Remembering ZZ Top’s Inconceivable 1980s Makeover


Last year, the editors of Continuum’s “33 1/3” series of books on epochal albums shot down my pitch for ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres. From the salacious chuckle of “La Grange” to the classic-rock-radio one-two punch of “Waitin’ for the Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago” (not to mention the divinely messy Tex-Mex spread on the gatefold), this 1973 classic is the lone album I could reckon spinning 10,000 times more. Only now does it dawn on me that I should’ve pitched 1983’s Eliminator instead.

On ZZ Top’s eighth studio album (and the first since Tres Hombres to sport a title not rendered in Spanglish), the scruffy blues-rock trio were now made shiny with synthesizers and drum machines. The Eliminator CD/DVD set emphasizes this transformation from stadium-rock dinosaurs into glitzy music-video icons, a most inconceivable makeover. What other ’70s rock band survived the ’80s, exponentially increasing their sales (four times platinum) and presence on the pop-culture landscape all the while?

Not that there weren’t casualties in selling out: The band’s blues-boogie roots irreversibly took a backseat to guitarist Billy Gibbons’s punched-in vocal asides, synthesizer presets that would make Justice blanch, fuzzy guitar and bass, synchronized dance steps, and sonic Easter eggs. (No doubt, when they enter the studio with Rick Rubin to record their first album for American Records, that will all get chucked.) They have Randy Newman’s cousin Tim to thank for this transformation into MTV staples, due to the videos he directed for “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs.” (Odd man out is the “TV Dinner” video, the nexus where Devo, Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Pole Position, and Muddy Waters all meet.)

A trilogy as sexy, silly, and inscrutable as it was a quarter-century ago, these videos play out on the same early-’80s barren Texas landscape that No Country for Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh traversed, though the proceedings here are decidedly more Penthouse Forum than Cormac McCarthy. In each successive video, a car mechanic, valet, and short-order cook suffer abuse heaped on all sides by bosses, bikers, slick-haired queers, and lard-assed oil-rich Houstonians. Under such pressure, these blue-collar boys encounter their fairy godfathers, ZZ Top (who appear like a mirage in the Texas Panhandle landscape), via a set of magical car keys with the ZZ logo and “The Eliminator” herself, a customized two-door, cherry-red 1933 Ford coupe. Attended by a triumvirate of hotties decked out in halter tops, fishnets, leather minis, studded belts, and red pumps, these modern-day Fates arrive just in time for the makeovers (seriously, in the intervening decades, how did no one at Spike TV conceive of Skank Eye for the Straight Guy?) and triumph.

ZZ Top themselves never quite escaped from beneath the weight of this mythos (even though a monster truck would destroy that hot rod in their “Sleeping Bag” video). Take the case of a DJ friend who once sold Billy Gibbons a stack of house records early in the 21st century: As thanks, Gibbons reached into his pocket and tossed him that telltale keychain.