|Originaly published in SOUND magazine June 1976 $0.75|
RIDING WITH ZEEZEE
by Jim Millican
Web Prep. by Ryan Grealy firstname.lastname@example.org - http://www.islandnet.com/~grealyrk
What's one thing that The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Leon Russell and Led Zeppelin would probably rather not have in common? Each of them has had prestigious concert attendance records shattered by ZZ Top, a power trio from Texas that delivers a gut level version of rock and blues combined that has supercharged audiences throughout North America. Besides being one of the continent's biggest under-rated concert attractions, all four of ZZ Top's albums have attained gold or platinum status in the United States. In Canada, their most recent works, Tres Hombres and Fandango, both attained the number one spot on the album charts and gold record status. Despite the fact that ZZ Top has never toured Britain, the readers of England's Melody Maker elected the group one of the Brightest International Hopes of 1975 ahead of such names as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company.
ZZ Top is not what you would call a critic's band. While they cause near riots with their audiences, the music of lead vocalist and guitarist Billy Gibbons, bass player Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard remains an enigma to the majority of reviewers who hear an endless repetition of basic blues and rock riffs often played with little subtlety or invention. Much to the chagrin of ZZ Top, they've gained a place for themselves alongside Kiss, Grand Funk, and the other music phenomena who have risen to the top without much aid from the powerful and influential rock media.
For a time, the group stopped doing interviews rather than subject themselves to what they thought were vindictive and misrepresentative reportage. They've gone through being called a Cream copy, a Grand Funk rip-off and just another Southern boogie band but, despite the negatives, ZZ Top's awareness of good public relations is an integral part of their game plan and, on a recent tour of Canada, they were once again ready to sit down and talk. Either they band together for solidarity and security or they really do enjoy each other's company as much as they seem to but, for sure if you want to talk to ZZ Top, you get all three major components just as if they constituted a single entity . . plus a road manager and their touring press rep who sets up a little cassette recorder in a pointed enough manner to let you know exactly what he's doing. "We've hadda lot of trouble with the press, you know, people misquoting us and stuff." The inference is that it won't happen again.
As the band members saunter into the centre of attraction, they're more concerned with getting some early afternoon breakfast together than anything else. On the surface they represent as unaffected a bunch of guys as you'll ever see. Billy Gibbons is obviously the boss and carries his authority with a bit of a swagger. He's not that tall, with a slight baby face, the permanently self-effacing manner of a born ranch hand but the constant sheepish grin of a born trouble maker. Its hard to miss the initials 'B.G.' monogrammed into his shirt-sleeves or the oversized ring he wears with a map of Texas emblazoned with what looks like a whole bunch of little diamonds. Dusty Hill with his long blond locks and equally blond beard is easily the most relaxed and immediately eases his bulk into the most comfortable chair in the room. Frank 'Rube' Beard, like a lot of drummers, sort of pulls up the rear, only speaking when spoken to, chewing a wad of gum and hiding his eyes under the brim of a baseball style cap with the CAT logo prominently displayed in front. Their combined natural shyness and reserve is something they probably couldn't fake even with Hollywood credentials.
ZZ Top's First Album cut in 1970 showed little promise and gave no indication that it would be looked back upon as the cornerstone of an amazing climb to success. One thing the band did have going for it from the point of inception was strong management. Bill Ham, a former record promo man out of Houston, met Billy Gibbons as he was leaving a marginally successful psychedelic group called The Moving Sidewalks. Ham took Gibbons under his wing and, after holding auditions, Frank Beard, an old acquaintance of Billy from Dallas, was signed on as drummer. Finding a bass player who could stay with Gibbon's already considerable fret-board pyrotechnics and also provide a second lead singing voice took longer but the eventual recruit was Dusty Hill. Ham then launched the group with a record contract and put them to work doing the interminable Texas bar and one-night-gig circuit. Chances that the loud primitive group would make it big with their blues imitations seemed a million to one but night after night, in the bars and the clubs or opening somebody else's concerts, ZZ Top paid their dues working on developing the rudiments of a sound they could call their own.
"It took us two years just to get out of Texas 'cause the place is so doggone big," Billy is ready to inform you. Frank fills in the details.
"Actually what we did was start out playing clubs in Houston and roundabout a fifty mile radius, say as far as Port Arthur, and the people that saw us would spread the word so it was just like a pebble hittin' the water with all those ripples spreadin' out."
This was at a time in the ever-changing world of rock music when there was a lot of English glitter hitting the stage and the rash of trios spawned by the success of Cream and other end-sixties innovators were dying a painful death. ZZ Top managed to buck all the trends.
"We didn't set out to form a trio although all three of us had played in other trios. The first time we jammed we got on this thing and shuffled for about thirty minutes and it pleased us so that was good enough. B'sides," Gibbons adds out of the side of his mouth, "we were so poor we couldn't afford to hire anybody else! ! " This naturally brings a hearty round of yukks from the assembled group by now choking down hamburgers, cokes and other traditional American room service goodies as they sit around in a lavish hotel suite while the regular city hustles to a cafeteria lunch seventeen floors below.
The second album from the hand, Rio Grande Mud, could be described as more of what you got the first time a poorly produced crude rock rendition of the blues. Hardly "original music" and yet, through the good fortune of natural circumstance, dogged persistence on the part of the group and clever managerial promotion, there was a group identity thing starting to build. It's described by Billy as simply "the big deal of being from the South." It manifested itself in the stage appearance of the trio, the lyrical material they began to churn out and the whole "Lil ole band from Texas" gaff.
"ZeeZee's influence from growin' up down there in Texas and then doing a lot of odd jobs along the way as musicians has given us a lot of material for the tunes we write and the stuff we sing about. Especially outside of Texas, it seemed to be the kind of thing that attracted a lot of people. We were singing 'bout things that other people didn't seem to have too much of, the wide open spaces and the clean air. Like the song Chevrolet' off the Rio Grande LP. You know, it takes two hours just to drive an automobile across The King Ranch on the way to Mexico, which is something you can't do in too many other places in the U.S. anymore."
That whole thought pretty well sums up the lyrical content of the third ZZ Top album, Tres Hombres, released in 1973 as the stereotyped but necessary tough roadwork started to pay dividends. The group graduated to opening concerts for the likes of The Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, and Alice Cooper. They were in the process of translating a regional cult following into a national audience.
"I think it was our honest approach to music at a time when a lot of bands had gone away from presenting straight-forward music," Dusty pontificates from behind a pair of eyeglasses that you never see in the press photos. "Rock and roll is emotional right? And we play emotional music and once the people heard it we won 'em over." That simple.
Tres Hombres had been in the racks for a full nine months when one of the songs began to break on hit radio stations giving the group its first taste of A.M. success. "La Grange" was the song and, as Billy describes, "it was about the Waldorf Astoria of whore houses in Texas, so posh that you couldn't cuss or even be really drunk in front of the girls. When you reach a certain age in Texas you can go visiting down to Mexico or make a trip to La Grange. At least that's the way it was. Place got closed down soon after we wrote the song. The sheriff was so pissed that he smashed all the ribs of the reporter that broke the story in the papers." The music of "La Grange" is actually just a re-working of a Slim Harpo number that was also done by The Stones as "Hip Shake" but it proved a breakthrough for ZZ Top.
There's a lot more Texican in the lyrics of Tres Hombres. "Precious And Grace" is about two women the band picked up on a drive from Dallas to Houston. Seems Dusty can't pass up the opportunity to make a little time. Only on this occasion, as he relates, "these two were as ugly as sin. Real ugly women. They'd just got out of prison. One of them had so many scars it looked like her face had caught fire and they'd stamped it out with a track shoe. But ahh . . . they were unique people," he chuckles. "And it's a story people can identify with 'cause it coulda happened anywhere but at the same time folks think its different 'cause it happened down in Texas, but, hell, everyone everywhere goes to whores, drinks beer and drives fast." Tres Hombres eventually became a platinum album.
Which leads to the obvious questions. How accurate are the group's pat explanations for its own success? What were the audiences really finding so engaging as to hook them to the music by the hundreds of thousands?
As far back as the earliest seventies, the trio had taken to wearing cowboy boots, stetsons and other western gear on stage. Then they'd graduated to Nudie Rodeo Taylor's outfits, the kind worn by Roy Rodgers in his old flicks and also by such country and western stars as Hank Williams. The suits come replete with rhinestone roses and sparkling maps of the Lone Star State on the back of the jackets and sell for about fifteen hundred dollars each. Just what all the cowboy fashion has to do with rock and blues music is an open ended query but the crowds seem to eat it up.
"Nudie's suits have come to symbolize that flashy Texan image, all that bragging about 'my gun is bigger'n your gun', and we've kind of picked up on it," says Billy
"It's a stage and it's a show, right? And people like to be entertained visually, too." Dusty is adamant. "We don't think of it as going out of our way a great deal. I don't place much importance on it. If people like it then that's fine and if they don't, well, there's not a whole lot you can do about it." For the most part, people seem to be clearly intrigued, and that brings up a point much more central to the success of ZZ Top.
Their studio work is basic and simple with very little overdubbing done to augment the sound. On stage they have only three instruments to rely on, which considerably limits the scope of their musical adventures, yet there is obviously a lot of strong conviction in the group about what they play.
To his credit, Billy Gibbons is an intense student of some of the great blues and slide players of all time: Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Lightnin' Hopkins and also more con-temporary giants like Jimi Hendrix.
"A big part of what ZeeZee is about is the blues," says Billy (ZeeZee is how all three refer to their collective identity. "For fraternal reasons we don't really say where the name ZZ Top came from. Let's just say it should come to represent what we project from a musical standpoint.") People now know the blues through recordings and that's probably how we assimilated a lot of those chops. 'Course we've all played the blues at one time or another; it's every strong and powerful music. A lot of people probably don't realize that Texas has still got about the biggest blues scene of anywhere in the world. I can remember even in high school; the senior prom was a classic case of a bunch of white kids hirin' the black blues players to come and play for 'em. There have been some awful bad blues bands in Texas and some great white rythym and blues bands, too. Roy Head had a sensational band. B. I. Thomas used to have a sensational fourteen piece group, strictly that Texas style r and b. But, gettin' back to the blues, being exposed to all the live music in Houston is maybe a main reason that those blues chops surface in ZeeZee's playing." The heavy vibrato and slow lead line instead of a Chicago style lead with those quick little riffs and half tones marks their work. "In Texas the blues was more based on the seventh note of the chord which coloured the music with that sound people call the blues. I think my approach to the lead lines on our blues stuff, like 'Blue Jean Blues', contains that seventh to add to the natural blues characteristics. There's a great deal of the minor chord used in ZeeZee's playing, which might be what people think of when they hear our style which has just developed over the last couple of years."
Dusty Hill, for his part, has played bass for people like Freddie King, Lightnin' Hopkins, and other purist blues bands and he brings to ZZ Top an ability to stroke both bass and rythym lines out of his instrument at the same time, which goes a long way to filling out the stage sound.
"It's something we work up when we write the songs," he explains. "It's a thing of hitting bass chords and rhythym notes at the same times with my fretting fingers. Not many rock bass players can do that. Jack Cassady and Jack Bruce both use the same kinda technique."
In back, Frank Beard has his hands full to keep time and polish up the sound for his frenetic frontmen, but he plays in a manner that covers the basics of rock with very little problem.
The best description of ZZ Top's live or recorded sound that I've ever witnessed inadvertently found its way into their quarter-inch-thick press folder. While the story in question is full of glowing adjectives and praise, the writer chose to illustrate some of the negative critical reaction the band engenders by printing a quote that is attributed to "a leading rock critic." It read: "they are grating, repetitious, hackneyed and boring. They play material that's been done to death a thousand times. I certainly don't listen to them - does anybody?" This gave Dusty a good laugh.
"Nobody likes to read bad things about themselves, but it's not important. There's an old saying, nobody enjoyed it but the people. If we don't play good and we do get a good review, it means nothing to me, I'm still down so why should it bother me when it's the other way around? We don't have a running battle with the press or anything like that."
"I think we're a real strong musical group," Frank drawls. "Since the very beginning, our tunes have had titles like "C 4/4", "G 4/4" and "C Shuffle". They didn't have names, didn't even have lyrics until we got the music down. When I first got to hear Billy play, it was like what I'd always wanted to hear from a guitar player, what had been missing."
"The pickin' is the most important thing, following by the singing. But the music excites us and it should excite the people who are watchin' too," adds Dusty, warming up to the whole discussion. "If Billy plays something that I really like, it picks up the whole tempo of the show and we're off. People spend good money to see a concert and we want them to have a good time. We'll do just about anything to get 'em off." All of this doesn't disguise the fact that ZZ Top's two hour set is often a truly unlistenable wallow of sound distinguished only by the piercing top end guitar runs of Gibbons and the loyal frenzy of the audience with at least the first thirty rows in a constant stampeding up-roar. And it's Gibbons who takes the last word on the subject with a pronouncement fit for The Lone Ranger.
"I think it's all right there in the music. 'Nuff said." There are nods of approval from his compatriots and we move on to the latest chapter in the group's history.
In the two years following the release of Tres Hombres, the boys have been on the road touring almost constantly. A great part of their success is in selling records to the concert audiences who are able to relive the experience time and again in the comfort of their own homes. Rather than slacking off, it seems that the impact of ZZ Top is continuing to explode because, while they've achieved their prominence over a longer period of time than many bands manage to stay together, they still back up their sell-out stature with up to ten months of touring a year. As Frank says, ever since the early days it's been the one true indication of how they're being received and they're not about to give it up.
"It would be nice to play in some smaller places," Dusty injects, "but, if we didn't play to the big arena and colosseum crowds, then there'd be a lot of people who wouldn't get to see us perform. I'd like to be able to drop by the clubs sometimes and sit in with the other performers but we never really have the time because we're constantly touring the country."
The latest album, Fandango, falls into the time-tested mould of Tres Hombres insofar as the lyric and the concept is concerned. As you might imagine, the tone of the music hasn't changed much either. Fandango is a word that described the weeklong blowout that American and Mexican cowboys would indulge in when they'd come in from the range and whoop it up at the end of a trail drive. In other words, this is a party album.
Fandango has one studio side and one live side recorded during three days of concerts in front of a typically frantic audience at the Warehouse in New Orleans. It's the first ZZ venture into the area of concert recording.
"Some people think it's done live be-cause we didn't have any new studio material - but that's not so," Billy says. "For a long time we didn't want to put out a new album that would bump Tres down the charts 'cause it was still going real well so we kept putting things in the can and then, when it did come time for the LP, we decided to mess with some live stuff just 'cause we'd never done it before." Still, the live concert arena seems a lot more the home of the group than the technically-oriented studio where ZZ Top makes little use of the tricks that are available to them anyway.
"It takes a lot of energy to go into the studio. We usually work up a tune and take it out on the road for a couple of months, which is a good provin' ground. In a trio, it's a real technical approach to playing and musical ability has to be kept at a sharpened edge so you don't get loose or rusty. The road keeps our chops up 'cause in the studio you can't hide it. Tape don't lie!
The studio side of Fandango features the continued distillation of the Texas experience. "Balinese" is a funky shuffle tribute to a gambling dive on a Galveston pier. "Mexican Blackbird" is a country-tinged tune based on the true story of a Mexican prostitute and "Heard It On The X" is a tribute to the great X radio stations of Mexico which might feature a preacher selling autographed pictures of Jesus and an hour of great blues records separated only by an advertisement for goat gland operations which Billy explains "is a kind of sex change operation racket invented by this Dr. Brinkley who went to Mex when they ran him outta the States a long time ago."
Then there's Dusty shouting the short and nasty blues rocker "Tush", which finally gave ZZ Top a true top ten hit to back up their album successes. More than any other, this one tune seems to typify the heavy-handed cowboy mentality toward women that this trio almost seems to have borrowed from a John Ford movie. "Tush" is a heatwave electric blues guitar throb with a tight little story that couldn't be more explicit. "I been bad, I been good, Dallas Texas, Hollywood - I ain't askin for much! I say Lord take me downtown! I'm just lookin for some Tush..."
"Maybe it's a little too up front for some people," says Dusty. "We wrote it in Florence, Alabama. It was about the hottest show we ever played. While we were rehearsin' in the afternoon we found this riff and just started playing it. I was up at the mike singing whatever came to mind and that's where my mind was at that day."
"Actually, I like to think myself very gentle with the ladies," Gibbons smirks. "I really like 'em and I have no qualms about the purpose between man and woman. I think it's a beautiful thing." Move from another round of half-hearted locker room yukks to the story that seemed to dwell in the lyric of a song from Tres Hombres called "Master Of Sparks".
"Yeah, that's a true story," Billy drawls obviously relishing the opportunity to spin another well-worn time-honoured tale.
"I guess it's safe to talk about it now ... A good friend and I put our heads together one day and went out of town to his folks spread where we got the help of the black foreman there to weld a bunch of sucker gauge which is the kind of pipe they use to build windmills, into a steel cage, a ball of sorts. We put a door on it, a seatbelt on a bucket seat. It even had shock absorbers to cushion the points of impact. Then we'd get drunk and roll this thing out of the back of a pick-up truck at 'bout fifty miles an hour and when it would hit the ground it'd send up a rooster tail of sparks a hundred feet in the air. Man it would tear you up to get in that thing. It was the most amazing spectacle I'd ever laid eyes on.
'Course we kept it a secret from everybody 'cause, if our folks had found out, we'd all been off to military school, but then my buddy went and printed up flyers and distributed them at school sayin' to come and see the 'master of sparks' that night on jack-rabbit road which was Highway Six, our launch pad."
"Well, sure enough, come sundown we got out there to find both sides of the road lined with cars waitin' to see this. Some guy even had the back end of his pick-up truck loaded down with ice and cold beer, he was givin' away free beer. So, after realizing what was coming down, both of us loaded ourselves in for the last ride and I guess we must of been going sixty miles an hour, drunk, laughin' like hell and, when we rolled ourselves out, we hit the ground so hard it squashed the ball out like an egg. Needless to say, it didn't roll too well and we spun off the road and hit a fence, tore bout a hundred yards of barbed wire down. I was screamin', he was bleedin', but, needless to say we were awarded the coveted title of having done the wildest thing."