ZZ Top: Use Your Illusion - Guitar World

ZZ Top: Use Your Illusion

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Blues bad-asses? Pop visionaries? Media magicians? Will the real ZZ Top please stand up!

Billy Gibbons pulls A black baseball cap down on my head. He selects a pair of shades from a bag filled with designer eyewear and fits them on my face, stepping back to survey the effect. “Yes, those I think,” he pronounces, meditatively stroking his trademark chin warmer. Next comes a long overcoat to match Mr. Gibbons’ own leather floor duster. Like a paleface at some tribal initiation ceremony, I feel privileged, and maybe a little scared. Here I am, being transformed into an honorary member of ZZ Top—beardless, but otherwise fully rigged.

Billy wheels me around to face the camera and begins issuing terse commands. “Left foot forward! Right hand pointing, like this, see? No, no! The pinkie’s extended. That’s it, yeah. Okay, full cheese. Ready…now!”

The electronic flash whirs and fires, immortalizing my very brief tenure with Texas’ leanest, meanest and all-around strangest post-modern blues band. The whole impromptu souvenir snapfest has been a mere diversion from the true business at hand: a high-powered photo shoot with not one but two heart-stoppingly gorgeous models and a squadron of equally beautiful guitars. It’s all part of the promotional whirl surrounding Antenna, ZZ Top’s long-awaited new album, the band’s first for their new record label, RCA.

Messrs. Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard have commandeered a suite at the Houston Omni, where they’ve spent a week entertaining journalists and photographers in the grand style that the world has come to expect of ZZ Top. After spending many hours in the man’s company, I can offer the following indispensable list of Essential Facts About Billy Gibbons.

1) BILLY LOVES PHOTO SHOOTS

Most musicians hate ’em. Not Billy. Operating on just a few hours’ sleep, he’s everywhere at once, carefully fine-tuning every pose and camera setup, selecting just the right guitar for each shot, applying liberal doses of talcum powder to everyone’s garments in accordance with some concept that only Billy seems to comprehend. He has never lost the sharp eye for visual detail he acquired as an art student at the University of Texas during the Sixties. Don’t let the hillbilly bear fool you: Billy Gibbons is sophisticated and obsessive. He’s a chronic insomniac, a true eccentric and an absolute control freak. You can’t help but realize this once you’ve watched the guy yelling for gaffer’s tape so that he can stick his shirt collar to the side of his neck at just the right angle.

Gibbons brings the same kind of obsessive energy to his guitar playing. You think those searing pick harmonics and fat slabs of supremely buffed rhythm tone just happen? The key to Gibbons’ ax artistry is that he makes it all sound so effortless—as smooth and easy as a long-neck Bud after a fiery bowl of five-alarm Texas Chili. Billy explains that ZZ Top were consciously in search of a strippeddown, unstudied sound for Antenna:

Antenna was perhaps ZZ Top’s first conscious decision to create a concept prior to the commencement of recording. We told ourselves, ‘Let’s establish a stopping place and not go beyond the sound of a three-piece band playing the blues on the kind of instruments you see here: old, new and in-between guitars. And above all, never introduce a fourth chord into the songs.’ ”

The finished product is admirably faithful to the initial concept. Oh, there’s the occasional conga or Hammond B-3 part. A few discreet synthesizers can even be heard lurking way off in the background— “seasoning,” as ZZ Top’s bassist Dusty Hill calls them. But for the most part, Antenna abounds in bluesy 12-bar guitar workouts and stomping home-style grooves, all rendered with ZZ Top’s characteristic polish and panache. Even in his principal guitar selection for the record, Billy went for a stripped-down concept: He mainly played single-pickup Fender Esquires, while Dusty Hill shadowed him on a series of single-pickup Fender PBass- style instruments. Propped up on stands, scattered around the room, the matching instruments are also coated in talcum powder. These black lacquered beauties are identical in form features, although personalized by sinuous inlay work and sculpted metal body insets like cyber-pagan jewelry.

“The notion of a single-pickup guitar,” Mr. Gibbons philosophizes, “is not too far from that of Einstein’s closet, which contained many suits, but all of them were identical. It eliminated the morning decision of what to wear.”

On each Esquire, Billy mounted either a stacked Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates pickup or an EMG voiced to produce that Pearly Gates tone. Pearly Gates, of course, is Billy’s name for his beloved old ’59 Sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard—an instrument the guitarist calls “one of the cornerstones of ZZ Top’s humble beginnings.”

That’s cool, Billy, but why were you trying to emulate a Gibson sound on a Fender? It must’ve been quite a task making a boltneck guitar do the sonic job of a set-neck instrument.

“Correct,” the guitarist pronounces. “However, the notion is still that it’s either on or off.”

Uh, okay. Sure. In conversation, there are times when Billy Gibbons sounds remarkably like Robert Fripp. When he doesn’t want to answer a question, he’ll offer up some mysterious non sequitur or Zen koan. If you try to press your query, he’ll just become more mysterious. When he does this, the underlying message is clear: “Back off, hombre.” That’s one of the first things you learn about Billy Gibbons and it’s indispensable in dealing with him. Which brings us to our second Essential Fact About Billy Gibbons:

2) HE’S ALWAYS LATE

Preparations for the day’s photo shoot had begun bright and early inside the band’s hotel suite. Lighting gear and backdrops were positioned with exacting care, the models made up, coiffed and corseted to alluring perfection. Then everybody settled in for three hours of an activity well known to everyone within the ZZ Top camp: Waiting for Billy. “For a while, if something was scheduled for two o’clock, we’d tell Billy it was scheduled for twelve o’clock,” says a ZZ Top staffer. “But Billy’d be late anyway. He figured that one out real quick.”

Dusty Hill is the first band member to arrive. He chuckles knowingly on learning that, even though he’s over an hour late, he has still beat out Frank and Billy. A squat, amiable biker, Hill is the only member of ZZ Top who really lives up to the band’s “good ol’ boy” image. He’s like one of those ruddy, laughing cavaliers painted by Dutch master Frank Hals, only this cavalier prefers chains and black denim. Dusty seems perfectly content to hang a while and pass the time of day. He shows one of the models his abdominal scars, the result of accidentally shooting himself a few years back. He chats about his kids, relating with dismay how his 16-year-old daughter went through a New Kids on the Block phase and he had to bring her along to a local gig to meet her idols. “So you’re the New Kids on the Block?” Dusty demanded of the wholesome teen act. “Well, howdy, I’m the Old Fart Down the Street.”

ZZ Top’s bassist declares himself happier than a heifer in heat over the band’s new album and record label. “RCA had Elvis Presley too,” he reminds me. “And anything to do with Elvis, I like.”

Drummer Frank Beard is next to arrive. Like Hill, he’s wearing cowboy boots with silver toe ornaments that would probably be a tad overwhelming even on the hood of a large automobile. “I didn’t realize that…mmmm… beauty was on the schedule today,” he muses, spying Tina and Susie, the two ZZ Topettes engaged for the day’s photographic needs. Apparently, Mr. Beard has much to do with the band’s verbal humor—the puns and risqué double entendres that run through their song lyrics. Antenna is particularly rich in that department. “Cover Your Rig” is a paean to safe sex, cast as a lecture on the importance of motor vehicle insurance. “Fuzzbox Voodoo” equates the joys of fine guitar equipment with…aw, shucks, figure it out for yourself.

“We all write the lyrics together,” says Hill, “but Frank really shines on ’em pretty good.”

“Um, so we’re waiting for Billy then?” Beard deadpans, sensing the mounting levels of restlessness and exasperation in the room.

Much later, Billy Gibbons whisks into the suite. The first surprise is how incredibly thin he is. He speaks with a sort of nasal precision that contrasts sharply with the slow, deep Texan drawl that issues forth from most of the other men in the room. His arrival triggers a flurry of activity. When Billy’s around, there always seems to be 100 things going on at once. He’s perpetually in the midst of one or more phone calls. He’s forever fishing into pieces of luggage scattered around the room, pulling out props and visual aids more-or-less relevant to the business at hand.. He reaches into one case and hands me…oh, sweet Jesus, Bo Diddley’s guitar!

3) JUST LIKE ELVIS, BILLY IS FOND OF GIFTS

It was given to Billy by Bo himself and is thought to be one of only four such guitars in existence. “Check it out,” Billy encourages, proffering the red, rectangular-body Gretsch made famous by the mighty father of the backbeat. It’s like that scene in the video for “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” where Billy and the boys toss the keys of the Eliminator hot rod to the dazzled gas station attendant. My hand trembles with reverence as it passes over the strings, tuned to open D. Billy winks and produces…gulp…still another one of Bo Diddley’s personal red Gretsches: the curvaceous ax mainly played onstage by Bo’s consort, the Duchess. It too was a gift to Billy from Bo and is one of only four such instruments made. “Fortunately, these guitars were sent to Ohio for repair, prior to the burning of the Gretsch factory in Cincinnati,” explains Billy, who is just as obsessive about guitar history as he is about everything else. “So they live on.”

Billy is equally fond of giving gifts as he is of receiving them. In our time together, he bestows on me a baseball cap from the storied blues joint called the Henry Swing Club, and a rare photo of Elmore James. (Elmore was a key spiritual and musical influence on Antenna; Gibbons used the bluesman’s open E tuning [E B E Gs B E] on the song “Everything.”) It’s all highly flattering and fascinating, but one senses that all the gifts, guitars, phone calls and souvenir snapshots are part of a carefully orchestrated diversion. The main point of the whole thing seems to be to deflect attention from the thin, fidgety man who plays guitar for ZZ Top—to keep you from getting too close, asking too many questions. He’s like a stage musician. Start acting like you’re getting a bead on the real Billy Gibbons and…whoosh, hoo-boy, here’s another shiny gewgaw flashing in your eyes.

This is more than a ploy for keeping journalists at bay. It is also the key to the entire image that ZZ Top have masterfully created for themselves in the years since 1983’s Eliminator album. In a ZZ Top video, the gnarly cars, bodacious babes and other amusements serve to draw attention away from the three musicians. When the boys do appear, they’re oddly incognito: hidden behind dingy comic Santa Claus beards, dark glasses and hats, like bad guys on the lam in some Fifties B-movie. It’s an inspired send-up of the whole MTV pop process, which generally puts the artist’s kisser front and center, a manufactured personality carefully “positioned” to seem as unique and distinctive as possible. This—rather than recorded music—is what the music business took to selling in the MTV era: Madonna. Michael. Prince. The genius of ZZ Top is that they found a way to participate in this wicked commercial game while simultaneously denying it. They deliberately leave the “hero space” blank in their videos and album art.

According to them, of course, the effect wasn’t nearly so contrived. “We didn’t do any of that stuff to create an image,” insists Dusty Hill, who recounts the familiar story of how he and Billy grew their beards unbeknownst to one another during the band’s 1976–1979 hiatus. “We brought what we liked from the real world into our videos. We already had the Eliminator car; we didn’t build it for the video. And using the girls, that was a real easy decision to make. I didn’t hear a ‘no’ vote anywhere on that one.”

Maybe so. But Billy Gibbons’ persistently keen visual sense has a lot to do with why that combination of images works so well. Rock stars have been posing with hot cars and pretty girls from Day One. Usually it’s extremely tacky, but with ZZ Top, somehow it isn’t. Cheap, yes. Tacky, no. They bring a kind of existential irony to the thing—a unique brand of negative cool.

Put it down to Billy’s art training or to the psychedelic times in which he came up, but he was hip to the idea of rock staging and visual presentation very early on. His first recording band, the Moving Sidewalks, performed with an elaborate contraption that produced a phosphorescent rain shower at a strategic point in the set.

“That was actually a notion from Jimi Hendrix,” Billy explains, “as we accepted the opening slot, followed by the Soft Machine, on Hendrix’s 1968 tour. He recommended that we continue this entertaining sort of appearance.”

Jimi’s advice was certainly taken to heart. It wasn’t long after ZZ Top’s formation in 1969 that Billy’s art experiments began focusing on guitars themselves. “I’d say that started way back in the early Seventies,” Dusty Hill recalls. “I remember me and Billy drove up to Dallas, where they had a lot of pawn shops back then, and he spied this old Telecaster bass. I think we only paid 90 bucks for it—a real steal. And when we drove back, we picked up these two girls hitchhiking, and that’s how we wrote the song ‘Precious and Grace’…but that’s another story.

“Anyway, that bass was the first guitar we ever modified. When I played it, I noticed that I either had the volume knob wide open or else completely off between songs. So we took that knob off and got one of those little window cranks— like for the vent window on an older car—and put that on. If you slapped the crank, the volume went all the way on or all the way off. So I’d have to say that window crank was the start of it all.”

Everyone knows what followed—a whole sick series of fur-trimmed, mummy-wrapped bizarrely accoutered monstrosities. ZZ Top’s stage sets got increasingly demented, too. By the time the Tejas tour rolled around in 1976, they were sharing their stage with cattle, buzzards and other critters native to the Lone Star State. What was most brilliant about the whole shtick was that southern boogie bands weren’t supposed to have a visual sense. Guys who sing about “lookin’ for some tush” usually aren’t conscious of color schemes. Humble bluesmen aren’t supposed to have a marketing strategy. Yet here they were, an absolutely ass-kickin’ Texas boogie band with a flair for poking ironic fun at itself and its surroundings. As the Seventies turned into the Eighties, this flair was to prove ZZ Top’s saving grace.

But now we’re treading on dangerous ground. Time for another indispensable fact about Billy Gibbons.

4) NEVER BRING UP THE OUTLAWS IN HIS PRESENCE

Billy’s thumb lands squarely on the “stop” button on my tape recorder. “Don’t even mention those names,” he cautions, brining his shaggy visage up close to mine. I’ve just made the mistake of alluding to the southern rock boom of the Seventies, observing that one-time FM radio kings like the Marshall Tucker Band and the Outlaws have fallen by the commercial wayside, whereas ZZ Top have endured.

“I think it’s just because we still love the music,” Billy offers, “both individually and collectively. We still enjoy trying to guess what the other guy’s going to do next. Our taste is broad, having been brought up in Texas where there’s not much else to do except play—provided you have a porch. We enjoyed country, gospel, Jesus, hillbilly and especially blues. We chose blues as one of the cornerstones of our sound, and that’s where we tend to stay.”

But back at the dawn of the Eighties, ZZ Top did a radical—some would say a sacrilegious—thing: they started combining blues with electronic dance music—throbbing disco-synth sequences and pounding drum machine pulses. People who view this as a sell-out, a cynical commercial cash-in, are overlooking one very important fact:

5) BILLY GIBBONS REALLY LIKES THAT DISCO STUFF

During the day’s photo shoot Billy must have put Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants” on the stereo at least a hundred times. Oblivious to all groans of protest, foiling all attempts to hide the cassette from him, the man just had to hear that deeply electro-reggae-fied dance track over and over again. Each time that drum machine groove started up, he’d leer approvingly beneath his scraggly beard.

“Dance music offered something that many rock fans chose not to recognize,” he says of ZZ Top’s early Eighties sonic shift. “And that’s extreme heaviness. We attempt to remain heavy, not only in the studio but live as well. But we’ve also noticed that dance music is very heavy, particularly with regard to the bottom end. The lyrics? Eh, well, we’ll decide on that later. As for the intended effect—dancing—if you’re good on two feet, so much the better. But our main interest is pointed toward the heaviness of dance music. [dropping his voice an octave] The low sound.”

Put it down to the same warped, crossbreeding genius that first thought of attaching auto parts to an electric guitar. Whichever way you care to explain it, the musical blend on Eliminator and Afterburner proved the perfect soundtrack for the American Saturday Night: plenty of rip-snortin’ axwork for the men to play air guitar to, and smooth, sophisticated dance beats for the ladies. “You know, we did seem to get more female fans around that time,” Dusty Hill allows. “But then, before that, we were singing songs like, ‘Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers,’ and that is kind of more ‘guy.’ Even though a girl band did that song. I don’t think we lost any male fans, but we definitely did get more female fans. The women really seemed to like ‘Rough Boy.’ ”

Some older ZZ Top fans of both genders were slightly miffed by the band’s techno phase. Can a bluesman embrace disco and not lose his soul? But a guy as deeply steeped in blues history as Gibbons knows that blues started out as dance music, nocturnal music, dancehall and barroom music, a companion in intoxication, a prelude to intercourse… It shares all those things with modern dance music. So why fault ZZ Top for combining them? Besides, by the dawn of the Nineties the band had already started rethinking its approach.

“Even with Recycler, we wanted to go back and draw from the past,” says Dusty Hill. “We thought we’d maybe go back to the period of [1973’s] Tres Hombres. We got pretty techno on Eliminator and Afterburner, which I enjoyed. I think they’re good albums, but we wanted to start using the techno element a little more sparingly. We started to go in that direction on Recycler, but I don’t think we got all the way home on that. But with Antenna, I think we’ve made it. Take a song like ‘Cover Your Rig.’ It’s a straight 6/8 blues. We used to do one of those on every album, and now we’re back to that.”

“We assumed that our attempt at becoming a synth-pop band was okay,” says Billy. “But we chose to follow the many, many requests by legions of ZZ Top fans for a return to something closer to Tres Hombres than Afterburner. And that meant one thing: never add a fourth chord. Also, no programming is present on the Antenna tracks. But in the far, far background, if you listen closely you may find the sound of electronic keyboard instruments.”

In keeping with their return to musical roots, Antenna was named in honor of the Mexican border radio stations the Toppers listened to as young boys—“influences from the days before we even started playing,” Billy volunteers. To make the record, the band journeyed to Ardent Studios in Memphis, the birthplace of many a ZZ Top record. To go with this choice of stripped-down, singlepickup Esquire guitars, Billy relied on four principal amplifiers.

As always, he drew his hirsute, heady tone from both direct sources and miked cabinets. His direct gear for the album included a Marshall JMP-1 tube preamp and a Peavey tube preamp. For a miked cabinet sound, he went more vintage. “From Brent Magnano’s Guitar Oasis of Huntington Beach, I procured a 50-watt Marshall harkening back to 1964, with two greenback Celestions. The other amp I used is probably the most curious: a Fender Dual Professional. Now considered extremely rare due to its low production number, the Dual Professional was Fender’s first amp to offer two speakers. It continued in the line after 1949 or ’50 under the name of ‘Super.’ At the time, Fender made a dual-necked lap steel called the Dual Professional. So when it came time to name this amp, somebody reached into a box and grabbed a fistful of leftover name plates saying Dual Professional. Later on, money was spent to make up nameplates that said Fender Super.”

Despite his theories about Einstein’s closet, there’s no way a vintage guitar hound like Gibbons could stick exclusively with his Esquires through a whole album’s worth of recordings. The song “Breakaway,” he admits, “was actually performed on a 1936 National 12-fret [steel acoustic] with a Baggs pickup attached. It was close-miked, it was recorded direct, and it was amplified. The echo was added after the fact by our engineer, Mr. Joe Hardy.”

Where does a guy like Billy Gibbons get inspiration for his songs? Well that’s one reason why he’s so fond of gifts. They provide instant subject matter: “I was the lucky recipient of a very rare stomp box by Marshall called Supa-Fuzz—also a gift from the collector Brent Magnano. That became the inspiration for the song ‘Fuzzbox Voodoo.’ Although it does, indeed, as you discerned, have two meanings.”

Inspiration struck again the day after ZZ Top appeared at the W.C. Handy Blues Awards in Memphis, where they presented Entertainer of the Year honors to Buddy Guy. “It was the very next day that my neon sign called ‘two-foot doorman’—my chin whiskers, that is—drew the attention of a stranger,” Billy narrates with an air of mystery. “It was a gentleman who took a moment to recognize ZZ Top as being Memphis’ adopted sons. Knowing we love the South, the blues and Memphis’ rather special label called Stax, he asked if he would accept his gift to us: It was a pack of matches, the old fold-over cardboard kind, from Stax Records. It included the Stax logo and the slogan, ‘Where Everything Is Everything.’ That became our conceptual idea for the song called ‘Everything.’ The paradox there is that, while the words include everything, the music is very spare: drums only, with Mr. Hill playing just one note on a Hammond B-3. This B-3, by the way, is the very historic instrument belonging to Mr. Booker T. Jones. It’s the one that was used on ‘Green Onions’ and all those records.

“In the middle of ‘Everything’ there’s a guitar solo that employs the Texas Lightnin’ Hopkins ‘I’m-not-gonna-put-my-hand-on-the-neck-I’m-just-gonna-thrash-it’ technique. At the conclusion of this rather ironic track, everything does, indeed, become everything. There’s Elmore James–style slide, the sound of a mule which we were given by a farmer who had a tape recorder, a cowbell, congas, a wind chime, a Cuban fish…so everything becomes everything, you see?”

6) Not Even Billy Gibbons Can Always Have Everything

“Naked!” It’s very late. Lack of sleep has finally caught up with Billy Gibbons. He’s barely able to keep his eyes open. But one last visual concept seems to have lodged itself firmly in his brain. He wants Guitar World’s cover girl to disrobe for a nude shot. For the past 10 minutes, he’s been yelling one word over and over again.

“Naked!”

Tina, however, is having none of it.

“Aw, it’ll be okay,” he pleads. “You can face backward.”

“I ain’t gittin’ naked and facin’ any direction.”

“Half naked then.”

“I already am half naked.”

“Three-quarters naked?”

“I already am three-quarters naked!”

“Oh.”

Ah, well. Will it be necessary to reinvent ZZ Top all over again for the Nineties?

“Very probably,” Billy replies. “Very probably.”