ZZ TOP FOREVER
by Russell Hall
ZZ Top’s run of thirty-five years with the same lineup is, in some ways, the rock and roll equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak — specifically, it’s a record that’s not likely to ever be broken. During that 3-1/2 decade long stretch, band members Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard have delivered a Texas-size abundance of some of the best blues-rock ever to come out of the Lone Star State, or anywhere else, for that matter. Even now, the ZZ Top juggernaut shows no sign of abating. In fact, the past two years have been a watershed period during which the trio has released a career-spanning 4-CD retrospective (the aptly titled Chrome, Smoke & BBQ) and an acclaimed CD titled Mescalero featuring all-new material. Even more impressive, the spring of 2004 saw the Little Ol’ Band From Texas receive a much-deserved induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — with the inimitable Keith Richards handling the honors, no less. Truth be told, even the band itself seems a bit taken aback by the sheer magnitude of what they’ve accomplished, even as last year’s major tour extravaganza proved they remain as powerful a musical force as ever. In the following conversations, Gibbons and Hill reflect on the band’s past while looking forward with excitement toward the future.
INTERVIEW WITH BILLY GIBBONS
A belated congratulations on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
Gracias! We had a ball.
Keith Richards was pure Keith Richards. His presentation of the award was great.
The loveliest! Keith at his finest!
I know you’ve been to those ceremonies many times before, but was this one everything you hoped it would be?
Yes, indeed. I took quite a fancy to the content of the performance portions, because we were treated to lively versions of all our favorite stuff, by the featured inductees, which was really wonderful. To that end, I rediscovered just how great Prince’s guitar playing is. During the performance jam, he pretty much stole the show. Yes! In fact, during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony week, I bumped into him, quite by accident, at a really charged-up nightspot. That gave us the opportunity to fight for who got in the most compliments directed toward the other. He’s downright wicked with his command of the six-string. So much is going on with him, it’s difficult to just zero in on the guitar playing, but his solo work is really elegant. They didn’t show the audience [on television] during his performance [at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame broadcast], but I’ll guarantee you everybody in the room was mesmerized.
The boxed set — Chrome, Smoke & BBQ – was released not long before the induction. You and Dusty and Frank helped select the songs for the set. Did revisiting some of the older material jog some pleasant memories?
Yes. It really created some enjoyable work, as some of the early compositions are now re-injected into our live presentation list. Just taking the moment to re-chart the recorded arrangements was really rewarding. As you might guess, some of the hidden gems that were sort of awaiting arrival back onto the set list were pretty interesting to us.
Did you hear anything that you wish you could have changed, in retrospect?
Well, no, and yes. There were some sounds that seemed to be quite quaint, in terms of contemporary offerings, but to attempt to modify them from their original content, I think, would have been a mistake. That’s just a personal view.
Let’s talk a bit about the beginnings of ZZ Top. How close was the style of your early band, The Moving Sidewalks, to the style of Dusty’s and Frank’s band, when the three of you first got together? Were they very close?
Yes, they were. Fortunately, we were attempting to walk similar musical paths, and in addition to the fact that both groups were actively pursuing this learning curve at the same time, and in the same state of that Texas mysterioso, we really relished that automatic, “I know what you’re doing” experience, when we finally got together.
It wasn’t long before you began to develop ideas for a big stage presentation. In the early years the band spent some time opening for Alice Cooper. Is that where the idea started to foment, that you could present blues-rock in a theatrical way?
Yeah, man. It was early on, and without being redundant or stating the ridiculous, traveling with Alice Cooper in the early days of ZZ Top was just outrageous. His passion for extremes within the realm of show-biz flair was really inviting. He taught us quite a bit. Not only was he teaching us quite a bit, he also stimulated that idea-factory, to no end. It was wonderful.
Was there any concern that people might not take the music as seriously? People seem to think that showmanship dilutes the blues or something, but of course Howlin’ Wolf and other vintage blues performers were really great showmen.
They really were! That’s a really interesting observation, one that seems to escape people. The general consensus is that blues music is very serious, and that it’s all strictly about composition and content. But the presentation — the showmanship factors — were zooming.
Was there a point, with a particular album, or a particular song, where you felt the band really hit its stride?
“La Grange,” in ‘73. That was a green light for us. We liked the tones, the richness of the instrumentation, and the simplicity of the composition. We just thought, “Alright, this is us. We can do this.”
Had you already begun recording at Ardent Studios, by the time you wrote and recorded “La Grange”?
Yes. In fact it was a combination of both Robin Hood Studios and Ardent, for the Tres Hombres release. We recorded most of tracks at Robin Hood, and mixed and mastered at Ardent, with Terry Manning at the wheel. That combination survives to this day, with direction from Joe Hardy, who was an Ardent graduate. We’ve managed to mingle the Texas roots and the Memphis madness together, with this Salvador Dali of the Delta effect. And it’s still a lot of fun.
Jumping ahead a bit, do you have any theories as to why ZZ Top was able to embrace MTV so successfully, whereas most other bands that came of age in the ‘70s couldn’t?
I think if you were searching for an honest answer … it’s largely by accident, and a happy accident, at that. I think it’s a combination of maintaining a willingness to keep an open mind and going with what feels good. I don’t bother with too many of the ancillary details, as long as the feeling is good, and as long as there’s a charged enthusiasm during the recording process. I think it’s a matter of capturing the moment as quickly as you can, while it’s still hot and steamy.
Did the string of hits ZZ Top had in the ‘80s start to change your approach to making albums? Obviously it gave you a bigger arena, as far as the stage show went.
Yeah, the arena got larger. But I believe it might’ve been more a result of technological breakthroughs in studio gear and equipment. After all, we had remained the same three guys playing pretty much the kind of material that we had based the band on since its inception, with the direction and guidance of a great engineering staff, and a really fine place to hang our hat — that being Ardent Studios in Memphis. There’s a standing joke in the band about ZZ Top being the new-genre inventionists as a result of the inability to read a technical manual on how to operate this or that piece of gear. It was just a matter of turning knobs until something sounded right, and then hitting the “record” button.
Pete Townshend’s use of synthesizers on the Who’s Next album springs to mind. It’s like discovering a new toy that leads to a different kind of inspiration.
Yes. The manufacturers were intent on finding utility for these crazy new inventions, which really had not been proven yet. No one quite knew if any of them would find their way into successful outings from a place of experimentation. It wasn’t unusual to see truck after truck after truck making back-door deliveries to the studio, unloading equipment that in some cases didn’t even have names yet. As long as you could turn it up loud, that was our code.
When you recorded Eliminator, in 1983, did you have any sense that you had something really colossal on your hands?
No, we had no idea. We brought the same energy and enthusiasm to those sessions as we had done always, in the past. I suppose that it was the lucky alignment of stars and moon that made the sun shine.
A totally off-the-wall question: do you think writing great guitar riffs is a dying art?
It’s definitely taken a different complexion. The cosmetics of contemporary pop music have found less need to commence with truly memorable and dexterous guitar pyrotechnics. And that might be a good thing, because simply bashing out some rash chords can be quite a bit of fun. There’s less demand to jump through the hoops of the learning curve. I think the new name-of-the-game is “pick it up and go.”
INTERVIEW WITH DUSTY HILL
What sort of emotions did you experience as you listened to the material for Chrome, Smoke and BBQ? Did anything surprise you?
Yeah. Damn near everything surprises me. When I say that, I mean that nobody could have foreseen that we would be together this long, or that we would create the body of work that we’ve done so far. I hadn’t listened to some of those songs in a lonnng time. I would hear them and sort of flash back to the situation — the recording of it, or what the idea behind the song was, or touring — like you do when you hear a song you haven’t heard in a while. You remember a girlfriend, or a car, or whatever. So yeah, everything was a pleasant surprise for me.
Looking back, was there a particular album that was more fun to make than the others?
I don’t know. I tend to block out the arduous, long sessions, where you’re just beat, and all that stuff. Doing that live half of the Fandango! album at The Warehouse in New Orleans was great, but of course that was in New Orleans. We have our share of fun in the studio. It’s nice to be able to create stuff, to toy around with things, or toy around with different sounds. I would rather be on-stage, though.
Of course Tres Hombres was a pivotal album as well.
I love all of our work, but Tres Hombres is one of my favorite albums. I like the cover a lot, too.
The box set paints a wonderful history of the band. Did you always anticipate that you would play this style of music?
In a way. My brother and I had quite a few bands, and Frank and I had known each other for five years before ZZ Top [was formed]. A number of those bands were three-piece bands, so I felt comfortable in that format. The first time Billy and Frank and I played together it was magical. We didn’t pick a song; we just said, “Let’s shuffle and see what happens.” We ended up playing the first song for about an hour. It would go from this to that, and Billy would step forward and sing something off the cuff, and then I would sing something. I mean, I don’t even know why we stopped. I think we just got tired. We walked away from playing that song and just went, “Wow!” I had never played with Billy before, but I had heard a lot about him, and I knew he was good. But I didn’t know that we would fit so well together.
Hadn’t you toured earlier with Freddie King?
Yeah. Freddie would hire guys to do two weeks here, or a few shows there, or whatever, and I was on the list. I played the Fillmore West with him, and played quite a bit with him. I learned quite a bit from Freddie, just from hanging around him.
Jumping ahead a bit, when ZZ Top had the string of big hits in the ‘80s was there any pressure to keep creating music in that same vein?
Well, yes and no. We try not to repeat ourselves too much, but we do sound the way we sound. Eliminator and Afterburner are kind of extensions of themselves. It’s almost as if they’re a double-album, released at different times, in my opinion. We weren’t trying to repeat that, but whenever we start fooling around with sounds and stuff, we do that until we’re through. And then we go on to try to make things sound different — maybe more stripped-down or maybe more beefed up.
But if you’re talking about the pressure of having more recognition, and hits, and all that stuff, all that provided us with was a larger stage on which to present ideas. Some of those productions we did were a lot of fun. We never had a problem coming up with ideas; our problem is knowing when to stop.
There was no resistance among any of you guys about integrating some of the electronic components into the sound?
No, and when we did get a little flak about it, I never understood that. I was like, “Gee, I remember Bob Dylan getting a lot of shit for playing electric guitar, and I thought that was ridiculous.” It’s just another tool. Some people took it personally, as if we had betrayed them. But on the other side of the coin, when we went more straight, people started asking where the girls were, and the big stage show. We were accused of depending on those things too heavily, and then we were chastised for not doing it. You can’t let that sort of stuff bother you; you’ll go crazy. At some point you just go, “Well, this is what we’re doing right now, on this tour or this project or this CD, and I hope you enjoy it.”
When things began to wind down — or when there was a bit of a pull-back, commercially-speaking, with Recycler — was there any sense of relief?
I never thought about it in terms of relief. I don’t know. We still toured, and we’ve always been busy. I’m not so completely sheltered that I don’t know about record sales — I’m aware of that. But here’s the deal: I’ve been playing since I was eight years old, and I just assumed that I would always be a musician. I’ve always appreciated any success we’ve had, but on the other hand, it ebbs and flows and changes, and that’s as it should be. I’m just floating down the water.
Backing up a bit … was the three-year period in the late ‘70s when the band was inactive, before Deguello was recorded, just a period of taking some time off, pure and simple?
That’s exactly what that was. We were just tired. We had been touring, as a band, all our lives. We were originally going to take six months off, and we thought that was pretty radical, and then it turned into a longer period of time. And then when we came back, Billy had a long beard and I had a long beard. That was a shock to us; neither of us knew the other was doing that. We only talked on the phone, and something like that of course just doesn’t come up. But we needed that break. Of course we were hearing all this stuff, that we had broken up and so forth. I think I heard one time that I was dead. (laughs) There were all sorts of things like that. You also have to factor in the time it took for us to write the next album and record it. We’re not exactly Speed Racer; we take our time when we record. So a lot of that period was taken up by work. But we did take some time off, and it paid off for us. We were totally recharged when came back, and we never, ever broke up.
There’s been a bit of a mystique around ZZ Top through the years. Was that something your manager Bill Ham tried to cultivate?
There was a bit of that, I’m sure. But there’s also a lot of that that’s just in us. That’s just kind of the way we are. It got to be considered a mystique and everything, but I guess it was considered mystique because we didn’t say anything. (laughs) It wasn’t like we never did interviews, although we didn’t for a good while. We weren’t trying to snub anybody or anything like that; we were just busy. If it was a plan on Bill’s part, it wasn’t as if we called a meeting or anything. A lot of the stuff we do just works out that way. We don’t have a lot of agenda. A lot of our stuff comes about through, “Let’s go try this,” and then after something starts taking shape, we turn it over to the office to see if they can make some of the stuff work, and then it comes back to us. That’s about as far as structure goes, with us. It’s the same with playing our songs live on-stage. The songs obviously have a structure, and some of them are pretty close to the record, but we try to leave some wiggle room, because we are a three-piece band, and that gives us the freedom to change things on the spot. So you structure it with some room.
I assume there was never any thought of bringing in a second guitarist.
No, not really. Or a fourth piece at all, for that matter. We toyed with the idea of a piano player, at one time, but we never did that. It was a bad idea, especially the longer we were together. Having another person on-stage with us would not be very fair to that person.
Through the years there must have been many times when members of the band were asked to do extra-curricular things — guest appearances on other artists’ albums and so forth — but you all seemed to have resisted that, at least until recently.
Yeah, for a long time. As I say, we were pretty busy. You know, who knows if you make the right decisions about these things, or not? Billy’s done a few things like that, but for a long time we didn’t do any of that.
How much has it meant to the band to get so much peer recognition, especially recently? People like Lucinda Williams are extolling the band, and talking about what big fans they are.
It always surprises me. I don’t consider myself overly humble, but it always surprises me when somebody like that [praises us]. I remember when I met Roy Orbison, obviously a long time ago. He was playing at this place, and I went over to say “Hello” to him, on his bus, right after the show. I just loved Roy Orbison, and I didn’t know what I was going to say to him, and the before I took two steps into his bus he started talking about our band, and naming songs. I was shocked. I was there to see him. That sort of thing is really nice. I don’t know how much more of that is happening now, as opposed to a few years ago. Maybe it’s just because we’ve been around for so damn long.
Have you ever heard another band that comes anywhere close to what ZZ Top does, music-wise?
I don’t know. I’m just not an expert on music. I know that sounds funny, but I’m not. I hear things that I like, and I hear things that I never want to hear again. In my opinion, I don’t know how anybody, even if they don’t write … if you listen to music on the radio, and you like what you hear, it’s going to creep into your playing, somewhere, because it’s something you enjoy. I wrote the song “Yesterday” one time. I wrote about half a verse, and then thought, “Wait a second. This is ‘Yesterday’.” Thank goodness I didn’t embarrass myself with the guys, although I did tell them about it. But you can’t help that. If you like an artist, or a song, you might not play that exact song, but invariably you’ll play something akin to it. It’s called “being influenced.” I think we were fortunate that the three of us had a lot of the same influences, and the same quirks, and a similar sense of humor. And a dedication to make it sound like we sound.
Does playing live still give you the same adrenalin rush it always has?
Sure. Playing the show is what it’s about, for me. When I’m on tour — going here and going there — more or less everything I do has something to do with stepping on-stage. I just like to play live. Everybody gets tired, but if you can’t suck it up for a couple of hours, you shouldn’t be out there.