That’s what Billy Gibbons said about the recording of ZZ Top’s eighth album, Eliminator. Released shortly before I turned 4, but its success (hundred million zillion albums sold) and MTV’s endorsement of its synth-tinged rock, ensured that I would hear a whole bunch of its songs throughout my youth and it would leave a lasting impression. Turns out that the whole bunch of songs weren’t actually from this record; they just sounded like they were. It also turns out that the lasting impression wasn’t favourable. No more than a bad 80s novelty band with beards, sunglasses, matching suits and synchronised steps.
It wasn’t until late 2012 that I learned that ZZ Top were actually more than that novelty band. In fact, turns out they had albums in the 70s! Say what now? Truth be told, I thought two friends of mine were on the noise up when they were talking about them and their smashin’ “album from a few years ago”. I had to check that out. So I did. Fast forward 16 months or so and I’m the proud owner of their entire back catalogue, having either picked them up cheap on CD or, better still, vinyl. I’m preaching to the converted here. Preaching to anyone who will listen. Someone mentions the word ‘top’ and they have a conversation about Billy Gibbons & Co.
So, anyway, the first ZZ Top album I bought on vinyl was Eliminator. I had spotted it for just £2 during a lunch break visit to one of the few record stores within walking distance from the office. Now, while it wasn’t high on the want list, I’d spotted it cheap on two occasions prior to this (in the space of about a month) and I was real close to buying it. When I say close: 1) there was no vinyl! It had gone missing!; 2) the record was in pieces – literally. So, knowing that it’s difficult to get a copy in one piece how could I ignore it? And there’s that car that I remember from pretty much every video of theirs I ever seen on the tellybox. One that I would later learn is Billy Gibbons’ very own custom 1933 Coupe.
It’s an album that defined ZZ Top to a fair few folks. Like I say, this is what I thought ZZ Top were before a friend told me otherwise. When I started listening to their older stuff I used to marvel at the fact that they had decided to throw all their awesomeness in the bin in order to redefine themselves as some sleek 80s rockers. But you know what, I’ve realised that was never the case. This here is a pretty great album. I dare say one of their best, actually. They embraced the MTV age and they just had fun with it. The way they always had. It wasn’t until I immersed myself in their music that I truly appreciated that. It was the logical step and, while this might sound preposterous given the mechanical nature of the sound, its completely organic.
So, when the guitar hits the first note of Gimme All Your Lovin’ the hooks are in. In fact along with Got Me Under Pressure and Sharp Dressed Man its a three song cycle I consider to be flawless. Complete with the groove, hooks, swagger and boogie that has been ZZ Top’s trademark. It’s evolution, baby! In my opinion Side A is one of their best. Although Side B never hits the same stride, it also kicks off with a splendid three song cycle before it fades (Legs, Thug and TV Dinners). All of it plays like the best slices of Americana. The American Dream. Freedom of the road, adventure and your beautiful girl by your side (or girls in this case). There might be hot rods instead of motorbikes and bad convenience foods, but this here is ZZ Top’s Born to Run … and it’s every bit as good.
There’s no doubt that the thing that defined the ZZ Top sound at this stage was the introduction of some pretty heavy synthesiser, but what really separates this from Afterburner and Recycler (the albums that followed the formula) is the guitar sound. Not just fuzzy and with real grit, but it’s so loud you can pretty much hear it rip up the speaker of the amp. I guess this is why it works so well with the 80s sheen? Ach, who knows… but I tell you, it’s marvelloud.
… There’s also a whole bunch of interesting ‘behind the scenes’ shenanigans that I’d read on Wikipedia (must be true then, right?). In his book, Sharp Dressed Man, David Blayney states that a chap named Linden Hudson actually co-wrote much of the album. He happened to be teaching Gibbons and Beard some high-tech tricks, y’see. Whether there’s any truth in that is something else, but apparently the band did pay him $600,000 when he proved he held the copyright to the song “Thug” (oooft!). Blayney also claims that Hill and Beard weren’t around during the writing and recording of Got Me Under Pressure (one of the best tracks on the record) and that Hudson done all the rhythm tracks on the ol’ synthesizer.
One of the most magnificent little bits of true-or-not info is the rumour that the Hudson chap had actually analysed tons of tracks and had suggested that 120 beats per minute was the most popular tempo in rock music at that time. So, if you’re wondering why Eliminator jogs along at the pace it does, look no further than the influence of Mr Hudson.