Friday, October 09, 2009

Z Z Top

Chris Prior dubbed himself the Rock Professor and I never knew whether it was meant to indicate a vast and intricate knowledge of all things rockular, or whether it simply meant that his tastes were slightly old-fashioned and fuddy duddy, but he sure knew something about a lot of good rock, the kind of rock nowadays called classis rock. He introduced me to a lot of acts and Z Z Top and Van Morrison are the two most important ones from the perspective of my record collection.

Back in the day, in my late high school and early Varsity years in the late Seventies, SABC radio was divided into various services of which the English and Afrikaanse services were the major, broad based channels, then there were the various regional services in either or both of the two official languages, a number of ethnic language stations, and Radio 5 which was meant to be the national rock radio station.

I listened to some English service programmes, a little bit of Radio Good Hope, very little of Radio 5 – in fact, by about 1978 I stopped listening to it altogether because it had a disco format I grew to hate – and from 1978 on a great deal of Radio Xhosa. My favourite programme on the English service was the late afternoon magazine programme Audiomix, aimed at teens I guess, and with an entertaining mixture of news, topical subjects, education and entertainment and sports. The style was jocular and semi-hip and it was not a bad hour to spend in front of the radio, but the highlight for a period was a brief 10 or 15 minute slot occupied by Chris Prior, then still relatively young, in which he sought to give us a rough guide to some or other band or individual musician he thought we should know more about.

The funny thing is that he did this in the days of punk and New Wave, yet I do not recollect him ever introducing any of the newer British or American bands but focussing essentially on the Sixties and early to mid Seventies. In fact, apart from ZZ Top and Van Morrison, I have no idea of who else his programme would have covered. I vaguely remember the James Gang, but it could be a false memory.

Anyhow, in his brief slot Prior gave a potted biography of his subject and played selected tunes to illustrate the topic.

I had heard of Z Z Top but only in passing and knew nothing of what they sounded like until Prior played Brown Sugar (not the Rolling Stones tune) with its ominous, slow stop time beat, growling vocals and space age freaky blues guitar. I had not heard anything like this before and I was immediately hooked. Who knows what else he played? Probably La Grange, maybe Tush, possibly I just Got Paid and Arrested for Driving While Blind. What the tunes were, is not important. The important part is that I was hooked.

Not long after I was in Sygma Records and saw a copy of Tejas there. This was the fourth Z Z Top album and was released in 1977, at about the time the Top went on their Bringing Texas to the People tour, with live rattlesnakes and wild steers on stage. I'd read about this extravaganza in Hit Parader magazine and knew that Z Z Top was breaking all kinds of attendance records in all parts of the United States with a potent brand of blues based boogie.

I reckon I must have bought the album pretty much within a year or so of its release, which makes it a novelty in my record collection in the sense that I hardly bought new albums and preferred discount bins at record shops, but Chris Prior had inspired and motivated me.

There was a smidgen of disappointment when I realised that neither Brown Sugar or La Grange were on this record, and there was in fact nothing as down home blues as Brown Sugar on it.

The music was a tad strange. Arrested for Driving While Blind was a great stomping rocker, as was Ten Dollar Man, but opening rack It's Only Love, and Pan Am Highway and She's A Heartbreaker sounded more like country to me and Asleep in the Desert was a weird instrumental that did not jibe with the boisterous, rocking image of the boys from Texas. Then there was Enjoy And Get It On with its John Lee Hooker style boogie, and the hard charging Avalon Hideaway, apparently based on a true story, and the silly tale of El Diablo that seemed like too much of a contrivance without merit. No matter, this was a great album and I loved it to death. It might be due to love at first sight, but this is still my all time favourite Z Z Top album.

About this time the Top had gone on a lengthy hiatus from show business and released nothing new for about 4 years until 1979's Deguello, which I bought at a record sale about a year after its release. In the meantime the Top sound had changed considerably and they no longer sounded like the slightly odd blues and country band of yore. Instead there was a harder, more tooled sound and songs that sounded mostly like jokes, as if the struggle years were over and the band could afford to let go of blues credibility and just kick back and mess around. The music was powerful but the lyrics were funny and funny.

The album opened with the stomping soul of I Thank You and the second side started with heavy version of Dust My Broom, and then there were the peculiar blues of Cheap Sunglasses, I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide, and A Fool For Your Stockings and She Loves My Automobile. Of course there are plenty other delights but in a way it was so forward looking and non-traditional boogie blues that I did not appreciate Deguello as deeply as I did Tejas.

In due course I acquired Fandango! and Tres Hombres, probably in that order too though the latter was the third album and Fandango! fourth. Fandango! has a studio side and a live side. I guess the intention was to show us how the band worked a room or maybe they just did not have enough songs to fill two sides of a record. I had mixed feelings about the live songs – Thunderbird was great, Jailhouse Rock redundant and the Backdoor medley somewhat rinky dink, with a bit of comedy in there and a version of Boogie Chillen they called Long Distance Boogie just to have the copyright. Frankly, these tracks did make the Top sound like just another bar band and not in a good way.

The studio tracks on Fandango! are the nuggets on the album. They rock, there is plenty slide guitar, the tales are funky and tall, and the album ends with the truly magnificent Tush, one of the most excitable odes to nookie I have ever heard. The second side of the album is a well nigh perfect example of how rockin' blues boogie should be played. For a touring band, they sure sounded a lot better in studio surroundings than on a stage.

Where Fandango! was the rocking version of Z Z Top, and Tejas quite a bit country, it seemed to me that Tres Hombres showcased the gospel influences of the band. Not that hard rocking blues were absent. Waiting for the Bus / Jesus Just Left Chicago, the opening one-two combination proved that the boys sure knew how to play a powerful shuffle but the gospel thing started creeping in there. Chris Prior was particularly fond of these two songs. Then there is La Grange, one of the great blues riffs of all time and a song that became a staple in the repertoire of a number of neo-blues bands in the great blues revival in Cape Town in the late Eighties and early Nineties; it mixed up Slim Harpo and John Lee Hooker and rocked like a demon.

Hot, Blue and Righteous and Have You Heard? were the two main gospelized tunes, and Master of Sparks, allegedly based on a true story, was a weird little ditty with a cosmic and theological subtext. Of course blues and gospel were intertwined in the American South and it is just right that 3 good ole boys should mix up that kind of medicine as well.

For a long while I rested with my 4 Z Z Top records, until I started buying CDS and then eventually bought Fandango! and Tres Hombres again, and had the good fortune to find the Z Z Top Sixpack of six albums, at a flea market stall. The sixpack consisted consisted of the first 5 Top albums, skipped Deguello for some unfathomable reason and the sixth album was EL Loco, the second of the so-called Hispanic series. El Loco sounded a lot more like Deguello than it sounded like the earlier albums with a decidedly heavier strain of music and very little pure blues. I knew Tube Snake Boogie from the radio, but the rest of the tunes were unfamiliar and though none are bad, it is not an album that I could bond with. Call me a Luddite but I preferred the more straight ahead bluesier version of the band.

Z Z Top's First Album and Rio Grande Mud were the real deal, and for the first time since Chris Prior introduction on Audiomix, probably almost twenty years before, I heard Brown Sugar in all its glory. The other tracks were good too. I realised that the Top was not as purist a blues band as I had thought, and was nothing like the early Fleetwood Mac or even John Mayall, and was closer to the blues based boogie bands like Foghat, but Billy Gibbons still played a mean blues guitar that was the mitigating subtle factor midst the good time boogie.

The Eighties were very good for Z Z Top, with the addition of electronics, up to date production, really long beards, MTV videos on heavy rotation and the added bonus of at least one Back To The Future soundtrack hit tie-in, they were commercially even more successful than in the Seventies -- their cartoonish image did them no harm at all. I suspect the beards are copyrighted. The songs were all over local radio and were not bad, but I never warmed to this new sound and the concept that the Top were no longer real beer drinkers and hell raisers and were simply putting on a big act for the kids who were now their audience. I see no need to own anything released after 1977 except that I should confess that I recently bought the Live From Texas CD but only because I found it on sale at a Musica shop in the Langeberg Mall outside Mossel Bay.

This live set features some of the good stuff from the Seventies, several tracks off Deguello and the big Eighties hits. The boys sound like they're having fun on stage and they rock hard but somehow this is not very satisfying. The first side of Fandango! has more energy and sounds a lot better too, even if more primitive or maybe because it sounds more skeletal. The modern day version of Z Z Top features the same three guys who started the band forty years ago and Frank Beard, the drummer, still has no beard, yet the music has changed perceptibly over time. Once the Top was a blues band with a lot of boogie in its stew and now they are close to being a hard rock band playing some blues styled tunes and cracking some risqué jokes in-between while they glorify all things Texan. If this formula undoubtedly spells good fun on the night, it pales somewhat when one puts the platter on the stereo. Play it loud and some of the effect returns but it cannot quite convince me that Z Z Top are any better today than they were 35 years ago.

Once they billed themselves as a little old band from Texas. Nowadays it is more like just an old band from Texas whose members still have some moves and have to rely on craft and experience to excite where it used to be youth and energy.

Perhaps Enjoy And Get It On should be the motto, perhaps Arrested for Driving While Blind and Tush is still the best energy rush experience of the joys of looking to pull. That is what Z Z Top is about: feeling good and getting high and rocking out and having a damn fine time doing it!

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