The saga of ZZ Top—the opulently whiskered, techno-trimmed and demonically heavy rocking trio that earned pop culture immortality with their mid-’80s status as Video Lords of MTV—is an extraordinary tale, one that began some 40-odd (very odd) years ago in Texas. The birth of this three-headed monster came during a characteristically bizarre period in Lone Star State history, a chronology roughly bounded by Charles Whitman’s tower massacre in Austin, the San Antonio marijuana possession arrest of old-time country star T. Texas Tyler, and an explosion of avant-weird psychedelic rock & roll bands in Houston.
Young singer-guitarist Billy Gibbons, a cat as likely to be found digging Lightnin’ Hopkins’ wildly deconstructed blues in some blood bucket of a beer joint as he was turning on at a 13th Floor Elevators show, had been a working musician since the early ‘60s, slinging his axe for a series of straight-up blues bands—the Saints, the Coachmen, Billy & the Ten Blue Flames—at a time when most of blues’ greatest-ever forces were still regularly working the Texas club circuit, affording him a tremendous advantage in terms of exposure to the uncut stuff. Gibbons had all but mastered the idiom, and could have hewn out a solid journeyman career with it, but he was a different critter—a player with a head full of oddball that naturally drew him to the more extreme rock & roll communication favored by the psych-rock band he began fronting in ‘66, the Moving Sidewalks.
With the 1967 release of “99th Floor,” a highly-prized slice of lysergic-aggro-big-beat, Moving Sidewalks were making serious noise, and were rewarded with the opening slot on a Jimi Hendrix Texas tour, climaxing a revolutionary series of influences and experiences that, here in the dull-ass 21st century, are difficult to imagine actually having lived through. When two of the Sidewalks shipped out to ‘Nam in ‘69, Gibbons, with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, started up ZZ Top, and they have not stopped since. Their debut long player, ZZ Top’s First Album, laid the foundation for what became an immortal sound: a big, furry, beefy—in the best Texas mad cow sense—brand of blues-rock in overdrive that by 1975’s Fandango qualified them as an all-American juggernaut, one impervious to the changing trends that roiled all around them. ZZ Top, solidly anchored in their blues-crazed groove fixation, had established a singular type of self-propelled relevance, one to whom disco and punk were like a couple of pesky flies drifting aimlessly somewhere off in the distant periphery.
After an extended hiatus that began in ‘77, they re-emerged, with Gibbons and Hill sporting the extravagant beards that would become a trademark, and the simple purity of the Top approach only kept pushing their profile higher. With Gibbons’ deceptively busted-down vocals and dangerously eloquent guitar leads, and the hypno-metronomic perfection of the Hill-Beard rhythm section applied to their deft, craftily-written songs, the band seemed to exert an irresistible narco-magnetic pull, one that was captured at its very peak on the synth-infused masterpiece Eliminator. With a handful of knock-out numbers—“Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’”—the band’s drastically entertaining videos went up the snoots at MTV and were beamed across America in what seemed an almost non-stop barrage.
They had achieved the perfect confluence of image, sound and content, at once doggedly traditional and zestily contemporary, delivering a seamless presentation that defied the perpetually vacillating context MTV typified and re-asserted their deeply-rooted, populist rebel stance so successfully that they became one of the most appealing phenomenons in pop music history. ZZ Top operated on a huge, almost mythic Paul Bunyan scale, one enhanced further by their bad-ass custom rods and insane, kustom whirligig Gibson guitars. To their credit, they’ve nobly maintained both their credibility and musical integrity, further honing—to an almost frightening degree of perfection—the blues-based, expanded consciousness approach that enabled them to conquer 99 percent of the known and (hell, yes, the unknown) world. Mescalero, their most recent full-blown studio set, upholds the Top tradition with all the grit, wit and downhome sophistication their horde of fans thrive on. They stand as one of the very best rock & roll bands of them all, and any trip with ZZ Top is a stone, positive thrill.
ZZ Top play the Palomar Starlight Theater at Pala Casino Spa & Resort, 11154 Highway 76, Pala, (877) 946-7252; www.palacasino.com. Sun., 7:30 p.m. $65-$100.