Frank Beard

REVIEW: ZZ Top – The ZZ Top Six Pack (1987)

ZZ Top – The ZZ Top Six Pack (1987 Warner)

What a strange time the dawn of the compact disc was.  Even at the end of the 1980s, vast catalogues of music had yet to be released on CD.  It was a hit and miss affair, with some early discs sounding wonderful and others sounding like a thin, tinny facsimile of the original vinyl.  The longer running time of CD was a bonus that many bands took advantage of, while other heritage groups were considering the ways they could re-release their music on this new format.

Before Jimmy Page took his first crack at remastering the Led Zeppelin catalogue for CD, ZZ Top took a different route.

Now, granted, ZZ Top’s music spans a longer time period than that of many of their rivals.  They’re also notable for starting the 1970s as a dirty raw blues and ending the 80s as clean space-age rock.  While this took them from one success to an even more massive one, it unfortunately meant that the ZZ Top camp felt it necessary to “update” their music for the CD age.  Make the catalogue sound more on an even keel with Eliminator and Afterburner.

And so the six ZZ Top albums that were so-far unreleased on CD were remixed:  First Album, Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres, Fandango!, Tejas, and El Loco.  Only Degüello was spared, having been released on CD earlier.

Apparently, updating the ZZ Top catalogue for CD was of “overriding concern” for all parties involved.  ZZ Top were aware that there were complaints about early CD transfers for classic albums.  The goal was “return to the original analog tapes and consider what steps were needed to render the music appropriate to  contemporary digital playback equipment without compromising integrity.”

The answer was none.  No steps were necessary.  The remixes were not what the old fans wanted to hear on their brand new CD players.  Rhythm tracks were updated with sequencers, drums treated digitally, and the whole thing came out sterile and flat.  Adding echo didn’t add depth.  Doing an A/B test with a remix vs. an original track makes you wonder why you even own the ZZ Top Six Pack.*  It just…doesn’t sound right.  Like a disorienting time displacement.

As of 2013, you can get all the original ZZ Top albums on remastered CD as they should have always sounded.

While it is nice to have six ZZ Top albums on just three CDs, and there is no denying the booklet is hot, you do not need the ZZ Top Six Pack anymore.  The charm of the originals is that they are a document of those hot Memphis studios where ZZ Top laid down the original tracks fast and dirty.  The remixes sound like a digital mixing board trying to tame a wild animal.  Wrong, and unnecessary.  “Francine” is actually awful.

The booklet is truly valuable (nonsense justifying the remix aside) and worth a point on its own.  The ZZ Top songs in and of themselves are always incredible, so they too are worth a point.

2/5 stars

* It was a gift from Kevin.  He also rates it 2/5 stars.  I asked him for a quote for this review.  All he had to say about the ZZ Top Six Pack was:  “I’m glad Mike took this crap off my hands.”  

REVIEW: ZZ Top – Chrome, Smoke & BBQ (2003 limited edition BBQ shack)

ZZ TOP –  Chrome, Smoke & BBQ (2003 Warner limited edition BBQ shack version)

Though it seems an outlandish thought today, there was once a time when if you desired to hear original ZZ Top music, you couldn’t do that on CD.  You had to purchase original ZZ Top LPs.  In 1987, most of the original ZZ Top albums were issued on CD as part of the ZZ Top Six Pack, which featured remixed percussion to make them sound more like Eliminator and Afterburner.  Needless to say this was a very unpopular idea, though it didn’t stop the Six Pack from selling.  The original ZZ Top albums were finally given a CD reissue in 2013.  Until then, your best bet on compact disc was to buy the 4 CD Chrome, Smoke & BBQ anthology.

Because Chrome, Smoke & BBQ features original mixes and a helping of rarities, it still makes for an enjoyable listen and valuable collectible today.  The limited edition version came housed in a box like a little BBQ shack, but both have the same four discs of bluesy, greasy ZZ rock.  A well-assembled anthology can make for a great listen even well after its expiry date, and this is one such set.

Disc 1 of Chrome, Smoke & BBQ features three tracks from Billy Gibbons’ first band the Moving Sidewalks.  The guitar work is brilliant even in Billy’s youth.  These tracks are notably more psychedelic than ZZ Top.  The year was 1969, the same year as the first ZZ Top single “Miller’s Farm” / “Salt Lick”.  This early version of ZZ Top (credited as “embryonic ZZ Top”) was a transition from Moving Sidewalks and didn’t feature Frank Beard nor Dusty Hill.  Organ on a ZZ Top song is an unusual sound, and it’s quite prominent on “Miller’s Farm”.  It’s a pretty standard blues with the emphasis on the keys and with one foot solidly in 60s rock.  “Salt Lick” has a bit more of the mid-tempo ZZ groove, but the with the organ still part of the whole.  Chrome, Smoke & BBQ remains the easiest way to obtain this rare single.

ZZ Top’s First Album takes the spotlight next with three tracks including “Brown Sugar”, the first “real” ZZ Top track.  An impactful one it is, and so obviously ZZ Top.  It seems by the time the right three guys got together, the ZZ Top sound was born.  “Brown Sugar” is so essential to the ZZ Top sound that maybe the box set should have opened with it, chronology be damned!  Dusty’s pulse on bass is already present, and Frank’s sheer style adds some much needed character.  Then “Just Got Back From Baby’s” has the spare nocturnal blues that is a ZZ signature.

The next three ZZ Top albums – Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres and Fandango! are featured much more prominently with seven tracks apiece.  This part of the set is deep with essential music.  “Francene”, obviously “Francene”, the catchiest song during this part of history, is present and accounted for.  (Even in Spanish!)  For relentless groove, ZZ Top never nailed one as hard as “Just Got Paid”, slide guitar right in the pocket.  “Chevrolet” showed how they could just lay back.  For shuffles, “Bar-B-Q” got the spice you need.  “Sure Got Cold After the Rain” covers the sad, spare blues that Billy’s guitar can evoke.  The music goes on, and on:  “La Grange”, “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers”, “Heard It on the X”, “Blue Jean Blues”, “Tush”.  Though the songs in between are all excellent as well, it’s hard to ignore the hit power of these tracks.

Six tracks from Tejas feature on this set, still more than half the album.  The ZZ Top direction was gradually making tentative steps towards modernizing.  “It’s Only Love”, a bluesy country pop, sounds like something new.  They hadn’t left anything behind though, as told by the menacing “Arrested for Driving While Blind”.  It’s a cleaner, more studio-driven sound, as heard on “El Diablo” with its subtle overdubs and dynamics.  “Enjoy and Get it On” is a nice sentiment, with the slide all greased up and ready to go.  Two of the most interesting of the Tejas tracks are the quiet instrumental “Asleep in the Desert” and the twangy “She’s a Heartbreaker”.

At this point ZZ Top took a break to decompress after years of consecutive touring and recording.  The Best of ZZ Top came out during this break, but what was going on behind the scenes was to be far more important down the road.  ZZ Top’s image began its final evolution when Gibbons and Hill returned from vacation with matching full length beards. Their next album Degüello allowed the music to evolve as well.  Six songs from Degüello represent this period, along with a rare radio spot advertising the album.

ZZ Top’s cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You” is iconic enough that many people probably assume it’s an original.  What was original was “Cheap Sunglasses”, a staggering hangover of a track — the new ZZ Top.  Same with “Maniac Mechanic”, a track so bizarre that you could mistake it for Zappa.  Meanwhile “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” has the laid back, cruisin’ ZZ Top vibe that fans always loved.  “A Fool For Your Stockings” showed that Gibbons could still play the blues, too.

Another six tracks from El Loco account for the last hits before the MTV generation took hold.  “Leila”, a 50s inspired ballad is clearly an experiment albeit a successful one.  As is the surf rocker “Tube Snake Boogie”, a track unlike any ZZ Top ever attempted before.  Another ballad, “It’s So Hard” is not out of place, with its roots in soul music.  “Pearl Necklace” has surf vibes but is most memorable for its dirty double entendre.  “Heaven, Hell or Houston” is even weirder than “Maniac Mechanic”.  It’s quite clear that ZZ Top were stretching out, while still maintaining a foot in their bluesy, rock and roll roots.

And then came MTV, the music videos, the car, and the girls.  The music was laden with sequencers and electronic percussion, but this unlikely combination is the one that really struck oil.  Black gold, Texas tea, and platinum records.  Eight tracks from Eliminator are included here, almost the whole album minus three.  Only “Thug”, “I Need You Tonight” and “Bad Girl” are left behind.  So you get all the hits, and then some.  “I Got the Six” had to be on here, a dirty but slick little favourite from the day.  “Dirty Dog” is a fun also-ran too, but didn’t need to be on a box set.

When ZZ Top found their successful formula, they really ran with it, right into the next album Afterburner.  As we know a sequel rarely tops an original, but the album still features eight songs, and this is where Chrome, Smoke & BBQ begins to stumble.  By featuring so many songs from this period, the box set is really unfairly weighted.  Surely another few tracks could have been included from ZZ Top’s First Album instead of so many from Afterburner and Recycler.  “Can’t Stop Rockin'” and “Woke Up With Wood” could have been dropped, but let’s keep “Sleeping Bag”, “Stages”, “Rough Boy”, Delirious, “Velcro Fly”,  and “Planet of Women”.  Around Afterburner, ZZ Top had taken their music to its most commercial extreme.  They decided to reduce, though not remove, technology on the third album of the MTV trilogy Recycler.  Notable from this period:  “Concrete and Steel”, “My Head’s In Mississippi”, “Give It Up”, “2000 Blues” and “Doubleback”.

ZZ Top switched from Warner to RCA for their next studio album 1994’s Antenna, and nothing from that era onwards is included.  There is still some more music on this box set to enjoy.  In 1990, ZZ Top recorded a cover of “Reverberation (Doubt)” by Roky Erickson for the tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye.  Gratefully, this ZZ Top rarity is included here.  You can note the Recycler-era sequencers, but they compliment the psychedelic track nicely.  This is followed by the two “new” songs that ZZ Top recorded for 1992’s Greatest Hits.  “The corniest Elvis song ever” is “Viva Las Vegas”, sung by Dusty Hill, and overproduced to the gills.  Huge hit of course.  “Gun Love” is also included.

Disc 4 ends with six “medium rare” tracks.  Some are actually super rare.  These include a spanish version of “Francene” with Dusty Hill singing.  It sounds like thie audio could be taken from an actual vinyl single.  A live version of “Cheap Sunglasses” comes from a 1980 promo-only single, and it smokes.  Then there are some dance mixes from 12″ singles, easily the most skippable part of this box set.  None of these will be played regularly by you, the listener.  Especially not “Viva Las Vegas”.

The booklet included with Chrome, Smoke & BBQ is impressive on its own.  It’s packed with music and text, including a track by track commentary by the band.  “Seems like all our songs are about dicks and pussies,” says Frank Beard.

Limited edition box sets are fun to get while they last.  Chrome, Smoke & BBQ boasts its box shaped like a steel shack, including corrugated roof.  (It’s actually great because it doesn’t collect dust!)  Include the box, all four CDs are safely housed in individual jewel cases.  If you dig inside a little more you’ll find cut-out characters to add to your BBQ shack display.  You could scan and print these cut-outs yourself.  Enjoy a picnic table, ribs, sausages, cacti, and of course the guys from ZZ Top themselves (on a bike, or disembarked).  Also hidden in the box is an animated flip-book.  See the video below for a quick demonstration.

As with many box sets, tracklists could use a little tweaking and everybody will have their own ideas for how to fix that.  Perhaps instead of dumping all those remixes at the end, they could have been included chronologically so the set doesn’t end on such a…tepid concept as the extended dance remix.  The set could certainly use some balancing away from Afterburner and Recycler with more focus on the earlier stuff.  The exclusive rarities are adequate and appropriate for a set of this stature.  Not too few, not too many.  The ZZ Top completist will want this set for them and will still enjoy giving it a complete spin from time to time.

The regular edition will do nicely, but if you can find a complete limited version for a good price, don’t hesitate to snag it.

4/5 stars

MOVIE REVIEW: ZZ Top – That Little Ol’ Band from Texas (2019)

ZZ TOP – That Little Ol’ Band from Texas (2019)

Directed by Sam Dunn

Banger Films have never released a dud, have they?  Their latest documentary, ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas is another well made, entertaining film to add to your collection.

And it’s about time, isn’t it?  50 years?  And not just that, but the same three guys for 50 years solid!  The only thing that changed were the grooming habits.  Frank Beard tried to grow one but just couldn’t pull it off.  I think it’s better that way.  Two guys with beards plus a moustache guy in the back on the drums.  Although it was completely accidentally, it’s so genius it seems planned.  The beard tale, and many more like it, make up the backbone of this film.

As it turns out, there isn’t a lot of craziness and drama in the official ZZ Top story.  We never learn much about their personal lives outside the band.  Beard is quite “frank” about his past drug situations, but Aerosmith they were not.  This movie is actually mostly about the music.  Imagine that!  About the influences — both blues and rock.  About opening for the big boys like the Stones.  About Texas.

Texas plays a huge role in this film, and in ZZ Top.  That unique blend of forces that spawned ZZ Top came together in Houston.  But then they got too big to be just a Houston band.  Things were about to happen.  Their sound is half nurture, and half nature.  Yes, Texas (the nurturer) had its influence on the three, but so did their sheer talent and chemistry (the nature).  Hill and Beard talk of playing together for the first time, and it was obviously just meant to be.  As much as ZZ Top rocked, their down-home country image certainly confused people in the early days.

What really comes across is the music.  Via the old recordings, and brand new footage of the boys playing in the studio, you can hear just how little they have lost over 50 years.  What a tight, yet thick sound.  Overdubs were a part of the ZZ Top studio sound early on (though not without some doing).  Of course, we know that ZZ Top made a massive sonic change in the 80s with Eliminator.  This is briefly discussed, as is the MTV revolution and just how ZZ Top came to dominate in that era.  Unfortunately that is where the film ends.  Potentially you could have added another hour just talking about the seven albums that followed Eliminator, some of which were pretty big.  Or another hour getting to know the three guys a little better. That Little Ol’ Band from Texas goes no deeper than just the bare surface when it comes to the guys and their interpersonal relationships.  Surely in 50 years there must have been some drama.  You won’t find much of it in this film.  Clearly, that’s the way ZZ Top want it.  Maintain the mystique.  Never reveal too much.  Hone the mythology.

As with any music documentary, other stars must be interviewed in order to gush and add context and detailed observations.  These include Josh Homme (what isn’t he in?), Steve Miller, Billy Bob Thornton (?) and Dan Auerbach.  But you’ll also hear from Tim Newman (director of those classic videos and brother of Randy Newman), and Robin Hood Brians, a studio owner who helped shape their early sound.

Any Banger film is going to be a quality product going in.  It’s not so much “will it be good?”  It’s more “what nits will I pick?”  Because any serious fan will have some with any rock film.  I have very few to pick with this film.  Just that I wish it was an hour longer.

4.5/5 stars

VHS Archives #17: ZZ Top talk to Much (1990)

ZZ Top sat with MuchMusic’s Terry David Mulligan to discuss the making of 1990’s Recycler, and their cameo in Back to the Future III.

These segments were recorded from a Much Spotlight.

REVIEW: ZZ Top – Eliminator (Collector’s Edition)

Aaron says this is the first cassette he ever bought! He picked a good ‘un.

ZZ TOP – Eliminator (2008 CD+DVD Collector’s Edition, Warner)

Consider all earlier CD releases “eliminated”!

Say what you will about ZZ Top’s foray into 80’s music.  Using sequencers and compression on the drums wasn’t everybody’s cup ‘o java, but it sure made ZZ Top millionaires.  I like this album. Reverend Billy Gibbons’ guitar tone was so sweet on this album. It’s so smooth and creamy, I just love the tone. This might be my favourite album of his, purely for guitar tone. Just listen to that sweet picking on the album version of “Legs”. Man, how does he get that sound?

The original album has been lovingly remastered, with the original album version of “Legs” restored. However, fear not, the single version is still here as a bonus track. Other bonus tracks include live versions, the most exciting of which is a fiery “I Got The Six”. And hey, if you don’t like the techno sounds of the album, the live tunes give you an idea of what they’re like stripped down to the bone…like a juicy rack of ribs, meat falling right off.  It’s cool how Frank Beard is just as metronomic on the live versions. He’s not a flamboyant drummer, but he’s definitely solid. Just like the Beatles wouldn’t have sounded the same without Ringo, or the Stones without Charlie, Frank is essential to that whole ZZ “Je ne sais quoi?”

I like the whole album, with only a few songs I call filler, such as “Thug”. I always enjoy hearing “Sharp Dressed Man”. I don’t know how all these years later I’m not sick of it, but I’m not. “TV Dinners” always makes me smile. Really, will these guys write about anything?

“I Need You Tonight” is one of those smooth ZZ Top blues.  It’s slick, but unquestionably still blues.  “If I Could Only Flag Her Down” is another blues based standout.  This one’s a bit more of a boogie.  Finally, “Bad Girl” (sung by Dusty Hill) is pure rock and roll.

The DVD is cool.  You get the original music videos and some live TV performances.  If you’re a ZZ Top fan (and for your own happiness, I hope that you are) I think you will enjoy the video stuff. Liner notes are also ample.

5/5 stars.  It’s never too late to pick it up!

Click the pic of the Ford to see yesterday’s gallery of the Monogram ZZ Top Eliminator model kit!

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…and here’s your CD gallery.

REVIEW: ZZ Top – La Futura (Best Buy edition, 2 bonus tracks)

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ZZ TOP – La Futura (2012 Best Buy edition, 2 bonus tracks, American Recordings)

Unfortunately I didn’t get this album until January of 2013.  As such, it didn’t make my Top Five of 2012 list.  If I had got it sooner, would it have made the list?  Probably.  It did make lots of lists.  It made Every Record’s top 10 of 2012, and regular LeBrain reader Deke’s list for example.

I love this album.  I’ve played it every day since I got it!  From mournful ZZ blues (“Over You”) to skunky funky ZZ blues (“I Gotsta Get Paid”) to trademark anthemic ZZ rock (“Flyin’ High”), this album has pretty much everything I love from ZZ Top!

I first heard the single, the aforementioned “I Gotsta Get Paid” (a rewrite of a rap song called “25 Lighters” by somebody named DJ DMD) on the Mandy Grant Show, on 107.5 Dave FM.  I fell for it immediately, but I was wary of buying the album at first.  After all, most ZZ discs since Eliminator and even Afterburner didn’t do too much for me, even though they all have tunes worth putting on a road tape.  Maybe the difference is that, on La Futura, ZZ Top are working with Rick Rubin?  Or maybe it’s that they haven’t recorded a studio album in almost a decade?  I don’t know, except to say that ZZ Top absolutely nail it on La Futura.

The overall sound is both slick and dirty at once, a balance that they haven’t always hit in the past.  Frank Beard’s drums sound absolutely perfect, the way you want a real drum kit to sound, no goofy samples here!  Of course, the Reverend Billy F. Gibbons’ guitars are always greasy goodness, and full of dirty soul.  What sets this album apart is a rediscovered ability to write memorable, catchy blues rock songs.  “I Don’t Wanna Lose, Lose, You” is a perfect example of the kind of rock tune that ZZ Top are known for, groovy and instantly memorable.  “Chartreuse” and “Consumption” are the same, just awesomely great Top tunes as memorable as some of their best from the days of yore.  “It’s Too Easy Mañana” is a perfectly bluesy mess of guitars, bass and drums, while “Big Shiny Nine” is another trademark upbeat Top rocker.

My favourite song, that I keep coming back to, and can’t get out of my head, is “Flyin’ High”.  It’s just an awesome song, melodic as hell, and worthy of single status.  That’s my pick for second single right there.  What a riff, what a song!  Back in ’83, this would have been a smash hit.

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I shelled out for the US Best Buy edition, which has two bonus tracks.  Shipping and taxes all-in, I paid $35 for “Threshold of a Breakdown” and “Drive By Lover”.  Both are great tunes, but it’s especially worth having “Drive By Lover” because it’s the only song on which bassist Dusty Hill takes the lead vocal.  I’ve always been a fan of bands that have two lead singers, and I’ve always liked Dusty’s voice.

My only beef is the packaging.  What you see is what you get:  A simple cardboard case, no booklet.  You get liner notes but no lyrics or anything else particularly special for buying a physical edition.  Too bad.

4.5/5 stars

Note:  The first four tracks were previous released on the iTunes only Texicali EP.  But if you prefer physical product, like I do, this is a no-brainer way to go!