The most interesting thing about ZZ Top is that on the surface there doesn't seem to be anything at all interesting about them. They've sold millions of records, lasted into their third decade, and continue to draw loyal herds no matter how their new album performs in the marketplace. Don't you think it's a bit weird when a band from so long ago without a definitive catalogue continues to outsell the latest "buzz" bands with nothing new on the plate? Consider that bands today are obsessed with "reinventing" themselves, understanding that the public gets bored and moves on if you don't feed it an entirely new image and a supposed new sound every few years. Even the Rolling Stones, the definition of a rock and roll band, have felt the need to follow Mick Jagger's lead and conceptualize their albums and tours with the full gestalt (and desperation) of an up-and-comer. Then consider ZZ Top.
What separates ZZ Top from all these sorry trendhoppers is the simple fact that they don't appear to give a shit. Their mid-Seventies ascendancy to platinum albums and sellout tours seemed as startling to them as it did to those watching on the sidelines. The old Protestant work ethic of touring plays a pivotal role here, but it doesn't fully explain why ZZ Top made it and not any of the endless, nameless bands who also toured the country incessantly in search of the decent break. When the Eighties kicked in, with its emphasis on style over substance, the little Texas band that could found a way of channeling its refried boogie into videos that overstated the music's understated and simmering sexuality. In other words, they surrounded themselves with perfect bods while they hid behind their eccentric yet distinguishable beards.
The effect worked. Their music took on a bit of the era's excesses -- synthesizers here, big drums there -- but they broadened their appeal without eliminating their earlier hard-won audience. The lazy bones who grooved to their earliest work still went to the concerts, except now they were sitting behind the absurd bra-slinging crazies who watched the glitzy and goofy videos and loved the idea of a "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Cheap Sunglasses." It was true what Willie Dixon had written: "The men don't know but the little girls understand." And so it was. Heavy-metal acts plodded and stomped and got nowhere with the female contingent, but ZZ Top packed them in with relative ease.
This development quite naturally led frat boys the world over -- the same guys now sporting backward baseball caps and Hootie goatees -- to "understand" the sultry sizzle of these surely miscast Texans. (Hasn't anyone noticed how ugly these guys are?) Singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons turned interviews into snazzy one-liners, playing up his unexpected good fortune with good humor. As sales of 1983's Eliminator soared past five million, he became more amused. Asked why his band should be singled out at a time when other rock bands of similar caliber were unable to find their market niche, Gibbons offered no answer. He didn't have one.
Rock music is a funny beast. It rewards without logic. Cult artists toil for years in obscurity, desperately trying anything to interest that anonymous void known as the "mass audience," while others seemingly bump into fame without ever noticing it could be any other way. Listen to a few ZZ Top albums all the way through and you'll find an above-average blues band with a rock and roll heart, a few tunes that stand above the rest ("Tush," "Arrested for Driving While Blind"), and a smooth groove that any number of equally proficient bands churn out on a regular basis. So what gives?
Well, it has something to do with hard work and their lowbrow appeal. See, before the frat boys figured out what the girls already knew, there was an older crowd that instinctively grasped the appeal of Rio Grande Mud (1972), Tres Hombres (1973), Fandango! (1975), Tejas (1976), and Deguello (1979).
It's not something you think about. It's something you feel. A bar packs them in on a Saturday night for some shit-kicking music; with enough Corona to loosen even the most uptight asshole in the club, the mindless boogie becomes stronger, strong enough to take on even that most intellectual of pursuits -- significance.
But let's face it, significance is something intellectuals (pseudo and real) worry about, and the last thing you're going to see at a ZZ Top concert is some chin-stroking Pavement fan wondering what the semiotics of all his good-time fun could possibly mean to humankind's unwieldy evolution. (Even with all their high concept, the Stones have always understood the importance of T & A both as pleasure principle and as politically incorrect controversy.) So the bar loads up with people who know the blues because they live them, and the rest is good ol' capitalism put to the test. (Blues bands have always had the live edge. Imagine, if you will, all those "pop" bands with their Beatles obsessions showing up at the corner "Merseybeat" bar. I don't think so.)
Everything about ZZ Top bespeaks a bottom line. Asked if they'd formed as a three-piece in the tradition of Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, drummer Frank Beard (the one, ironically, without the milelong chin weave) set Creem writer Jeff Nesin straight: "We saw splitting the money three ways. When you're talking twenty dollars, it's a big difference." This bare-bones, no-bullshit approach gives them an accessible identity any old moron can relate to, and it makes me wonder how bands such as Chicago or Rusted Root have made it out of the garage -- with those early gig payments getting split six, seven, eight ways.
Beard expanded his pithy reply: "None of us likes organs. We don't like rhythm-guitar players and we're not from the Southeast, so we don't need a second drummer. Years later when we wrote a couple of tunes that needed horns, we just picked it up ourselves. If we've needed another instrument, we've figured a way for one of us to do it. Some people think you're limiting yourself but in a way you've got a lot more freedom. You're not constantly bumping into each other musically."
Even the videos, for all their pizzazz, are basic: girls, girls, and more girls. Their albums slickened a bit and Gibbons -- who once led the now-legendary Sixties punk group Moving Sidewalks -- admitted to Jeff Nesin: "Our engineers have always had some new ideas or other. [Producers] will put Frank in booth A and they'll put Dusty [Hill, bassist] across the street and run some telephone wire -- crazy kinds of situations to work under, all in the name of new technology and getting a better sound. A nod of the head is good enough -- it's what we've done for thirteen years on-stage. And they've always tried to figure a way to mess it up."
ZZ Top is currently mounting a tour in support of their latest album, last year's Rhythmeer. The lasting image I have of their music, however, is not as it is played in the vast arenas, but rather as it seeped from a dear friend's car. In his 1977 fully loaded Lincoln Continental, my friend Jerry, who would not be out of place as a member of ZZ Top, would open his tinted window a crack, emitting a thick plume of pipe smoke, the eight-track player cranking "Jesus Just Left Chicago" from a Best Of tape he inherited from the car's previous owner.
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The slow blues unfolded like the soundtrack to a movie everyone's seen yet has never been made. He owned the ZZ Top eight-track by default and it had grown on him. Why that particular cut? "It was the only track that would play in the deck," he explained.
ZZ Top had come to him by accident, as I believe they've come to us all.
ZZ Top performs Saturday, May 10, with opening act George Thorogood and the Destroyers, at the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre, 1801 NE 6th St; 954-946-2402. Tickets cost $21. Showtime is 7:00 p.m.