ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons: ‘We're quite happy with being strange’
Billy F Gibbons’s life’s work began on Christmas Day 1962. Thirteen years old for barely a week, at home in Houston he’d been pestering his parents for a guitar or a set of drums. Eight years earlier, his mother had taken him and his sister to see Elvis Presley; age seven, his musician father had driven him to a recording session by BB King. With rock’n’roll and the blues already in his bloodstream, it was the gift of a sunburst Gibson Melody Maker and a small Fender Champ amplifier that put him in the game.
“My dad said, ‘It looks like you’ve left something from back behind the tree,’” he tells me. “I tiptoed forward and he actually pulled out a guitar. I could see the neck and there was a bit of wrapping around the lower side. And when I peeled back the wrapping, I realised that not only was it a guitar but it was an electric guitar. I was on fire.”
He still is. Fifty-nine years after first mastering the rudimentary riffs of Jimmy Reid - a task accomplished long before nightfall on that pivotal Christmas Day - William Frederick Gibbons has a strong claim on the title of America’s finest player. Certainly, he’s the most tasteful. Speaking to Johnny Carson, in 1968 Jimi Hendrix described him as “the best young guitar player in the country”. In the 21st Century, the only thing that’s changed is that he’s no longer young.
On a cold evening in the dog days of spring, today Gibbons is merely a voice emanating from the tinny speakers of my laptop. Beaming in from a hotel room in Las Vegas to talk about his forthcoming solo album, Hardware, released this week, after four minutes the 71-year old decides that our interview would be better served if the two of us could actually see each other. I couldn’t agree more. It’s just a question of wiring and cables, he says. “It’ll take me but five minutes to fix it.”
And there he is, one third of ZZ Top. More than famous, the look is iconic; the 12-inch beard, the rubber-bobbled beanie reportedly acquired from an African tribal chief, the tailor-made suit jacket. With a voice like sunbaked gravel, leaning back he slaps his knee to reveal a pair of black and red pajama bottoms. The only thing missing is the sunglasses (cheap, or otherwise). Peering out from behind a pair of pink-rimmed prescription gaffers, this is the first time I’ve ever seen his eyes.
For the next 40-minutes, my questions are merely signposts for his lugubrious ruminations. Attempting to identify one of the reasons his music has aged so well, I ask about the sexual politics of the songs. In a break from the norm, on tracks such as Got Me Under Pressure, Pincushion or Decision Or Collision – honestly, there are dozens of them – the women are always in charge; out of pocket and out of luck, the guys are just schmucks, or Wile E Coyote. Even in 2021, Gibbons is still coming up short. “I flew her halfway round the world, baby, only first class, she said her lovin’ ain’t for sale and she gave it all back,” he sings on More-More-More, from Hardware. Fearing my line of enquiry might perhaps be rather esoteric, instead we get this:
“I was speaking with Mr Jimmy Shine, a hot-rodder from way back,” Gibbons tells me. “And he said, ‘We all know the famous red car gracing the cover of the ZZ Top record Eliminator’. Well here you’ve got a solo record with another automobile on the cover. He said, ‘However, do you think you’ll ever get the keys away from the girl? Because they’re the ones that always get to drive.’ So, yeah, the girls. It’s no secret. The girls own the world, us guys just take care of the stuff on it.”
Unveiled in the spring of 1983, Eliminator saw ZZ Top’s already impressive sales increase tenfold. With five of the record’s 11-tracks released as singles, the all-conquering success of the trio’s eighth LP made a mockery of the fears of their record company, Warner Bros., that the decision to use synthesizers and dance-floor beats would alienate their core constituency. If it did, no one noticed.
What they did notice were the videos. Directed by Tim Newman (cousin of Randy Newman), the trilogy of Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs made ZZ Top the first band from the 1970s to truly master the visual terrain of a brand new decade. Others followed. But while heritage campaigners such as Don Henley and Steve Winwood prettified their image for the young viewers of Music Television, “that little ol’ band from Texas” looked like they’d just stepped out of a pile-up on the motorway.
Their presence was peripheral, anyway; the stars were a trio of attractive women – those bits haven’t aged quite so well, mind - riding from town to town in the band’s instantly recognisable cherry-red 1933 customized Ford Coupe. Propelled by the iconography of it all, the trio’s success during this period was stratospheric. After playing the Hammersmith Odeon for a single night in 1980, six years later they were filling Wembley Arena four times over. In 1991, they drew 60,000 people to the Milton Keynes Bowl.
“Frank Beard, our fearless drummer, the man with no beard, was the one who stumbled into [MTV],” Gibbons recalls. “He called [bassist] Dusty [Hill] up, he called me up, this was late at night, and said ‘gee wiz, you ought to turn on the TV. There’s this unusual concert, band after band after band, I don’t know where this show is taking place but I’ve been watching for an hour’. So we all tuned in, not knowing that this thing had started called MTV. We thought it was some video capture of a show. After four hours of watching, I called Frank and said, ‘Hey, when does this show end?’”
As with so many aspects of ZZ Top, here it’s difficult to know where the truth ends and the mythology begins. Even in its earliest days, MTV didn’t look like a concert film; the channel signaled its brand new visual style right from the off with the decision to play The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star as its first ever clip. But if the band really were confused, they soon caught up. “Those choreographed moves [in their promo clips] keep you from knowing who they really are,” said Josh Homme, the singer with Queens Of The Stone Age, on the 2019 documentary film ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.
In truth, the trio have been unknowable for a long time. In 1976 and 1977 they took to the road on the 113-date Worldwide Texas Tour; appearing on a 75-foot stage shaped like the Lone Star state, the musicians shared the spotlight with buffalo, longhorn steer, pigs, buzzards and (even) rattlesnakes. Frank Beard spent the $72,000 he earned from the prohibitively expensive production on drugs. Worried that he was being changed by success, Dusty Hill took a manual job at Houston International Airport.
During this time, Billy F Gibbons traveled the world. Keeping company with gurus in India and with artists at a commune in Paris, in 1977 the guitarist arrived in London on a $90 British Airways return ticket. Stepping into the whirlwind of punk, at the 100 Club he dived straight into the pogo-pit at concerts by The Vibrators, and more.
“There were peanut shells all over the floors,” he recalls. “Suffice it to say, the scene was exploding… that really started this love affair with the way things were unfolding, mostly from the UK. There were some sounds that were looking for a title. I think that the word punk was so apropos. No holds barred, it was rambunctious, rude, this was not a polite kind of sound that we’re talking about.”
From this point on ZZ Top only ever looked forward. Even before Eliminator, albums such as Deguello and El Loco burst the seams of the traditional boogie-blues template; inspired by Depeche Mode and Revolting Cocks, from the 1990s on the group went berserk. Signed by RCA, after just one platinum album (1994’s Antenna) collars were turned on the pop sound that had made them famous. Truly, you’d be hard pushed to nominate a band that gambled quite so recklessly with their enormous success.
Asking Billy F Gibbons to guide me through the thinking behind the frankly bonkers XXX LP, from 1999, I receive an answer that’s almost as weird as the record itself. It all started, apparently, when the band went to see Lightning Hopkins at a club in Houston. The sight of the bluesman’s drummer, Spider Kilpatrick, using the larger of his two tom-toms as a table upon which he rested an ashtray, his wallet, a drink and his dinner, knocked Frank Beard sideways. From this, opening track Poke Chop Sandwich was born. Inoperably sludgy, it’s difficult to imagine this is what RCA had in mind when they signed the group for $35 million.
“The cornerstone of most ZZ Top LPs emerge from experiences we’ve had on the road or just recollections that seem to make sense,” Gibbons says, adding that “we’re quite happy that XXX to this day remains one of the stranger releases.”
On tour, it’s a different matter. With a set-list that remains largely unchanged in a quarter of a century, ZZ Top’s determination to cater to the widest common denominator – albeit, for as little as 75-minutes a night - can at times be boring, and perhaps even a little mercenary. It’s like good-natured cabaret, really. Certainly, the metronomic determination with which they plough through standards such as Tush and Jesus Just Left Chicago makes AC/DC sound like John Coltrane.
Even so, on a good night they can still sizzle. I well recall an evening at the Brixton Academy, in 2003, on which they appeared onstage in silver cloaks and large sombreros. Opening their account with Gimme All Your Lovin’, Billy F Gibbons plucked his exquisite selection of notes from a Gretsch Jupiter Thunderbird guitar given to him by Bo Diddley. You just don’t get that level of effortless cool with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Impenetrable and alluring, perhaps the only thing we know for sure is that ZZ Top are the longest surviving rock line-up of all time. Locked together for more than half a century, there isn’t much else that can get in. Certainly, speaking to Billy F Gibbons today there are moments when I wonder if perhaps I’m being played.
Toward the end of our interview, he tells me that “I really enjoyed knowing that part of our exchange today includes the word lifestyle” – the word never passed my lips – before sharing a story about how he likes square furniture because “my life is round”. (In 2012 he explained his decision to turn down a $1 million offer from Gillette to shave his beard as follows: "The prospect of seeing oneself in the mirror clean-shaven is too close to a Vincent Price film.”)
But if I am being played, at least it’s by a master. At their best, this is one of the world’s great groups. As seen on ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas, Gibbons, Hill and Beard sit around a practice space in Nashville playing music with the kind of languidness that can only come from a lifetime’s worth of practice. As ever, the notes from the guitar are perfect. The first time the three men got together they played a shuffle that lasted for three hours. Fifty years later, they began working on their latest batch of material during a break in filming. After saying goodbye to me, Billy F Gibbons will fly to Tennessee to begin work on his group’s 16th studio album.
“The director said to us, ‘Now give me 30 seconds of maybe one or two songs that might be of interest,” he recalls. “I think we were going to go back to ZZ Top’s first album, Brown Sugar, and we didn’t get 16 bars into the song before it was, ‘Wait a minute. Hold it, hold it. The camera’s broken.’ So the cameraman stepped forward and said, ‘Oh give me five minutes and I’ll have this rectified. I’ll have this fixed…’, so I said, ‘Hey, we’re plugged in, let’s kill some time until they get this camera repaired.
“So after what was closer to two hours the guy said, ‘Okay we’re rolling again’,” he says. “We’d been playing for two hours and [an engineer] had been recording. So yesterday we were getting to review these recordings, and I’ve got to say that we’re still having a good time making music. It doesn’t matter if we’re in a studio or if we’re in a honky-tonk, we’re still enjoying getting to do what we get to do.”
Hardware by Billy F Gibbons is on release now