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When you mention ZZ Top in polite conversation, most people immediately think of the early MTV years when the music video was more important than musical content (in most instances). And if you’re really unlucky, the ZZ Top video will feature a swing of the hips and a finger point. That was 1983 and the single was ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’. What most people (who have seen that video) don’t know, is that it all began back in Houston in 1969 and seven ZZ Top albums preceded the MTV awakening, with the pivotal point being the 1979 release, Deguello.
Up to that point, there had been a steady release of fantastic Texas Boogie laden albums, both studio and live, all based around the simple construct of guitar, bass and drums. Blistering Boogie Blues from Billy Gibbons with the tight rhythm section of Dusty Hill and Frank Beard holding it together.
Then, Deguello broke that mould in so many ways. ZZ Top retained the band’s bedrock musical style but augmented it with a little bit of synth and, wait for it, a horn section: The Lone Wolf Horns, which were in fact Gibbons, Hill and Beard. Note: Billy and Dusty grew their long beards partly to knock the crap out of drummer Bill (Beard) who couldn’t grow one.
The album has two cracking covers that start sides one and two. It opens with ‘I Thank you’, originally recorded by Sam and Dave and co-written by Issac Hayes. It sets the scene with a nod to their past, as does their rendition of ‘Dust My Broom’ on side two. A track which has been covered by so many blues artists over the years but they keep it fresh with a slightly harder edge. Taking things the opposite way ‘Manic Mechanic’ introduces a fledgling synth sound which was the boys playing with something that had not crossed their radar to this point. Not the best of tracks but interesting.
The standout tracks for me are ‘Fool For Your Stockings’, where Billy removes all of the effects pedals from the guitar and plays a sublime, clean sound with just the perfect amount of reverb. And ‘Cheap Sunglasses’ always makes me smile. The lyrics are fantastic and Dusty gets the most amazing sound out of his bass, whilst all the time Frank just plays along, never ever showboating but holding it all together with fantastically punctuated stick work.
Politically correct they are not. Self deprecating and tongue in cheek they most certainly are. That, coupled with the ability to mix musicianship and subtle tempo changes in almost every track, makes this a worthwhile listen. It’s so easy to be so good that the music becomes technically perfect and boring, it’s also too easy to become slack and off time. ZZ Top are neither: they are tight as only good musicians can be, technically brilliant without being obvious and always eminently listenable.
Give Deguello a go and I’m sure you’ll be surprised. Use it as a springboard to go into the older back catalogue, (Tres Hombres and Rio Grande Mud in particular), then revisit the MTV years of Eliminator and Afterburner and marvel at how good these guys really are, both in the studio and live. Also, raise a glass to Dusty, bass player and vocalist who passed away in 2021.
Note: The title, ‘Deguello’ is translated from the Spanish as ‘No Quarter’ or ‘Decapitation’ and was the name of the bugle rallying call of the Mexican Army at The Alamo.
Iain, Edinburgh 31 December 2022