Why I Listen to ZZ Top
by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue
They sing about beer drinkers, hell raisers, whorehouses, the recreational wonders of “driving while blind.” They evoke a sort of legendary southwestern American hedonism that may or may not have really existed in the nineteen-seventies, a pure, wholesome, red-blooded, hard-working hedonism. The band’s best work was done during a time when Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson were key figures in country music, when bushy beards, black cowboy hats (traditionally worn by the bad guys), and sunglasses after dark were on the face of our culture. Red bandanas. Chains and open collars. Texas trio ZZ Top captures this better than anyone, and they also transcend it. They wear influences on their sleeve that are easy to spot (blues, country, roots rock), yet arrange their songs in ways that truly baffle, ways that no one else would consider. They utilize minimalism not out of necessity, but for effect.
They play like fucking angels.
“Tejas” was my first ZZ Top album, though I had previously been exposed to them via the MTV revolution, which they exploited to its fullest possible commercial potential (and possibly to the detriment of most peoples’ conception of the band). The album was released in 1976, which was pre-MTV. I bought my copy as a teenager about ten years later. I sat and listened to it over and over, studied the lyrics, tried to figure out what everything meant. I was missing the point, but the songs’ moods and structures burrowed their way into my psyche and stayed buried there deep. I knew even then that “Enjoy And Get It On” was a badass tune about gratuitous sex, that “Arrested For Driving While Blind” had killer guitar solos, that “Asleep In The Desert” was an instant ticket to a dreamily insulated, far-away land. I knew that all the songs took me some place else. What I took for granted were the unique arrangements, the use of two notes where an onanistic guitarist would put twenty, the weird chords popping up unexpected places, the odd way everything flows between the lines, between the standard blues-based verses and choruses.
Around the same time I bought “Tejas,” my guitar teacher, who taught me basic chords and techniques, told me to bring in tapes of songs I liked so he could teach me how to play them, cranked a Marshall in his guitar store as loud as it would go and taught me how to do feedback like Hendrix, then sent me on my way with the invaluable instruction that, “There’s no reason not to put any two notes together that you feel like,” taught me how ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons holds the tip of his guitar pick real tight and close between his thumb and forefinger in order to create a harmonic that blends with the note while simultaneously wiggling the string. This is especially prevalent in the song “La Grange;” it sounds really fucking cool. I learned this and used it.
1973’s “Tres Hombres,” the album with “La Grange,” features a stout, sludgy guitar sound applied to blues and gospel influences. Its patiently insistent power creates insidious euphoria when a track pops up on a shuffling iPod during a rush hour drive. It has the aforementioned unique arrangements, though the band had not yet perfected the weirdly ethereal chord style utilized on “Tejas.” “Shiek,” the penultimate track, foreshadows it. The vocal harmonies on songs like “Hot, Blue, And Righteous” and “Have You Heard” may impress those only familiar with the band’s later output as uncharacteristically spiritual. My favorite song on “Tres Hombres,” “Master of Sparks,” appears to tell the story of a trucker named High Class Slim who, along with his chemically altered buddies, has concocted the scheme of dragging a man in a cage behind the cab of his semi as a sort of DIY amusement ride. Friction between the cage and the road creates sparks, hence the song’s title. This lyrical anecdote perfectly sums up for me the place ZZ Top takes me, a scrub-brush prairie highway full of eighteen wheelers driven by maniacs, long-bearded, shades-wearing, pot-smoking giants, all of them whoremongers, all of them prophets. It is a land of distinctly American images, of tall tales no other epoch could produce.
That’s why I listen to ZZ Top.
In addition to “Enjoy And Get It On,” “Arrested For Driving While Blind,” and “Asleep In The Desert,” 1976’s “Tejas” features “El Diablo,” the arid, moody saga of a western outlaw. Drummer Frank Beard’s abilities are especially on display during the take-out to this song, a protracted instrumental soundscape driven by Beard’s thunderous rolls, over which Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill pour viscous rivers of evocation. No one’s in a hurry. They know how to do it. When I listen to this, all I see, hear, or feel is the desert. Beard is a drummer who keeps a beat that never falters, who rolls when it fits, who never showboats. None of them showboat. “It’s Only Love,” “Tejas’s” first track, a sort of “love ’em and leave ’em before they do the same to you” lament, is taken out by a harmonica solo over tight, military drums.
In 1979, the band released “Deguello.” This album features the band’s rendition of the Stax song “I Thank You,” which captures a very specific, very human emotion as well as any recording ever has. The ethereal chord sound previously alluded to perhaps reached its culmination on this album, as exemplified in the song “Cheap Sunglasses,” as enhanced by Dusty Hill’s flangey bass. “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide.” “Esther Be the One.” From working class rebellion to odd, elusive choices, all before your eyes, all in a heartbeat.
I keep coming back to “Tejas.” It’s the band’s best album. It’s the Spanish name for the state I was born in. It got into me early. I revisit it and feel like I’ve never gone away. They are great musicians. They take me to a past that never was.
– The Acolyte