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ZZ Top - Chrome, Smoke & BBQ

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Artist: ZZ Top

Album: Chrome, Smoke & BBQ

Label: Warner Brothers

Review date: Dec. 7, 2003

In the 1980s, every band needed a signature iconography on some level – accoutrements that set them apart and became emblematic of their individual style, attitude and philosophy. The Stones had the exaggerated caricature of Jagger’s lips. The Talking Heads had the inherent absurdity of David Byrne’s oversized suits. RUN DMC made white Adidas high-tops – a shoddy shoe by most podiatrists’ standards – the footwear of choice for countless fans. But few if any could match ZZ Top in terms of sheer number of symbolic trappings. Pinwheel guitars, dust-caked leather biker suits, belly-length beards for all but the band member named Beard, black sunglasses, and the pièce de résistance: The Eliminator, a tricked out 34’ Ford coupe that became the epitome of cool for the male MTV demographic.

Before all the tongue-in-cheek chauvinism and tacked on crass consumerism set in, ZZ Top was at the core a damn fine Texas boogie blues trio. Their early albums for Warner Brothers took a gritty template of Delta riffs channeled through such urban incubators as Dallas, Detroit and Chicago, and injected a healthy dose of hedonistic rock into the mold. With the advent of New Wave their sound changed, plugging-in even further and adding electro funk and layers of synth beats to the blues chassis. They also traded in their grungy leather duds for tuxes, white wingtips and a synchronized stage shuffle. While the decision might have alienated early fans accustomed to their guitar-fueled juke joint sound, it proved to be a prescient one. The band became lucrative MTV icons through a string of music videos that fit the channel’s ideology of rock & roll excess to perfection.

In this age of box sets and costly catchall retrospectives, ZZ Top has been oddly ill served. Two paltry Greatest Hits collections preceded the travesty that was Six Pack, a meddling remixing and repackaging of the trio’s first six albums that tanked both critically and commercially. Some suit over at Warner Brothers finally had the light-bulb illuminating idea of calling in the crackpot box set architects at Rhino Records. They’ve devised a clever design for Chrome, Smoke & BBQ totally in line with the ZZ Top esthetic. A cardboard facsimile of a roadside shack, complete with corrugated flip-top roof that opens to reveal sturdy slots for four music-crammed discs, an 85-page booklet with track-by-track anecdotes from the band, and a miniature animating flipbook that shows off the aforementioned pinwheel trick first hand. Also included are paper action figure likenesses of Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard. The only thing the Rhino team left out was making the figures fully poseable.

The set opens with three tracks from guitarist Gibbons’ late-’60s psychedelic combo Moving Sidewalks and two more by an ‘embryonic’ prototype version of ZZ Top. It’s all fairly standard blues-saturated acid rock, but does feature some solid reverb heavy riffing, and extended jamming on “Joe Blues”. The remainder of the first disc rounds out with sterling material from the trio’s initial three long-playing records: First Album, Rio Grande Mud and Tres Hombres. The trilogy marks a major milestone in ’70s rock and the selected cuts lend convincing credence to their enduring status.

Classic cuts spill out of the speakers in alarming succession. “Brown Sugar” and Gibbons’ meaty revamping of Muddy Waters’ “Catfish Blues” strike early with fuzzed out guitars and sparse syncopated beat from Beard’s trap kit. Plundering John Lee Hooker’s one-chord riff from “Boogie Chillun” for a good cause on “La Grange”, the trio scored yet another radio hit with a mumble-mouthed ode the famous Texas ranchero of ill repute. “Waiting for the Bus” works off another bare bones chordal root with maximum muscle that makes the near nonsensical lyrics completely secondary. But my personal pick of the clutch (and the set for that matter) is the prickly slide guitar fracas of “Just Got Paid”, which has to rank as one of the hippest open road driving tunes of all time. Gibbons and Hill crank their axes’ amplifier knobs to the right and let it rip atop the steady syncopated trip hammer rhythm of Beard.

Disc two traces the band’s 70s heyday with more radio staples like “Heard It On the X”, “Tush” and “Cheap Sunglasses” from the albums Fandango, Tejas and Degüello, respectively. Interspersed between the popular singles are lesser known slices of juicy sonic barbecue like “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” which gregariously boasts of the band’s notoriety over another razor wire tangle of funky blues guitars and colorful lyrics. On the country-slide twang satire of “Mexican Blackbird”, the band takes a stab at south of the border humor to mixed success. “El Diablo” mines similar material with a tighter attack and better results. There’s even a jazzy interlude with the atmospheric acoustic guitar picking and pattering brushed drums of “Asleep in the Desert”.

The heavy studio production on “Manic Mechanic”, with its weirdly cartoonish black narrator and start-stop rhythms, was one of the nascent indications of the band’s awareness of the shifting pop market and a growing desire to cater to them. The echo-laden Beach Boys reminiscent ballad “Leila” marked another step away from their roots. After hooking into the MTV promotion machine for the release of Eliminator, the alterations in their sound were even more obvious. But the trade-off resulted in a stream of multi-platinum hits represented by the soaring keyboards and buzzing guitars of “Gimme All Your Lovin”, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs”, each one a fixture on the fledgling video network.

The album cover of Afterburner mirrored the space age metamorphosis more overtly by overhauling The Eliminator into an interplanetary space shuttle hotrod. For the carnal connotations of “Sleeping Bag” the band cops Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice drum machine beats while “Stages” evokes wide open rock anthem vistas with another synth-fueled rocket booster blast. There were misses too, like “Rough Boy”, a flaccid roller-skating rink ballad that falls flat in spite of some fluent fretwork from Gibbons on the breaks. The transformation seemed complete by the time “Velcro Fly” hit the Billboard charts with the guitarist’s lines all but submerged in industrial sounding staccato club beats and flanging keyboards fills. The anchoring beat also has a disquieting resemblance to The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian”.

The final disc in the box follows the band’s artistic slide even further with a string of extended dance remixes of questionable quality, including a plodding robotic retooling of “Legs” that is downright tragic. Diehard Top-heads will likely lament the exclusion of more representative tracks from the early years. Still, from a purely nostalgic perspective there’s plenty to enjoy in these blatantly commercial cash-ins.

In 1990, ZZ Top jumped the Warner Brothers ship and hightailed it over to RCA where they’ve been ever since. Four albums for their new label followed, none coming close to capturing the creativity of their early work for Warner Brothers. This generous set tells a nearly complete story of that critical evolutionary circuit, potholes and all. There’s a rollicking good time to be had traveling that long and winding panhandle road.

By Derek Taylor

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