ZZ Top

Extreme Makeover
When video killed the radio star, few imagined the survivors would look like three thirtysomething roots rockers from the conservative state of Texas, with 11 years together, and more facial hair than the entire U.K. New Wave movement combined.

Fate’s fickle wheel began turning when this Houston band set to work on Eliminator. Although they’d made seven albums in the hidebound style of blues rock, ZZ Top had been steadily refining their own spare, punchy, pop-­oriented version. Using a peso for a pick, virtuoso Billy Gibbons coined a motorized guitar sound while bassist Dusty Hill and (confoundingly beardless) drummer Frank Beard forged a poker-faced rhythm section that could go 50 exits without stopping. After using synths on ’81’s El Loco, the band blended them with sequencers and Gibbons’s signature “amp cabin” style of guitar mic’ing to create a densely layered, dance-beat-driven juggernaut whose spitting midrange sounded like an industrial-strength lawn sprinkler. No less a raw-power standard-bearer than Black Flag were soon playing Eliminator before shows on their ’84 tour; singer Henry Rollins now declares in these liner notes, “The change of direction on Eliminator was one of the boldest and most successful moves a rock band ever made.”

As the sound, so the vision. ZZ Top’s guitar-solo groove sections were ideal for freestanding video narratives. And a ready stock of imagery (cheap sunglasses, pit-crew pimp wear, vintage American automobiles) primed the retooled band to cruise into the video decade, heralded by their unofficial fourth member: the customized red 1933 Ford coupe that gave this album its name and starred in the videos to “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp-Dressed Man” and “Legs.”

Folklorists have debated what role ZZ Top play in those videos: Greek chorus? Hairy godfathers? Southwest chapter of Funkadelic? Whichever, it’s hard to recall a more indelible figure of ’80s pop mythology than the three-headed power animal that beamed down into deserts and strip malls, bringing forth miniskirted muses, righting injustices and sending underdogs off to seek their dreams. Marrying gritty torqued-up sounds to Middle American morality tales, these videos turned the double-Z lightning-bolt key chain into a Jungian archetype, one that would reemerge in Pulp Fiction as the key Bruce Willis held to his vanquished foe’s motorcycle—a decade later, still a gleaming talisman of freedom.

Though it was massive on TV, much of Eliminator strays from prime time’s standards and practices. On one manic, nearly Hives-esque rocker, a variety-craving Billy Gibbons follows the title phrase “I got the six” with “gimme your nine” and later contributes rock’s first recorded use of the phrase “spank my monkey.” But even Cheech and Chong–ish gags like “TV Dinners” fail to obscure the solid musicianship behind all the smoke and bimbos, audible on the bonus-track recordings of rowdy shows in England. And on the second half of the DVD, a live TV performance from ’83 proves that Gibbons and Hill could rock out in synchronized lockstep song after song. Even off the video screen, they were the same hard-working showmen whose flair for goofball gimmickry landed haystacks and cattle onstage in a 1975 tour.

Their video retrofit may have been state of the art, but the wry, folksy spirit that inspired it was as old as John Lee ­Hooker. And, remastered for its 25th anniversary, this strange, computer- assisted beast still has a palpable warmth at its center—nowhere more so than in their first Top 10 hit, “Legs,” which, inside all that internal combustion, remains a strikingly tender love song. Even if it just might have been written about a car.

© 2008 by Chris Norris