I’m like a lot of you out there, I’m in a self-quarantine. My daughter came back home this last weekend and like a crazy person I went out to eat Friday night and drinking on Saturday. Thankfully I regained my sanity in time to cancel brunch with my elderly parents on Sunday morning. If I’d carried any of this virus thing to my parents I’d never forgive myself. While I’m symptom free, the cow is likely out of the barn where I’m concerned but on Sunday I went into lockdown. The problem with being under self-appointed “house arrest” is what to do to fill the time? I mean, there’s no sports on. With football season over, there really aren’t any sports I care about anyway and I respect the decision to delay or cancel all of this stuff. Sure, it was a tough blow to see the St Patrick’s Day Parade cancelled here in Kansas City… but I’m all about health and safety. I went out onto Netflix to seek out any rock and roll related items that might have popped into the cue of late. Lo and behold, I discovered a new 2019 documentary about ZZ Top, ‘ZZ Top That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.’
While the documentary was a little on the light side, I still found it entertaining… I must admit, it sure brought back some memories for me. I was just beginning my immersion into rock and roll when ZZ Top’s Deguello album came out in late ’79. They’d been away for three years, which was a lifetime back then, and it was seen as somewhat of a “comeback” album for them. None of that was known to me at the time. The rumor back then was they’d been on a hiatus because bass player Dusty Hill had been taking off his boots and a revolver fell out of his boot and shot him in the stomach. The documentary happily dispels that rumor. I was really enamored with the Deguello album and ZZ Top in general. As Keith Richards said about them when he inducted then into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, they had a solid blues-base. Their music always had a groove or a swing that under pinned the blues influence. They bordered on a blues funk thing in my mind. It was that bloozy thing that always draws me in.
I heard the lead single from Deguello, “I Thank You” and was hooked. It was bluesy and had some great guitar work from Billy Gibbons. I didn’t run right out and buy the album – at the time, I had a “three good songs” rule before buying an LP (there had to be three verified “good songs” on the disc, which makes me laugh all these years later) – because lawn mowing money was hard to come by. After hearing “Cheap Sunglasses” and “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” I was in. That album was a perfect introduction to them – muscular and bluesy but it captured their sense of humor. I really dug the deep album track, “Manic Mechanic” and the documentary explains that song’s sound was due to the influence of punk rock – another item to add to a previous post, How The Biggest Bands In the World Reacted Musically to Punk Rock in the 70s.
The first time I saw ZZ Top in concert – they were opening for the Rolling Stones in Houston, Texas (in the Astrodome no less). It was my first time seeing either of them. I remember after ZZ played, the guy standing next to me said, “They’re probably going to have to sweep a bunch of dirt off the stage from those guys’ cowboy boots.” I still wonder if he was serious… They certainly looked like a country band but they sure didn’t sound like that. It wasn’t until I got into college when a couple of my roomies, Stormin’ and Drew, turned me onto some of the back catalog. Tres Hombres is a masterpiece. The follow-up, the half live, half studio album Fandango was also a must-have. My friend Stormin’ has been searching for the burrito pictured on the inner sleeve of Tres Hombres since before I met him.
The documentary traces ZZ Top from when Dusty Hill (bass) and Frank Beard (drums) met in Dallas. We later see them both join the Houston-based Moving Sidewalks with lead guitarist/vocalist Billy F. Gibbons. Gibbons had toured as an opener for Jimi Hendrix who was an early fan. There are a number of celebrity interviews – Billy Bob Thornton, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and most enthusiastically Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age. Billy Bob says meeting ZZ Top – clearly after their video success in the ’80s, was like meeting Bugs Bunny in real life. There’s even a guy in Mumford and Sons whose a fan. Who’d have guessed?
The documentary, using animated scenes, replays the band meeting manager/producer Bill Ham who guided their career until he passed away in 2016. It’s pretty apparent they were still torn up about Ham’s passing. ZZ played a ton of live shows and toured incessantly and built a following. The documentary mentions them playing a Memphis Blues fest – where the organizer didn’t realize they were white – with many of their blues heroes like Muddy Waters. Another memorable story is when the Stones had them open for a series of shows in Honolulu. Mick would wear a disguise and watch them from the wings. After a giant tour where they brought along a bunch of, well, “livestock” for lack of a better word, the band decided to go on the aforementioned hiatus. It wasn’t a Dusty Hill bullet wound that drove it, it was drummer Frank Beard’s heroin habit. Frank went into rehab, Dusty got a manual job at the local airport (which is mind blowing) and Billy went to Europe and India searching for the truth. They reconvened and Deguello was the recharged result. It’s pretty amazing what a little time off will do… although three years was quite a bit.
From there, the doc jumps to the massive success of Eliminator. ZZ Top, who as Billy Bob Thornton pointed out, were a bit cartoonish in appearance – on the hiatus Hill and Gibbons had grown outrageously long beards. They hired Randy Newman’s cousin, found three pretty girls and a hot rod, added some synth to their sound and suddenly the Little ‘Ol Band from Texas was a sensation. Eliminator sold 15 million copies. That’s pretty much where the story ends in the documentary. That’s one of my gripes about watching this, ZZ Top recorded a lot of music after Eliminator and they kind of blow that part of the story off. If you haven’t heard their last LP, the Rick Ruben produced comeback La Futura, do yourself a favor and check it out. You hear the first song playing over the fade out credits, “I Gotsta Get Paid.” It’s their signature dirty blooze.
Another complaint I have – there are scenes of the band playing older tracks in a hall in Greune, Texas in current time. These live scenes of them playing “La Grange,” for example, are interspersed with a lot of vintage footage of the band. It’s cool to see these guys siting around casually playing but the hall they chose to play in is so cavernous the sound gets lost. I think if they’d chosen a better venue maybe the sound would have come across better on those live shots. They still kill it live, so it’s just a matter of band location.
One of the things that impressed me about seeing them hanging out in the hall in Greune is how close these guys are. I can only think of Rush as a band that was able to remain friends for decades while being in a band together. It’s no small feat. Frank Beard says towards the end, “I found the people I want to play with.” ZZ doesn’t seem to get as much respect as they probably should… it probably has to do with what made them so big – the ’80s video stuff, but they should absolutely be celebrated as one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
As you’re trying to while away the hours in your self-quarantine, if indeed you’re choosing to do so, this documentary isn’t a bad way to spend an hour and a half. Now what to do with the rest of the time? It’s a historically weird time out there folks. Take care of yourselves and take care of each other.