The 1980’s were in many ways a watershed time for popular music akin the the dawn of rock and roll in the 50’s. Many artists who had made their names in the preceeding decades found themselves struggling to keep up in an era where new technologies and new approaches to production were changing the way records sounded. A whole new musical aesthetic had arrived with synthesisers and huge reverbed drum sounds bleeding in to rock music. Coupled with this was the arrival of the MTV age which had the effect of placing greater emphasis on the visual aesthetic. Many acts – Bob Dylan and Neil Young to name but two – who had established themselves in the preceeding two decades suddenly found themselves floundering slightly, out of step as they were with with the fashions of a new (romantic) age.
In contrast one band not only found a way of keeping in step but actually found a level of commercial success greater than that already achieved since 1969 playing hard rocking boogie-blues. ZZ Top were that band and the 80’s would prove to be their time in the sun when their eighth album Eliminator became one of the biggest selling records of the decade. Released in 1983 it showed the band not entirely abandoning the core elements that had served them so well thus far. Billy Gibbons’ superlative guitar work was still present, as was the innuendo-laden lyrics and the tight rhythmic backing found on albums like Tres Hombres and Tejas.
However, despite the album credits bass-player Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard were replaced during the recording process by synthesisers and a drum machine programmed by engineer Linden Hudson, who allegedly co-wrote much of the music with Gibbons despite receiving no credit at the time (he later sued the band who settled out-of-court to the tune of $600,000). Gibbons would later say of Hudson that “he was a gifted songwriter and had production skills that were leading the pack at times. He brought some elements to the forefront that helped reshape what ZZ Top were doing”. Hudson did no less than show the band how to stay relevant in an age where three guys from Texas with long beards (except famously for Frank Beard) and blues licks were one of the last things the contemporary market was demanding.
If Linden Hudson had showed them how to stay abreast musically then it would be another collaborator – director Tim Newman – who would really help put their new sound in the spotlight. It’s hard to think of three more iconic and memorable videos from this time than those the band made for the singles “Gimme All Your Lovin'”, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs”. Let’s take a look at them in order:
Gimme All Your Lovin’
Centered around the daydream/fantasy of a young car mechanic this is the video that introduces us to the ZZ girls, the ZZ keychain and the real star of the show, the Eliminator car, a highly customised 1933 Ford Coupe owned by Gibbons. As far as the 80’s goes this was maybe the most coveted automobile of the whole decade (with KITT from Knight Rider and the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazard running it close). Say the words “ZZ Top car” to anyone of a certain age and they’ll instantly know what you mean. It’s a very sexy vehicle indeed.
Sharp Dressed Man
The car aside, the other big pull in these videos (especially for the men) were the ZZ girls who appear in all three videos as guardian angels seemingly sent by the band themselves. In this video they help a young, hapless male nightclub employee come out of his shell and win the heart of another girl who seems to have been stood up by her date. The girls, all Playboy models, ooze sex appeal. Yes, these videos are fantasies made by men for men, but compared to many of today’s pop videos the female sexuality on display is quite tame and the ZZ girls actualy come across as empowered and in charge. Besides, there were far worse crimes being committed in the 80’s (go look at almost any heavy metal video from the period, or even Girls On Film by Duran Duran).
In this final video we find the band and the ZZ girls coming to the aid of both a geeky female shoe shop assistant and the young guy working in the burger bar where both of them are harrassed by a rowdy group of customers. Having whisked away the girl for a makeover she reappears in the Eliminator car (of course) and proceeds to take her abusers down a peg or two before whisking the young guy away. The video not only won the band an MTV award, but also saw the debut of another ZZ Top trademark: the spinning guitars, these ones covered in thick sheepskin.
So there you have it, the car, the girls, the spinning guitars, the beards, the ‘ZZ’ logo – there’s nothing about these videos that isn’t utterly cool and stylish. Yes, they may seem a little dated now, and by today’s standards they are hardly high-budget or hi-tech, but for me that’s all part of the charm. The bottom line is that these videos are hugely entertaining and drip with charisma. They put a smile on your face and a wiggle in your feet and are to this day what most people think of when they hear the name ZZ Top. If you’re inclined I can highly recommend pretty much their entire back catalogue (avoid 1990’s Recycler, and the 80’s CD mixes of their 70’s albums and you should be on safe ground). If you’re not inclined though you could do a lot worse that revisit these videos and the album from which they were pulled. It’s the sound of a band making a potentially awkward transition sound not only quite easy but also very very cool.