Welcome to dad rock minute, where BTRtoday Editor-in-Chief Adam Bulger indulges his obsession with classic and near-classic rock.
For about three months in 2018, the only music I listened to was ZZ Top. After whittling away a handful of stray lesser tracks on their Complete Studio Albums box sets I had five hours of perfect guitar sounds, airtight grooves and goofball swagger. I just didn’t want to hear anything else.
The Texas trio’s music rivals the work of undisputed dad rock heavyweight champs Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. In fact, they often best those titleholders in one-to-one match-ups. ZZ Top’s catalog is more consistent than Sabbath, more varied than AC/DC, more fun than Zeppelin and funkier than all three put together.
The work of Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard is slept on for two reasons: 1) ZZ Top is deeply goofy—they’re comfortable being a cartoon and it seems absurd to lionize them. 2) People are suspicious of their ‘80s hits. They’re wrong—Eliminator is a staggering achievement, but it’s understandable considering the the pantyhose industry’s appropriation of its hits.
ZZ Top’s body of work is as deep as the Mariana trench. They have over 80 songs that are at least very, very good. Out of those, about half are good enough to melt your face off.
Also, so we’re clear, the following are hits: “Just Got Paid,” “La Grange,” “Tush,” “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” “Cheap Sunglasses,” “I Thank You,” Waiting For The Bus,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” “Tube Snake Boogie,” “Pearl Necklace,” “Gimme All Your Lovin,’” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs.” Spotify all of that: I just handed you a pure swagger rock playlist. You’re welcome. Also, since the box set I obsessed over tapped out in the mid ’80s, this list does too.
Now, onto the deep cuts.
(Somebody Else Been) Shakin’ Your Tree
ZZ Top’s first album, titled ZZ Top’s First Album is like a spiritual cousin to Black Sabbath’s first two records. ZZ Top’s debut is more polished than Sabbath’s open salvo’s, but has the same quick and dirty feel. The opener starts with a hot blast of steel pedal guitar wafting over a deeply relaxed groove that moves with clockwork precision.
ZZ Top’s ode to heroin borrows a song title from The Rolling Stones and a half dozen guitar lines from Jimi Hendrix, including the signature vibrato from the opening of “Foxy Lady.” When the band kicks in, it’s a growling, kinetic groove that’s pure ZZ Top.
“Squank” is ZZ Top’s environmentalist song, with the squank of the title referring to extreme air pollution. The bassline is extra funky and Gibbons and Dusty Hill each trade off singing verses, so it’s a good key to telling ZZ Top’s singers apart.
Going Down to Mexico
“Going Down to Mexico” shows how seriously ZZ Top takes their craft. Lyrics like “a fine and fancy man was he/doing good things for the poor” and “a 1940s movie star with a long forgotten name/she was a sexy mess in her beaded dress, still hanging onto fame” weren’t written by someone who didn’t give a shit. The band seamlessly gear-shifts into a dramatic change in tempo for the guitar solo. It’s gratuitous, like taking out an ad announcing they’re one of the tightest bands in the world.
Ko Ko Blue
On ZZ Top’s second album, Rio Grande Mud , the band puts a lot of funky moving parts in motion to tell a nursery rhyme-like tale of a sexy woman with dangerous magical powers.
ZZ Top’s signature groove and blues guitar funk are dressed with a little daylight and sugar for a roots rock pop song about driving an American car.
Master of Sparks
The boys weave a tale of an unfortunate fellow tricked into entering a metal cage hooked to the back of a truck. Once the truck starts speeding over desert highways, the cage becomes a death trap of sparks. It’s like a Tales From The Crypt episode set to an incredible series of blues guitar riffs.
“Sheik” is one of several ZZ Top songs that’s essentially avant-garde art rock snuck over the border in the trunk of a blues riff and a series of goofball jokes.
Heard it on The X
“Heard It On The X” is one of ZZ Top’s rare fast songs. They took the groove of “La Grange” and double-timed it with manic scruffy energy. Never have handclaps been deployed more effectively than in this song’s guitar solo.
Asleep in the Desert
This jazzy acoustic instrumental from Tejas sounds nothing like ZZ Top except for its dry desert air attitude. It’s atmospheric and rich, creating an almost Spaghetti Western-like atmosphere of languid menace.
Lowdown in the Street
For ZZ Top’s 1979 album Deguello, Gibbons and co. absorbed just enough new wave to tighten up their songs and brighten their sound. Every song on the album is amazing and “Lowdown in the Street” is no exception.
Ten Foot Pole
If you weren’t paying attention to the shift on Deguello, the bright new wave of El Loco feels like a hairpin turn. “Ten Foot Pole” is a bizarre sweat bath, but the band’s shuffle is still at the core.
Got me Under Pressure
This is the fourth most famous song from their biggest album, Eliminator. It has the high energy and bulldozer mix of blues riffs, synthesizers and drum machines as “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’” without the pop hooks. Describing a woman with expensive tastes, Gibbons drawls “she likes cocaine,” which is like saying the quiet part of ‘80s music really, really loud.
I Need You Tonight
“I Need You Tonight,” the slow blues song on Eliminator, feels like the soundtrack to a movie scene set in a dusty desert bar and directed by Walter Hill. It’s just a matter of time before someone catches a bullet and epically dies in slow motion.