article by Jim Pettigrew
photos by: Richard Kwasniewski, John Gellman
Web prep. by: Ryan Grealy - grealyrk@islandnet.com - www.islandnet.com/~grealyrk
Originally published in Circus RAVES magazine June 1975

It was a scene out of Easy Rider. Through the endless tracts of Southwestern pine a 56 Ford pick-up truck sped down the blacktop road, music blaring an aftermath trail, the blond longhaired driver, Terry, trying to outrace the speed of the sound. The song that blazed from his 8-track tape system was as raw as the land itself. "Just Got Back From Baby's" it was, and the piercing ZZ Top tune was as much a part of Terry's life as the 12-gauge shotgun that hung in the rack above the window in the back of his pick-up and the "Tallahassee Two-Toke" packed in his stash under the seat. The history of a new Texas was being written on the wind by ZZ Top.

"See these pictures? This was shot when ZZ Top was a big R&B horn band, a long time ago. Notice the Mexicans in the photograph. There are some awful bad blues bands in Mexico. Not many people know that. . . ."

Lead guitarist Bill Gibbons was grinning and telling some close friends about the wild Old Days. It was a chokingly hot summer night in 1972 and the Texas Trio had just roundly upstaged Deep Purple in Atlanta's cavernous Omni arena.

At that time ZZ were busily furthering their reputation as a very tough act to follow. Gaining headlines from sea to sea such as the Washington, D. C. banner "Alice Just Can't Hack It In Front Of ZZ," the band soon became infamous and many headline acts along the way refused to have ZZ Top's supercharged blues/rock on the bill, even below them.

This year, though, ZZ Top no longer has a problem. With their new album Fandango (on London Records) shipped gold, their third LP Tres Hombres platinum, and the second release Rio Grande Mud certified gold, they won't be playing second bill any more. When bass-player Dusty Hill, drummer Frank Beard, and Gibbons stalked onstage in Austin, Texas last fall, after Bad Company, Joe Cocker, and Santana in front of 80,000, the stadiumfull knew what to expect. And they got it at ZZ Top's "First Annual Rompin' Stompin' Barn-dance & Bar B Q." in the form of wave after wave of powerful rock 'n roll, deeply based in the blues. ZZ Top were beginning to put their brand on a whole passle of rock groups, a stamp, which in its mildest and most obvious form takes the shape of a continent-wide fandango of cowboy cultism.

Frank Beard, drums: "I don't know but three beats," he
declared, "the shuffle, the cut-shuffle, and the monket beat."

Cowboy drag: Today, you see any number of groups wearing cowboy boots, hats, and western gear. In fact, "cowboy drag" has come to describe the vogue, it's gotten so popular. But it wasn't always that way. As long ago as. 1970 when glitter was in its infancy, ZZ Top began the cowboy trend by wearing Stetsons, embroidered work shirts, and fancy boots. Gibbons at one point even had a pair of footwear with a red-and-white checkerboard design. Sporting white hats and lavish Nudie Rodeo Tailors' outfits replete with rhinestone roses and sparkling Texas maps, ZZ Top now look like a country group who've freaked, gone cosmic, and taken to using walls of amps. The similarities with "Country," though, end the moment the first note is struck.

At first ZZ Top's stage appearance resulted in some chaos and a few humorous moments. Showing off his sterling silver J.B.S. hatpin on one of his ten gallon lids, Bill Gibbons told of the time ZZ played with the Rolling Stones in Hawaii. "We were plugged in and I heard someone out in the front row say, 'Oh my God, they're a country band.' Man, we had to do something about that in a hurry!"

It wasn't always hobnobbing with the Stones, spangled suits and headline sets in front of adoring thousands. Back in the soft-rock days of 1970 when the band had just formed, the chances of a loud Texas group making it big playing electric blues were a million to one. But, manager Bill Ham (now a legend in his own right in entertainment circles) started pushing, fighting oppressive 30-minute performance shutdowns, and always making sure every detail was attended to.

Slow start: In bars, dimly lit Texas clubs and unlikely concerts ZZ paid their dues, all the time drawing their music from great blues influences such as B.B. King, Lightin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, and fusing the 12-bar into thunderous rock tempos. Even as early as 1971 an observer could tell that something innovative was in the air as ZZ Top went onstage before hostile crowds who wanted only to hear MOR pop.

On those evenings the band seemed not to make the slightest dent on the audience as a whole, even as Billy G. poured out his dark, dusky, sexually insistent vocals and blazing guitar lines in front of Beard's rapid-fire drumming and Hill's pounding bass notes. A few listeners, however, went home more than convinced, and that was the way ZZ'5 strange following started to grow.

And the months went by and the band played more and bigger dates, ZZ Top, with its mysterious Texan identity, began to grow all the earmarks of a cult band. A cult band that was not limited to a regional following, either. One could find a nuclear physics student at M.I.T. trying to explain ZZ's music to a recalcitrant roommate, as well as redneck hippies and urban punks with hi ZZ albums on the turntable.

Musicians, furthermore, found ZZ engaging from the first listen. Duane Allman rarely spoke onstage, but he drew another standing ovation one night in Memphis shortly before death as he stepped to the microphone after one of the trio's brain jolting performances and said, "Hey, how about that ZZ Top!"

But Bill Gibbons, long, lean with a baby face that is given to burly and wickedly sheepish grins at the same time, would rather talk about an obscure Southwestern rhythm 'n blues picker than the latest avant hype. 

One night as Raves listened to a cassette tape of some rare Texas Little Richard recordings from Bill's stupendous collection, Bill told of a chance meeting with another rock demigod. "I was playing in Moving Sidewalks (a marginally successful Houston psychedelic group) at the time," Bill recounted, pulling off a gleaming boot, "and we were in New York opening for Hendrix. Jimi was getting real hot about then and he would get an ovation just tuning up backstage.

"I was in the motel one night practicing in my room and this dude stuck his head in the door and said, 'Hey-y man, I thought I heard something going on in here.' It was Jimi Hendrix. I was speechless. I couldn't move. He took my guitar away and lay down across the bed with his head dangling towards the floor, looking at the ceiling. He'd run off this incredible line and then look up at me and smile, (in Hendrix space-drawl tones) 'Say, man, c'n you do that?' Then he'd laugh and play some more. After that he started teaching me. I learned a lot from him." Jimi evidently impressed, later mentioned on the Johnny Carson show that Bill Gibbons was one of the most promising younger guitarists in rock.

Live 1

Mystery band: While Gibbons drips macho sexuality on stage, in private he's shy, almost reticent about revealing his several-sided personalitv. His imagination is drawn to riddles, to strange potent signs and graphic puzzles. With his training in graphic art as a guide, Bill ventures into the magical world of calligraphy, designing and lettering the enigmatic stickers and emblems that seem to surround ZZ Top like exotic air plants. All of Gibbons emblems contain an old Black man, as every Playboy contains a bunny. The old man carries a heavily mystical significance for the band, just as their moniker, ZZ Top contains a secret energy for them. They reveal nothing to anyone, even their best friend about the blood meaning of these glyphs. Nor does Bill explain the meaning of the cryptic messages themselves. Cultic followers pore over lines as if they were sacred testaments: "ZZ Top-he like a cold-blooded ice pack. He sit right on your head." "ZZ Top, like a black-onblack Mark IV . . . ain't a damn thing wrong with that y'all." Or: "ZZ Top is like a beast on TNT . . . he stay in the groove." The closest thing you can compare these metaphors to is the war chants of the North American Indians; Power symbols.

One result of ZZ Top's natural shyness and reserve is that it is next to impossible now to land an interview with them. ZZ Top don't like to be misrepresented, and although rave reviews fill their quarter-inch thick folder, there were awhile ago, a rash of vindictive reviews. After years of grueling and constant touring, ZZ found themselves attacked as "Cream rip-offs" (they are a power trio, get it?) or pigeonholed as "new West Coast Jazz," or snidely dismissed as "ornamented Grand Funk." And worst of all, certain press hinted that they were afraid to tour in the North! Them was fightin' words for the Texans and they retaliated by closing off the press channels and playing their saddles off.

It has seemed that, while they caused near-riots with their audiences, ZZ Top's prowess escaped some prominent writers until now. Their previous three albums, it seemed, inevitably fell into the hands of nationally-published critics who didn't know, as the band put it, the difference between Elmore James and the kid boning up on wah-wah next door. The situation was so bad after Tres Hombres' release that the reviews editor of a prominent rock paper reportedly apologized to Bill Ham for "the unprofessional review" which had been used.

But fans around the U.S. obviously had different opinions: five encores in Chicago, riots in Savannah when no more tickets were available, and a kid at Niagara Falls commenting on the Miss U.S.A. Pageant, "Huh, there were more people here for ZZ Top."

Live 2
Bill Gibbons: Hanging out with Procol Harum's Gary Brooker in San Francisco, Bill requested they play
some blues in the next show. "Procol responded with an impromptu 'Goin' Down Slow'," he remembered.
"as if they'd winked at one another."

Complex simplicity: On the surface ZZ's music is simple and basic. Perhaps this is the reason why some in the critical community have confused ZZ Top with groups of lesser talent. The three Texans use very little overdubbing in the studio and onstage they rely entirely on three instruments: bass, guitar, and drums. Beneath the superficial, the complexities dramatically arise. Among these are Bill Gibbons' love and intense study of great blues and slide guitar players and singers. From the Houston native's long pursuit he has developed a stunning stage presence, and vocal-guitar techniques that are very close to those of Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Slim, Bo Diddley, and many other legendary bluesmen and early rockers.

Dusty Hill has a powerful shouter's voice. "Hell, we holler more in Dallas, my hometown, than they do in Houston," he joked at Gibbons across the room in an Edmonton, Canada motel later in a fall tour. The swarthy Viking Marauder bassman also has the unusual ability to play both bass and rhythm at once, which adds a dimension most other trios lack.

"We work that up when we write the songs and it's easier for us because we write all our own stuff," he explained. "We work in the fullness at that time and we have to keep in mind that we're a three-piece group, so we need all of it we can get. It's a thing of hitting bass chords and rhythm notes at the same time with my fretting fingers. Not many rock bassplayers do that; Jack Casady used to do that and Jack Bruce does it. I can't do really intricate chords and hit the licks too, because I only have four wires."

Frank "Rube" Beard brings his precision timing and sense of tempo into his drumwork, concepts in which most rock drummers seem painfully ignorant. He talked about the band's overall approach, still shivering from the near-zero Canadian cold. "I play the rhythm pattern that Billy plays, and let Dusty handle the bottom. That way I'm a little bit more free. I can play with or around the time and I don't have to play straight time always. You'll notice on records that Dusty plays straight time, the solid thump, and I move around it."

Frank, who's from Dallas also, went on about a favorite: "I dig Spider Kilpatrick. He's 80 years old by now and he's tremendously funky, like he sets his floor tom on the floor, no legs. He used to be Lightnin's drummer and he developed the 'fall-apart roll' which starts out like a roll and sounds like a mistake for a long time, and comes out right on top of it."

In the year and a half since 'Tres Hombres' ZZ had come from being a dangerous second act with a rabid following to become a major threat...
...matching performances with the heaviest top gills in the world.

"I believe in positioning the drums to the optimum place," he expanded, "rather than having a great amount I think it's better to have fewer drums in the right position. The snare, the bass, and the sock cymbal, that's where it's all at. The other drums are all for color. My message to the young drummers of the world? I don't know but three beats-the shuffle, the cut-shuffle, and the monkey beat."

Mexican blast: In the year and a half since Tres Hombres was issued, ZZ has come from being a dangerous second act with a rabid following to the stature of a major' headliner who can match performances with the heaviest in the land. Manager Bill Ham talked about the long wait for Fandango! "Flooding the market with albums is not what I consider doing things right, especially when the quality might suffer. We were also on the road constantly. We weren't going to release anything that wasn't exactly right; otherwise it isn't fair to the listeners."

Since the days when American and Mexican cowboys would ride in from the range and whoop it up at Trail's end, Fandango has meant a "let-it-all-hang-out" party, with the release of pent-up pressures and having a good time in general. In this respect the new LP is aptly named.

Their first album to offer live material, Fandango has one studio side and one side recorded in front of a typically frantic ZZ Top audience in New Orleans' Warehouse. Opening with their traditional crowd-breaker, "Thunderbird," a rocking ode to that 59cent-a-pint nectar of the gods, the live performance continues a furious pace with "Jailhouse Rock." The raunchy, suggestive "Back Door Love Affair" follows, broken in two by a tantalizing tongue-in-cheek "Mellow Down Easy" segment which is always a peak in ZZ Top's live sets. "Long Distance Boogie" closes, a blues and jump medley that the group usually reserves for the final crushing blow. Its impact is evident from the audience's roar. If anyone had doubts about this band's scorching energy in concert, this side will tell for good.

Billy and Frank
ZZ Top: The band tried to persuaed a Georgia writer to move to Houston.
"Hell, we like everybody in Texas," they drawl, "as long as they're from the South."

Dusty Hill, bass: The lettering on ZZ's Rio Grande amps is all
Spanish, he explained. "A salute to our brothers south of the border."

Each of ZZ Top's LP's have been 95 percent original material, all of it excellent, and the studio side is no different. Here, Dusty Hill takes many more lead vocal roles than before, including the nasty rocker "Tush" and "Balinese." a funky shuffle tribute to a gambling dive on a Galveston pier. It's a sequel to "La Grange," ZZ's hit single of last year. Other stompers are "Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings" and "Heard It On the X," both showcases for Gibbons' spectacular guitar bolts. "Heard It On the X" salutes the great "X" radio stations of Mexico, while "Mexican Blackbird," the first country-flavored song in four albums, is based on the true story of the daughter of a Mexican prostitute. And finally, playing on "Pearly" and other of his custom-built square axes, like Bo Diddley's, Bill Gibbons gets low, sad and mean with the acoustic-electric lament, "Blue Jean Blues."

When it's all said and done, ZZ Top may best be captured, not by a critical rock pundit's words, but by some lovely south Texas sketches drawn by Bill himself. When he finished the pictures he added the characteristic quips and presented them to friends. They, better than pages of history, best explain the Texas trio: "ZZ Top-like a fine plate of barbecue. They bear down on the meat and ease off the potato salad."

Zee End