass line, and by the time Beard and Gibbons joined in, a song called “Sharp Dressed Man” rocked right onto the tape.
“Even 25 years later, it’s refreshing to recognize the elements that are present,” remembers Billy Gibbons of those sessions. “There is that bluesy thread that strings through all of the compositions, and at the same time, Eliminator was more of a pop record in looking at the material that has fronted ZZ for so many decades. This particular release has a more pop appeal. The nature of the songs, the compositional elements, they come across as pop material more than anything else. It’s certainly not a hardcore blues record.”
There is a bluesy thread stringing through all the memories of Billy Gibbons, the guitar player who hasn’t seen his own face in 30 years now, still sporting the trademark low-hung beard that he and Dusty Hill refuse to shave. They are walking advertisements for the band that is way more than just their day job.
A few hours before a gig in Austin, just a few miles as the crow flies from that football stadium they played some 35 years ago, Gibbons shares his thoughts on that turning-point period for the band in 1982. He had already dedicated most of his life to rock and roll before then, too.
Gibbons’ father was 50 when he married for the second time, this time to a woman 30 years his junior. The very hip young mom took her 8-year-old son to see Elvis Presley in ’57, and that was all she wrote. Billy was playing guitar by the time he was 13, and he never looked back.
The Moving Sidewalks’ “99th Floor” secured the band an opening act slot for shows with Janis Joplin, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix in 1968, which led to Billy’s friendship with the world’s most innovative guitar player, who would declare on “The Dick Cavett Show” that Billy Gibbons was the finest guitarist of his generation.
After hitting the 99th floor, the stellar guitarist was aiming even higher, and he soon moved on to his new vision, the band that would become ZZ Top. There was another pair of players working with Gibbons at first, but soon he would find Beard and Hill, who had both been working in a band called American Blues (which included Dusty’s brother Rocky Hill, who continued a blues career in Texas until his death on April 10, 2009 at 62).
After the true lineup connected, a 1969 single was released titled “Salt Lick” that was backed with “Miller’s Farm,” still an incredibly rare find (search for it in Goldmine ads!).
Then came that decade of tight blues boogie, and by the time of MTV, the trio was ready, willing and certainly more than able to face the changing musical times.
“One thing for sure, at the time, so many records were making headway that had been invented with a techno backbone,” says Gibbons. “And it was certainly taking effect with what we were hearing. There’s no getting around it; you’re influenced by what you’re exposed to.”
by Rush Evans