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When Did ZZ Top Become More About Kitsch Than Music?

ZZ Top in 2008: Still bearded.
ZZ Top in 2008: Still bearded.
Craig O'Neal

ZZ Top formed in 1969, a rough and tumble blues band forming amongst the gritty backdrop of Houston's oil greed and NASA's continuing space race. But it was the summer of 1974 in the community of Friendswood--a small town then, a thriving Houston suburb now--that my curiosity with ZZ Top began, when a burley biker walked in to a darkened juke joint and announced, loudly, "I must listen to my favorite song."

Bandages covered has right arm, with long scabs sticking out near his wrist. His cane steadied a limp. He offered a half-cocked smile. "Me and my motorcycle got into a fight with the road," he explained to no one and everyone. "And now that I'm out of jail there's only one thing I need, and that's ZZ Top!"

Playing pool on a hot afternoon, thanks to a cool bar owner, this wide-eyed 12-year-old stepped back and noticed the bandages showing through the holes in his jeans, his scuffed motorcycle boots, his long stringy hair. Badass dude, but who was this ZZ Top?

Motorcycle guy walked to the jukebox, dropped in a quarter--good for three plays back then--and punched in the same numbers each time. A rumbling blues boogie slowly built into a powerful roar that gave structure to my imagination of what the open Texas road must feel like on a motorcycle.

The biker's favorite song--"La Grange," ZZ Top's first "hit"--remains my favorite too.

Later I learned that the "La Grange" riff was "borrowed" from John Lee Hooker. Still, it became a staple of ZZ Top's sound, which undoubtedly makes them king of the boogie blues. King, if only because what other blues-based outfit could have such mass appeal? But should ZZ Top still be considered a blues band anymore?

 

Since I first heard them that raw edge has given way to a more radio-friendly sound that shuns blues grist for rock fluff. It's a little disappointing, to say the least.

There are two ways to look it, though: On one hand, it's a shame that the band left their roots behind in the service of chasing commercial fame. On the other, their popularity can only help showcase their lowdown roots, the likes of Lightning Hopkins, Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, and other West Texas bluesmen--and of course, John Lee Hooker himself, even if he was from Detroit.

Ever since Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill donned long beards and amassed a legion of fans via sexy MTV-style videos full of cars and long-legged girls for songs packed with double innuendos, ZZ Top has become as much about kitsch (I mean image) as it is music. Working hard right down to their fuzz-covered guitars, custom cowboy boots, and tailor-made clothes, everybody's crazy about a sharp dress band--but does that make the music better, or is it all secondary?

The answer is simple: Even if musical integrity suffers, give the people what they want. But for me, "La Grange" alone will suffice.

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