ZZ Top – Complete Albums 1970-1990) (review)

ZZ Top – The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990 (Rhino / Warner Bros)

The Big Cahuna from the “Little ‘Ol Band from Texas.”  Featuring the original mixes, many for the first time on CD.

The story of ZZ Top is one of the wildest in all of music: how an unassuming trio from Texas, steeped in blues and sounds from the Southern border, became one of the biggest bands of the 1980’s with their unique brand of electronic boogie.  The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990 chronicles their slow rise to fame, with a hefty dose of surprises along the way.  All ten albums from their peak years are here – many available in their original mixes for the first time on CD.

Original mix is the big selling point here.  Because the band was knee-deep in synths & electronic drums when CDs first came out in the mid Eighties, their record company attempted to “update” their sound by remixing their earlier albums, trying to give them a more “modern” feel by adding echo and digital effects.  For years, you couldn’t get the untampered LP versions.  Hearing them now, you wonder why they would mess with music that is so good.

Sure, you’ve heard the hits on classic rock radio.  But, if you like “Tush” and “La Grange,” there are tons of other fantastic songs throughout their catalog to dig into.  You may not recognize any tracks from their debut, ZZ Top’s First Album, but one listen, and you’ll be impressed.  The dirty blues of “Brown Sugar” will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, while the moody “Just Got Back from Baby’s” is yet another highlight.  The slow-burner “Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell” and the gritty “Down Brownie” stand out from the followup, Rio Grande Mud.

Their third record, Tres Hombres, finds ZZ Top at an early peak – the album is chock full of hits.  But, hearing staples like “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago” without the cheesy echo is a revelation.  Plus, the instrumental part of “Master of Sparks” was so good, MTV used it years later as bumper music for their news segments.

Fandango shows off what the band could do live, albeit for only the first three tracks, which is kind of a head-scratcher.  The frenetic “Thunderbird” proves that they were developing a reputation as one of the finest concert attractions.  The remaining studio cuts are great too.  “Blue Jean Blues” is ZZ Top’s finest slow number, while “Heard it on the X” pays homage to the Mexican radio that was so influential in developing the band’s signature sound.

“Asleep in the Desert” off Tejas sounds like some sort of alien form of Muzak, while Deguello is arguably the band’s strongest album – “Cheap Sunglasses,” “I’m Bad I’m Nationwide,” “She Loves My Automobile” all highlight a strong set of songs.  El Loco shows the band veering toward polish with wink-and-a-smile boogie numbers like “Tube Snake Boogie” and “Pearl Necklace.”

The band’s fortunes all changed when leader Billy Gibbons was flipping through a hotel TV one night, stumbling upon the fledgling MTV network.  Right then, he saw the band’s future.  An updated, juiced up version of their patented Texas rock.  Eliminator was a perfect hybrid of past and present: still plenty of grit, but surrounded by a danceable sheen that made it radio ready.  ZZ Top reinvented their image;  complete with classic cars and hot chicks, the band found themselves in heavy rotation on the video channel.  The thing is, these tracks still jump out of the speakers today – the menacing “Got Me Under Pressure,” the stripper-pole anthem “Legs,” and the pulsating “Sharp Dressed Man” still hold up.  The real trick is the keyboards sprinkled in, you barely notice them.

Where Eliminator was a perfect hybrid, Afterburner eschews the toughness and jumps headfirst into synths and digital percussion.  While, in the short term, it was immediately successful, yielding four Top 40 hits, the music now sounds dated.  The fact that such an earthy band could morph into the robotic disco of “Velcro Fly” and “Sleeping Bag” is unbelievable.  It certainly worked then, but these records are nowhere near as listenable as their early work.  Recycler is much of the same, if perhaps a little dirtier.  It’s not that the songs are bad – “Give it Up” is a furious rocker.  It’s that the computerized drum loops don’t sound cool at all.

Despite the last two albums not holding up well, there’s still a whole lot to enjoy here.  Especially over the first eight albums, a very high percentage of the tracks are downright fantastic.

One drawback is that there are no liner notes, no bonus tracks or anything like that – just the original albums in slip cases.  But, in a way, this clears the clutter, so you can fully enjoy the best material from one of the finest bands in the history of rock.  –Tony Peters