Is it the gimmicky, sheepskin-covered guitars? The movie appearances? The beards? Why haven’t contemporary rock audiences, with their seemingly insatiable craving for anything resembling “authentic” roots and blues-rock, yet reassessed ZZ Top, the “little ol’ band from Texas,” whose allegiance to Southern musical traditions is undeniable, and whose early career included gigs opening for Fats Domino, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf?
Instead the Top — always and still the trio of Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard — are regularly grouped in popular estimation along with the novelty “Southern-fried” one-hit wonders of the ’80s. But unlike the greasy, indigestible pan-flash of, say, the Georgia Satellites, ZZ Top offer a slow-smoked barbecue, their pop-crossover blues-rock richly marinated by acknowledged devotion to the guitar-driven soul and subtleties of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed.
While lead guitarist Billy Gibbons has been invited onstage and into the studio by many of the leading lights of the current rock revivalism — Jack White, the Black Keys, Queens of the Stone Age — ZZ Top’s catalog continues to be overlooked by a record-buying public who can’t get enough of their Alabama Shakes, their Old Crow Medicine Show. And — it must be said — the Top are the original “beardos,” though the story that they grew their impressive facial hair in the early ’80s in order to compete with good-looking New Wavers on image-heavy MTV has been proven apocryphal. (Instead, like real-life rock mystics, they all grew them in the late ’70s during a soul-searching break from touring.)
The members of ZZ Top, themselves, certainly aren’t obsessed with the appearance of authenticity — because they don’t have to be. The synthesizer-laden, machine-drummed radio candy of their ’80s megahit Eliminator is pop, but it’s virtuosic blues pop; even their least-crucial records thrum with the brilliance of the trio’s musicianship, especially Gibbons’s guitar work, which can only be called surreal; and 2012′s Rick Rubin-produced La Futura is genuinely one of the top five albums of the band’s 40-plus-year-long career, its single a blues-screwed homage to Houston rap classic “25 Lighters” by DJ DMD.
ZZ Top take their inspiration where they will, and we have no reason to disbelieve Gibbons when he mentions trading stories and talking records with the Geto Boys, with the Cash Money crew. Notwithstanding 1990s missteps (several dismal LPs, appearances in both Back to the Future III and George W. Bush’s inauguration concert), ZZ Top have been, for the past 40-odd years, a reliable source for electric blues and boogie-rock tunes that are always serviceable, and very often brilliant.
Where else to start? "La Grange" is ur-Top. That rim-tapped drum intro, Gibbons's low-register mutter, imprecations to "have mercy" and his punctuating hums and growls, the way the thick and relentless boogie-blues onslaught kicks in, and of course the titular reference to the Texas brothel made famous by Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. But lyrical innuendo is an afterthought, as Gibbons's jacked-up blues guitar work, bolstered by that driving rhythm, is all-consuming, his "licks" a sensory metaphor: We're new kittens, tongue-bathed by Gibbons's loving, persistent, mother cat of a Stratocaster. The virtuosity displayed here and throughout Tres Hombres feels less ego-driven than compassionate; Gibbons offers up his chops as a gift.
“I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide”
In which our heroes, after a three-year hiatus, introduce the thematic triple enthusiasm for cars, women and flashy clothes that will carry them through their career — and, hell, make them millionaires a few short years down the road. Simpler in construction than many Top songs — verse, chorus, solo, rinse, repeat — "I'm Bad" is sing-along catchy, and Deguello's production is slicker than past efforts, but Gibbons's dusty-sunlight guitar lines and the arpeggios he trades with Hill's bass give the track the tar-stick of hot asphalt.
“I Gotsta Get Paid”
Rick Rubin's production builds the rhythm section into a loading dock for the ramped-up crunch and lumber of Gibbons's guitar; the chorus, cribbed from the Houston Screwed-Up Click rap classic "25 Lighters," showcases his burnished shaman's voice, punctuated by Hill's impressive backup wail. What could be better (or weirder) for ZZ Top's comeback single than this anthemic Houston genre-crossing? How about debuting it in a malt-liquor commercial? Done.
“Sharp Dressed Man”
The apex of 1980s ZZ Top. A furious, thickly-produced rhythm drive undergirds one of the hottest, simplest riffs in rock history, upon which Gibbons lays some of his wittiest lyrics. Hill punctuates with synthy Dolbian vocal accents, the era being what it is, but the whole thing resolves into a walking guitar solo so fine that it's possible to overlook the fact that those women in the video never would have really gotten away with wearing leotards and jeans to all those black-tie events.
“Just Got Paid”
Barely more than a handful of verses thrown around an astonishing slide guitar solo, "Just Got Paid" is checklist blues — hitting the marks of lyric themes here, shuffling rhythm there — but sped up to double and triple time, the structure stretched to breaking point, folded back onto itself, and finally allowed to disintegrate completely to serve the raw, sweet glory of that guitar. Famously covered by both Rapeman and Ministry; Steve Albini and Al Jourgenson are both avowed Top fanatics.
“Heard it on the X”
A tribute to the midcentury radio pioneers stationed south of the border who, unfettered by U.S. wattage limits and commercial concerns, blasted a wide range of country, blues and rock into the radios of impressionable young Texans, "Heard it on the X" finds Gibbons and Hill trading vocals while an infectious, repeated rhythm figure careens like a Mustang driven by a teenager in body-thrall to his favorite late-night DJ.
“I Thank You”
Notable for threading sexual innuendo throughout the Sam and Dave classic by switching around some pronouns ("You didn't have to squeeze me" becomes "You didn't have to squeeze it," and so on), the Top's cover is nevertheless spiritually, if not sonically, faithful. Gibbons's straining, gravel-scarred vocal delivery here is among his best ("Gibbons sings like a zipper," Lester Bangs wrote, praising the track in Rolling Stone), and his liquid-toned, meandering guitar solo resolves into a tight, soul-revue a cappella breakdown before wandering off again.
“Just Got Back From Baby’s”
The highlight of a debut album flawed by its overreliance on the mid-tempo groove, "Just Got Back From Baby's" is smooth and cool, with Gibbons's throaty, scraping vocal almost a croon; but the fuzzed-out insistence of his mournful, dust-bathed guitar wind-down exposes the grit underneath all that gleam.
“Ten Dollar Man”
Some of the most gloriously scuzzy guitar sounds ever laid to tape can be found on this highlight of 1976's Tejas, which owes as much debt to Zeppelin (better yet, AC/DC, though unless Gibbons and co. were importing records from Australia, probably not) as to Lightnin' Hopkins.
A swamp-stomp "Maneater" inexplicably bolstered by an accordion, "Alley-Gator" would be throwaway if it weren't for the lovingly dirt-damaged production and Gibbons's warm-as-Rio-Grande-mud guitar tone, lying down — in this deep album cut — the kind of licks that must keep Jack White up at night.