Note: For part 1 of Rocks Off's interview with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, click here.
Rocks Off: Describe a typical day for ZZ while you were making this album.
BG: Well, we had the golden work ethic. We were in by 9, out by 9.
RO: 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.?
BG: Either way. The clock was upside down many times. We didn’t know which way was up. But Memphis was a robust scene. We still retain a lot of friends. There’s quite a few Houstonians that were misplaced and landed in Memphis, and that played as a great backdrop to making us feel at home.
Memphis after dark
We just had an interesting, interesting time making discovery of what was going on up there, both in the studio and with the social set. The crazy thing about Memphis is they don’t stop serving alcohol – if they want to, they can stay open all night. And it’s just in that one county. The rest of the state is not quite like that, but Memphis is kind of a little oasis.
RO: Well, of course several songs do reference various forms of partying. How crazy was it?
BG: I wouldn’t call it unmanageable, I’d call it manageably out of control [both laugh]. There was a couple spots – there was a spot called the North End, which was on the south end of Main Street; go figure that out. There was the Green Parrot, there was a couple nightspots way out in East Memphis at White Station. That’s where "TV Dinners" erupted.
ZZ Top in 1982, around the time of recording Eliminator
We had this music track and we couldn’t figure out what to put with it. This was way, way after hours, and some girl walked in in a white jumpsuit, and the word ‘TV Dinners’ was stenciled on the back of her jumpsuit. I said, ‘I don’t know what it means, but that’s the next song.’
RO [laughs]: Did you ask?
BG: Yeah. She didn’t have any clue what it meant either. She just said, “I like the way it looks.”
RO: And you did too, I guess.
BG: Yeah. It was moments like that – there was a flag on top of White Station Power, and we knew if the flag was fluttering in one direction it was going to be a good night. If it was not, we didn’t know. But it didn’t slow us down any.
ZZ Top cast their handprints in concrete for Ford Park's Hall of Fame, Beaumont, 2007. Angel San Juan/KFDM.com
RO: Whatever happened to the woman with the nightstick in “Under Pressure”?
BG: Oooooooh. She may still be around – we just don’t want to run into her anymore.
RO: I guess the story is you saw a woman stalled on the freeway and that became “Legs.” Is that true?
BG: Yeah. That was in Houston, right there on Post Oak near the Galleria. At one time there was a movie theater next to a department store down the street from Nieman’s towards San Felipe. I’ll think of it in a minute. At any rate, there was a movie theater and we were thinking the rain was going to bring a blackout, so we said “Well, let’s go to the movie theater – at least we’ll have popcorn if it goes dark.”
Post Oak Blvd., near the Galleria
We were on the way and sure enough, one of those famous Houston thunderstorms erupted out of nowhere. We saw this pretty girl and said “Well, we better go back and offer her a ride.” In the space of making a U-turn, she had dashed across the street and out of sight. I said, “She’s got legs and she know how to use them.”
RO: So how good were they – 1 to 10?
BG: Oh, it’d be a 10-plus. 10.5.286.
RO: One of the songs that wasn’t a single but has always been one of my favorites on the album is “I Got the Six.” It sounds almost punk rock to me. Were you guys listening to any of that stuff back then?
BG: Yes. If you put that in a time frame, we had been fortunately around the planet, and one of the interesting side trips were the excursions we had through London. At that moment, that punk scene at a zenith.
RO: This would have been early ‘80s?
BG: Early ‘80s. And it was having an impact on just about everywhere we turned. That was the happening thing, and it didn’t escape our radar. We were curious and dialed in, and then got sucked in, and some of that stuff got punky and funky.
RO: Did you feel any kind of kinship with bands like the Clash?
BG: Yeah. The Clash, they were a little more along the lines of what we were pursuing. I don’t think that they were as punked-out as they were, to use a paraphrase, funked-out. They were fierce, no question about it. They had a punk synergism. Their music, I think, was a little more rock-oriented.
RO: They were really diverse at this point. This would have been around London Calling and Give ‘Em Enough Rope.
BG: Yeah. And you remember that famous photograph on London Calling, that black-and-white. It was kind of a takeoff on the first Elvis Presley record, but they added their guitar-bashing twist to it.
RO: Supposedly that was taken in Austin. Am I right?
BG: It was. It was.
RO: At the City Coliseum.
BG: Yeah. Sure was.
RO: Even though you made the record in Memphis, how much Houston would you say is in Eliminator – the people in the songs, and just the city itself, the musical stew we have down here?
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BG: I’d say about 90 percent of everything we do is steeped in a Houston tradition, and of course the common thread is Texas everything, whatever that is. Somebody asked me the other day what Texas music is and I said, “Well, we don’t know, but you don’t hear much about Connecticut music.”
RO [laughs]: That’s true. Or Kansas music.
BG: Yeah. There’s a mystery element yet to be totally defined. I don’t want to challenge it, I just play it. - Chris Gray