One fiery moment saved ZZ Top’s Afterburner from ’80s caricature

A slow-burner ballad, ZZ Top’s “Rough Boy” arrived as part of Afterburner on October 28, 1985, bearing more than a passing resemblance to “Leila,” from the earlier El Loco. Still, I think it can be said that this is one of those rare times when it worked out for the better that the band ripped themselves off. And, beyond that long, grinding build-up, it’s pretty easy to figure out why: the solos blow away what “Leila” had on tap.

While “Rough Boy” itself is all ’80s drum machines and synths, Billy Gibbons lays down one of his trademark soulful solos that saves the song from being just another faceless piece of glossy MTV-era production. On top of this, it’s long — the main solo just keeps going and going, like a reward for the listener: “yeah, we know there’s all this lifeless electronic crap. Here’s the payoff for making it this far.” But if the ’80s were good for one thing, it was guitar solos.

Add to this one of those great, meaningless videos packed with visuals that simply burn into viewer’s minds: the Eliminator coupe, restyled as a, well, space shuttle of sorts, arcing up from the atmosphere to some sort of orbital car wash (forget the logic of this), where a torso-less lady with amazing legs walks around with a crosswalk sign melded to her waist, and the band’s disembodied parts float around disaffectedly doing various things (floating heads, singing; floating hands, gesturing the “ZZ Top gesture”; floating hands, playing guitar; you get the point).

Hey, I was 12 years old when “Rough Boy” came out. I ate this up: MTV and video producers had quickly cued in on what made their audience tick. But ZZ Top’s song, plasticine as it comes across, still stands on its own even if Afterburner itself has gone more than a bit floppy. “Rough Boy” is kind of a perfect example of mainstream rock in the ’80s, now that I think about it.

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Johnson
  • gershbec

    The whole album was silly and helped kill their career (despite being a massive hit) but I listen to it probably more than any other ZZ Top album.