High Times Greats: ZZ Top

Street smarts and sharp humor from the other side of the tracks.
High Times Greats: ZZ Top
ZZ Top by Paul Natkin

From the February, 1985 issue of High Times comes Richard Grabel’s feature on ZZ Top, whose debut album, ZZ Top’s First Album, came out 50 years ago on January 16, 1971.

Beards and Beer Guts

[In 1984], when their Eliminator album started climbing the charts, ZZ Top had already long been a monumental band. They could travel around the U.S. for as long as they liked, playing five or six nights a week, drawing ten or fifteen or twenty thousand fans in any city they hit.

To New Music hipsters, however, ZZ Top were old ten-gallon hats, an aging aggregate of absurd beards and beer guts.

But that was before the first video from Eliminator, “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” proved to be one of the more entertaining and artfully done videos getting heavy rotation on MTV, where it became that channel’s most requested video. That was before the group embarked on its most massive world tour yet, playing everywhere, and forever. That was before the twelve-inch remix of “Legs” brought ZZ Top to the floor of the dance clubs and to the Urban Contemporary airwaves, winning them an entirely new audience of people who would normally be allergic to the term “boogie band.” And that was before Eliminator became a commercial phenomenon. By the end of 1984, the record had been listed on the U.S. charts for over a year and a half, selling over four million copies in the U.S. and another million-and-a-half in the rest of the world.

So ZZ Top have become even more monumental. Even more surprising, after all these years, ZZ Top has become hip, with music fans of punkish sensibility picking up on the irony that stings so sharply around the edges of the band’s lyrics and image, and with “Legs” proving the band’s ability to adapt to today’s dance pulse without sacrificing its individuality.

Building on the success of the video for “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” the band has gone on to become true video stars. At September’s MTV Video Awards (an event MTV hopes will become the rock video equivalent of the Grammys) ZZ Top was nominated for six awards, and the video for “Sharp Dressed Man” won for Best Direction. The video partnership of the band—with their distinctive image—and director Tim Newman (Randy’s brother) has led to a three-part series (the latest being “Legs”) of videos that are distinctive, funny, and play on an interesting conceit of the band as spectral outsiders observing and laughing at the glamorous commotion that Newman’s mini-plots cook up.

All of what has happened to ZZ Top has been hard and fairly won, and well deserved. ZZ Top are a great band because they play authentic, close-to-the-roots, gutsy, white boy’s blues and rock ‘n’ roll. They are funny, smart and know their cultural signs and how to put them into a rock ‘n’ roll context.

And ZZ Top have a sense of humor. They have songs about getting up in the morning with a hangover and going out first thing to buy some cheap sunglasses. They have songs about piling into an old Chevy to drive down to Mexico and “pass me one of them brews from the back seat.” They have songs about a white boy hitting the highway and boasting in some mixed-up slang he picked up from the local Chicanos: “I’m bad/ I’m nationwide.”

And there is something so funny about the way Billy Gibbons lets you know he knows how absurd it is to be doing the 297th version of “Dust My Broom” by the way he howls out the second verse: “I’m gonna write a letter to China/See if my baby’s over there/If she ain’t in those Hawaiian Islands/Must be in Ethiopia somewhere.” Elmore James would have understood.

In fact, most of the humor, direction and general outrageousness of the ZZ Top oeuvre stems from the mind of Gibbons, the band’s founder, guitarist and main vocalist. Before I met him I did some research on Gibbons and turned up some interesting things. I began to suspect that he might not be your average rock-star dummy. I was right.

Really Freaked Out

It is late on a Sunday night in Buffalo. Earlier, ZZ Top had rocked seventeen thousand of the town’s teenagers. Now Billy Gibbons is searching the Buffalo Hilton for an open bar. Instead we find a Greek wedding in the main ballroom. The kid standing at the door won’t invite us in, but he wants to talk.

“This is really freaked out! You’re really from ZZ Top? I was just taping you guys off the radio the other day. Wow!”

So we get Greg, member of the wedding, to meet us in the bar with some glasses of ouzo.

“So this is really freaked out,” Greg reiterates. “I wanted to go to the show but I couldn’t get a ticket, so my mom said I should go to this wedding, so now here you guys are, so anyway how was the show?”

“Great,” Billy says, “except we missed you. But it was great.”

“So, Greg, what we’re proposing here is that you get those musicians in there at the wedding to hand over their instruments to us. My bass player is waiting outside, he’s ready to wail on accordion, and… ha ha… had you going there, didn’t we!”

What a card. On the other hand, Gibbons will turn to you and out of the blue say something like, “Do you ever think about where the planet is heading?” Or want to talk about nuclear disarmament. He has artist friends who get written up in Time. He is plugged into a lot of scenes, listens to New Order and pure noise and anything else you can imagine, and once took legendary rock critic/philosopher Lester Bangs on a hunting trip. Don’t let the slow Texas drawl fool you. This is not a simple man.

Sharp Dressed Man

The combination of Rip Van Winkle beard and horn-rimmed specs, plus a slow careful way of speaking, makes Billy Gibbons seem a bit like a thoughtful professor.

I remind him of something he once said to an interviewer about ZZ Top—that it’s fun being cartoon characters onstage.

“I remember the quote, and it was probably more apropos then than to the imagery an audience will see in a ZZ Top show now. Our costuming is more back to basics. At the time we were wearing those huge flight suits with Mexican sombreros. Now it’s changed.”

“Just in the last year what has been a major boon for ZZ Top has been our appearance in videos. That has really grounded a lot of fans who couldn’t put their finger on us.”

“There, is a cartoon aspect left. We were playing in Denver and… I have no explanation for these [Billy strokes his beard], it’s just there. But anyway, we’re onstage, and Dusty says to me, ‘Check row five, two o’clock.’ And I look over, and there were five guys that had these pin-on beards, and they had that pointing move that we do in the videos, and they were all in perfect step.”

ZZ Top’s videos are among the best to be seen in a field currently characterized by repetition and cliche. They are flash, funny, tell a story, and have the band’s trademarks all over them—their humor and their manipulation of those Western cultural icons, cars and girls.

“It was a great feeling for this band to have a number one something, which is what happened immediately with the video for ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’,’ the number one most requested video in MTV’s history.”

“Warner Brothers arranged for Tim Newman to work with us. They’d had a nice video from him for the Randy Newman song ‘I Love L.A.’ Fortunately, he knew enough about ZZ Top to know it’s cars, it’s women, it’s kind of a good-time outfit, and this was no problem for him. He’d shot commercials, he knew all the contacts.”

“The first one established the three girls and the guy. The guy gets thrown out of his car, gets his clothes thrown out after him. The second one, ‘Sharp Dressed Man,’ continues from the first one. It begins with the car from the first one leaving the country for the city. Instead of the kid being downbeaten as a gas station attendant, he’s now the car park attendant at a ritzy dance joint. The doorman’s down on him, the maitre d’s down on him, and ZZ Top ain’t gonna stand for it. We gotta help this kid out.”

“When we shot that first video, the guy that built the ZZ Top car couldn’t have been more into it. He grumbled the first day about having to put the car on a trailer and drive it to the shoot location. He wanted some of the glory; he’d built this car, and now it was on the album cover and in the videos, and he wanted to be recognized. So we said, ‘Listen, we’re going to be doing some 110,130 mile-an-hour stuff, can you handle it?’ And that just rang his bell. He got into that car and drove the hell out of it.”

“We drove up the next day just in time to see the three lovely young ladies climb into the ZZ Top car that, at the time, we hadn’t even driven in yet, and we see this cloud of smoke as they drive away, and we go, ‘Why them?'”

“The videos have brought in a new audience and strengthened the one that was there anyway. I think the times have allowed our kind of music to be embraced by a wider range of people. I knew it in Miami when purple heads showed up, mohawks, they’re all there.”

Then there is the “Special Dance Remix” twelve-inch single version of “Legs,” which has brought ZZ Top to the dance club floor.

“Well, believe it or not, ZZ Top had cut what could have been our version of disco for the Deguello sessions. We did a song called ‘When You’re Out Late At Night.’ And I was well aware of the bad connotations of the word disco and the growing resentment from the rockers, but we had constructed this piece the same way we did all of our tunes. But the engineers said, ‘No, this is a big mistake, nobody’s gonna get this.'”

A lot of people were surprised that ZZ Top used a synthesizer on “Legs.”

“Well, I’m real into that. Real into it. It moves me. Most open-minded musicians have never abandoned the possibility of getting downright soulful with synthesizers. In the early days, granted, it was a little bit limited. But as the computer language starts expanding and offering these kinds of possibilities, it’s getting fine.

“As far as our use of it on Eliminator, it’s very slight, but it’s there. Moog sent their latest and greatest, the Memory Moog, which is very sophisticated and allows the operator to get funky when he wants, and we used it on some bass lines and some underlying kind of pulse things. If anything can be said about Eliminator aside from that it’s the ’80s version of Tres Hombres, it’s that the time is true. The time is right on the money.”

“A song like ‘Legs,’ which has got this droning synth through the entire thing, you really have to play with it, because the internal electronic clock of the synthesizer will not lie. So we paid a lot of attention to detailing the time. But that’s as far as we took it—a bass line here and there, and the time thing.”

Hell Raisin’ Houston-Style

Another thing you once said about ZZ Top is that “nobody knows more about the sin-infested corners of Houston” than you. How sin-infested are they?

“Real sin-infested. It’s relating to being a native and having explored past the southwest side of town, which is the upper-crust side of Houston. There’s a handful of real artsy, thinking-type of Houstonians, and those are the ones that disregard the heat and the social mores of not crossing the tracks. It just means knowing about which barbecue stand over on the black side of town cooks on Sundays and has a good time when everyone else is going to church.”

Do you still feel close to that?

“Yes, I do. Well, see there’s a tremendous musical heritage in Houston dating from the ’50s. It was made mostly of rhythm and blues music. Through the late ’40s up till about ’66, Houston was a major R&B market, it was a trend-setting black market. Ray Charles to this day will swear by Houston musicians. Fathead Newman was his main horn blower. Little Richard picked up his entire band out of Houston, all those records he made were cut with Houston guys. Duke-Peacock Records was based in Houston: Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Little Junior Parker, Big Mama Thornton. That’s what I relate to as far as trying to remember that part of Houston. Houston has become a clean glass-and- chrome city. You can still find the funky scene, but it’s smaller, just like everywhere.”

How about the whole Texas mythology of beer drinkin’, hell raisin’ and pussy chasin’? Is that still an influence?

“Well, I’m the only one of my buddies that is as yet unmarried. So I’m still into it. They’d like to be, but their wives won’t let them.”

“I think ZZ Top has been fortunate not to be branded as a country-western act. Even though we came from Texas. I’m just as much a proponent of the Cadillac with cow horns and ten-gallon hats and a cold six-pack as the next guy. And it breaks my heart to see the ashes of Urban Cowboyism being dumped in Texas.”

“What’s really crazy is that this particular culture is made up of people who have not recognized that it has been digested and then thrown back at them. The real cowboys never knew what happened when all of a sudden John Travolta was doing the two-step at Gilley’s on the movie screen. And now that everybody’s been a cowboy for a few years, they’re through with it, and now all of the satin cowboy shirts that can’t be sold in New York anymore are going back to Texas.”

“Low riders, that was another cultural scene. I bit off every bite I could take of that one. Low riding. We had one—The ZZ Top Low Rider. A ’65 Chevy convertible. It had those lifts, and the low riders loved us. Low Rider magazine did a feature on ZZ Top! Bob Merlis [head of Warner Brothers publicity] called me and said, ‘How did you swing this? A white man cannot buy his way into that magazine.’ I think it was probably that I had one of the Imperials from East L.A. install the hydraulic system in the car. The Imperials are badass, man, they are the low riders to deal with. Imperial material!”

“And they got the humor in ZZ Top. The entire Chicano thing was, like, Low Rider, the bible of the movement, and here we are, standing up in the back seat of this clean ’65 Chevy, Califomia-style, laying on the ground, laying frame, and this gorgeous vision of Latin beauty laying sprawled out across the hood, and we’re playing—I’ve got an acoustic guitar, Dusty’s got an accordion and Frank’s shaking maracas. They loved it!”

Art Rears Its Head

In 1976, after completing a mammoth tour, ZZ Top disappeared for three years. They just felt like taking off. One of the things Gibbons did during this time was hang out in Paris with a group called Artiste Contemporaire, creating synthesized ambient music for art galleries.

“Yeah. Trying to rip off Brian Eno. I had joined the Board of Trustees at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, through some associates of Dusty’s brother and this group of artful sinners from Houston. We all became quite close from hanging around. And there was an announcement of an unveiling in Paris of some antique musical instruments that had been found in some monastery in India. We were invited to watch, and two of us from Houston went, and I ended up staying.”

“So what was happening in Paris was finding new ways of making art out of inexpensive mediums. Polaroid, Xerox. This was in ’77, and Xerox art became a bona fide piece of the punk scene. What we were doing musically was uninspired stuff, it was like air, but it was fun.”

A lot of people will be surprised to hear that the ZZ Top guitarist does ambient art music and goes on treks to Nepal and serves on the Board of Trustees of a prestigious art museum.

“Yeah. Well, ZZ Top—I’m not trying to front it as an art band. But, the other day, one of the finest compliments was paid. We were in New York, the cab driver had his radio on, and the definitive art band, Talking Heads—I suppose the ones who have been labeled as such—the DJ said, ‘Here’s the Talking Heads doing their impersonation of ZZ Top.’ And it was ‘Pull over! Stop the car!’ We ran around the car dancing. We’ve been recognized! It was quite a moment.”

Weirded Out

Gibbons was the guitarist in a mid-’60s garage/psychedelic/punk band in Houston called the Moving Sidewalks. In ’68, they opened a show for Jimi Hendrix in Fort Worth, and Hendrix invited them to come along for the rest of the tour. Hendrix ended up giving Gibbons his pink Fender guitar and calling him “America’s most promising young guitarist” on the Tonight Show. When the Moving Sidewalks broke up, Gibbons met up with Dusty Hill and Frank Beard to form ZZ Top.

“Dusty and Frank had come down from Dallas to play at the Cellar Club, which was one of Houston’s few after-hours clubs. Their band was called the American Blues. They all had blue hair.”

Houston in the ’60s had a lively scene, with bands such as the 13th Floor Elevators and Red Crayola helping to define the psychedelic sound even before the California groups who popularized it.

“The Jefferson Airplane and the Dead were still folk bands when the Elevators came out, these wild characters—from Texas of all places—that were into this East Indian cultism and thought processes.”

“The clubs were always being busted, constantly harassed by the Houston police, who did not understand what was going on.”

“It was a heavy acid scene. And acid was a true enigma to law enforcement around the world because you had no stumbling-drunk syndrome, you had no incoherence, they couldn’t figure out what was going on. No one was really out of control as far as they could tell, but they knew things were weird. And they were getting weirded out. They’d come into the clubs and they’d leave shaking their heads and going, ‘What is going on in there?'”

White Guy’s Blues

ZZ Top live is simply great rock ‘n’ roll. There is no Heavy Metal sluggishness, no waste or showing off. In fact, Gibbons tosses off economical but searingly powerful guitar solos as if he were strumming the blues on some Texas back porch. The band brings the warmth and looseness of the roadside juke joint to the cold and stale environment of the arena. No crotch-rock bullshit, no condescension. They play blues—a modern, rocked-out but definitely rootsy and authentic blues. And their audience loves it.

And, then, they’ll be in the middle of one of those low-down blues when you’ll realize that Gibbons is singing about being hung up on some girl’s stockings. Or he’ll be singing about being a sharp-dressed man and you’ll have a look at his and Dusty’s blue jeans and funny hats. And you laugh. It’s perverse, funny, very human and real.

I ask Gibbons if the humor and elements of satire in ZZ Top don’t go over the heads of most of their audience.

“I know what you mean, but I try not to make it that way. Because you can get it or not get it, but nobody’s left holding the bag, so to speak.”

“That brings up a point about musical value. What I could never understand is how the American bands had such a weird interpretation of the blues compared to the English bands. We gravitated towards the English sounds, the way the English guys were playing the blues, because they didn’t bend the notes too high, they had nice vibrato, excellent tones. We wanted to play a technically acceptable kind of music rather than what a lot of American bands were doing to the blues, like Quicksilver and that kind of sound. So today you’ve got ZZ Top who, as musicians, try to stay one-pointed in making a viable form of white guy’s blues and rock ‘n’ roll.”

Billy Goes Birding

“I was driving with this chick and I was trying to impress her and I had this Telex record in the tape deck, and they sang in French. So I did this fake translation, and she was writing it down. It was like, ‘I wish I could spend more time with you/But I can’t figure out this synthesizer/It’s occupying all my time/But it’s better for you/Because I’m trying to compose songs about you/Your beautiful skin, your hair, your eyes.’ And she was going for it!”

Beards and Real Guts

Billy, how long is your beard?

“I really don’t know. Maybe twelve inches. I trimmed it back from sixteen. Dusty’s is about fourteen inches, his is longer than mine.”

And how long can you keep ZZ Top ridin’ high?

“Well, there’s two ways to approach it. Picasso, or B.B. King. I don’t suppose you can be it forever. But you can be a good one. You don’t have to get crap-assed.”

“If there’s a statement about ZZ Top it’s that the musicians are still having fun in the band, playing. To me it’s just a great spark to play music.”

I wake up in Buffalo and turn on the local rock station. Before playing “Sharp Dressed Man,” the DJ says, “Last night, this band took seventeen thousand people to Texas.”

I was there. It was someplace even better than Texas.

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