Reviewed on this page:
ZZ Top's First Album - Tres Hombres -
Fandango! - Tejas - Degüello -
El Loco - Eliminator - Afterburner -
Recycler - Antenna - Rhytmeen
I poked fun at the Young brothers for building a whole career on one guitar tone, but they have
nothing on Billy Gibbons, lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist of this Texas blues-rock trio. He gets a fiery, admirably
ragged sound out of his custom-built Rio Grande amps, which helps disguise the fact that he's playing the same old bluesy
riffs as a million other people. To be fair, Gibbons is a fine soloist, playing extended discursive lines - more like paragraphs
than phrases. The group was formed in 1969 from the ashes of two local Houston bands: Gibbons coming from the
psychedelic Moving Sidewalks, while Dusty Hill (bass, co-lead vocals) and Frank Beard (drums) hailed from the American Blues.
They started out sounding something like that other blues-based power trio, but then dug
deeper into Delta blues. Simultaneously they worked up a Texas redneck schtick and thereby filled a gap for good ol' boys who loved
the blues but didn't necessarily want to see black folks singing 'em. The group was a huge concert
draw throughout the 70s, but got even bigger in the early 80s when MTV introduced them to a young nationwide audience,
and the group briefly dabbled with synthesizers before returning to a bare-bones guitar/bass/drums sound in the 90s.
There's a fine fan site, the Little Ol' Web Page from Texas. (DBW)
Billy Gibbons, guitar, lead vocals; Dusty Hill, bass, lead vocals; Frank Beard, drums.
Flash (The Moving Sidewalks: 1968)
Gibbons' first band played psychedelic blues; the group fell apart when half of the members were drafted.
A 2000 rerelease has several bonus tracks, including their local hit "99th Floor" and a cover of "I Want To Hold Your Hand."
ZZ Top's First Album (1971)
Sorry to keep harping on the Rio Grande amps, but on this pre-Rio debut, it's inescapably obvious just how derivative and
boring the band can be. Nearly every song is the same midtempo blues boogie, with routine riffs ("Certified Blues"),
clichéd lyrics ("(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree") and by-the-numbers soloing ("Backdoor Love Affair").
The feel is close to Eric Clapton's contemporaneous solo record, but without any horns,
backing vocals, keyboards or anything else to break up the monotony: it's just lead/rhythm/bass/drums until you're begging
for mercy. Almost by default, the album's standout number is the guitar ballad "Old Man," which presages Lynyrd Skynryd's
"Freebird" but (fortunately) is much shorter. Produced by manager Bill Ham, as were all subsequent releases up to the 90s.
Rio Grande Mud (1972)
Contains the single "Francine."
Tres Hombres (1973)
I think this is where Gibbons got his trademark guitar sound figured out, and his double-tracked lines give what could
have been routine blues-rock workouts piledriving force ("Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers," "Jesus Just Left Chicago").
It also helps that Gibbons has taken a big step forward as a soloist, both on standard electric and slide ("Master Of
Sparks"). The band's sense of humor is also in evidence here, as they end the powerful (if misspelled) rocker "Shiek"
with laid-back washes of suspended chords. The album produced the instrumental-plus-voiceover hit "La Grange," based on
a Slim Harpo riff earlier used by the Rolling Stones in "Hip Shake."
Ranging from blues-rock to rock-blues, there's not as much variety as you might like (there is one unexceptional ballad,
"Hot, Blue And Righteous") but it's consistently entertaining. No guests and no unusual instrumentation aside from a brief
harmonica solo on "Waitin' For The Bus." (DBW)
Half-live, half-studio, which is irritating because the studio side is about a thousand times better than the deadly dull boogie of the
live side. The studio cuts include the fine Billy Gibbons guitar instrumental "Nasty Dogs And Funky Kings," the salute to pirate radio "Heard
It On The X," and the hit "Tush," which rocks despite painfully rhyming the title word with "much." I don't care what state you're from, those
words just don't rhyme. Plus the love song "Mexican Blackbird," continuing the band's Taupin-like obsession with
The less said about the live side the better. There are a couple of covers ("Jailhouse Rock," Willie Dixon's "Mellow Down Easy"),
but everything sounds the same: an endless blues-rock vamp with too much crowd noise, no solos and a fair amount of self-congratulatory
The band's high point, though Eliminator sold about a billion more copies. Gibbons displays an impressive breadth of skills on lead
guitar, from slide to arena rock, from the powerhouse riffs of "El Diablo" to the subtle jazz shadings on the closing instrumental "Asleep
In The Desert." He even adds fiddle to the country-western "She's A Heartbreaker."
Meanwhile, the bread and butter blues-rock is better than ever ("Arrested For Driving While Blind"), and "Pan American Highway
Blues" features revealing, incisive lyrics.
The song structures have twists to them - "It's Only Love" is a blend of love song and rocker, "She's A Heartbreaker" has a
hard rock bridge, "Pan American Highway Blues" shifts tempo a few times, to great effect.
A great place to start if you're turned off by the synths of Eliminator and the unsubtlety of the band's radio hits.
Three years on, the blues stylings are getting a bit stale (a cover of Elmore James's "Dust My Broom"), though the performances
are still crisp ("A Fool For Your Stockings"). There's no experimentation to speak of, and a few tracks are tainted by glossy AOR
overproduction ("I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide"; the radio hit "Cheap Sunglasses," which comes uncomfortably close to Edgar Winters'
"Frankenstein"). With the no-frills delivery even the cover of the Hayes-Porter tune "I Thank You" sounds like a
routine band composition. Again they learned new instruments to avoid using outside musicians: each of them picked up a different
kind of saxophone, which can be heard on two Chicago blues tunes ("Hi Fi Mama"). If you're hooked on their sound, this will
get you off, but it's nowhere near their best work.
Live In Germany 1980 (rec. 1980, rel. 2001)
El Loco (1981)
Plus column: Gibbons found a new guitar sound. Minus column: it's a thin chorusy tone that makes tunes like
"I Wanna Drive You Home" and "Pearl Necklace" sound wimpy - on several tracks, he inexplicably holds back his regular
kick-ass tone until the solo on the fade. The album also contains the incredibly schlocky "Leila," which I swear
to god sounds like a Melissa Manchester ballad, steel guitar notwithstanding. So the best tunes end up being the
familiar-souding blues rockers - "Tube Snake Boogie," "Don't Tease Me" - and there aren't enough of them. However,
there is some silly experimentation - the swamp/new wave "Groovy Little Hippy Pad," the disco/spoken word mishmash "Heaven, Hell Or
Houston" - that has a certain goofy charm.
A conscious move toward mainstream norms (sometimes described as a "sellout"). The blues conventions and structural innovation are gone,
replaced by straight 4/4 drumming, quarter-note bass and doubled-guitar riffing. The lack of variety - outside of the slap-bass oddity
"Thug" - is disturbing, but it's generally bearable because most of the riffs connect. Aided by innovative videos - the album hit just as MTV
became überhip - three tracks became hit singles: "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Legs" and "Sharp Dressed Man" (with a gripping extended
solo). Even the sluggish "TV Dinners" was a moderate hit. But the album tracks are just like the hits only less catchy ("I Got The Six,"
"If I Could Only Flag Her Down"), making for a somewhat depressing overall listen.
Boys and girls, America in the 80s was a nation gone mad. How else to explain this bizarre but thoroughly listenable
concoction of pounding electronic drums, stacato quarter-note synth, and wailing electric guitar? How to explain that it
was a top-selling hit album? Since Hill is inaudible and Beard disguised by technology, it's the Billy Gibbons show all
the way, and he responds brilliantly, working that Rio Grande for all it's worth on hard rockers ("Can't Stop Rockin',"
"Woke Up With Wood") and even a ballad ("Rough Boy"). Turn off your brain and rock out. As usual, no guests are listed: I'm
assuming the band played all the keyboards. (DBW)
Indeed. After a lengthy break during which the band remastered its first six albums for CD, they returned sounding pretty much
the same. The keyboards and electronic percussion are toned down, though, so it's even more a Gibbons guitar extravaganza.
This is, again, not a bad thing, with stinging lead and rhythm making tracks like "My Head's In Mississippi" irresistable.
Though sales were disappointing because of changing tastes, the tunes are pretty solid, if simpleminded ("Give It Up,"
"Doubleback"). But without the previous record's shameless audacity, it's just an ordinary rock and roll record.
Greatest Hits (1992)
Contains two new tracks, "Gun Love" and "Viva Las Vegas" (yes, the Elvis tune). (DBW)
The synths and drum machines are gone, and suddenly the band sounds like a caricature: embarassingly ordinary power
blues riffs ("Pincushion"), embarassingly obvious sexual metaphors ("Cover Your Rig"), and embarassingly repetitive
choruses ("Cherry Red"). Maybe it's the pristine recording techniques that are turning me off, or maybe the whole
routine had just gotten stale.
The title is a comment on the band's thirtieth anniversary. Jeff Beck sings, but doesn't play, on "Hey Mr. Millionaire." (DBW)
Live From Texas (2008)
I'm hoping this wil
Double Down Live (2009)
A two-DVD set: one disc from a 1980 show, the other from their 2007-2008 tour.
La Futura (2012)
I'm assuming you aren't looking for anything new from the band by this point; the blues boogie is solid ("I Gotsta Get Paid"), Gibbons hasn't lost a thing ("Heartache In Blue") and "Over You" is an affecting love song. The only curveball is "Flyin' High," which sounds just like late 80s AC/DC.
Give it up.