Forty years ago I was living in New York, relishing life as Melody Maker’s American editor, the best job in the world. And, as it happens, in this first week of June encountering ZZ Top, a fine little boogie trio from Texas who had yet to make much of a name for themselves outside of their home state. Like Bob Seger and his Silver Bullet Band, in those days they were one of many acts with an immense local following that had yet to translate into national success, an odd phenomena to us Brits but not so odd when you consider that Texas is more than twice the size of the UK.
I went to watch ZZ Top at the Felt Forum and, impressed, interviewed them, the next day. Here’s what I wrote, eight years before they dazzled everyone with Eliminator:
The two guitarists, one long and lean and the other short and cuddly, twizzle forth in a grinding motion that reminds me of a curious tribal sidestep more common on the floor of a burlesque theatre than a rock and roll stage.
The lean one slides up and down a Gibson Les Paul, flashing fingers flickering across the frets, while the other thumps down the neck of his Fender Precision, booming bass, up, up and away into the rafters of New York’s Felt Forum.
The noise created by these two gents and their long haired drummer friend perched a foot or two above and behind is quite overpowering. It’s ZZ Top and ZZ Top are the epitome of the powerhouse trio: they don’t let up and neither do their audience.
Their concert is like an express train in motion, clickety-click down the tracks all the way, gaining momentum and reaching a scorching climax at each set of points.
“That li’l ol’ band from Texas” – as ZZ are affectionately known among their more intimate acquaintances – hit the Big Apple last weekend for a concert that was but half-subscribed, a situation explained away by their manager, Bill Ham, who correctly pointed out to me that it was Memorial Day weekend (a long weekend like our Spring Bank Holiday) and most New Yorkers had fled the city for green fields and green grass.
Nevertheless the situation did confirm the peculiar state of affairs that can – and does exist – in a country as huge as the United States.
South of the Mason-Dixon line ZZ Top are among the biggest rock attractions on the road, drawing enormous crowds to their hellzapoppin’ rock shows. Up East they’re relatively unknown – a classic case of territorial ups and downs, and one which seems to have bugged ZZ since their career began in 1970.
Although ZZ qualify for admittance to that cult of groups who describe themselves as “southern bands”, they don’t belong in the category of the Allmans, where energy takes second place to flow.
ZZ jerk out their brand of rock, rarely stopping to take breath and whipping up a frenzy that comes not only from the music they’re grinding out but from the twin roles played by our lean friend, Billy Gibbons, and plus-size hero, Dusty Hill, both of whom, incidentally, are topped off by fearsome looking cowboy hats as worn by men of the rodeo.
Billy Gibbons, off-stage, wears thick glasses and his ten gallons worth of crowning glory is exchanged for a neat, peaked golf-hat. Dusty Hill, fair skinned and very blonde, and Frank Beard, skinnily hippy looking, are shy Texans who take much probing before they’ll confess anything. Dusty says he hasn’t bought more than a dozen albums in the past three years, while Frank enthuses more about vintage cars than music, a hobby shared, apparently, with Gibbons.
Where, I asked, as we seated ourselves comfortably on armchairs in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, did it all begin? Gibbons, the spokesman, elected to answer. “Well, we came together in 1970,” he replied in a studied, serious tone.
“I met Frank through a fella in Dallas and he came down and, after one, show he said he’d got a drummer that I had to meet. That was Frank and we teamed up there and then. Then the guy from Dallas quit so I needed a bass player, and Frank knew Dusty and that’s how he came to join us. I didn’t know it but Frank and Dusty had worked together for about five years before.”
Hill and Beard had worked together in a Texas outfit called American Blues, a purely local group who made a good living in clubs and bars in Dallas, occasionally turning out as support attraction when a big name band arrived in town without a second on the bill to open the show.
At the same time, Gibbons played in a Houston based band called the Moving Sidewalks, whose main claim to fame was once supporting Jimi Hendrix on tour. Gibbons retains fond memories of hours spent with Jimi, jamming on guitar in hotel rooms.
On their initial meeting, all three ZZ Tops were anxious to get away from their immediate musical past. Gibbons’ band has flirted with electric psychedelia (ultimately changing their names to the Electric Sidewalks at Hendrix’s suggestion) and Hill and Beard had spent the last eight months backing an acoustic singer.
“I had some tunes I’d written,” continued Gibbons, “and we worked them up, Frank and I and this other bass player, and when he quit and Dusty arrived we did them again and they sounded a whole lot different. They were better and once we’d discovered we could do better we just headed forward, not really planning anything but just playing and going with whatever came out.”
“In the older days,” said Hill, “the pressure was on us because nobody knew who we were and we had to play the best we could. But today the pressure is still on us because we’re better known. It’s the same pressure but in a different way.”
Album-making with ZZ Top seems to be a relaxed affair, though their most recent LP Fandango was completed in a town called Tyler, 300 miles north of Houston, which is “dry”, thus the temptation to draw on the local bar doesn’t occur.
They don’t approach the studio with a cut and dried tune to record, but work on ideas within the confines of the studio. They also write their lyrics at the last minute, jotting down words between takes. Lyrics, after all, are not the essence of ZZ’s message.
“There are things about the studio that are enjoyable even though I guess we’re a working live band,” said Hill. “You have the freedom to put something down and erase it and put something else down instead. On stage you play and there it is.
“We never choreograph anything at all, whatever we do on stage just happens through time. Sometimes Billy goes off to the side of the stage and I’ll just follow him. It’s like our clothes... we were wearing western clothes long before it became big to dress like a cowboy, and a lot of people from Texas do dress the way we do.”
Questions about influences are shrugged aside by ZZ; too numerous to say, although they do admit to being rockers at heart, growing up on a diet of southern rock and roll that sprang from Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.
Surprisingly Gibbons qualified his “faves” by putting them into a wide variety of fields – Segovia in classical, Hendrix in rock and others too numerous to mention in blues. He did admit to an admiration for Peter Green, and also says his writing is influenced by films, usually European “arty” films.
“Movies are like trips,” said Gibbons. “You leave them feeling like a new person, like you’ve walked out of the theatre with a movement of your psychology. I get stirred up about them and go back and write songs about European chic.”
Beard, entering into the conversation for the first time, says he liked Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker during their particular eras. “I guess I liked just about anybody who was big then,” he said in a deep Texan accent. “But now I don’t get to hear anyone. In those days I’d practice and listen but now I don’t have time.”
They don’t go out and listen to other acts playing and if they do it’s curiosity that motivates them rather than admiration. Recently they saw Sinatra and Dean Martin on a vacation in Las Vegas; Beard says he’d like to see Alice Cooper’s new show, while Hill mentions Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland to an enthusiastic response.
The only member of the trio to have visited Europe is Gibbons – who spent three months in Italy in 1969 and two days in London before flying back home. He studied the Maharishi in Northern Italy, taking a Fender Stratocaster with him but hardly playing it.
His most vivid memory of London is being served – and eating – a steak and kidney pie at Heathrow Airport when he was a squeamish vegetarian. Today, Gibbons still does yoga exercises twice a day.
Plans are afoot for ZZ to make their first European tour as a band in September, a tour they’re all looking forward to immensely. Among their closest friends is Rabbit, the keyboard player who joined up with Free during their latter moments, and they keep in close touch, swapping news and trends across the Atlantic. Another close friend is Robert Johnson, the guitarist John Entwistle recruited for his Ox band.
They stay in touch with the English record scene through their friendship with a local import record dealer, and Gibbons boasts a huge collection of obscure blues singles which he prizes as much as his collections of guitars and vintage automobiles.
Hill seems the opposite. “I’ve bought maybe five records in the past four years, and I think they were all Beatle albums,” he said.
It is, I think, indicative of the ruthless professionalism of ZZ Top that their manager, Bill Ham, recently issued some startling figures to the press in America. While most manager are reluctant (usually for tax reasons) to issue gross receipts, Ham bared the balance sheet after ZZ’s winter tour, revealing plenty of gross receipts in the six figure region for many of their concerts in the Southern States.
It won’t be long before he can boast similar figures in New York.