ZZ Top – The Complete Studio Albums: 1970-1990 (2013)

Share this:

What you’re struck first by is this new 10-album reissue box’s long-hoped-for restoration of the original mixes. Then, across 100 songs from two decades, by the wealth of worthy deep cuts from ZZ Top.

Over the years, we’ve all fallen head over heels for a certain girl and her unforgettable legs, found ourselves knocked out by the cheap sunglasses, and been all over downtown in a fruitless search for tush. But what about the lesser-known moments from this sparkling remaster, those times when the band moves beyond our radio-ready expectations on albums from ZZ Top’s First Album in 1970 through career-making triumphs like 1979’s Deguello and into MTV-era hits like Afterburner in 1985?

Something Else! is here to help. We didn’t have to do it, of course. But we did. You can thank us later …

“BACKDOOR LOVE AFFAIR,” (ZZ TOP’S FIRST ALBUM, 1970): Perhaps the earliest distillation of what would become ZZ Top’s platinum-selling aesthetic: “Backdoor Love Affair” is a boiling pot of greasy blues, backwoods twang, tough Texas blues and just a pinch of lip-smacking salaciousness. There’s not quite enough, in fact. So, ultimately, “Backdoor Love Affair” remains a little more terse than it is fun — something the group would brilliantly balance later on. Nevertheless, it stands as a rough template for every success ZZ Top would one day have.

“WHISKEY ‘N MAMA,” (RIO GRANDE MUD, 1972): “Francine” was released, to little notice, and you might occasionally find “Just Got Paid” on a radio playlist. But “Whiskey ‘n Mama” — with its ferocious riff and bar-room brawler narrator — has always been the take-away moment for me on Rio Grande Mud. It’s not just that the trio is next deep a lock-step, blood-brother groove. Not just the danger that lurks behind every verse. Not just the liquid fire solo from Gibbons, or the way “Whiskey ‘N Mama” stops and starts on a dime. It’s every bit of that.

“HOT, BLUES AND RIGHTEOUS,” (TRES HOMBRES, 1973): Quite frankly, finding a song that hasn’t been played until the grooves were smooth — from the opening cut’s “have mercy!” to the “how how how” of “La Grange” — from this breakthrough effort is no easy feat. Gibbons had, by this point, already found a pitch-perfect vocal approach for the band’s patented boogie blues, this clinched howl, even as his gnarly guitar asides skittered brilliantly across a muscular music bed set up by the rhythm section of Hill and Beard. What had been explored far less, then as now, is the ability ZZ Top has to settle into gospel-inflected, emotionally raw contemplation — to wring every last excruciating drop from a ballad. “Righteous,” indeed.

“HEARD IT ON THE X,” (FANDANGO, 1975): A half-studio, half-live recording that produced ZZ Top’s first Top 40 single with “Tush,” Fandango is home to plenty of deep-cut delights — not least of which is their roadhouse-rattling “Backdoor Medley,” from a wild performance at the Warehouse in New Orleans. For sheer reckless abandon, though, drop a needle on the Dusty Hill co-led “Heard It On the X” — this quick-witted, breathlessly performed remembrance of the weird musical delights picked up via rock stations broadcasting from just across the Mexican border, including two that were helmed by the legendary Wolfman Jack.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: 2012’s new studio effort ‘La Futura’ was a long-awaited return to ZZ Top’s lip-smacking amalgam of blues, hard rock and Texas-born don’t-give-a-damn.]

“SHE’S A HEARTBREAKER,” (TEJAS, 1976): The sometimes faceless Tejas represented a significant step back creatively for a band that had issued consecutive hit albums — and its relative commercial failure spurred ZZ Top to perhaps its best album ever, after some time away. Nevertheless, Tejas wasn’t a total loss, as heard on “El Diablo,” and especially on the lithe little down-home rocker “She’s a Heartbreaker.” That hill-country Americana, highlighted here with a frisky verve, was always part of what made ZZ Top such an interesting new blues-based amalgam.

“HI FI MAMA,” (DEGUELLO, 1979): After three years out of the studio, ZZ Top returned with its best album from beginning (the smoky intrigue of “Thank You”) to middle (the rumbling “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide”) to end (the endlessly intriguing “Cheap Sunglasses”). In between, there’s “Manic Mechanic,” which seems to point directly to the over-the-top silliness that would sometimes mars their 1980s work. But also “Hi Fi Mama,” the antithesis of both the dark mysteries of “Sunglasses” but also the jokey “Mechanic.” Instead, this track boasts a stomping lo-fi urban soul feel, right down to the honking horns, and reckless vocal that would have impressed soul shouters like Jackie Wilson.

“I WANNA DRIVE YOU HOME,” (EL LOCO, 1981): “Tube Snake Boogie” and “Pearl Necklace” stand, even today, as the pinnacle of their perv-boogie songs, no small feat. If anything, “I Wanna Drive You Home” — with its desperately sad guitar figures, and oh-so-lonesome vocal — outlines the story of what happens when there’s not quite so much fun to be had. The track eventually settles into a series of cathartic slide guitar ruminations, but even that isn’t enough to erase the melancholy that came before. Elsewhere, ZZ Top begins experimenting with synthesizers, completing the final piece of what would become a mega-selling formula.

[SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: Gas up the hoopty-car space shuttle for a fun trip back to ZZ Top’s blues-rocking, furry-guitared past — from ‘Tejas’ and ‘Deguello’ to ‘Afterburner’ and “Recycler.’]

“I GOT THE SIX,” (ELIMINATOR, 1983): The moment that ZZ Top emerged as the chief proselytizers of an entirely new thing that might be called arena blues. Eliminator was front loaded with three consecutive hits in “Gimme All Your Lovin,” “Got Me Under Pressure” and “Sharp Dressed Man,” and also included “Legs” and “TV Dinners” further in, so that necessarily leaves few unturned stones. Still, the barking, turbo-charged “I Got the Six,” stands out — in particular when put in context with the times. Gibbons and Co. could still rock it, when they wanted.

“WOKE UP WITH WOOD,” (AFTERBURNER, 1985): A synthesized stunner for fans of their earliest work, this album found ZZ Top draped in mechanized drums, stabbing keyboards and various computerized loops on hits like “Stages,” “Rough Boy and “Velcro Fly” — and, as such, hasn’t aged very well. Even when a bit of Gibbons’ patented guitar squall emerged, as on “Sleeping Bag,” it was all but drowned out by the technology. For those intrepid enough to dig deeper, there’s “Woke Up.” All scroungy licks and lecherous intent, it’s a song that connects directly with the best of ZZ Top.

“DECISION OR COLLISION,” (RECYCLER, 1990): A bitterly ironic title, really, since in many ways this album feels like warmed-over leftovers from Eliminator, yet Recycler isn’t without its minor classics — and you don’t even have to dig past “Doubleback,” since that snoozy soundtrack curio is buried at the very end of ZZ Top’s 1990 finale with Warner Bros. “Decision or Collision” rattles along like a classic music car that’s a can or two short of oil, bucking and squeaking and then lurching forward with a kind of thrilling unpredictability. All they needed was seven or eight more of these, and Recycler might have been saved.

[amazon_enhanced asin=”B00CQGU9GG” container=”” container_class=”” price=”All” background_color=”FFFFFF” link_color=”000000″ text_color=”0000FF” /] [amazon_enhanced asin=”B008PE9GSA” container=”” container_class=”” price=”All” background_color=”FFFFFF” link_color=”000000″ text_color=”0000FF” /] [amazon_enhanced asin=”B000002KKK” container=”” container_class=”” price=”All” background_color=”FFFFFF” link_color=”000000″ text_color=”0000FF” /] [amazon_enhanced asin=”B000002LSV” container=”” container_class=”” price=”All” background_color=”FFFFFF” link_color=”000000″ text_color=”0000FF” /] [amazon_enhanced asin=”B000CCD0HQ” container=”” container_class=”” price=”All” background_color=”FFFFFF” link_color=”000000″ text_color=”0000FF” /]

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
Share this: