Inspired by some of the blues greats, the Texan guitarist toured with rock greats with his band The Moving Sidewalks, before finding global fame with ZZ Top who went on to be one of rock’s greats themselves.
“Music has that power to dredge up recollections
from the distant past.”
Billy Gibbons has been playing it cool for a long, long time. Next year the guitarist will be celebrating 50 years of ZZ Top, the band he formed in Houston, Texas with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard. In that time, the trio, masters of blues and boogie, have sold more than 50 million records, and made it all look so easy. On stage, cooking on a high heat, these dudes never seem to break sweat. Their image has a unique sense of style and an in-built punchline: Gibbons and Hill with their famous foot-long beards, drummer Beard having one in name only.
The way Gibbons talks, in a Texan drawl that begins somewhere around his boots, is laidback to the point of horizontal.
Even so, there are some things that rattle his cool.
“The hands-free faucet,” he says, apropos of nothing.
“Those damn things don’t work. You find yourself waving your hands in thin air, waiting for the water. I’d like to find that guy that invented that contraption and wring his neck…”
Gibbons is talking to
Classic Rock ahead of ZZ Top’s performance at a winery in
Woodinville, a small town in
Washington State. He also has a new solo album about to be released: The Big Bad
Blues, a collection of original material and old standards, on which he’s backed by a group of veteran session musicians, and ex-Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum.
Unlike his 2015 solo album
Perfectamundo, an adventure in Afro-Cuban-influenced rhythm, The Big Bad Blues is business as usual for man who has spent so much of his 68 years in thrall to that particular idiom.
William Frederick Gibbons, born in Houston on December 15, 1949, had music in his blood.
His father Freddie was an orchestra conductor and concert pianist. As a teenager, Billy played in various groups, the most notable being acid rock combo The Moving Sidewalks, who opened for The Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968. The following year Gibbons teamed up with Hill and Beard, both from rival Houston band American Blues, and the three of them have stuck together, as ZZ Top, ever since.
It was Keith Richards who defined the essence of ZZ Top when he inducted them into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2004. “This is a solid band,” he said. “These cats know their blues and they know how to dress it up.”
The band’s boogie power led Gibbons to jokingly describe their sound as like “four flat tyres on a muddy road”, but on classic 1970s albums such as Tres Hombres, Fandango! and Degüello, they stirred a little soul and funk into the pot, adding a surreal humour in loony tunes such as Manic Mechanic and Ten Foot Pole. With 1983’s Eliminator album they pulled off the smartest trick of their whole career, cleverly updating their signature sound with synthesisers and sequencers and creating huge hits with Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs, all powered by brilliant videos which, in an era when MTV was king, transformed the self-styled ‘little ol’ band from Texas’ to global superstars.
In conversation, Billy Gibbons employs the dry wit and smooth delivery of a seasoned raconteur. Telling the story of his life’s work, he discusses the past, present and future of ZZ Top. He speaks of the inspiration he found in Hendrix, the Stones and Elvis, and in punk rock and hip-hop. He recalls with affection his experiences with consciousnessexpanding drugs and the girls from the bordello immortalised in the ZZ Top classic La Grange. He begins by going back to the 50s, when as a young boy he had his mind blown by a blues legend.
What do you remember of the moment when you first sensed the power of the blues?
I grew up in a house where music was a constant. My dad, a rather interesting all-round entertainer, provided a tremendous sonic background to my childhood. We also had a housekeeper and she loved listening to the rhythm-and-blues stations.
One day, when I was about seven years old, my dad took me to ACA Studios in Houston, where he had some business to do. There was a recording session in progress, and my dad put me in there, sat me on a chair and said: “I’ll come back for you in a little while.” It turned out that the session was by none other than BB King. And what BB was doing with the guitar, I remember thinking: “This is for me…”
Do you now see that as being a defining point in your life?
It sure was. Also, my younger sister and I got to tag along with my mom to go to see an Elvis Presley concert. And those two events, to this day, loom large in the mind. Those two events were doubly responsible for taking my life in a certain direction; between Elvis and BB King, I was done.
Which other blues artists had the biggest influence on you?
I think it’s fair to say that when Muddy Waters left the acoustic guitar by the wayside and finally decided to plug in and power up, that was a rather significant turning point. From that moment – the electrification of the blues – there was no turning back for me. I would also add Jimmy Reed into the mix. Even to this day I find myself returning to his old recordings. And it’s somewhat remarkable that after hearing these things over and over again,
“Seeing BB King and Elvis Presley, that was responsible for taking my life in a certain direction.”
there’s always something that pops up that I may not have caught before. It’s kind of amazing to me that I can still get such a charge out of Jimmy Reed’s stuff.
You recorded two Muddy Waters songs for your new album. Where does the emotional depth in your version of Standing Around Crying come from?
That really is the keyword – it does become quite emotional for me when I play that song. And
I like to extol the virtues of the originators. We’re challenged to be successful as interpreters. In those silent moments when you’re all alone in a studio and you imagine what it might have been like during those rather captivating moments when many of these great songs were recorded, it’s inspirational. I think that’s part of the mystery of the magnetic appeal of this rather simplistic art form. I use that word ‘simplistic’, but it really is rather complex.
The first song on the album, Missin’ Yo’ Kissin’, was written by your wife, Gilly Stillwater. Yes. I was playing around with the usual suspects – those famous three chords – and I saw her scribbling on a piece of paper. At first I didn’t pay too much attention to it, but when she left the room I happened to glance down at what she’d written, and I thought: “Gee whizz, I could do something with this…”
Before ZZ Top, you played psychedelic rock with The Moving Sidewalks.
It was a wonderful time, largely due to the unexpected invitation to join the Jimi Hendrix Experience tour back in 1968. Rock’n’roll was becoming more cerebral. Bands were beginning to experiment with expansion of consciousness. It genuinely was a period of great experimentation.
Is it fair to assume that The Moving Sidewalks, in the spirit of these times, took a lot of drugs? Initially, no, but as society’s values seemed to turn in that direction, we didn’t seem to pass anything up. We took whatever was being passed around.
When you reunited with the Sidewalks to play three shows in 2013, was it as much fun as you hoped it would be?
Shocking is what it was. The other three guys
had regrouped once the bass player and organ player returned from their duty with armed services in Vietnam. So their chops continued to develop, they became real players, and as soon as we started rehearsing again, within thirty seconds it was back to what it was in 1968 . We were all grinning, remembering crazy shenanigans on the road. Music has that power to dredge up recollections from the distant past.
When ZZ Top formed in ’69, what kind of band did you envisage it would be? We touched upon The Moving Sidewalks and the psychedelic surroundings of that excursion, but at the same time things were swinging back to a bluesier influence, particularly from bands from the UK.
It’s no secret that the British revived the art form in no small terms. We were rediscovering that which had been left by the wayside, all thanks to the Rolling Stones and Eric Burdon and
The Animals and the Pretty Things – so many influential arrivals on these shores, allowing us to get back into the blues thing. And I shared quite a number of the same influences that struck both Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, so it was quite natural to take the ball and run with it.
I inherited such a great rhythm section. Dusty and Frank had been in a band together for years before I even met them, so I stepped on to this readymade platform to take it straight ahead. We haven’t looked back since.
How did you come up with the name of the band?
We had a collection of posters for upcoming blues artists that were swinging through town. We’d go around and yank these posters off the telephone poles. And I kept noticing the repetition of initials in the names: BB King, OV Wright, ZZ Hill… We were going to call ourselves ZZ King, but it was too much like BB King. Then I said: “King is at the top, maybe it should be ‘ZZ Top’.” And we went with it.
“Music has that power to dredge up recollections from the distant past.”
The band made so many great records in the seventies, from ZZ Top’s First Album in 1971 to Degüello in 1979. Many fans consider Tres Hombres, from 1973, to be the band’s best. How do you see it? The first album has its own special quality, and of course Tres Hombres was our first Top Ten record. La Grange popped out of that album, and for that reason it’s remained a long-standing favourite.
The bordello eulogised in La Grange – surely you must have visited the place?
We certainly did. It was kind of an unsung rite of passage, especially if you’re lucky enough to be born in Texas. It was down near the Mexican border line and it was named The Chicken Ranch.
How were the girls there?
Oh, they were quite charming! I guess that place was not such a well-kept secret. And nobody seemed to care.
In 1976, the Worldwide Texas Tour saw the band perform all across America on a stage in the shape of the Lone Star State, along with a Texan menagerie including a buffalo, a longhorn steer, vultures and rattlesnakes. What the hell were you thinking?
It was setting the stage for ZZ Top to bring a taste of Texas out with us. It was kind of an ambitious plan, but we decided, “Yeah, let’s give it a go.” It was such a costly endeavour, and the logistics behind it were extreme. We learned very quickly: we may call ourselves a trio, but we had a hundred and fifty-six people travelling with us. In fact, at some point I think that the animals were travelling in grander style than the band. The longhorn steer
and the buffalo were placed on these scissor lifts that were actually intended for use in construction sites. It was really wild, and a singular challenge, but we certainly had a good time doing it.
What did that experience teach you? We learned that you can take the venom out of a rattlesnake, but it’s restored within a matter of days.
Some of the greatest ZZ Top songs of the 1970s were straight blues: Sure Got Cold After The Rain Fell from Rio Grande Mud, Jesus Just Left
Chicago from Tres Hombres, Blue Jean Blues from Fandango!, A Fool For Your Stockings from Degüello… Blue Jean Blues and A Fool For Your Stockings are two of the blues numbers that we still perform today. Many of ZZ Top’s songs started out from picking up a catchphrase, just something off the cuff, and that was certainly true of A Fool For Your Stockings. I remember overhearing one of our buddies recollecting why he fell for a certain girl. When he uttered the phrase: “Man, I was a fool for her stockings,” it was so honest and so unexpected. I wrote it down immediately and it served us well.
Interestingly, when we recorded that song, I was playing the Fender Strat that Jimi Hendrix gave me when we were travelling together, and for some reason the guitar wasn’t working through the amp. We wound up plugging the guitar straight into the board, and that’s why it’s such a clean tone on that track.
As a guitar player, you’ve always had such a distinctive sound. Brian May says it’s all in the fingers. What do you think? I’ll tend to agree with Brian’s assessment, although in the case of ZZ Top we count largely on the dramatic performance from our famous 1969 sunburst Les Paul, the one we call Pearly Gates. Even today that instrument is fascinating. It came together on one of those lucky days when it was the right combination of wood, the right amount of glue, the right amount of paint. It’s kind of crazy. I’ve passed it around and players of all sorts have all come to the same conclusion – there is something magic in that instrument.
The first ZZ Top album of the 80s,
El Loco, was aptly named. A couple of tunes on it – Ten Foot Pole and Heaven, Hell Or Houston – were really out there. It’s certainly true that Heaven, Hell Or Houston comes out of a very strange place. It’s a resonant theme within this band, that element of weird. And with Ten Foot Pole, once the tape was rolling I just started mumbling, and we all thought: “This is working!” They asked for a lyric sheet for that record, and I said: “Yeah, gimme another ten years…”
It was a rather playful time. We had Party On The Patio, which was inspired by The
B-52’s. And once again the Brits had turned things upside-down with the punk scene. It was anti-everything – more than a style, it was a statement, and it was not far off our radar at a time when we were getting rather rambunctious.
After all that craziness, you had the biggest hit of the band’s career with Eliminator, and suddenly everyone knew who ZZ Top were. What was the secret to that album’s success? There was a dramatic shift in the approach when entering the recording studio. We placed a great amount of importance on timing and tuning. Those two elements are so much the backbone of making appealing sounds. This was also a period when a new style of synthesisers had started to become readily accessible, and we were not afraid of them. We were laying hands on these crazy contraptions with total disregard for reading the manual. It was: twist the knobs and keep twisting the knobs until you find something that sounds just right.
We were stretching the limits of rock’n’roll. That was quite a shift. The blues elements are still to be found if you listen close enough, but there was this strident adherence to good timing and good tone and tuning. And it worked out nicely for us.
In the thirty-five years since Eliminator, the band have made just seven more studio albums. Arguably the finest of those was the most recent, 2012’s La Futura, produced by Rick Rubin. What led you to him?
Rick and I had been friends for quite some time. He had been patiently waiting in the wings for the opportunity to work with ZZ Top. But I must say the process of making that record was rather lengthy. From the day we joined forces with Rick to the day it came out, it took four years.
AC/DC fell out with Rubin when he produced their album Ballbreaker. His painstaking methodology was not to the band’s taste.
Was that also a problem for ZZ Top?
I know some artists complain that they don’t like working with Rick because he’s constantly asking for songs to be played again and again. That’s one of the peculiar qualities of Rick’s production technique. But the bottom line is that ZZ Top really enjoy playing, and when you work with Rick, playing is the name of the game.
It was kind of funny. We’d play long into the night, these jam sessions. I remember one night Frank said to me: “Is Rick serious? We’ve been playing this song for about five hours!” I said: “Rick. You think we should take a break?” And he goes: “Oh yeah, we got it on tape three hours ago – we just like hearing you guys play!”
“With Eliminator we were stretching the limits of rock’n’roll. That was quite a shift.”
was derived from the 1996 hip-hop anthem 25 Lighters by Houston-based DJ DMD and rappers Fat Pat and Lil’ Keke. What was the thinking behind doing that song?
It’s an interesting point. We’d been working in Malibu at Rick’s studio, and then he turned the reins over and said: “Why don’t you get back to Texas and see what you come up with?” And that’s when I got thinking about 25 Lighters.
The title of that song was a ghetto slang term that the crack dealers used. They would buy those little cigarette lighters, twenty-five in a box, take them home, disassemble them, take the guts out, repack them, and sell them on the street corner. So you got this catchphrase: ‘Hey man, you got a lighter?’ That was less conspicuous.
I kept going over that particular song, and my instinct said, you know, ZZ Top is a far cry from being a rap band. But then one day while I was in the studio control room I heard the sound of Lightnin’ Hopkins coming through the doorway. Our second engineer, Mister Gary Moon, was in the lounge, playing YouTube videos of old Lightnin’ Hopkins songs. I said: “Let’s try and bluesify 25 Lighters.” And that turned into I Gotsta Get Paid.
It’s ironic that you should reinvent a hip-hop song while Rick Rubin was absent, given that he produced some of the big rap records of the 80s (LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Run DMC). Rick flipped when he heard it. He said: “It sounds like something from another planet.” Then he asked me: “What does 25 lighters mean?’ I said: “You got to do your homework – it’s ghetto slang!” But Rick loved what we did with it, and by the time we turned that song inside out, it was classified as a derivative work, which is quite different to a cover song. A derivative work means you’ve changed it significantly.
“We still enjoy getting to do what we get to do. That’s part of the magic
– that we still dig it.”
It’s been six years since La Futura, in which time you’ve made two albums without Dusty and Frank. Why was that?
I can say that Dusty and Frank were delighted to see me take off in a solo direction because they get a nice holiday. But they’re standing by – they’re not wasting their time. We’re actually fortunate in that we have two recording rooms, and while I was working solo on the left side, they were writing some new ZZ starters on the right side, which I think is going to pay off in the long run. We don’t feel very comfortable sitting around doing nothing.
What is it that has kept you, Dusty and Frank together for so long?
We’ve actually addressed it face-to-face. The somewhat unusual happenstance is we keep stumbling into the unexpected, which has kept it fresh for nearly five decades. We’re just months away from celebrating that remarkable number [50 years], which is kind of unbelievable, but we still enjoy getting to do what we get to do. It’s not really a challenge. It’s not even a task. We call it our longrunning surprise. That’s part of the magic – that we still dig it.
While the Stones are still going, many other veteran rock bands are winding down their career – Deep Purple, Kiss, Rush. How long have ZZ Top got?
Well, I like the reference to the Stones because Keith Richards said rather famously: “With luck, we can follow in the footsteps of Muddy Waters, who did it till the day he died.” And I think that’s an admirable place to shoot for.
After all these years in this band, is there anything you dislike about it?
Touring is quite demanding. Being away from home, living on this big bread box with four wheels… it gets kind of nutty. We still like it – it’s a platform for doing what we enjoy most. The process of streamlining touring has eliminated some of the ghastly downsides from previous years, but the one thing they haven’t figured out is how to shorten a mile from A to B. You’ve still got to travel that distance.
Can you envisage life without ZZ Top? Somebody just asked Dusty that very question. He said he’d probably prefer to be a pharmacist. I’ll go with that.
And when ZZ Top comes to an end, how would you want the band to be remembered? They were three guys who enjoyed spanking the plank and making a loud noise.
Billy Gibbons’s new album The Big Bad Blues is out now via Snakefarm.
The Moving Sidewalks with Jimi Hendrix when they opened for him at the Municipal Auditorium, SanAntonio, on February 15, 1968.
Gibbons (second left) with The Moving Sidewalks in the 60s.
Gibbons with ZZ Top in 1975, and (inset) the Top lookingdapper in the mid-70s.
Probably not-so-cheap sunglasses. Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Billy Gibbons.
Not yet sharp-dressed men: pre-Eliminator ZZ rocking thegrease monkey look.
Still no sign of the end of the line for the littleol’ band from Texas.