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.
* 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.”