ZZ TOP a/k/a “That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” lay undisputed claim to being the longest running major rock band with original personnel intact and in 2004 the Texas trio was be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of course, there are only three of them – Billy F Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard -- but it’s still a remarkable achievement that they’re still very much together after more than 40 years of rock, blues, and boogie on the road and in the studio. “Yeah,” says Billy, guitarist extraordinaire, “we’re the same three guys, bashing out the same three chords.” With the release of each of their albums the band has explored new ground in terms of both their sonic approach and the material they’ve recorded. ZZ TOP is the same but always changing.
It was in Houston in the waning days of 1969 that ZZ TOP coalesced from the core of two rival bands, Billy’s Moving Sidewalks and Frank and Dusty’s American Blues. The new group went on to record the appropriately titled ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud that reflected their strong blues roots. Their third, 1973’s Tres Hombres, catapulted them to national attention with the hit “La Grange,” still one of the band’s signature pieces today. The song is unabashed elemental boogie, celebrating the institution that came to be known as “the best little whorehouse in Texas.” Their next hit was “Tush,” a song about, well, let’s just say the pursuit of “the good life” that was featured on their Fandango! album released in 1975. The band’s momentum and success built during its first decade, culminating in the legendary “World Wide Texas Tour,” with a production that included a longhorn steer, a buffalo, buzzards, rattlesnakes and a Texas-shaped stage. As a touring unit, they’ve been without peer over the years, having performed before millions of fans through North America on numerous epochal tours as well as overseas where they’ve enthralled audiences from Slovenia to Italy, from Australia to Sweden, from Russia to Japan and most points in between. Their iconography – beards, cars, girls, and that magic keychain – seems to transcend all bounds of geography and language.
Following a lengthy hiatus during which the individual members of the band traveled the world, they switched labels (from British Decca’s London label to Warner Bros.) and returned with two amazingly provocative albums, Deguello and El Loco. Their next release, Eliminator, was something of a paradigm shift for ZZ TOP. Their roots blues skew was intact but added to the mix were tech-age trappings that soon found a visual outlet with the nascent MTV. Suddenly, Billy, Dusty and Frank were video icons, playing a kind of Greek chorus in videos that highlighted the album’s three smash singles: “Gimme All Your Lovin’, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs.” The melding of grungy guitar-based blues with synth-pop was seamless and continued with the follow-up album Afterburner as they continued their chart juggernaut. ZZ TOP had accomplished the impossible; they had moved with the times while simultaneously bucking ephemeral trends that crossed their path. They had become more popular and more iconic without ever having to be “flavor of the week.” They had become a certified rock institution, contemporary in every way, yet still completely connected to the founding fathers of the genre.
They stayed with Warner for one more album, Recycler, released in 1990 and switched to RCA where they debuted with Antenna and followed with Rhythmeen and XXX. Mescalero, their latest, is one of the deepest sets ever presented by the band with 16 tracks brimming with virtuoso musicianship, humorously enigmatic lyrics and even a track sung entirely in Spanish. Beyond that, both a lavish four CD box set compilation, Chrome, Smoke & B.B.Q. and a two-CD distillation of that package, Rancho Texicano, were released in recent years by Warner Bros.
Now after lengthy hiatus from the studio, ZZ Top is prepping the release of La Futura, the band’s first album in nine years, to be released in the fall of 2012 Four of that album’s tracks were gathered under the title Texicali and released digitially in the late Spring. Those four tracks, “I Gotsta Get Paid,” “Chartrueuse,” “Over You” and “Consumption” have confirmed the hopes of their legion of fans: the band’s sound is stronger than ever and their approach is as ‘down and dirty’ as it was 42 years ago.
The elements that keep ZZ TOP fresh, enduring and above the transitory fray can be summed up in the three words of the band’s internal mantra: “Tone, Taste and Tenacity.” Of course, the three members of the band have done their utmost to do their part in assuring that ZZ TOP prevails. As genuine roots musicians, the members of the band have few peers. Billy is widely regarded as one of American finest blues guitarists working in the rock idiom. His influences are both the originators of the form – Muddy Waters, B.B. King, et al – as well as the British blues rockers who emerged the generation before ZZ’s ascendance. In his early days of playing, no less an idol that Jimi Hendrix singled him out for praise. Part mad scientist, part prankster, he’s a musical innovator of the highest order.
Dusty has long had an affinity for rock’s origins; his earliest performances as a child included Elvis songs convincingly performed. Not only is he a bass virtuoso in his own right, his vocal prowess is awe-inspiring. He’s the lead voice you hear on “Tush” and his ferocious vocals are heard, to great effect, on “Piece” on the new album. Good natured and diligent, Dusty is the rock solid bottom of ZZ TOP.
Frank has also been keeping the beat in that great tradition. As both a roots and progressive drummer, he has been acknowledged as key to the band’s powerful on-stage and in-studio presence. He and Dusty, in their early years together, served as Lightnin’ Hopkins’ rhythm section which, as Frank tells it, was a life changing experience. Frank, despite his last name, is the guy in the band without a beard. But when you’re with him, you’re with a Beard. He’s a rockin’ paradox who provides the pulse of ZZ TOP.
ZZ TOP’s music is always instantly recognizable, eminently powerful, profoundly soulful and 100% Texas American in derivation. The band’s support for the blues is unwavering both as interpreters of the music and preservers of its legacy. It was ZZ TOP that celebrated “founding father” Muddy Waters by turning a piece of scrap timber than had fallen from his sharecropper’s shack into a beautiful guitar, dubbed the “Muddywood.” This totem was sent on tour as a fundraising focus for The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, site of Robert Johnson’s famed “Crossroads” encounter with the devil. ZZ TOP’s support and link to the blues remains as rock solid as the music they continue to play. They have sold millions of records over the course of their career, have been officially designated as Heroes of The State of Texas, have been referenced in countless cartoons and sitcoms and are true rock icons but, against all odds, they’re really just doing what they’ve always done. They’re real and they’re surreal and they’re ZZ TOP.
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