Originally published in CIRCUS magazine - Issue No. 146 - December 30, 1976 – UK45p - $1.00


They're Not Playing It Safe Any Longer

Article by Peter Crescenti
Photos by Kwasniewski/Star, Harry Sandler, George Robinson, Lee & Lesser
Web Prep. by Ryan Grealy – -

Dusty and Billy
Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons picked up much of their variety from
the infamous radio station, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas.

Back in 1970, three crackerjack musicians from two of Texas' hottest home-grown bands, American Blues and Moving Sidewalks, fused into a trio names ZZ Top, a raunchy, electrifying blues-based rock & roll band that quickly became a modern-day legend in the lone star state. At the time, folks in Texas proudly referred to the group as the "Texas Cream". Now, six years later, ZZ Top has two gold and two platinum albums in their vaults. They're affectionately know as the "little ol' band from Texas," and when they release an album now, the band has only to wonder whether the record will ship platinum or gold.

The new ZZ Top album, TEJAS (London), arrives over a year after the release of Fandango, and musically it is the most diverse record the band has ever made. This fairly bold expansion of the groups musical boundaries may only disappoint and confuse some of those Top fanatics who might've been happier if the band had chosen the easy route-digging itself into a secure, get-richer-quick, formulaic ditch.

TEJAS is ZZ Top's method of not playing it safe. Instead, they explore some very different sounds in an experiment that may attract some people who've had ZZ typed as a predictable boogie band. though much of the music still rocks like the devil, TEJAS contains a mellow, moody acoustic instrumental, "a shuffle", and a surprising tune, "Snappy Kakkie", that Top drummer Frank beard describes as "disco-reggae."

"We've always stuck pretty close to our own home base, "says Beard, "but we like to go out and mess with other things. a lot of these things come up at soundchecks.

"Tush' happened in its entirety in one take at a soundcheck. we started playin' this riff, and the way it was written is exactly the same way we played it that day. That was easy. It's not like beating your head against the wall writin'.

"When we go in, we don't want to play our own material, and we'll start doing somethin' just totally off the wall, and that's where a lot of the original ideas come from. You come up with some weird ideas, especially when you're road weary."

While some die-hard boogie fiends might consider ZZ's indulgence in mellow tones, dancing tunes and disco a weird turn of events, the band can make a good case for itself. At least half of the tracks on TEJAS were recorded during road-weary short stops at ardent studios in Memphis at intervals throughout the on-going World Wide Texas tour.

"I think it's pretty amazing that after working so long together, we're still sparking each other into new little riffs here and there," comments Billy Gibbons, relaxing on a welcome night off the road in his Denver hotel room.

"We were concerned with what all of this road travelling would do. after toy come off the road, toy forget most of what you've dome, but they were strong enough that they gave rise to four of five of the tunes we were puttin' together at the time."

Though ZZ Top has sold an astounding amount of records in the past two years, along with setting a series of concert attendance records all over the country, critical respect from the rock press has eluded the band. Intensely proud of their music, they feel they've been grossly mistreated and misunderstood by a majority of rock journalists, who refuse to line up with the rock & roll masses in support of the band. It would seem logical to wonder then, whether the variety of styles on TEJAS is ZZ Top's attempt-either consciously or subconsciously-to mute their stubborn critics.

"I'm so sensitive to all stuff." Billy Gibbons admits, "which most creative people are. I guess to have your thing panned like that has got to result in some kind of adjustment. But after all," Gibbons quickly reminds, "records have been broken, and the facts are there."

"I had some moist little number walk up to me backstage the other night and she made some comment about a write-up we'd gotten that wasn't too good. The writer wrote it in a hurry or somethin' and just didn't like us, and she asked me, 'do you think this is affecting the way you write?,' which I thought was a very noteworthy comment coming from someone who listens, you know.

"But I didn't have an answer. I think you probably hit it. subconsciously, you've got to be aware. I think maybe the variety on this album will appease a dormant group of people who haven't been turned on to ZZ Top yet."

The album began taking form last march, when ZZ rented a warehouse in Texas to rehearse and write tunes during the three months of preparation for their mammoth "taking Texas to the people" your.

Dusty Hill, Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard started out as an energetic boogie trio and built the crowds in Texas to 80,000.

"We hired a room and made some noise in it for three months," explains Gibbons, the hot-shot guitarist who made moving sidewalks a Houston legend. "Basically, it was just garnering ideas we had put together on the road from the previous tour.

"We were in the room just grindin' away every day. We were stayin' over there for eight, ten hours a day. We knocked out about four tunes and we went up to the studio to cut 'em."

The band left Texas for Memphis, where recording at ardent has become a habit for ZZ Top. The band enjoys working with Ardent's house engineer, terry manning, and they covet the crisp, live sound they get in the studio. One of the first tunes the band cut was "Snappy Kakkie".

"It's another word for piece of ass," Gibbons confesses, "but it's also affectionately referred to women, like a girl's name. It's a little child-like tune, about calling her name, Snappy Kakkie. 'I said, hey Snappy Kakkie do you want to play?' it's real child-like, yet the lyrics unearth the kind of ominous feeling of controls people put on one another. Government controls, maybe.

"But it's got a real nice setting, kind of an island setting. This guy approaches his girlfriend, whose name is Snappy Kakkie. He's tryin' to talk her into leavin' the island, and it's like they must leave because the government is getting on their case a little bit. They're an oppressed people. It's kinda like an ethnic tune.

"I don't know how you can handle that and not offend any ZZ Top fans. They're for hell-raising and not ethnic considerations."

Like it or not, ZZ Top's musicians have all been injected with heavy doses of Texas and Mexican folklore, fiction, and fact, and occasionally, and not illogically, even a quasi-political tune may rise from that collective tex-mex consciousness. And in some way, almost every ZZ Top tune ever written has been drawn out of one or every member's personal experiences. The danceable "Snappy Kakkie" was written in that tradition.

Dusty and Billy
Live, their appeal is hair-raising, load, fluid rock and roll, with no shortage of foot-stomping. Dusty Hill's bass is a perfect complement to Gibbons' lacy guitar

"It's really weird," Gibbons remembers of the song's inspiration. "Frank, Dusty, and I were at the beach one day and we met these two kids that has made it. They'd made their way up to Texas, and they recounted this horrible story, so it's an ode to them. We just made it 'Snappy Kakkie' because we thought it would be a little nasty. We didn't want to reveal her illegal alien status."

Not so many moths ago, Billy Gibbons has a notion that disco music was just a bunch of dull trash. But after months of bombardment by the nation's disco-crazed radio stations, Gibbons finally saw some potential in the new form, especially after hearing what the rolling stones did with a disco gem, their hit single "Hot Stuff."

"I've taken a liking to it, and we've tried to get into that groove a little bit. I don't know if we'll ever sink into those people in south Texas who think the only way to see any part of the country or look at life is through the bottom of a tequila bottle. I don't know what they're gonna think of disco."
ZZ Top fans can thanks - or blame - the diverse musical tastes on a man named Doc Brinkley, the radio personality who started the radio station ZZ wrote about in "Heard it on the X."

Do you remember, back in 1966
Country, Jesus, HillBilly, blues,
That's where I learned my licks

The infamous "X" station was built in Mexico in 1936, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas. Brinkley, who was banned from the air in Missouri by the FCC for selling goat gland sex potions to witless impotent farmers, wanted to open an outlaw station so powerful that it would blanket not only Texas, right across the border, but also the entire United States (and beyond!) with its signal.

Billy Gibbons: "We came up at a weird time – a lot of the top acts were kinda goin' down.

"To do this," begins Gibbons, effortlessly but fascinatingly weaving one of his scores of tales, "he'd have to have at least a half a million watts, which not only covered the U.S. and Canada, but also beamed south to Antarctica, East and West Indies, and parts of Europe."

The market Brinkley and his Mexican cohorts were mainly after, though, was the Texas and Mexican audience of farmers and small town folk. "He would use country and western music to attract the farmers," Gibbons continues. "He was selling goat glands, chickens, harmonica lessons, HillBilly records, and gospel music. Everything under the sun was being sold."

"They had-now dig this," Frank beard injects, "...they had autographed prayer clothes of Jesus Christ."

The "X" also had Wolfman Jack at one point, and a lot of Texas teens grew up listening to the Wolfman spinning rock & roll, rhythm & blues, and blues records, to go along with the country, gospel, and native Mexican music that was also played on the station.

With those assorted roots assimilated by the early 60's ZZ's three musicians grabbed instruments and began playing everything from 12-bar blues to psychedelic acidrock. American blues, Dusty Hill and Frank beard's pre-Top band, was so caught up in psychedelia that the band dyed their hair blue.

"We just figured we could play more clubs if we had somethin' else goin' for us," bassist Hill recalls somewhat reluctantly. "But it was dyed blue, and we couldn't wash it out ya know, to walk around the street."

"I'd never do it again," promises Frank beard, who had to bleach his hair seventeen time to first get it white so he could dye it blue. "I can remember walkin' around downtown Houston, and back then it was the murder capitol of the world."

The BoyZZ
Drummer Frank Beard, the man in the middle, dyed his hair blue when The American Blues played around Houston.

Eventually, Gibbons and beard got together in an early version of ZZ Top, but the drummer quickly realised that he'd played too long with Dusty Hill in American Blues to adapt his style to another bassist. Dusty was then ushered into the line-up, and after the three toyed with the idea of adding a pianist, they decided to play their band as a trio.

Three months later, the debut ZZ Top LP, first album, was cut and released on London records, known mainly for its stable of British groups. The band neglected doing a national tour to promote the album, to stay at home instead and solidify their Texas base of support. That's how ZZ Top was able to headline an 80,000 seat gig in Austin, Texas in 1974 over such notables as Santana, Joe Cocker, and a fast-rising media band named Bad Company. Outside Texas, though, especially in the early years, the scene was disturbingly different.

"Man, it seemed like every show somehow something mysteriously would go wrong during our set," remembers Gibbons of the warm-up years. "We came up at a weird time, while a lot of the top acts were kinda goin' down a little bit."

But nothing could stop ZZ Top from becoming one of the country's premier concert attractions, despite the fact that at the sane time the group was either being totally ignored by the rock press or fending off a negative critical barrage. Only folks who actually went to ZZ Top shows knew what a hot act the band was becoming. and, with the surprising hit single "La Grange" popping off their third record, Tres Hombres (their first platinum disc), suddenly this hall-packin' band from Texas had become a big album and tape mover too.

"Y’all be good children, and when you grow up and die, instead of goin’ to heaven, you’ll stay here in Texas."

Live, the band's appeal obviously lies in the group's loud hair-raising rock & roll. But on record, where subtleties and lyrics come across more clearly, much of the band's popularity and mystique stem from their rocking mini-portraits of the Texas and Mexican lifestyles, so succinctly described in tunes like "Mexican Blackbird," "Precious and Grace," and "Goin' to Mexico."

"The other day we had to go to a place called Dalhart, Texas," says Gibbons, whose deep, rich southern drawl hypnotizes the way Will Rogers' must have. "Dalhart is closer to twenty-two states that it is to Austin, which is its own state capitol. That's a fact right there that would tend to open some people's eyes about just how vast the state is, and just what a glamorous place it must be to write about. that's what we try to capture.

"Hell, to give you a sense at what an early age people start braggin' about Texas, I remember my mama tellin' me and my little sister: 'Y'all be good children, and when you grow up and die, instead of goin' to heaven, you'll stay here in Texas'."
One crucial aspect of the Texas lifestyle, which the band has explored extensively, is the car culture, which gets another examination on the new LP in a tune called "Arrested For Driving While Blind."

Just the other night with nothin' to do
We broke a case of 'proof 102'
Started itchin ' for that wonderful feel
Of rollin' in an automobile
You could say that we was out of our minds
But let me tell ya, we was flyin' while blind.

Many of ZZ's tunes have been packed with intensely visual auto-imagery, painting scenes with as much impact as the hellraising ride over and back across the Mexican border by some Texas teens in the "The Last Picture Show."

"I guess it's a hold-over from those Chuck Berry days," is Gibbons' answer. "You know, I read recently where Texas features 70,000 miles of toll-free highways. That's how I've seen Texas. It's got to have an impression to write about."

"Asleep In The Desert," the instrumental, had its origins in a serene evening where Billy, driving back home from California with his girl Micky, ran out of gas in the middle of the Texas desert.

"We'd been campin' up outside of L.A. with some friends of ours, so we just packed up our sleeping bags and hiked in about a mile or two into the desert and stayed there all night.

"There's an old sayin' around the desert part of Texas that says 'If you get lost, don't worry. You'll have plenty of company. The vultures'll visit you by day, the coyotes'll visit you by night, and the red ants keep ya company."

 "The tune is just a completely different twist, kinda one of those quirks that we get into every once in a while. But there's a great deal of Mexican influence in that tune if you listen to it," adds Gibbons, gently steering the course of conversation. "It comes from hangin' around the border I guess. The many nights I've spent in Nuevo Laredo, visiting the cultural attractions the border had to offer, I had to pick up a little of the style.

"Just talkin' to those old guys, you pick up so much of the stuff. A man's a fool not to try to get it into some of his life, just some kind of appreciation for what it is.

The Boyzz

Beard, Gibbons and Hill: ZZ Top can travel 70,000 miles of highway and never leave the state of Texas.

"In fact, that's where I learned what a Nuevo Laredo bed was. You use your back for a mattress, and your stomach for cover. Man, that place is so damn wild."

Back across the border, in the glorious sleazy tradition of "La Grange" and "Balinese" comes a story of another Lone Star joint called the "Avalon Hideaway."

"It's a little ol' spot we know about," Gibbons 'fesses. "I don't want to say resort. That sounds too high-class, because this place is a real dump. It had gamblin', gals. Oh, it was a wild place, out in the sticks. I don't think it reached the magnitude that La Grange had, but we're just runnin' it down to everybody."

Other tunes on the album include the "Pan-American Highway Blues," a song about that stretch of asphalt that tears straight through Mexico, Central and South America; "El Diablo De Mexico," a rocking blues; the single from the album, "It's Only Love"; and Gibbons' "Heartbreaker & Love Taker," which he wrote during the current tour. Instrumentally, the track features a brand new sound from ZZ Top.

"I'll be damned if I didn't get in there and learn how to play the fiddle," laughs Gibbons. "I had an ol' Rickenbacker electric fiddle that was made back in 1941. I had it layin' around, so we decided to use it on the tune."

As with ZZ's other records, Bill Ham, the group's manager and mentor, produced the LP, contributing not only his technical knowledge but also an intangible but vital quality that fuses with the spirit of ZZ's musicians to make hit records. Tejas should be no different.

"I think he's pretty handy at extracting the essence of what we're capable of doing," Gibbons explains. "You know, you get in the studio and it's so clinical, but we've managed to develop a pretty warm feeling, just pickin' for a while. In fact, two of the tunes were written in the studio on the last day as we were leavin'. We got horsing around in there, and I'll be damned if we didn't stumble across a couple of riffs that were usable. Ham walked in and heard it and said 'I want tunes.' Isn't that wild," asks the guitarist, erupting into a bellylaugh. "We were laughing, but I'll be damned if we didn't pull 'em outta the hat."

Zee End.

Please note:

If Peter Crescenti, Kwasniewski/Star, Harry Sandler, George Robinson or Lee & Lesser should happen to run across this...please don't come after me or Pete Zurich:-) We're just spreading information...that's why it's called the Information Super-Highway.
[I think there's some kind of exception to copyright law for scholarly research. Just color us the ZZ Top library --Pete]