The next several years found the boys digging deeper into the new technology, as the Eliminator follow-up, Afterburner, took their sound into outer space. The ’33 Ford was now a space shuttle on the record cover and in the video for “Sleeping Bag,” the synth-heavy tune that went all the way to #1 in 1985.
“Rough Boy” went Top 5 and was an uncharacteristically serious slow song, but it was an effective fusion of the band’s blues roots and their more modern sound.
With a bigger budget, the trio’s live shows became Vegas-worthy extravaganzas. By the time Recycler came out in 1990, the ZZ Top stage included a massive auto junkyard set with a construction crane, car crusher, a conveyer belt that moved the guys across the stage, and, of course, leggy babes in spike heels.
The momentum launched by Eliminator propelled the boys through the rest of the ’90s.
They had come a long way from singing about “Bar B Q,” a glorious and greasy slice of grunge from 1972, and by the time of the new millennium and a meatier sequel, “Poke Chop Sandwich,” they were bringing the power with blistering guitar vibrations and an even greater sense of urgency. On another track from XXX, they stepped it up with bellowing bass and a slight hip-hopping rhyme sensibility, but “Crucifixx-A-Flatt” was still unmistakably the product of that street-savvy little ol’ band from Tejas.
These days, it’s back to the basics, just three guys quickly approaching 60 but still rocking as effectively as they did on that first record’s opening track. They remain in perfect synch, an organic union with the same lineup since album one. It’s their Southern home-styled recipe for success, and it landed them in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2004.
Billy Gibbons is keenly aware and appreciative of this uniquely rare creative situation. “That’s really a value not only with a trio, but any kind of aggregation, be it a two-piece, a three-piece or ten-piece. Everybody working toward the same goal is really important. We would like to think we could read each other’s minds. Sometimes we can. Then there’s the moments when we’re not sure who’s doing what or who’s going to do what. It gets interesting.”
He is also thankful for the best rhythm section in rock and roll, a duo whose dynamic force is less about support and more about driving the engine. It’s a bass/drummer combo that goes all the way back to their teens.
“They’ve been at it as a working force from the beginning,” says Gibbons of Hill and Beard. “Their backbone, their understanding of what they’re doing is almost seamless. They make up a really true solidarity. Their interaction, it’s really a solid platform. It allows me to go stretch out in ways that I might not be able to do, if you’re having to concentrate on getting the rhythm guys together. I don’t have to even think about it. It’s just solid.”
This many years of understanding one another musically makes studio time that much more productive, and spontaneity remains vitally important.
“Most of the … in fact, all of the things we do are ‘dive in there and go after it.’”
The songs are still credited as Gibbons, Hill, and Beard. Such is the democratic approach to the unit, but it’s also appropriate, as each plays a vital role not just in the final sound, but in the creation from the get-go.
Gibbons explains: “There’s one funny bit. Someone said, ‘How do you write these pieces?’ Generally, Dusty and I will hunker down in one corne