Regardless of whether they know how to use them, when it comes to band longevity, ZZ Top's definitely got legs. The group has a landmark year ahead, including a new album with producer Rick Rubin, a 40th anniversary and bassist Dusty Hill's own 60th birthday.
Hill says that, as a 20-year-old bassist, he never imagined he'd still be playing with guitarist Billy Gibbons and drummer Frank Beard so many years later. "I'm pretty surprised about both of them, actually," he says of the personal and collective landmarks. "I don't think anybody sets out to be together for even 10 years or five, for that matter. But it certainly clicked immediately, and it hasn't stopped yet. So it's pretty amazing to me, too. It kind of snuck up on us, you know? Last thing I knew, it was only 30 years."
Wine, women and song
ZZ Top was forged from the remnants of two mid-'60s Houston bands: Hill and Beard had a group called American Blues, while Gibbons helmed the Moving Sidewalks, which found garage rock history with its "99th Floor" single.
According to legend, Hill was so intoxicated when he first got together with Gibbons and Beard that he passed out before returning their greeting.
"That's a pretty good story, isn't it?" says Hill. "I wouldn't ever say I ever passed out drunk, but I may have been researching some of our early material. [Gibbons] was very late, so I had to entertain myself."
"Research" by the threesome whose name invokes the tradition of Southern bluesmen like Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King soon resulted in such '70s anthems as "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" and "Thunderbird," the latter extolling the virtues of the tasty economical beverage that goes down as smooth as it comes up.
While the song's chorus ("Have you heard? / What's the word? / It's Thunderbird") is nearly identical to the lyric from Gil Scott-Heron's later "Johannesburg" ("What's the word? / Tell me brother have you heard / From Johannesburg"), one suspects the political anthem was not inspired by the group's ode to the twist-cap favorite.
Rounding out the band's dedication to wine, women and song, sentimental couplets like "I said, Lord, take me downtown / I'm just lookin' for some tush" and "They all call her 'puta', 'cause no one really knows her name" pretty much speak for themselves.
Rock of the '80s
While ZZ Top avoided televised appearances during its first decade, the Texas trio climbed onto the MTV bandwagon in a big way with videos for "Legs," "Gimme All Your Lovin'," and "Sharp Dressed Man," all drawn from 1983's Eliminator album.
"TV was never a big thing for us before the video era began," explains Hill. "We just never felt the need to do it, because we were already busy touring and recording. Except for the longer break at the end of the '70s [when manager Bill Ham was negotiating a new contract with Warner Bros.], what few breaks we had weren't really breaks they were just going home to pick up the mail. We enjoyed doing it the way we did in the '70s, and we also enjoyed the videos in the '80s."
As did audiences, not least the adolescent male variety to which MTV tended to cater. The videos featured such iconic elements as a cherry red '33 Ford coupe and, perhaps more importantly, three former Playboy models. ("I'm not sure what they're all doing now," says Hill, "but Jeana Tomasino is on some reality show and still looks pretty nice.") Typically, they would seduce all who stood in their way, after which the hirsute trio itself would materialize from the dusty ether to do a few slow-motion steps (like a very stoned Temptations) and proffer the keys to the coupe.
While videos had become obligatory, it was the synthesizers the band embraced on Eliminator and its follow-up, Afterburner, that concerned the band's more purist fans. For his part, Hill insists they're just another tool.
"We didn't know what we were doing with them, so that was the joy of it," he says. "It's like everything else: If you accidentally come upon a new tone on the guitar and it fits in with something, you use it. So we haven't changed in that way at all. If it's a comb and tissue paper or an electronic device, you know, whatever fits the song."
In the years since, ZZ Top has leaned more toward its blues-rock beginnings, and expectations are high that Rubin producer of everyone from Slayer to Johnny Cash, who has a reputation for capturing the spirit of veteran artists' early recordings will take them even further in that direction.
"We've been talking to Rick for a while about doing this, so we're pretty excited," says Hill, who expects the band will be back in the studio before year's end. "Every album we've ever recorded takes on a couple different lives, depending on what happens in the studio. So I'm looking forward to the adventure. I don't know what's gonna come out of it, but it oughta be something worthwhile."