1. Brown Sugar
ZZ Top’s First Album (1971)
TG: Depending on your predilections, this song may be about heroin, a lovely Latina lady, or a tasty way to improve your barbecue sauce. The title shares connotation with The Stones (see next entry), but the music is all ZZ – smoky, dusty, and dirty. Dig that lo-fi intro.
CM: Billy Gibbons’ introduction shows how much the blues runs in his blood, then comes a raunchy riff beefed up by Dusty and Frank for the proper song. Where Led Zeppelin stoked the otherworldly appeal of the blues from across the Atlantic, ZZ Top’s white boys were closer to the home flame and preferred to immerse themselves in steady grooves and sweltering sounds.
CM: One of their more direct rockers and almost like something the Rolling Stones never wrote but could have. I can hear it slotting into Exile.
TG: I’m thinking more like Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers. The subject matter of teenage love would likely land a band in a sticky situation these days, knocked black and blue and exiled to the dirty work dustbin of history.
TG: The guys eventually became full-on rock stars, but they kept their heads in Texas and wrote about working, drinking, loving and living – the bedrock that became the basis for their success.
CM: With the wealthy riff, wicked slide, and lines like “Black sheep black, do you got some wool / Yeah I do, man, my back is full,” this one’s got serious swagger.
CM: Dark and demanding, with flourishes that show ZZ weren’t unaware of virtuoso rock of the time.
TG: The rhythm after the intro reminds me a bit of The Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride”, but not in a cribbing someone else’s paper way, more of a feel or slight influence. Maybe a lot of rock songs sound like that, but “Ko Ko” takes off in interesting directions with the flourishes CM mentioned. And those hot harp runs surely made dead bluesmen proud.
CM: A ZZ song that’s actually touching, even vulnerable.
TG: The lyrics and the music may be a touch cliche, but the feeling is real to me, which makes it rise above the mesas into high quality territory.
CM: They rocked up an ancestral meme (I’d say Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips”) with appropriate character (Billy’s guttural vocal, Frank’s rim-clicks) to make a classic. Now’s a good time to mention that we’re referencing the original mixes of these tracks, not the remixes that appeared on the 1980s Six-Pack CD collection. “La Grange” with extra reverb and altered drums sounds neutered against the gutsy original.
TG: It’s definitely “Shake Your Hips”. But if other luminaries such as Zeppelin can pilfer the pockets of blind (and sighted) bluesmen, then who’s to stop the Top from riding such strange out on la grange. I guess La Grange is in Texas, but I always like to imagine that Billy is singing about Headley Grange.
TG: Jesus is to sheep as ZZ is to riffs – slaughtering the shit out of them! Especially on this track. Jesus was also bound – on the cross – but at least here he’s headed for New Orleans. What you know about buses, CM?
CM: I’ve been on buses in Chicago. They were bound only a few blocks away, but my sights were locally set. Anyway, an enduring tandem, have mercy.
CM: One thing that I came to appreciate in considering this list is how the band got so many distinctly original songs from traditional templates. Gibbons was great at varying guitar voices, too; in this track, there’s single-coil spank, fuzzier reinforcement, and envelope-filtered leads. The song itself creates a long suspense that’s relieved by an atmospheric coda.
TG:Yeah, I’ll beat that dead horse into the ground later, but sometimes the gift of artistry is that you take something mundane or known, shape it in your image – the one in your head, at least – and lend it a new perspective while making a new audience appreciative of your skills. This song is bread buttered, toasted, and slathered with funky-ass jam.
TG: Songs about the radio are either great or turds on toast. Like their Canadian trio doppelgangers Rush, ZZ created a winner.
CM: I love the enthusiastic vocals between Billy and Dusty, the handclaps over the riff, the occasional transmission effect, and the lyrics about inspiration and lore - “That’s where I learned my licks!”
TG: Tongue planted firmly in cheek or tongues planted firmly in cheeks, ZZ was always ready with a bawdry bedsheet boogie or two. Sometimes it led to groaners, but this one has a sweet bottom.
CM: Just over two minutes of jacked up Chicago shuffle via Dallas (and Hollywood).
TG: It’s only Stones, don’t hide your influences. Hell, the Stones didn’t. And when you can elevate the status quo to a new place, you’re in good shape.
CM: Tumbling Texas Dice. The drums shine plenty of Wattage, and again Billy and Dusty exchange lines in a conversational way. I also like that break at 3:00.
CM: Per the title, this blues takes some wrong chord turns, then the outro changes key and swerves one step to and fro. A solid ride.
TG: Yeah, back in the days when it was cool to drink and drive and throw Jarts in your neighbors’ eyes and play with bags full of broken glass...good times.
CM: ZZ ain’t often acoustic and pensive, and maybe that’s why this instrumental byroad has such impact. It paints an equally valid picture of their surroundings (dark nightscape) as the usual nitty-grit.
TG: Exactly, this strikes me as being about lost and wasted nights under the stars, where you can’t exactly make it back to the time and the place in your life when those things were desirable.
CM: A restful stop on a journey that will continue at dawn.
TG: Begins as a simple homage to shades and seems like it will continue in that manner, but then that bridge builds itself into a... CM, please take over!
CM: After the vamp sucks you into the verses, it mutates into a “Frankenstein” figuration, then the middle section is some kinda spooky Zed-jazz. All in a song about cheap black frames. And as everyone knows, the end is uber-cool. If there were five signature ZZ songs to save for posterity, this would be one.
TG: Great, now we have to decide which of the other four songs to put in the time capsule. I didn’t sign up for a list and a time capsule segment. Who am I, Doc Brown? Say, Marty, this is a fine time to mention that I always liked ZZ’s “Doubleback” from the Back to the Future III soundtrack.
TG: Fine fox in the front and three more in the back, baby. The part at almost 1:00 in (and again at 1:30, 2:30 and 3:20) always makes me think of jumping off another car via cables. There’s that sense of hesitation. Maybe it’s supposed to signify an automobile stopping and restarting because this is a driving tune.
CM: It’s a standard lick, but banged out in such a way as to become a hook. Most of my affection is for the faster end section, which isn’t to say the song part is any slouch.
TG: Standard lick used to great effect – describes this Texas trio to a T.
CM: Snappy guitar over a backwards vamp makes for a sexy cut.
TG: As stated above, ZZ Top was skilled at turning simple structures into something special. I wonder if Ray Charles ever covered this song. If not, he should have.
CM: Good call.
TG: Billy dreamt he was in the ‘80s King Crimson and sleepwrote that shit down. That’s my only explanation. It’s a singular and fantastic track in their catalog.
CM: They had quite the angular instrumental on their hands and maybe added a silly vocal to keep it from sounding too hifalutin. Regardless, this is a really nifty piece.
TG: You sharp dressed man, you! Yeah, so what if some Eliminator songs sound the same?
CM: A few are interchangeable, and perhaps that’s the result of the album being more machine than man (at least in the rhythm department). Yet a fair amount of personality sits atop the programming, and this song succeeds as both modern rocker and Top 40 moneymaker. One neat nuance is how the third verse sounds a bit funkier than the first two, as the pulsing bass becomes more syncopated.
CM: The techno-exploration continues with a sequenced beat, cool song, and suitable overdubbed mayhem. Not much relates to previous ZZ, but no matter the justification, it’s a great track. What really sells me is the final minute that changes key and milks the built-up tension.
TG: Much to my regret, I never saw ZZ in concert. I still can, but it would have been nice seeing them at the height of their prowess. My prime time to do so would have been during the Afterburner tour. Back then, I would have loved it. In retrospect, I wonder how they managed all the sequencing and electronics in a live setting.
After a quick check of available video, it seems there was some off-stage fuckery going on where the end result is heard but not seen. The willful suspension of disbelief is a powerful thing when 30,000 people are doing it all at the same time.
TG: Did he really just sing, “I was shufflin’ through the parking lot of an invisible 7-Eleven” Then there’s the naked cowgirl gesturing coyly for you to get on Top, as ZZ did here in rediscovering their ‘70s muscle – briefly lost in the flood of ‘80s synths like so many of their battle-scarred brethren.
CM: The album title is especially ironic at this point. Heck, they were recycling Eliminator ideas before that album was even over. Those tropes still decorate Recycler’s songs, some of which are remedial horseshit, while others reconnect with tradition. “Mississippi” is at heart more traditional, even built on a variant of the “La Grange” riff.
Todd’s 3 Faves:
Enjoy and Get It On
TG: To me, ZZ Top songs tend to have a weight behind them that’s tangible to my brain, if nothing else. You can hold a recording, but you can’t hold the music, if you know what I mean. Maybe that’s why I enjoy this song so much. It’s mostly buoyant throughout until a bit of heavy guitar brings it to ground at the end (and not in a bad way).
TG: Truth be told, I was never the largest fan of the live first side of Fandango!. Still, my parents played a rotation of several live titles during the 1970s to lull me to sleep. These included Fandango!, Kiss Alive!, Peter Frampton Frampton Comes Alive! and Neil Young Live Rust. Look at all those exclamation points; the ‘70s were an exciting time!! Maybe that’s why I couldn’t sleep.
At any rate, sometimes I would request “Do You Feel Like We Do” or the first side of Rust because I knew those would put me under tout de suite. Eventually, I would just ask for side two if they brought up Fandango. “Nasty Dogs” might hype me up, but “Blue Jean Blues” was sure to send me off to snoreland.
With only XX choices, “Nasty Dogs” missed our list but it’s a smokin’ lil number that certainly tilts the board for me. And ZZ themselves liked the intro so much that they used it again for “Arrested For Driving While Blind”.
TG: I suppose the ‘80s were the era of the power ballad, but the previous decade had plenty. And when a band breaks out a genuine love song for the first time in 15 years of their existence, there must be a reason for it. To my mind the reason was simple – to get young guys (especially those rough around the edges like me) girls. Thanks, guys.
Often, a rough boy can be identified by his simple charms. Such is the case with this top tune. It bears a steady cadence, the keys spindle out a lush texture, and the tasteful Gibbons solo offers a tough facade. Add the emotive vocals, and it’s enough to turn any rough boy into a prince, if only for the length of one slow dance.
Chris’ 3 Faves:
Heaven, Hell, or Houston
El Loco (1981)
The phone-call voice and dramatic backdrop are weird enough, and when that perky mid-section appears out of nowhere, that’s when you either dismiss the track or fall for its strangeness. I’m in the latter camp.
Sludgy, determined, and slathered in vintage ZZ patina. Frank’s drum beat gets a neat symbiosis happening between kick and snare that gives the song some subliminal action.
Not a cut I reach for by itself, but hearing it in the midst of other tracks makes it stand out. I appreciate how the locked-in melody is surrounded by atmospheric touches, like the guitar passage starting around 1:12. They really knew how to layer a mood back in the day.