I didn’t think I liked ZZ Top.
I think it was their record company. By this time, London had outlived all usefulness, it seemed to be the last stop for those who couldn’t get signed to Warner Brothers, never mind Columbia or RCA. But I was prey to the hype, like touring with farm animals. Yes, it seemed too Texas, but it also displayed a sense of humor, something usually absent from boogie frat rock.
Oh, of course I knew “Tush” and “La Grange,” the same way I knew all those Foghat tunes that were played incessantly every Saturday night on KMET and KLOS. But then something strange happened, I realized I LOVED Foghat… Suddenly, instead of pushing the button, you find yourself singing along with “Slow Ride,” “Fool For The City” and “Stone Blue” and you start testifying to all your intellectual friends how fantastic they are…hell, I STILL think they’re fantastic!
Just like Foghat had to emerge from the shadows of the inferior Savoy Brown, once ZZ Top paid their dues and finished their contract with London, they actually signed a deal with Warner Brothers and I was immediately hooked by an album that didn’t burn up the chart like what came before and what came after, but made me a fan.
The opening track was the hook, the one made to convert us, a cover of the classic Sam & Dave track “I Thank You.” Only one problem, Bonnie Raitt beat them to market with a cover of the same damn track for the same damn label. Huh?
And ZZ Top had never relied on covers before, but there was something about this rendition of the classic soul track. The way it was understated, the way it was stuck in the Rio Grande mud… It wasn’t like they were playing for a hit on the radio, but that you’d stumbled upon them in an out of the way bar, where they were laying down this sexy groove that got all the girls in low-slung jeans to bump and grind and as you sipped your beer you told yourself…I like this, this is all right!
But the most famous song off “Deguello” is “Cheap Sunglasses.” “I Thank You” burned out on AOR pretty fast, but “Cheap Sunglasses” embedded itself on radio stations and never left, it’s a staple. And you think you can resist its magic, and then it breaks down a bit after a minute in and goes off wandering into territory that’s got nothing to do with boogie, that almost verges on jazz, and you find yourself nodding your head and becoming enamored. Magic is rarely formula, it’s delivered when you confound our expectations.
And while we’re on the second side, and we loved our albums because there were two bites at the apple, two completely different experiences, once you purchased the album and played it incessantly you came to love “Lowdown In The Street,” which seems almost like a Bad Company track except for that rock solid muddy groove, you could hear the BBQ and the pork rinds, and that subtle but yet so right guitar work. ZZ Top are white, but they ooze soul.
But really, it’s all about the first side.
Like “A Fool For Your Stockings.” Talk about an album track! Once upon a time albums were not made for radio, oh, a few cuts were, but the heart and soul was made to be experienced on your couch in your living room. If you can listen to “A Fool For Your Stockings” and not nod your head, you’re dead.
And then there’s the second cut, what follows the opener, the aforementioned “I Thank You,” “She Loves My Automobile”… Boogie rock, with a sense of humor and truth.
Still, the piece de resistance is “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” that’s what closed me, that’s what made me a ZZ Top fan, what got me into the band before “Gimme All Your Lovin'” and the rest of the tracks from “Eliminator” closed the rest of the world.
It’s the stuttering intro. Oh come on, don’t you love it? And then the way Billy starts to wail!
But really it’s the lyrics…
Well I was rollin’ down the road in some cold blue steel
I had a bluesman in the back and a beautician at the wheel
Huh? A BEAUTICIAN? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that in a song before!
We going downtown in the middle of the night
We laughing and I’m jokin’ and we feelin’ all right
EUREKA! THAT’S IT!
That’s why life works. You don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to be famous, you’ve just got to have some friends, a machine, some gas and some alcohol, and then you’re LIVING!
I used to live this life. To the point I had to give it up. I was in search of the best night of my life, and when you start doing that multiple nights of the week…
Still, I loved it, the camaraderie, the laughs, the risk-taking, the good times.
Oh, I’m bad, I’m nationwide
Yes, I’m bad, I’m nationwide
HYSTERICAL! That’s how you feel! Leonardo DiCaprio may have poked out from the front of the Titanic and said he was king of the world, but that didn’t ring as true as the lines from this song. Yes, when your life is firing on all cylinders, when you’re surrounded by friends, having a good time, you truly feel bad, YOU’RE NATIONWIDE!
And it just gets better from there, with lines about spike-heel shoes, Lucky Strikes and nylons too. The gold tooth! No winners in “Businessweek” sport one, but the hustlers and pimps think they make them attractive. This is the underbelly of life.
But the real story is as much as we try to climb above, we can all relate to being human, not special, just part of the fabric.
I heard “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” on the radio and was infected. Every time I went to my friend’s house in Huntington Beach I had to play it. Eventually I had to have my own copy.
And all these years later Billy F. Gibbons is my friend. AND HE’S THAT GUY! Smart, but in the groove, just like ZZ Top’s music.