ZZ Top – Tejas (1976): Shadows in Stereo

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Professional counselors sometimes find it useful to frame family relationships in terms of birth order. As an example of this broad generality, they might suggest that eldest children often exhibit similar personality traits regardless of any particular family’s socio-economic background; after all, the first child is usually born when most couples are just starting out, and so for a while all first children are brought up being the center of their parents’ universe.

The youngest in the family, on the other hand, is raised differently because by then it’s all been done before, so the kid simply gets away with everything. It’s an oversimplification, of course, but go watch something like Dr. Phil if you want advice: This is about rock ‘n’ roll, where the best advice is usually forgotten or ignored.

Anyway, if artists’ creations are their metaphoric children, then a similar generalization might apply to their body of work. For instance, ZZ Top’s 1976 album Tejas would be the forgotten middle child, having the back luck to have to follow not just one, but two older and more successful siblings, 1973’s Tres Hombres and 1975’s Fandango. As well, it’s was made before the Eliminator era, ZZ Top’s second coming in the MTV age.

How forgotten was Tejas, you ask? When the compilation The Best of ZZ Top came out, gathering the best of their first five albums, Tejas was the only one of the five that wasn’t represented by a single cut.

This isn’t just an attempt to make the facts fit the model. Conduct your own research, and there’s a good chance if you ask average classic rock fans the question, “What did you think of ZZ Top’s Tejas?” their responses will be variations of “Never really listened to it” — or even just plain ol’ “What?”

Perhaps this is due to the presence of Fandango in the catalog more so than any failing in Tejas itself. After all, Fandango can be seen as an album which is something of a changeling in la familia de tres hombres loco. This is due to its dual nature: side one is live, and side two is studio, making it sound like two EPs pressed back to back.

The studio side is very strong and includes “Tush,” which went on to become ZZ Top’s first Top 20 hit. But the live side, though liked by some, really boils down to this: a song the band wrote in their pre-ZZ Top days; an Elvis cover; and what sounds like boogie chill’en at a hog calling contest.

It could be argued that without having to contend with Fandango, Tejas might have connected better in the public’s mind with Tres Hombres — which actually did better on the album charts than Fandango. There are actually a lot of very good songs on Tejas, but many critics and much of the public dismissed it as ZZ Top gone “countrified,” in part because of the twangy opener “It’s Only Love.”

The rest of the record, however, is only a little more country than the rest of the band’s initial albums. Had that song been shuffled down elsewhere in the sequence and replaced with something like “Ten Dollar Man” as the lead off track, maybe the twang tone factor wouldn’t have been so noticeable, making it more marketable to the rock ‘n’ roll crowd. Then again, there’s some pretty countrified fiddle in there too, so maybe the country label is kind of legit.

Speaking of marketing, what’s with the album cover? Up to that point, there had been a steady progression of ZZ Top pictured as drawn, then posed in photographs, and finally live onstage. Suddenly, the cover of Tejas comes out looking like a test run for a black velvet painting, which probably didn’t contribute to the overall appeal.

Finally, there’s the album title itself. People who no habla espanol probably got confused by the Spanish word for “Texas.” You just know there was some hair-in-eyes headbanger back in the 1970s who went to the record store and said, “Do you have Tex-jass? Or Tay-hass? Or … OK just gimme Love Gun by KISS.” Most times, easier is better.

Despite these marketing missteps, the music is still good. Fortunately, Tejas is still out there and available in at least a couple of formats. Maybe those who wish ZZ Top would make an album that sounds like they did back in the ’70s could give this one another try. And a big ol’ Texas-sized hug, too: after all, family is family.

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