Classic Rock Corner

Billy Gibbons Pt. 1: Nashville, Johnny or Merle, Playing Theaters, Ike and the Origins of Eliminator

Houston has a significant birthday to celebrate. ZZ Top's Eliminator - which, as you can read in the paper next week, is Rocks Off's choice for the best Texas rock album ever - is 25 years old, and has been duly accored the full Rhino reissue treatment of remastering, bonus tracks (several live songs and the single and remix version of "Legs") and a bonus DVD with those iconic "Sharp Dressed Man," "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Legs" and "TV Dinners" videos, plus a four-song suite from the band's appearance on UK TV's The Tube program.

Somewhat nervous, Rocks Off called ZZ's Billy F. Gibbons yesterday to talk about Eliminator - and a bunch of other stuff - as the singer/guitarist killed time before rehearsal. "Gibbons here," his gruff but friendly voice answered.

Rocks Off: How are you today?

Billy F. Gibbons: We’re doing good. Doing better than most because we’ve got the day off.

RO: Where are you right now?

BG: We stopped in Nashville. We play the Ryman Auditorium tomorrow.

Nashville's Ryman Auditorium

RO: Is that right? The home of country music?

BG: Yes. We’re learning our Johnny Cash number this afternoon.

The Hag

RO: Which one?

BG: Well, it’s either gonna be a Merle Haggard or a Cash. We’re pretty safe there. It’s either gonna be from Cash’s Sun days, because that was pretty hot-rod stuff he was doing. And of course Merle coming from the Bakersfield background, that is the hot-rod country.

RO: Everything going good on the tour?

BG: Well yes. This latest wrinkle in the ongoing fabric is fascinating, because we’ve persuaded the promoters to take us into what we would consider – out of these 25,000-seat arenas into a more intimate setting, just so we can enjoy that experience of reconnection. That’s the way we started, and about six months back, we played a 3,000-seat theater in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it was as close to the early days as we had experienced in a while. It was great fun.

ZZ Top live in San Antonio, 2003 Photo by Gary Miller/ Austin Chronicle

That’s what we wanted to revisit – it’s only a six-week run, but having the advantage – and call it a luxury, if you will – of just being face-to-face and up close with that mysterious energy that runs from audience to stage and back again. Then we go into the recording studio the first of November; we’re gonna attempt to peel that onion.

RO: Just the three of you, have you noticed any difference in the way you play together as opposed to in those larger venues?

BG: Oh yeah. I think it’s independent of the venues. It’s more focused of that strange energy between the audience and the bandstand. There’s something really propellant that really moves us in a good way, when we can connect with our fans that take the time to come out and take part in such an exchange.

RO: First of all, how did y’alls houses and families and everything fared through Ike?

BG: Well fortunately, I came out without even so much as a drop of rain making its way in. Unfortunately, Frank and Dusty suffered some catastrophic losses. This has to be one of the most destructive storms that’s hit since the ‘60s.

San Leon post-Ike Daniel Kramer

RO: Oh, absolutely. Dusty has a place down in San Leon, right?

BG: Well, he did. At one time he did, until [the storm] decided to make a showing. He thought he was OK. When they finally let people return to that part of the region, he was entering the driveway and all appeared to be well until he walked to the back side and realized that all that was the façade of the front of this structure. The back side looked more like a doll house where you could see into it. It had ripped off the entire back side of the structure. It was just tragic.

RO: Wow. Have you guys been approached to play any sort of benefit concert?

BG: Well, I think that those moves are still afoot. I just watched on the news – we’ve kept one ear to the ground, and they’re still attempting – how challenging is this to live through. This is now four weeks after that big blow [and] they’re still trying to restore power in certain sections of Houston. Galveston is just – Crystal Beach, forget it. Just a scraper.

Photo by Brett Koshkin

RO: Speaking of, how about the Balinese Room?

BG: Well, we’re saddened to see that now just an absentee existence. I think someone reported all that was left was the pilings of the pier and the foundation. If that’s the case, hopefully somebody will volunteer to put it back up. It’s a piece of that island’s history that should remain.

RO: Absolutely.

BG: Or at least be restored.

Inside Memphis' Ardent Studios

RO: Well, let’s get into Eliminator here. What was going on in the band in the early stages of the LP, when the ideas started coming together?

BG: Well, we had returned from the road to our second home in Memphis, Tennessee, right there at Ardent Studios, which had played host to all the recordings from 1973 through the decade, landing us right back in Studio B to start peeling the onion, to use that phrase, on a series of recordings soon to become tagged as the Eliminator sessions. What’s interesting is Memphis, much like Houston, has a strident element of blues and R&B that characterizes and colors a lot of the musical expressions that have been present since the ‘40s. Even the ‘30s.

I think the Texas thing might be slightly different than what you find in Memphis. [That] was the first stopoff place. As you walked – and believe me, literally walking out of Mississippi. In the ‘30s, not too many people that were trying to leave Mississippi had automobiles. They were walking out of Mississippi, and Memphis was about as far as you could get on foot, so it made it a convenient resting place and I think the phenomenon of Beale Street being a hotbed of music, nightclub scenes, the red-light district, you name it – if you wanted action, you found yourself on Beale Street.

Beale Street in Memphis

Basically, that lent probably the strongest element of musical expression that still exists today. One thing we’ve learned from our days in both Houston and Memphis, it’s about composition, it’s about learning to play what you wanna hear. In the last 20 years, music has fragmented into things that are just [chuckles] sound experimentation. Sometimes you hear what you may not want to be hearing, but that doesn’t play into the hand of what comes out of Houston and Memphis. They at least have that in common.

Back in ’83, when we went into the studio, there were two things present. We were focused on getting good time. We were liberating ourselves from the stage antics of speeding up and slowing down; we were focused on keeping solid tempo, establishing a groove and holding it. And to propel that into what later became known as our experimental period, a lot of the musical manufacturers were starting to offer contraptions making musical sounds that had never been heard before.

RO: Like what?

BG: Well, Moog was putting out fuzz-tone pedals that out-fuzzed the fuzz. Our famous soliloquy to all of this is we marched in with crazy instruments under one arm, and we were using the other arm to throw the manual away. We found ourselves back in that experimental place where we didn’t necessarily know what we were doing, but we just kept twisting knobs and pressing buttons until we heard what we liked hearing. A lot of that stuff wound up on the record. - Chris Gray

Part 2 of our interview will be up Monday.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray