Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #32: ZZ Top

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: A blues-based trio from Texas, active since 1969, featuring Billy Gibbons on guitar and vocals, Dusty Hill on bass and vocals, and Frank Beard on drums. Since the early ’80s, they’ve been most visually recognizable via Gibbons’ and Hill’s majestic beards, sunglasses and Stetson hats, while their drummer (remember, his name is “Beard”) goes clean-shaven. Ha ha ha, I get it! Having emerged as a popular live and rock radio act in the ’70s, the group peaked in commercial popularity in the early-to-mid-’80s, when the MTV-ready videos from their synth-fortified album Eliminator (1983) made them a ubiquitous visual and musical presence. They (mostly) bailed on the electronics in the  early ’90s, but have continued to release (mostly) interesting blues-based albums over the ensuing decades. While the group’s admirable chemistry and lack of personnel changes over half-a-century are historically and culturally admirable, it’s also important to note that they had made some deeply influential (if only regionally popular, in its time) music in the ’60s as members of psychedelic rock ensembles American Blues (Hill and Beard) and Moving Sidewalks (Gibbons). A 2019 documentary called ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas provides perhaps the best summary of their long history and impact, and I commend it to your attention.

When I First Heard Them: I am sure that I would have heard their early hit singles “La Grange” (1973) and “Tush” (1975) on the radio when they were charting, though it wasn’t until that later ’70s that I really focused on them, largely through the influence of my Dead Head friend Glenn from Hicksville United Methodist Church on Long Island, who really tuned me into their early work (and peak-era Dead, too). They were obviously unavoidable during my college years in the first half of the ’80s, when MTV was wreaking magic and havoc on the music world, and ZZ Top were doing their weird part to craft the visuals and synthetic sounds of the era. I appreciated and enjoyed those ’80s hits in their time, but they do really tend to be specifically of that time, all these years on, their sequencer-based grooves screaming “1984” just as clearly as, say, New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Which isn’t a bad thing, exactly, but it means that that era’s songs aren’t going to score highly on my “all-time favorites” charts, for either ZZ Top or New Order.

Why I Love Them: Sadly, here in this our American of 2021, the word “Texas” can often be used as short-hand to describe loads of social, political, cultural, and musical things that are simply abhorrent to  me. But if you peeled off the things that I actually really like about Texas, and boiled them down into their pure, raw essence, they’d probably sound a lot like ZZ Top. (Or look a lot like the traditional/historic Spanish/Mexican bits of San Antonio and/or El Paso). I truly and deeply appreciate the fact that these three dudes have been making music together for more than 50 years without a line-up change, which results in a magical musical chemistry that’s precious and rare in the sad auto-tuned, pro-shopped, songwriter-milled, and studio-hacked musical landscapes within which we all too often tread of late. Beyond their longevity, I also applaud and commend their technical proficiency: Gibbons is a guitar hero by any definition of that phrase, and the Hill-Beard rhythm section swings like nobody’s business. While their catalog is rooted in the most-traditional idiom of the American blues, ZZ Top have never been afraid to foresee and embrace the future, grafting synthesizers, sequencers, and video visuals onto their roots-rock super-structures long before it was considered commercially or critically savvy to do so. Their pre-Top bona fides as members of a pair of highly-influential Texas psych-rock bands also pay tribute to their prescience and persistence in the face of a music industry that has never really quite known what to do with them, allowing them to do just what they want to do, in just the ways that they want to do it, throughout their long and entertaining career together. And “entertaining” is a key word there: these dudes put on a show, always, in the best sense of that word. Their visual and musical shticks are trite on one hand, but sublime on another, the net wash of which is a group that makes music, live and in the studio, that’s guaranteed to force a listener to tap her toes or wiggle his hips, happily, while being implanted with some truly epic ear-worm hooks and melodies that are tasty enough to make return visits pleasurable to the max. They’re deeply talented, they’re musically tight, they write (or cover) and play great songs, and they’re fun, fun, FUN, all the time. What’s not to love about that? Even outside of Texas?

#10. “Groovy Little Hippie Pad,” from El Loco (1981)

#9. “Dusted,” from Mescalero (2003)

#8. “Goin’ Down to Mexico,” from ZZ Top’s First Album (1970)

#7. “Bar-B-Q,” from Rio Grande Mud (1972)

#6. “Tush,” from Fandango (1975)

#5. “El Diablo,” from Tejas (1976)

#4. “La Grange,” from Tres Hombres (1973)

#3. “Cheap Sunglasses,” from Degüello (1979)

#2. “I Gotsta Get Paid,” from La Futura (2012)

#1. “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” from Tres Hombres (1973)

Modern Talk

Chuck Miller is a writer friend from Albany, and a fellow maltreated survivor of the Times Union Blog Farm. While I consider myself to be a reasonably prolific keyboard wrangler, Chuck is one of a small number of people (Roger Green being another) who can put me to shame with both the volume and quality of the content offered at their websites. Both of those gents have blogged daily for well over a dozen years, never missing a post, ever. There are few constants in life, but I always appreciate the fact that I can go to their websites any day, every day, and get fresh content, constantly, all of which I enjoy.

Chuck has also always been a great champion of the community-building aspects of online communication, and for years he’s devoted his Saturday posts to highlighting other writers’ work from the preceding week. During the Anno Virum, he added a new feature to his weekly round-up, offering a video interview each Saturday with a selected writer from his blogroll. As it turns out, while I was up in Boise this past weekend, Chuck ran a video of a conversation that he and I had taped a couple of weeks earlier. It was fun to chat with him “work from home” style, having not seen him in person since I left Albany in 2011, though we’ve stayed in touch through our websites since then.

I appreciate being included in Chuck’s roster of interesting community-building talks. If you’d like to hear how it went (or hear what I sound like, if you only know me from virtual spaces), click on the screen cap below for a link to the full video at Chuck’s website. A fine idea on his part, well executed. As are most things that he sets his mind to, as will become amply evident if you forage about at his site for any amount of time!

After A Reunion (Of Sorts)

Best travel buddy Marcia and I are home this afternoon after a five-day trip to visit with family en masse for the first time in nearly two years. We drove up to Las Vegas to see Katelin and John, with a stop to hike down to Hoover Dam on the way. We got to celebrate John’s birthday with a lovely dinner, the first one the four of us have eaten out together in a long, long time, it seemed. (All of us have been fully vaccinated, though we’re still doing our part with masks and distancing and such, it should go without saying). Then we flew on to Boise, Idaho, where my niece, Emmeline, was graduating from Boise State University, having finished her B.S. in Health Sciences there. Great jorb, Emme!

My sister (Paige), her husband (Dana), their son (Charlie), his girlfriend (Kristen), and my mother (The Notorious G.R.Z.) were also in town for the festivities. Dana’s brother (Ward), and his wife (Nova), and daughter (Lucy) live in Boise, as does Emmeline’s boyfriend (Asher), adding to the extended family fun. Ward, Nova and Lucy hosted us for a couple of nights of backyard delights, and we’re most grateful for their wonderful hospitality. Also most grateful for Lucy’s OMG BEST COOKIES EVAR!!!111!!1!!1, which she baked and generously shared with us. I’d have kept them to myself had I made them. She’s a peach. Likewise Nova, who had a rough surgery on Friday but still hostessed us the mostest in their lovely Boise home. Sending healing hugs and thanks her way.

We had the chance to visit Ward at Duft Watterson, his exceptional design and advertising agency, which was simply awash with various “Best in Show” awards for their truly unique and exciting work. As those who read me regularly know, I am a design and typeface and marketing snob, but what I saw of what they did and where/how they did it was just brilliant, an assessment borne out by the portfolio shared on their website. You need design, you call Ward and his team. Chop chop. The Duft Watterson office is in the heart of The Basque Block, so we got to have some awesome grub while we were hanging out in their ‘hood. We also paid a visit to The Basque Museum, which was very well curated and interpreted for such a small cultural/educational attraction. I recommend that site as well, heartily.

This trip was the first time we got to meet Asher and Kristen and they were great company. Emmeline and Charlie done good on the partners front. It worked out wonderfully to get to see my Mom for the first time since August 2019 and share Mother’s Day with her, and then to fly back via Vegas again, so Katelin and Marcia could have their special brunch together this morning. (I got to tag along). We drove back home via a slightly different route and did a hike from Laughlin, Nevada up to the Davis Dam. Lots of hydro infrastructure this trip. Marcia and I also got to do some fine couples hikes in Boise, where the wildflowers were in full force, making the lovely countryside even more beautiful. Good company, good times.

A fine trip, all things considered. And now it feels fine to be back home. I’ve posted an album of the adventure over at Flickr, as I normally do. You can click on either the photo of me at the 3-D exhibition at the Basque Museum (Paige took that one), or The Notorious G.R.Z. in full festive flight (not sure who snapped that one!) to see the rest of the collection.

The Night Has 10,000 Words (Sedona #7)

(Note: We’re headed up to Idaho this week to visit with my extended family for the first time in two years, and to see my niece graduate from Boise State University. I might have some snaps from that trip when I return, but until then, here’s some more local color from our Northern Arizona homeland, including a day-trip up to the Flagstaff area).

(Note: Click on any image for full-size view)

PRIOR ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:

10,000 Words From The Exit Wound (Sedona #6)

What Are 10,000 Words For? (Sedona #5)

10,000 Words In A Cardboard Box (Sedona #4)

10,000 Words (Bless The Lord) (Sedona #3)

Brighter Than 10,000 Words (Sedona #2)

10,000 Words (Sedona #1)

Storm Force 10,000 Words (Chicago #10)

Ship Arriving Too Late To Save 10,000 Words (Chicago #9)

Beyond the Valley of 10,000 Words (Chicago #8)

Return to the Planet of 10,000 Words (Chicago #7)

Revenge of the Son of 10,000 Words (Chicago #6)

Son of Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #5)

Yet Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #4)

Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #3)

10,000 More Words (Chicago #2)

10,000 Words (Chicago)

With Which I Am Well Pleased IX (Types of Ambiguity)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world in recent weeks. As always, I welcome your own suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILM

TELEVISION

MUSIC

BOOKS

This Is The End And It’s Still Living: Anita Lane (1960 – 2021)

Various media sources are reporting the death of Australian singer-songwriter Anita Lane, though the precise date and manner of her flying away, like her birth date, and like much of her professional career and personal life, remain publicly obscure. She was a long-time contributor to a German-English-Australian creative axis involving such artists as The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Einstürzende Neubauten, Rowland S. Howard, Crime and the City Solution, Die Haut, Mick Harvey, These Immortal Souls, Kid Congo Powers, and Barry Adamson. A native of Melbourne, Lane emigrated to the United Kingdom with The Birthday Party in 1980, then lived in Germany, Morocco, Sicily, New York and Australia at various times over the ensuing years. In the early 2000s, she largely retired from music-making, returning for good to her native Australia. She spent several years caring for her family in a small coastal town near the Queensland-New South Wales border, then returned to Melbourne, where she died, her peripatetic global experiences ultimately delivering her back to her birthplace for that sad, final bow.

Lane was not at all prolific as a recording artist, releasing but one EP (Dirty Sings in 1988) and two albums (1993’s Dirty Pearl and 2001’s Sex O’Clock) under her own name, all of them outstanding and woefully under-appreciated. Her (slightly) larger mark on recording history was as a lyrical and vocal guest collaborator for most of the aforementioned artists, with a song here, a song there, unpredictable in their occurrence, but always a treat when they landed. She penned lyrics for The Birthday Party’s classic tracks “Dead Joe,” “Kiss Me Black,” and “A Dead Song.” (The header of this post comes from the latter of those three). She was a founding member of Cave’s Bad Seeds, co-writing “From Her to Eternity” and “Stranger Than Kindness,” both regarded among his finest works, by critics, audiences, and Cave himself. She also provided several thrilling vocal parts on ex-Birthday Party/Bad Seed Mick Harvey’s English arrangements of Serge Gainsbourg‘s catalog highlights, and her duet with Blixa Bargeld on Neubauten’s “Blume” is among that group’s greatest achievements.

At bottom line, Anita Lane was judicious, perhaps even guarded, in choosing her projects, but she always made a difference with her contributions. As a long-time listener, I was always pleased when I purchased a record and discovered that she was a part of it, one way or another. While the creative cohort within which Lane primarily moved and worked has certainly been capable of copious macho bullshit over the years, there were and are several personally and creatively strong women active in that orbit (e.g. Lane, Lydia Lunch, Genevieve McGuckin, Gudrun Gut, Bronwyn Adams, Danielle de Picciotto, etc.) who were not just playing a passive “muse” role, but were active, and outstanding, working artists in their own rights.

Their catalogs are all impressive, and worthy of exploration, each with their own unique views and visions as creators and collaborators. Lane, as it happens, was also involved in a long-time personal relationship with Nick Cave through his The Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds days. Reviews or commentary about her often relegate her to that unfortunate “muse” role, or (worse) slot her into some “girlfriend given a job by better-known boyfriend” trope. This has always been wrong, as proven by the evidence of others who actively chose to collaborate with her, and by the objectively brilliant differences that her contributions always made. And also, from the horse’s mouth, by Cave’s own reflections on Anita’s passing, posted here. Key quote: “She was the smartest and most talented of all of us, by far.”

I was pleased to learn that The Quietus had recently published a considered evaluation of Lane’s career, entitled Unearthing A Pearl: Praising the Sexual Mysticism of Anita Lane. Their premise, which I agree with, was that she was most creatively active at a time when the critical and cultural worlds weren’t quite ready for her, forcing her to pave a way for many artists who followed, without ever reaping the plaudits she deserved for her work. I honestly don’t think I can improve upon anything that article says by further expressing its sentiments in my own words, so I simply encourage you to read it as a most fine piece of music journalism. I sort of hope that Anita Lane might have had a chance to see it before she passed, too. 

I would posit that one of the finest visual examples of Lane’s determined willingness and ability to forge, shape, and control her own image comes in the video for a remake of Nancy Sinatra’s signature hit “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” recorded with ex-Bad Seed Barry Adamson. In the video, Lane is confident, sultry, sassy, sensual . . . while carrying and cuddling a baby throughout the shoot. Adamson, ostensibly the auteur for this particular version of that song, is relegated to smart dance steps and tambourine shaking in its visual representation. The short but potent little film turns expected music video tropes on their heads in so many ways, and it’s utterly wonderful in all of its subtle bucking against the established norms of the form.

If you’re not familiar with that song or any/many other works from Lane’s career, I offer a special memorial installment of my “Five Songs You Need To Hear” series below, documenting highlights of Anita’s vocal work, each song by a different artist, each one greater for her contributions. Anita Lane was a classic, in her own deeply-personal ways, and I am grateful for the small, but densely-powerful, body of work she left behind her.

“These Boots Are Made For Walking,” from Delusion (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Barry Adamson (1991)

“The Fullness of His Coming,” from Dirty Pearl by Anita Lane (w/s/g The Birthday Party) (1993)

“Blume,” from Tabula Rasa by Einstürzende Neubauten (1993)

“Overseas Telegram,” from Intoxicated Man by Mick Harvey (1995)

“Firething,” from Members of the Ocean Club by Gudrun Gut (1996)