In 1966, guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill were introduced to drummer Frank Beard, who reportedly passed out drunk before he could return the greeting. Impressed, Gibbons and Hill invited him to join the band they had just started.
At first they wanted to call the band “ZZ King” but thought it was too similar to the name of their guitar hero. But then again, an aura of mystery and uncomplicated cool are staples of this extraordinary Texan blues rock band. Gibbons and Hill, twin frontmen who share vocal duties and have led the band for 40 years, are recognisable for their dark sunglasses and long, flowing beards. Beard, ironically, has remained clean-shaven but for an occasional trimmed goatee.
The band’s cohesive three-piece sound is characterised by hot, bluesy guitar riffs and freewheeling solos, backed by tight drumming and two-piece vocals. Gibbons had opened for The Jimi Hendrix Experience before starting the band that made him famous. On The Tonight Show, Hendrix commended Gibbons as the next big guitarist.
After stints with other Texas bands the trio played their first show at the Cellar, a popular hangout in Houston, in 1970. Their recording debut, unselfconsciously titled First Album (1970), was followed up quickly with Rio Grande Mud (1972). Their third album, Tres Hombres (1973), contained the hit single “La Grange”, inspired by the Chicken Ranch, the famous bordello that was the subject of the acclaimed Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It became the band’s signature tune before hits from subsequent albums (like “Cheap Sunglasses” and “Sharp Dressed Man”).
Worn out after three albums and the ambitious Worldwide Texas Tour that lasted three and a half years, ZZ Top took a break and switched labels. They returned from their hiatus in 1975 and pumped it up with Fandango!
In Tres Hombres, ZZ Top was already mixing up studio recordings with live takes, but up until then the live cuts were versions of studio tracks already included on the album. Fandango! took it to another level. The A-side featured live recordings of “Thunderbird”, “Jailhouse Rock” (written for Elvis Presley) and a rambunctious “Backdoor Medley” of “Backdoor Love Affair”, “Mellow Down Easy” and “Backdoor Love” that runs for nearly 10 minutes, though the recording is occasionally noisy. Most recognisable among the studio tracks on the B-side is the controversial “Tush” (which peaked at 20 on Billboard Hot 100).
Walking a fine tightrope between the live and studio sounds, and maintaining continuity with the previous album, Fandango! became a watershed record in ZZ Top’s career. Bands with a big stage sound often betray themselves when they enter the studio but ZZ Top had figured their way around that. Fandango! also coincided with a time when the band’s trademark beards started to appear.
With MTV soaking up the music market in the 1980s, ZZ Top’s television-friendly image made them rich and famous. Also durable – for 40 years is a long time to remain in business. It hardly matters that its members are over 60, because America’s hottest blues-rock band still packs arenas. And while they are at it, Gibbons and Hill have refused millions of dollars from Gillette to shave.
Warner Bros, 1975; Remastered 2006
This music review was first published in M magazine, December 2010
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