Classic Rock Corner

Billy Gibbons Pt. 3: "We Were Fairly Confident," Taking Eliminator to the Dance Floor, The Videos, Eliminator In Hindsight

Note: Part 1 of this interview is here; part 2 is here.

Rocks Off: Did the band think you had a hit record when you wrapped the album?

Billy Gibbons: Yeah. We were fairly confident we had stumbled into something that was really solid. In the middle of the disco craze, this was our solid rock music message, and it couldn’t have been stronger at the time. I don’t know, the Stones had gotten away with “Miss You” and Rod Stewart [sings], “Do ya think I’m sexy,” whatever that thing was.

RO: But this actually proved pretty dance-floor-friendly as well, with the “Legs” remixes and such, right?

BG: Yes. And it was only made possible because we had remained focused toward good timing, and the tempo that was present on the first eight bars was still there on the 128th bar and they could do their dance magic with it as they would. The bass drum figure was four on the floor for a lot of that stuff. It was really simple.

We weren’t the first rock band to do it. AC/DC, they had broken ground to keep things on the ultra-simple. So we were taking the messaging matters from a lot of diverse places, but to answer your question, yeah. There was a sense of confidence, and we genuinely liked it.

Many times we don’t go back to listen to a lot of ZZ Top songs, because we’re on to listening to what everybody else has done. This was different. We actually enjoyed listening to it, and the subsequent live performances to this day.

ZZ Top live in Fresno, 2005

RO: You still play about half the record live, right?

BG: I guess the number that would be closest to the blues from Eliminator is “I Need You Tonight.”

RO: I love that song. That’s deep blues.

BG: Yeah, and it’s coming off on the live stage. Just last night we had an extended version of it, and it’s funny. It’s a good feeling.

RO: Let me ask you a little bit of alternative history. How do you think the record would have done without the videos?

BG: I think it might have resonated just on a musical level. It would be difficult to take a second guess. That video phenomenon turned the music world into a dual-edged sword. Before it was left up to one’s imagination what the mind could see. And then video kind of changed that. It was painting a picture for us.

RO: What do you remember thinking the first time or two you saw MTV?

BG: Well, I’ll tell you exactly. Frank called me, and then he called Dusty, and we thought we were tuning into a late-night concert channel. After about four or five hours, I called Frank back and said “When is this concert over?” Not knowing we were watching the first 24-hour music channel. But it was really something, man. It was exciting, and it was, you know, sonic meets cinema. It was really cool.

RO: Who came up with the idea to use the car?

BG: Our director, Tim Newman, really put the disparate elements together into a form-fitting puzzle. He found the girls. We said, “Tim, we passed up millions of dollars with a razor-blade company because we’re too ugly under these beards. Find another place to aim the camera.” He said, “OK – we’ll take the red car and I’ve got some pretty girls.”

RO: Doesn’t sound like you had to think about it too hard.

BG: Yeah. It made for a good combination, and it’s something that has tagged us. I think the present perception lingers on. ZZ Top is about good times, fast cars, pretty girls, hot rods…

RO: How many copies of those keychains you reckon have been manufactured?

BG: Gee whiz. Let’s put in terms of this present government “rescue budget.” [both laugh]

RO: With the reissue, how do you think the album holds up today?

BG: Well, hindsight’s 20/20, but musically, because of the stridency of maintaining a good groove, it still plays good. The compositions are entertaining. By and large, in a world where CDs have nearly evaporated, the sales figures reported for the first week indicate that somebody out there must like something about it, because it’s selling hard product. - Chris Gray

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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