presents... Interesting Motherfucker: (noun)
An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.

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ZZ Top, hell raisers from Texas

By Wil Forbis

Lo those many years ago when I first sired the concept of Interesting Motherfuckers, I felt the title should be reserved for the more obscure performers in the entertainment pantheon. For example, many people have asked me to post an article on Hunter S. Thompson, and I've always declined because I feel he is already quite well-known.

As such, one might ask, "ZZ Top? Really? I mean, really, dude?" The band of bearded Texans are quite famous to most fans of pop music, and are hardly in need of the blast of attention that comes when one is featured in an acid logic article. But, as I contemplated taking on the trio of Billy F. Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard as a topic, something dawned on me. ZZ Top might be recognizable, but they are still obscure. They are shrouded in a fog of mystery as thick as their facial hair. Additionally, the evolution of the band's music --- from raucous blues rock in the 70s to electronic pop of the 80s --- is a subject worthy of enthusiastic exploration. And finally, it's my webzine and I can write about whatever the fuck I want.

To fully understand the tale of the Top, one must turn to Texas circa 1970. Texas is a state eyed suspiciously by most people who correctly presume it to be a land of hillbilly chainsaw massacres. (In fact, a recent survey noted that 83% of Texans are cannibals.) There's no doubt about it, Texas is tough. And when Gibbons, Hill and Beard formed ZZ Top out of the ashes of former bands, they chose to perform tough, raw, bluesy music. Rock music of the time was transitioning from the jangly, loose garage rock of the late 60s (Love, Blues Magoos, The Seeds) to the more riff oriented and technically demanding style that would define the 70s (Rush, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin). ZZ Top were quite comfortable with this evolution, though it meant that, as a trio, each musician had to more than hold his own. Frank Beard brought the appropriate stutter and swagger to his drum grooves. Bassist Dusty Hill filled out the bottom end with booming lines. And Gibbons earned much acclaim for his authentic blues riffs and impeccable tone.

After their initial formation, the band --- under the stewardship of manager Bill Hamm --- began touring the Southwest and recording albums of increasing popularity. Records such as "ZZ Top's First Album," "Tres Hombres" and "Fandango!" generated radio hits like "Tush," "La Grange" and what is perhaps my favorite ZZ Top release: the song pair "Jesus Left Chicago/Waiting for the Bus."

In 1977, after years of touring, the band took a more than two-year hiatus, during which Hamm secured them a lucrative record contract with Warner Brothers. When ZZ Top got back together 1979, Gibbons and Hill were amused to discover that they had both grown out the chest length beards they have since become famous for. With the new record contract in hand, the boys picked up where they had left off, touring and releasing the back-to-basics blues albums "Deguello" and "El Loco." While the albums continued to sell, one can certainly argue that there was nothing innovative about the music. There were dozens of successful blues oriented rock artists touring America in the late 70s, and there was little to differentiate ZZ Top from the competition.

Now, let's take a step back and examine how rock music transitioned from the 70s and the 80s. Rock music of the 70s was guitar music. KISS, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Van Halen and other stars of the era created music that was dominated and defined by the six string. Even the punk revolution which sought to unseat the rock dinosaurs utilized the electric guitar as its weapon.

The 80s were defined by the keyboard synthesizer and related electronic doodads like the sequencer and drum machine*. Bands like The Human League, Devo and the Thompson Twins designed a new, esoteric and very mechanized sound for the era. And even in the early 80s, the rise of keyboards was being noticed. Pete Townshend famously prophesied in Rolling Stone magazine that keyboards would eradicate the guitar. As a result, when the 80s hit, "guitar bands" like ZZ Top faced a difficult question: did they shun keyboards altogether, and risk being wiped from popular consciousness, or did they integrate the keyboard into their music and risk accusations of selling out?

* To be more precise, only the early to mid 80s were defined by keyboards. The final years of the decade were marked by the resurgence of hard rock.

Anyone who hasn't been in a coma for the past 30 years knows how our boys from Texas answered this question. They embraced electronics; no, they did more than embrace them, they married them, they copulated with them, they entered into a complete spiritual union with electronics. The music on ZZ Top's phenomenally successful 1983 album, "Eliminator," was the first step in a pronounced shift away from their previous material. Songs like "Legs," "TV Dinners" and "Sharp Dressed Man" still featured the group playing their conventional instruments, and Gibbons still knocked out plenty of tasty guitar solos, but mixed into into the standard rock instrumentation were layers of keyboards. The album hinted at an unlikely fusion of analog Southern blues with digitized ultramodern robot rock.

Synthesizers were not the only modern innovation ZZ Top embraced. The MTV network had launched in 1980 and the boys shot several music videos which turned out to be integral to "Eliminator's" success. The videos were built around the following tongue-in-cheek narrative: ZZ Top, appearing as ghostly apparitions, work in tandem with their agents on the mortal plane -- three phenomenally hot, scantily clad hookers --- to aid various youthful protagonists struggling with the travails of modern life and romance.

Best ZZ Top video?

Which ZZ Top video has most ably stood the test of time? Everyone's familiar with the classics --- "Legs," "Sharp Dressed Man," "Rough Boy" --- but among the less popular videos, you can find some real gems.

I would argue that out of the ZZ top video ouvre, "TV Dinners" is the most interesting. A young man returns to an apartment filled with an assortment of then modern electronic gadgets: a microwave oven, a computer, a TV remote and an arcade game. While he removes his steaming TV dinner from his microwave, a ZZ Top performance plays across multiple television screens. Dusty plays his bass part on a keyboard and the band members are all dressed in modern blue jumpsuits and engaged in robotic dance moves one would expect from Devo. As the man tinkers with his science fiction appliances, a claymation alien hiding in the TV dinner plays with a remote. What is striking about the video is its all out embrace of modernity --- exactly the last thing you would expect from a blues band formerly so deferential to its roots.

The video for "Burger Man" is also worth note. A sexist, hamburger eating hillbilly falls into the lake in which he's been dumping toxic waste. When he emerges, he's a cartoonish hamburger monster who immediately runs off to kidnap his favorite fast food restaurant waitress. Fortunately, ZZ Top are flying above in a UFO piloted by the requisite three super hotties (this time, the girls are decked out in retro 1950s science-fiction outfits that nicely show off their space boobies) and show up to save the day.



The Top's 1985 album, "Afterburner," (also a phenomenal success) was powered not only by keyboards but sequencers and drum machines as well. Hits like the new wave "Velcro Fly" and the keyboard ballad "Rough Boy" unapologetically embraced the then contemporary sound of pop music. And, as with "Eliminator," entertaining and high concept videos augmented the impact of the music. It was becoming clear that the Top's fancy for electronics was not a passing fetish, but a purposeful new direction.

As a result, a certain controversy raged among the group's fan base. ZZ Top had begun their careers as interpreters of the very authentic blues stylings of artists such as Jimmy Reed, Albert King and Bo Diddly. The blues realm places a great value on respect for tradition, and nothing could be less traditional than modern sequencers, drum machines and, for that matter, music videos. Had ZZ Top forsaken their roots in pursuit of success?

On one level, the answer had to be yes. But one must also recognize the demands of the marketplace. In entertainment, purity is often the quickest route to poverty. In the late 70s, ZZ Top were in the tenuous position of being a band fronted by what looked like a pair of Orthodox Jews; their continued success was far from certain. I would argue that by employing modern technology, they ably rode the tides of the changing times.

I also think there was more at play than simple economic calculations. Billy Gibbons seems to be the main architect of the Top's sound and direction. He is an unconventional man who touts Howard Hughes as his idol, and has a deep appreciation for modern art. The exaggerated, eclectic and ultramodern direction ZZ Top pursued in the 80s was quite in line with the aesthetic of such a soul.

In 1990, ZZ Top released "Recycler," which many consider to be the final piece in a trilogy of albums. It did well, but did not achieve the success of its two predecessors. This may be partly due to the fact that it was less keyboard and sequencer dependent, but also, the times were a changing... Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement --- in many ways a backlash against music of the 80s --- were just around the corner.

Nonetheless, the boys have continued a consistent career over the past 20 years. They still live charmed lives, still release albums, and can easily fill stadiums. Having watched a lot of their recent live performances on youtube, I have to note that Billy Gibbons's voice has significantly declined, but his guitar playing is still top notch. And as a band, they continue to be great performers and refreshingly unwilling to take themselves too seriously.

Who says you can't have happy endings in rock 'n roll?

Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at

View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!

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More info about the boys:

Interesting old People magazine article
Discusses the infamous keychains and goes on at some length on Billy's eccentricities.

Famous Texans talks the top
Provides information on various controversies over the authorship of ZZ Top's songs.

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