Why ZZ Top’s Biggest Album Barely Contains ZZ Top

There is a certain maxim that comes up often in the music industry: “It will be good for your career”. This phrase is only uttered once an artist is about to undertake a wacky, ridiculous, or completely antithetical enterprise to everything they’ve established themselves (or sometimes all three at the same time).

Sometimes it works, like when Fleetwood Mac’s shift from blues to pop became a hugely successful career development. Tony Bennett’s attempt to move from classic crooner to then-modern pop singer on Tony sings today’s big hits? Less then. But artful style flight and trend jump is a proud tradition in music, and few bands did it quite as well as ZZ Top in the 1980s.

For over a decade, ZZ Top was America’s premier propagator of Texas boogie blues. Most famous for their song “La Grange” and the extreme excess of their “Worldwide Texas Tour”, which introduced the sights and sounds of Texas (including live animals) across the United States, the trio by Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard and Dusty Hill were good ol ‘blues-based southern rock. Statistically and culturally, they were among the least likely to ride the New Wave train when it hit pop culture in the early ’80s.

But Gibbons saw the tide change and he was sure ZZ Top wasn’t going to be left behind. nineteen eighty one El Loco featured occasional synthesizer flourishes to increase the group’s blues boogie, but when MTV launched less than two weeks after the album’s release, Gibbons knew that a complete overhaul of the band’s sound was needed to compete.

There remains some controversy regarding how much Beard and Hill appear on Eliminator, the group’s 1983 hit album that went platinum several times, brought the group worldwide success and established ZZ Top as a forerunner of the MTV era. Some claim that Hill and Beard helped program the machines that obviously replaced their own game on the album. Some say the album is a mix of live and electronic playing, with the rhythm section simply reduced in the final mix.

And then there are those who say that Hill and Beard rarely showed up at the album sessions. Hill’s involvement would have started and ended with her lead vocals on “I Got the Six”. The beard has been reduced to tam-tam fills and occasionally a wandering cymbal crash. The album’s official credits make no mention of synthesizers, although they are unmistakably the backbone of the arrangements.

Years later, a clearer picture began to emerge: Engineer Terry Manning was Gibbons’ main criminal partner, playing synths and working on arrangements. “Pre-Production Engineer” Linden Hudson was responsible for the hottest synthesizers and co-wrote a number of songs with Gibbons. It wasn’t until after a lawsuit that Hudson’s work was recognized, though he only officially got credit on “Thug” (and is completely absent from current Spotify credits).

The only recognizable elements of the old ZZ Top style came from the Gibbons guitar. Even his voice has changed, his old baritone-bass frequently hitting high tenor notes in “Gimme All Your Lovin” and “Legs.” The band’s radical sound makeover was over, but something strange happened: Despite the obvious changes, the results still sounded distinctly like ZZ Top. Eliminator was an obvious pop record that didn’t explicitly alienate the band’s established audience. It remains perhaps the most successful sold-out moment in popular music history, simply because no one seems to have noticed (or cared) that ZZ Top barely appears on the album. .

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