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Living the Unexamined Life, Happily

ZZ Top is still bad, but now they're planet-wide. And they ain't thinking too hard about it

Ever since fashion provocateur Malcolm McClaren set the Sex Pistols for self-destruct and aimed the band's tick-tocking stagger for the heart of rock and roll, the destruction of the prevailing rock establishment has been at the top of each successive underground's agenda. Punk was supposed to kill it off for good, ridding the globe of bloated dinosaurs and making rock safe for amateurs again. New Wave tried to subvert rock's holy trinity -- guitar, bass, drums -- by elevating the synthesizer to godhood. Rap, black and white, tossed the formula altogether and headed rock off the charts with sampled grooves and melodically, umm, challenged diatribes. More recently, alternative rock has sought to displace the version now called "classic" by mimicking its sound but performing in dirty clothes and singing about child abuse.

To an extent, the program has worked. Peter Frampton will never be taken seriously again, and early Sex Pistols' targets like Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones are sunk in an irrelevant reverence that has more to do with their stamina than any real contribution to contemporary music. With precious few exceptions, the dinosaurs are gone, relegated to borderline nostalgia tours that attract only those (admittedly swollen) ranks that never bothered, from the Sex Pistols on, to notice which way the musical wind was blowing.

Those few that survived were the simplest of the mammoths, stubborn creatures that were never really bloated in the first place, just awfully damned big. Those bands of whom nobody ever thought to ask a question so obviously beyond the realm of intention as What does it mean?

ZZ Top was one of the biggest, and one of the most stubborn. In 1976, as the Sex Pistols were gearing up to destroy rock with highfalutin, artsy theoretical notions McClaren had borrowed from the early 20th-century Dadaists and Situationists, Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard were breaking attendance records with the decidedly untheoretical Worldwide Texas Tour, a traveling spectacle of Texas longhorns, rattlesnakes and tumbleweeds that introduced the world to the peculiar excesses of Texas pride a few years before television's Dallas remade the state as a model of free-world envy.

In 1983, as MTV set out to destroy rock's substance and replace it with image, the little ol' band from Texas layered its power trio sound with digital effects and draped it in a glossy video overcoat of slick cars and slippery girls, conquering MTV with the one-two punch of 1983's Eliminator and 1985's Afterburner. Two decades. Two successive popularity peaks. No sign of going away.

But the title of 1990's Recycler -- an album named, according to bassist Hill, after the band's habit of chopping up cars -- provided an unfortunate description of a band whose formula was growing stale. Neither punk nor its successors had succeeded in killing off ZZ Top, but a three-year absence from the studio and the road during the time when Nirvana and fellow travelers were redefining the rock landscape yet again had to make the faithful wonder if perhaps the Lone Star trio hadn't finally run out of tricks. Old bands that don't burn out have to fade away sooner or later. Don't they?

One supposes they do, but the clock is still ticking, and it probably shouldn't be much of a surprise. Last time ZZ Top took a three-year break, after 1976's Tejas, Gibbons and company pulled the platinum Deguello out of its collective ten-gallon hat. And now, after a similar three-year absence following Recycler's dead end, the Top returns with Antenna. While there's no point in applying purist standards to a band that's made a career of bowdlerizing the blues, the new disc is, by three-piece guitar boogie standards, a return to a form increasingly obscured from the synthetic dance experiments of Eliminator on.

"I think it started on Recycler," says Hill, "and I think it came to a point on Antenna. It's pretty basic for us. We used this and that, but it's seasoning. The guts of the songs are written for a three piece band, mainly, and we like that." Which is to say, Antenna is a back-to-basics album, from the uncluttered sonics of Gibbons' growling Telecaster to the black-and-white Spy vs. Spy-style caricature on the cover.

Antenna is also the Top's first album for new label RCA after years on Warner Brothers, and the mammoth five-album deal that will reportedly bring the band $35 million seems to have provided it a shot in the arm in more ways than one.

"I won't lie, obviously it was real good money," Hill reports from the road in Jackson, Mississippi, where the band is following up a recent European jaunt with the worldwide tour's American leg, a road trip that ends with two shows in hometown Houston before leaving the country again. "But the fact is that we could have got real good money with Warner Brothers. We had a real nice stay with them and really enjoyed it, but there was kind of a renewed enthusiasm at RCA that really attracted us."

That renewed enthusiasm likely has something to do with RCA's global monster of a parent company, BMG, providing a planet-wide network that should help get ZZ Top in front of audiences that have never been exposed to the band's live extravaganza. There is, after 25 years, a sense of challenge in recruiting new audiences.

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