What do you know about ZZ Top? Long beards, big red car, sunglasses, cheesy music videos. Pretty much sums them up, right? Wrong. Long before the red car showed up during the early days of MTV and spoiled everything (and made them rich & famous), ZZ Top had a loyal following. The Texas trio (Billy Gibbons on guitar and vocals, Dusty Hill on vocals, bass and keyboards and Frank Beard on drums) was already known for its entertaining live shows (I never got to see one, alas), but the band also put out some incredible bluesy, country-inflected rock ‘n’ roll. They sang about things like drug smuggling, Mexican border blaster radio, the whorehouse in LaGrange, things that the rest of the country didn’t know about, but any Texan who ever had a pot-smoking friend recognized instantly. Furthermore, they were and probably still are, excellent musicians. Gibbons is one of the best blues guitarists out there. Songs like “Legs” and “Sharp-Dressed Man” are decent, but don’t even come close to their pre-Eliminator album releases. If all you’ve ever heard from ZZ Top are their MTV-era hits, do yourself a favor and get their 1977 The Best of ZZ Top compilation (not to be confused with the 1992 Greatest Hits. Then get as many of their early albums as possible. Tres Hombres or Fandango would be a good starting point. I wouldn’t go any more recent than El Loco.
A gimmick can be a double-edged sword for a musician. The right gimmick at the right time can capture the imagination of the public and lead to great success. However, audiences are fickle. There’s always the danger that people will conclude that you’re nothing but a gimmick and write you off. Some of my favorite musicians seem to have suffered that fate. ZZ Top, with the beards, red car and sunglasses, might be close. People don’t always realize what they really were and don’t bother to go back and listen. And of course there’s the simple problem of time. A band might start out strong and end up weak. Eventually, you end up with a lot of people who are too young to remember the artist’s hey day. They see images of the gimmick, hear a few weak songs and put two and two together – and get the wrong answer.
Check out these videos and I think you’ll agree there’s more to ZZ Top than many people realize.
I don’t do “guilty pleasures.” I only like awesome music that may or may not be appreciated by fellow music lovers. Whenever I can, I will try to set the record straight. I’ll do that for other “gimmicky” artists when I think of them.