ZZ Top – beyond the beards and the red car

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.

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7 Comments

Filed under beyond the gimmick, blues, music, rock

7 responses to “ZZ Top – beyond the beards and the red car

  1. I was about 15 when I bought a strange looking album called Tres Hombres by a band I thought (being English) were called Zed Zed Top! It was the best-kept secret of me and about three of my mates – nobody else “got it”. Tracks like ‘La Grange’ sounded to those young English ears liked they’d beamed in from another planet and I was hooked! You can imagine my surprise when they went global in the 80’s – nobody would’ve bet on that one! I would recommend (though it’s hard to get hold of now, I think) The ZZ Top 6 pack, which features their first 6 CD’s before the marketing took hold, but have no fear, they soon got back to their roots after the 80’s madness!

  2. Wow, excellent comment. Thanks for stopping by. What do you think of the sound quality of the 6 Pack albums? Some of my audiophile friends have complained that the studio remixed them and messed them up.

  3. I know what you mean, I’m a musician, but not maniacally audiophile – so I can be tolerant in certain circumstances where it’s worth having a rare collection or whatever. The 6 pack suffers a little like the first Led Zep CD issues which was why Jimmy Page set about doing the remasters series. Stories abound that, rather than using the original masters, they took the first CD pressings from second or third hand tape copies! I guess the 6 pack suffered a little in that regard. My worst ever CD mix though was Toto’s “Turn Back” it was anawful muffled copy with no level whatsoever. The idiot in the shop didn’t believe me, being of the school of thought that “it’s a CD, so it can’t be faulty!”

  4. I haven’t heard the 6 pack mixes myself and I don’t know if I would even notice if someone hadn’t told me, but what I seem to remember people saying is that they altered Beard’s drumming to make it sound closer to the drum machines used in the ’80s. If so, that’s a damn shame. His drumming is pretty awesome stuff. I guess I need to compare sometime and see if I can tell. I don’t know if I care enough to go to the trouble though. I’m not a production nazi. As long as I like the tunes, I probably won’t complain too much.

  5. I actually don’t recall the drumming being altered on it, but to be honest I haven’t listened to it in a while, I’ve got the individual albums on my ipod.

    I remember quite a stink was kicked up when Free’s greatest hits came out- the purists argued that Simon Kirke’s drumming had been beefed up. It sort of had – but , to these ears, not to the detriment of the tracks. I also recently got hold of Foreigner’s remasters, and they’d been really well done. Generally though, I’ll always hold to the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

  6. I don’t know I think you are being a little hard on Eliminator.

    • Maybe so. It wasn’t a horrible album. I liked “You Got Me Under Pressure” quite a lot. The big hits “Legs” and “Sharp-Dressed Man” were OK pop songs. It just felt like it wasn’t my ZZ Top.

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