Song for song and pound for pound, what is the greatest Texas rock album of all time? Well, grab a Lone Star or three and let's discuss.
Old-timers would no doubt cast their ballot for something like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators' Easter Everywhere, Sir Douglas Quintet's The Sir Douglas Quintet Is Back! or Edgar Winter's Frankenstein. Though they verge on country, Joe Ely's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta and Honky Tonk Masquerade deserve consideration, as do the Fabulous Thunderbirds' first two, Girls Go Wild! and What's the Word? For the handful of people who have actually heard it, the self-titled 1987 LP by True Believers — Alejandro Escovedo and Jon Dee Graham's Televisionesque mid-'80s band — has to rank pretty high.
New wave boosters can rally behind the Judy's Washarama, punks say "Oi!" for the Big Boys' The Skinny Elvis/The Fat Elvis double whopper and headbangers would probably kick your ass for saying anything besides Pantera's Cowboys from Hell. Youngsters might go for the Toadies' Rubberneck or (cringe) Blue October's Foiled, while their more indie-minded brethren could well select Spoon's Girls Can Tell or Okkervil River's Black Sheep Boy. And everyone can agree that not at least nominating ZZ Top's Tres Hombres and Deguello would be outright blasphemy.
Great albums, all of them (well, except Foiled), but Noise respectfully votes none of the above. His choice seldom (if ever) comes up in this conversation, but it's another ZZ Top album — the one that has probably outsold all those others combined. Furthermore, in terms of pop-culture impact upon release, the album trails only Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, U2 and maybe Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys among its contemporaries. It's 1983's Eliminator, 25 years old this year and reissued by Rhino last month in the usual two-disc expanded format with extra tracks and a bonus DVD.
Certified diamond — domestic sales of 10 million-plus — by the Recording Industry Association of America more than a decade ago, Eliminator does have its defenders; All Music Guide calls it "irresistible as Reaganomics." No kidding. Maybe the reason Eliminator hasn't fostered more consideration is that it's been part of popular mythology for so long (the beards, the red Eliminator hot rod, the keychain), people have forgotten it's even an album. Allow Noise to correct that.
In High Fidelity terms — wherein an album's merit is determined by the potency of its opening track — Eliminator ranks up there with The Clash ("Janie Jones"), Sticky Fingers ("Brown Sugar") and Nevermind ("SmellsLike Teen Spirit"). Frank Beard's drums shuffle in, cocksure and metronome-precise, for a few bars before Billy Gibbons's guitar and Dusty Hill's bass enter with a tandem modern-blues riff as sleek and low to the ground as that hot rod. Ladies and gentlemen, "Gimme All Your Lovin'." It ain't a request.
Eliminator's other four singles are just as fierce. "Under Pressure" marries an unrelenting riff to one of the band's funniest-ever lyrics, a vivid account of a party girl with a mean streak a mile wide ("She might get out a nightstick and hurt me real, real bad"). The swaggering "Sharp Dressed Man" is one of the few songs of the '80s (or any decade) equally at home in a Pasadena roadhouse or Post Oak discotheque.
As for "Legs," its seamless fusion of driving Texas boogie with ultramodern — even today — synthesizer flash, if anything, overshadows the song's surprisingly heartfelt sentiment. "TV Dinners," Eliminator's forgotten single, is a sick slice of swamp-rock with a taunting organ lick that recalls both SDQ's "She's About a Mover" and Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry."
The true measure of any album's greatness, however, is not the singles but the songs commonly referred to as "deep cuts." Eliminator passes with flying colors. "I Need You Tonight" is as slow and tender a blues as anything the band has done, while "I Got the Six" is the exact opposite — unadulterated raunch (think "Pearl Necklace") that melds punk and AC/DC.
The mysterious "Thug" isn't exactly Ultravox, but wouldn't be entirely out of place on David Bowie's Let's Dance, either. The closing trio of rockers — "Dirty Dog," "If I Could Only Flag Her Down," "Bad Girl" — can't help but echo what's come before, but would still make fine singles for lesser bands or even on lesser ZZ albums.
Naturally, Eliminator wouldn't have been nearly as huge without the accompanying videos, which made perhaps the most non-photogenic band in rock among the biggest stars on MTV. Note, however, that ZZ Top always assumed supporting roles in its videos, playing either the guardian angels with the keys to the magic hot rod — and thus the three well-heeled Texas babes who always seem to pile out — or simply playing the band. Without the videos, Eliminator would occupy a significantly smaller spot in the popular imagination, but it would still be a killer album. Is a killer album.
No less than Henry Rollins, who used Eliminator as preshow music on Black Flag's 1984 tour, praises the album in the reissue's liner notes: "The louder you played it, the better it sounded," he says. "The change of direction was one of the boldest and most successful moves a rock band ever made."
Hear hear. Noise caught up with Gibbons in Nashville last week — ZZ was trying to decide whether to learn a Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard song for that night's show at the storied Ryman Auditorium — to discuss Eliminator's tremendous, well, legs...and a few other things.
Noise: First of all, how did y'all's houses and families and everything fare through Ike?
Billy Gibbons: 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.
N: Have you guys been approached to play any sort of benefit concert?
BG: Well, I think that those moves are still afoot. It's 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.
N: Speaking of, how about the Balinese Room?
BG: We're saddened to see that. 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.
N: On to Eliminator. What was going on during the early stages of the album?
BG: Well, we had returned from the road to our second home in Memphis, Tennessee, right there at Ardent Studios. 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.
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 [us] into what later became known as our experimental period, a lot of the musical manufacturers were starting to offer contraptions that had never been heard before.
N: 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 didn't necessarily know what we were doing, but we just kept twisting knobs and pressing buttons until we heard what we liked hearing.
N: Describe a typical day making this album.
BG: Well, we had the golden work ethic. We were in by 9, out by 9.
N: 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.
N: How crazy was it?
BG: I wouldn't call it unmanageable, I'd call it manageably out of control (both laugh). 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. 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. I said, "I don't know what it means, but that's the next song."
N (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."
N: 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. We were on the way [to the movies] 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."
N: So how good were they?
BG: Oh, it'd be a 10-plus. 10.5.286.
N: Did you feel any kind of kinship with bands like the Clash?
BG: Yeah. 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.
N: Even though you made the record in Memphis, how much Houston would you say is in Eliminator?
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.
N: Did the band think it had a hit record when you wrapped the album?
BG: 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.
N: How many copies of those keychains you reckon have been manufactured?
BG: Gee whiz. Let's put it in terms of this present government "rescue budget" (both laugh).
N: 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 [of release] indicate that somebody out there must like something about it.
ZZ Top begins recording its next album next month, collaborating with über-producer Rick Rubin and dynamic duo the Black Keys. The complete interview is online at blogs.houstonpress.com/rocks.
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