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 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 loudly and clearly as, say, New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Which isn’t a bad thing, exactly, but it means that the songs of that era aren’t necessarily going to score highly on my “all-time favorites” charts.
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 labor 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, successful, 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)