Billy Gib­bons

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.

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Paul El­liott

“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.

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