By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Don’t believe me? Esteemed and revered ’70s rock critic Lester Bangs had it right when he wrote, “You can talk all you want about the Clash, the Sex Pistols and blah blah blah, but one thing’s certain: Not a one of ’em can hold a candle to ZZ Top.” I’m paraphrasing pretty loosely here, but that was the gist of it. At the time, those were real fightin’ words. Basically, he was dismissing the entire punk revolution circa ’77 to ’78 to praise ZZ Top.
ZZ Top? That little ol’ band from Texas? Boogie? Beer drinkin’/hell raisin’? Buncha 10-gallon-wearing cowboys growling about hot rods, whores and BBQ?
Now, weren’t they just a little bit out of step with the way things were moving, music-fashion-wise? Wasn’t it sort of reactionary to be all jazzed about that kind of thing? Or just plain ignorant?
I think not. Time and the vagaries of fashion and sundry Tinseltown rebellions have clearly demonstrated that Billy F Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, with their deep-fried trashy trucker blues, are not only the most consistently, stompingly great rock combo in the USA, they’ve been the only real rock band in the entire damn country since 1969.
Merlis and I check through two high-
security zones to get to the overly air-conditioned, world-famous set of The Tonight Show. I’m a little nervous, but Merlis strolls onto the scene and gets busy shaking hands — he seems to know everybody.
The band is due for a sound check so we plop down in the front row to wait and I gawk around the set. It looks just like it does on TV, but kind of smaller, but then kind of bigger, too. Hard to explain. There must be at least 20 monitors scattered about the room, several tech or coordinator types who smile a lot and wear sneakers. Everybody looks pretty darn upbeat and happy. I mean, now you know, NBC is a happy place. They must have a good benefits package or something.
But here come the boys, ready to do their thing. I see the beards. I see the shades. I notice they’re all a bit smaller in real life. No biggie. Billy’s playing the red Gretsch that Bo Diddley gave him and told him to trash. They run through their signature tune, “La Grange,” a couple of times, and Billy and Dusty rehearse some nifty shticky little choreography. Frank the drummer is a bit taciturn and businesslike, especially later in the dressing room, where he utters not a peep, preferring to let Billy do all the talking. Anyway, the song sounds great, considering they must’ve played it about a million times by now. They look like they’re having fun — well, Dusty does anyway; he’s all grins (might be ’cause he recently got married). I find myself whomping my head up and down and slapping my thighs — most unprofessional, but they seem to appreciate it.
Shortly after, in their dressing room, I tell the band that today I’m not a reporter — I’m a fan. And I’m serious. “Mescalerois,” I say, “a triumphant return to form.” I ask them things like how do they like it on the road after all these years, etc. I note that the album was recorded in their own new private studio in Houston, and Billy, all low-key and pleasant, talks about how they had the luxury of time and a zillion electronic devices and a young eager-beaver engineer to concentrate on really delivering the goods, not a bunch of flab. The band is quite taken with the vivid clarity and sheer volume of current hip-hop productions, says Billy, and that’s one reason why their new record sounds so huge and lowdown and mean.
Suddenly, Jay Leno pops in to say hi. There are handshakes all around; I stick out my hand but Leno doesn’t seem to see it . . .
Then Billy — head honcho, chief songwriter and arguably the best electric guitar player in contemporary American music — launches into a very detailed and totally improbable explanation of how they get their sound. Up to this point Billy has been thoughtful and articulate — not much of a beer drinker or hell-raiser, I’m thinking. And I’d been wondering how they create that ever-wickeder wall of wide-flanging fuzz and deep, deep mud. Well, Billy explains, you take the output off the back of a newfangled transistor tube amp, and you split the signal and you run two lines into another speaker and the delay somewhere between the two signals hitting that big speaker and that speaker woofling back wildly sets up a resonating buzz that’s pushing the air back and forth and vibrating, and the density of the air between the two is . . . Round about this time I think I see a little twinkle in Billy’s eye. I look at Frank and Dusty and they’re checking me out real close to see the gullible expression on my face.
“John,” Merlis says, “time’s up.”