ZZ Top kicked off their 50th-anniversary tour of the States in summer 2019, prompting me to revisit the feature I wrote about the “Li’l Ol’ Band from Texas” for the Dec. 27, 1975 edition of Cash Box, then one of the top three music industry trade magazines.
The trio had four albums out by then – “ZZ Top’s First Album” in 1971; “Rio Grande Mud” the following year; “Tres Hombres” in ’73; and “Fandango!,” the most recent, from May ’75. The latter two were Top 10 national hits and scored gold.
Hits and sold-out concerts notwithstanding, ZZ Top had zero credibility with rock critics. Consumer press generally ignored the trio. But the trade press minded the business and saw the dollars flying around, so there we were.
We met in a suite at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas for our interview on Saturday, Nov. 29, two days after Thanksgiving and at the tail end of the “Fandango!” tour’s second leg.
The guys were cordial if not friendly. I was the trade press, but they were still a bit wary. My hair was long and I was from the West Coast. And we were in Big D, your basic “Dee-Eff-Dubya Metra-plex,” not hippie-friendly Austin.
Bob Small with band’s PR firm was incredibly pushy and obnoxious, and I did my best to keep him at bay. He took the photo at top as I prepared to start the interview, then just sat down in a chair nearby instead of leaving. I did my best to ignore him and talk to the band members.
The band sent me home with a Texas-shaped ZZ Top branding iron, which I left with my pal Joe McGee on a stop in New Mexico on the way home to LA. (He has resisted my occasional attempts to retrieve it over the years.)
The resulting feature, written at Joe’s cabin in the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque, was my fourth or fifth ever, and my last for CB. (Two weeks before Christmas ’75, Mel Albert, CB general manager and son of owner George Albert, fired me because I politely refused Mel’s order to ask the artists I’d written about that year to buy ads in CB’s big, fat, cash cow year-end directory issue.)
In the story, I attempted to acknowledge ZZ Top’s success without resorting to the hype the Small one was hounding me to use. The piece comes off as pretentious, hilarious and painful at the same time.
All things considered, though, it caught Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard at the brink – just as they were becoming bad and nationwide.
ZZ Top: Exploring What’s Behind That Li’l Ol’ Texas Band
Hints that interesting things were happening with ZZ Top have come from time to time as attendance and gross statistics for the Top’s concerts were tabulated and released over the last two years.
Additional hints came with news of gold and later platinum status for ZZ Top’s first two London albums and gold status for the most recent two albums.
Hints further came that concert audiences were not swayed by press that lambasted the three-man rock and roll band from Texas for a redundant lack of creativity or originality.
More hints, specifically ZZ Top’s sold-out Forum concert in Los Angeles last summer, indicated to me that ZZ Top’s appeal was not limited to the south-central region of the U.S.
At a period when many bands, and many promoters, are now just beginning to feel a looser ticket-buying public on the way out of a nationwide economic slump that didn’t forget to adversely affect the concert business, the people nevertheless have turned out en masse for ZZ Top at nearly every place they played, their ticket sales belied a lack of youthful capital earmarked for concerts.
The situation definitely bore some investigation. Aboard the plane from Albuquerque (after spending Turkey Day ensconced in the mountainous hermitage of close friends) to Dallas, and as I re-read the thick press kit compiled by the band’s management and PR firm, a young flight attendant saw the “Fandango” sticker on the kit and made some telling comments.
“My younger brother (15) stood in line four hours to get tickets for ZZ Top’s Dallas concert (to which I was en route), and somebody later offered him $30 a piece for them,” she said. “There was no way he would part with those tickets.”
Very telling, her comments answered a few of the many questions regarding the nature of the phenomenon. Firstly, the woman’s younger brother represents the approximate median age of ZZ Top enthusiasts. Secondly, ZZ Top fans are dedicated enough to wait in lines for hours for tickets, and thirdly ZZ Top’s fans are tenaciously loyal; once they latch on, they don’t let go.
The question arises without the benefit of intensive radio airplay over the last few years (with the exception of ZZ Top’s most recent single, “Tush,” but the band has been breaking box office records for the last two years): How has the band succeeded so well?
The answer came that evening at the Dallas Memorial Auditorium – word of mouth has been a major factor in filling up the halls with young people who buy the records because until recently they didn’t get enough of ZZ Top on the radio.
The comments of several people in the Memorial Auditorium audience I spoke with over the course of the evening brought that to light.
ZZ Top is a band that plays gut-level rock and roll in its rawest state for what could be called the third generation of concert audiences.
The fans drawn in such numbers to 1974 and 1975 and (1976) ZZ Top concerts weren’t around when Elvis completed the split of rock ‘n’ roll from rockabilly. Nor were they old enough to be fully aware of the many-faceted impact of The Beatles 10 years later.
Today’s younger concert audiences, in a time when much rock ‘n’ roll has taken on (in large doses) a superfluous overlay of theatrics, have been searching for something a little more honest, and in doing so have developed what could be called a reverse sophistication.
The aforementioned reverse sophistication relates to the listener’s search beneath layers of extraneous and often muddled instrumentation in much of today’s rock ‘n’ roll for a band that more closely personifies the unpretentious wall-busting sensory input of teeth-gnashing rock ‘n’ roll.
And there are rock bands of today who know and admit that when all their flash is stripped away, the music remains the most important thing.
The music ZZ Top plays appeals to the senses rather than to the intellect, which historically, regardless of generation gaps since the ’50s, has been one of the reasons that rock ‘n’ roll has had such a long generally healthy life.
The band does not claim it is musically doing anything totally new; although he writes most of their material, lead guitarist Billy Gibbons is among the first to acknowledge his influences, which range from John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson to Jimi Hendrix. What is new is the context in which ZZ Top manifests their deeply rooted influences.
Additionally, by personal experience with Texas and Texas music ranging from western swing, country & western, progressive country-oriented music to blues, jazz, and rock and roll, it is overwhelmingly evident that Texas musicians of all persuasions are plugged into an effusive and indescribable energy that seeps from the earth of the Lone Star state through every note.
At this point, there is no place like Texas for sheer and unadulterated musical energy. The culture, and with that word, both scientific and social meanings are analogized, has been most conducive to freedom of musical direction by artists playing wide ranges of styles. And Texas audiences are known for their honest evaluations (from rotten tomatoes to hero-worship) of an artist and his/her music.
In a very real sense, what we see bubbling at Texas’ far-flung borders indicates a major force will break out very soon. ZZ Top stands as the first Texas-based rock ‘n’ roll band to break out on a large nationwide scale since Buddy Holly & The Crickets and The Bobby Fuller Four.
So what is new are the young audiences and the way that ZZ Top plays rock ‘n’ roll. One of the few previous rock bands to break out of Texas was the Sir Douglas Quintet back in the mid-’60s; not many people at that time knew the Quintet was out of San Antonio, but manager Huey Meaux wanted it that way because England was the hotbed of musical forces at that time.
The leader of that band, Doug Sahm, said more recently that a person has got to have a lot of soul to live in Texas. And again, the word “soul” relates to the soul of Texas, which has long been the deepest root of music emanating from Texas.
And at this point, ZZ Top has been the only band to break out of Texas with a blend of that basic Texas soul (call it almost a fiercely nationalistic pride, not meant negatively) with hard-driving ballsy rock ‘n’ roll.
The difference between the earliest days of the quintet (Doug has long since returned to Texas musically/conceptually) and ZZ Top today is that the Top is quite upfront about their Texas-rooted lifestyle and music.
Actually, their national success has done a great deal to focus overdue attention on Texas rock ‘n’ roll, rather than away from it. And many people looking for relief from their rock and roll horse latitudes are starting to tune into that which has been in their backyard for years.
An interesting happenstance in ZZ Top’s five-year history as a unit seems to be that their performances and their albums have taken on a gradual crescendo-like increase in their tempo, volume and popularity. It is quite possible to draw a relationship between the band’s evolution from heavy blues/rock to a greater emphasis on the rock and the just-as-rapid increase in popularity.
And proportionate to the increase in popularity has been the increase in audience response as evidenced by the unbounded enthusiasm that accrues in incidents like seat-burning in Houston and torch-lighting in Dallas.
The response brings to mind the riots that regularly preceded Grand Funk concerts a few years ago, but ZZ Top’s audiences don’t actually try to kill each other, whereas with Grand Funk one never really could tell.
To understand what happens at a ZZ Top concert, it helps to have a little background information on a western phenomenon known (and loved) as a “fandango.” Quite simply, a fandango is a no-holds-barred Texas-style celebration that traditionally was the climax of a Lone Star cattle drive.
After seeing nothing female aside from the four-legged bovine variety, the drovers would hit the town after the livestock was delivered for a celebration that, for the drovers, made the whole idea of herding cows hundreds of miles palatable.
For the townspeople, a fandango represented the days (and nights) on end when it wasn’t safe to walk the streets. As closely as could possibly be expected in modern America, a ZZ Top concert is as raucous and as festive an event. The people attend an arena or hall that for all intents and purposes becomes everyman’s no-man’s land.
The concept of a rock ‘n’ roll no-man’s land relates to a feeling of power a large audience can have while at a rock concert; in ZZ Top’s case, it becomes everyman’s no-man’s land precisely because everyone is there ready to raise hell, including the band. As opposed to reds-and-wine audiences that attend bad-vibe concerts by grating minor-chord bands like Black Sabbath, the reaction to ZZ Top is quite a bit more positive. At least nobody offers to sacrifice his/her friend at a ZZ Top gig.
In the cases of the series of Texas dates that ZZ Top played at the end of their last tour, “fandango” had a personal meaning; the Texas dates represented a homecoming for the band; which for the last several months has been concentrating on areas outside of Texas. Drummer Frank Beard and bassist Dusty Hall are both from Dallas. Gibbons is from Houston.
With all of the aforementioned points in mind, the reasons for ZZ Top’s success attain a greater semblance of clarity. When any band continuously breaks concert attendance and gross records set by heavyweights like Presley, Chicago and The Rolling Stones, grosses more than 10 million dollars this year alone in the process, and sells more than three million albums, the organization bears investigation.
While ZZ Top has never been what one could call a critic’s band (and for the purposes of this story my reportage is aimed at a subsurface investigation of the phenomenon rather than making related value judgments), the band, and most especially Bill Ham, the band’s manager and producer, are extremely aware of the reasons why ZZ Top is achieving success.
And Ham, who has been the force behind ZZ Top from the band’s beginning, has reinvested a large portion of his company’s earnings in the futures of other artists. In addition to ZZ Top, Ham is managing the careers of Point Blank and Jay Boy Adams.
The Top’s individual band members, even though they are making a hell of a lot of money, are evidently level-headed and do not spend it as fast as they make it. They have made some minor investments, including the purchase of oil wells in Texas, but do not live exclusively in the future.
Upcoming plans for the band include a European tour to begin in late February after their current post-tour rest and relaxation, and a new album will probably be recorded between the European tour and regional tour sweeps scheduled for late spring and summer.
Danny Eaton, Bill Ham’s right-hand man, also indicated a possibility of a short series of Canadian dates this winter; if not during the winter, ZZ will do Canada after Europe.
As long as people evidence a need or desire for raucous rock ‘n’ roll with Mezcal flavorings, ZZ Top will continue to do well.
Santa Clarita journalist and Grammy-nominated producer Stephen K. Peeples was raised by career newspaper journalists and music-lovers in Miami and Los Angeles. He was the original, award-winning producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990. He earned a Grammy nomination as co-producer of the “Monterey International Pop Festival” box set (Rhino/MIPF, 1992) with Lou Adler and Geoff Gans. Peeples’ first music industry gig was as an Associate Editor at Cash Box magazine in Hollywood in 1975. He went on to be a record company Media Relations-PR executive for Capitol Records (1977-1980), Elektra/Asylum Records (1980-1983) and Rhino Entertainment (1992-1998). He was Rhino’s first web editor (1996-1998), then elevated to content editor of Warner Music Group websites (1998-2001). In the Santa Clarita Valley just north of L.A., Peeples was the award-winning Online Editor for The Signal newspaper’s website from 2007-2011, and wrote-hosted-co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” local music show from 2010-2015 (archived online and still airing in reruns). He is Editor/Features Writer Emeritus for Wealth Wisdom Wellness magazine and VP/New Media Emeritus for Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. Since 2017, he has been a News Editor at SCVNews.com and is developing a biography of Texas Artlaw Boyd Elder. For more info and original stories, visit https://stephenkpeeples.com/. For exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, subscribe to his YouTube channel.
Article: ZZ Top: 1975 Flashback with That Li’l Ol’ Band from Texas
Category: News and Reviews
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Article Source: stephenkpeeples.com