Two guys with beards, and a guy called Beard who doesn’t have a beard. Those 1980s videos. The car. The keyring. The furry, twirling guitars from Back To The Future III... To many people those things are the essence of the self-styled Li’l Ole Band From Texas.
But such memorable images are far from being the band’s only contribution to rock. ZZ Top – Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard – are certainly among America’s musical elite; a band who took blues rock, gave it a Texan tweak, and have for 50 years made gutsy music that amuses, amazes and gets your body moving.
From their Houston beginnings in 1969 when guitarist Gibbons, then with The Moving Sidewalks, teamed up with bassist Hill and drummer Beard from The American Blues, ZZ have defied convention. They made such an impact with their first three albums – ZZ Top’s First Album, Rio Grande Mud and Tres Hombres – that they were soon one of the biggest live attractions in the US. In the mid-70s they proudly had a map of Texas as their stage flooring, and had cacti and corralled livestock on stage with them.
After 1976’s Tejas, the trio decided on a three-year break, returning in 1979 with the Deguello album, by which time both Gibbons and Hill had grown those trademark beards.
In the UK, ZZ Top remained a cult phenomenon... until 1983’s Eliminator appeared from out of nowhere and rearranged the charts. The logic was simple: easy-on-the-ear songs, a modern production, and MTV-friendly videos that had a potent mix of sex, laughs and hardware. Suddenly ZZ Top were everywhere. Like Aerosmith and Alice Cooper would do later in the decade, ZZ had reinvented themselves. And with staggering success.
Of course, it was never going to last. Within a few years their commercial star was on the wane – at least as far as record sales were concerned. It didn’t bother them. They even survived a scare when Hill inadvertently shot himself in the chest while taking off a boot (don’t ask).
ZZ Top have become a treasured American institution; icons who love to upset the establishment. And as of 2012's La Futura, they're still making great music. Here, we cast our eye over their back catalogue and highlight the essential albums to own.
Tres Hombres (Warner Bros, 1973)
The band’s third album, and the one that broke them nationally in the US. And it’s not hard to understand why. The record just overflows with great songs: Jesus Just Left Chicago, Waitin’ For The Bus, Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers, La Grange... these are among the finest moments of early-70s hard rock, drenched in bluegrass bonhomie.
There’s also a filthy snap to the sound that suited ZZ Top perfectly, with just the right balance between running with the songs as if live, while maintaining studio discipline. The vibe is such that this record comes across with a freshness that still cuts deep. Stylistically ZZ were offering nothing new, but Tres Hombres convinced you that the band were exploring hitherto uncharted territory – con artists supreme.
Eliminator (Warner Bros, 1983)
Eliminator was the point at which ZZ embraced the modern age, giving their sound a dusting of technology and a sprinkle of electronics.
None of this would have meant anything if the songs fell short, but opening with Gimme All Your Lovin' the record barely dipped as Got Me Under Pressure, Sharp Dressed Man, TV Dinners and Legs raced past in a blur of images and kick-start boogie. Rarely has there been a record that demanded such instant recognition – and still does to this day.
The iconic videos certainly helped get ZZ mass recognition in the UK. Which could have backfired with the diehards, had it not been for the fact that ZZ didn’t actually sound or look like they’d compromised at all.
Rio Grande Mud (Warner Bros, 1972)
By the time ZZ got to this, their second album, they had really found their stride and momentum. There’s something warmly quirky about this record, as the blues are taken for a short ride down several dusty roads inhabited by the sort of carnival heroes and fast-buck troubadours with whom the band have had an long-time fascination.
The confidence the three ZZs now had in each other is clear as they shuffle through the queue for Just Got Paid, lay on the slide for Apologies To Pearly, and kick into the pressure points on Bar-B-Q. Dusty Hill even gets to exercise his throat on Chevrolet and Francine.
Deguello (Warner Bros, 1979)
After 1976’s Tejas, the band were so exhausted they needed a break. In the end it led to a three-year lay-off. Then the trio hit back with Deguello, which heralded a glorious return to form.
Refreshed after their rest, ZZ were keen to prove they’d lost none of the grip, drive and spit-in-the-eye laughter lines that had put them on top in the first place. They’d also got together a very strong set of songs: I Thank You kicks off in ebullient fashion, and Fool For Your Stockings, the evergreen Cheap Sunglasses (with that insane chorus) and I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide all soon became live favourites.
The lyrics are so off-the-wall at times, you did wonder whether Salvador Dali had become their mentor, but it all helped ZZ to prepare for the challenge of a new decade – one to which they were to rise so magnificently.
El Loco (Warner Bros, 1981)
The album before Eliminator, and ZZ Top were displaying hints of what would soon ignite the massive upturn in their profile. El Loco was arguably the slickest, sharpest and meanest record the band had done to date, taking everything up a notch from what had gone before.
ZZ Top were always aware of what was going on around them, and by 1981 there was definitely a smell of a major upheaval in music. With this in mind, the band prepared the ground with songs that were slightly more commercially savvy, while never stepping too far away from their roots.
More than a stepping stone to Eliminator, this album stands tall on its own feet, with Pearl Necklace, Tube Snake Boogie, Ten Foot Pole and Heaven, Hell Or Houston soon to gain vociferous fan approval.
ZZ Top's First Album (London Records, 1971)
Say, what was the name of ZZ Top’s first album again? Ah, yeah: ZZ Top’s First Album. Songs like Neighbor, Neighbor and Backdoor Love Affair might sound like they could come from any time in the band’s career, but there’s a more conventional bluesiness on their debut that sets it apart.
The earthy, Southern-fried simplicity of the recording clashes jarringly with the multimillion-selling Eliminator, but Brown Sugar lays on the blues like treacle, full of classic licks and loads of space – a looseness that suggests Billy Gibbons is just fooling around before the track takes off. Goin’ Down To Mexico is almost Dylan-esque until the breakdown at 1:20 that lets you know this really isn’t “the same old song”. Just Got Back From Baby’s is another highlight. A new bunch of Hombres had arrived.
Tejas (London Records, 1976)
Like Tres Hombres, Tejas marks a point where the trio’s blues-and-boogie combo came with a little added spice from south of the border. If anything, it's arguably a bit too musicianly, featuring the near-country rock of It’s Only Love and the almost jazzy Snappy Kakkie. But when it was good, it was really good.
The second single from the album sounded like something Hunter S Thompson might have espoused in one of his occasional magazine columns: ‘We broke a case of proof 102/And started itchin’ for that wonderful feel/Of rollin’ in an automobile’. And while the song certainly might sound like the work of a band who might once have liked to tie one on and head out to the highway, bassist Dusty Hill was quick to point out in an interview in 1985, “That’s not it at all. Billy introduces it: ‘Don’t get arrested for driving while blind.’”
Mescalero (BMG, 2003)
By the turn of the century, most people had probably given up on ever hearing a good new ZZ studio album. And then along came Mescalero. And while it certainly isn’t among the band’s best albums, this back-to-basics recording was a massive improvement on the rest of their post-Eliminator output.
Of course, the album is too long – pandering to the CD generation, rather than trimming away the excess baggage – but there are enough quality moments to make this a decent addition to any ZZ collection: Buck Nekkid has the old swagger and humour; Alley-Gator and Me So Stupid wouldn’t be out of place on Deguello; and Liquor certainly slakes the blues-wailing thirst.
Fandango (Warner Bros, 1975)
Yes, it’s got Tush. And another ZZ masterclass in Heard It On The X. But there was something slightly unsatisfying about Fandango, with a studio and a live side. What fans would have preferred is a full live album, or to see the quality hinted at with the studio tracks developed into a complete new record.
The live material motors nicely, fuelled by the usual ZZ stage charisma and energy: Jailhouse Rock blitzes, while the Backdoor Medley is neatly realised. But just when you’re getting into the stride of this ’ere live thang, ZZ pull the plug and go into studio mode.
And if you don’t know what Tush is all about, ask your granny – you really need to get out more.
Chrome, Smoke & BBQ (Warner Brothers, 2003)
True, it ignores the band’s tenure on RCA, concentrating on the trio’s Warners years, but there are a lot of ZZ Top fans out there who will tell you it’s only the WB material that you want to bother with anyway (those fans are flat out wrong, like, but never mind, eh?). Either way, this sumptuous four-CD box set, released by the label in 2003, is the ideal package for those fans with a few sheets to spare.
Beginning with Billy Gibbons’ pre-ZZ outfit the Moving Sidewalks, as well as featuring the Top’s debut single Salt Lick, all of the band’s major hits from Tush and La Grange to Gimme All Your Lovin’ and even a handful of rarities such as a Spanish version of Francine, a live Cheap Sunglasses and a dance mix of Legs. Inside you’ll find a booklet packed with historical photos of the trio, and, if that’s what floats your boat, the whole thing folds out into a diner with its own ZZ Top figures. Give ’em all your money or what?