I said, Lord, take me downtown

Back in 1970, the two most popular brands of rolling papers were Zig-Zag and Top. When a gritty little blues band out of Texas named ZZ Top released their debut album, stoners assumed the name was a winking reference to those two brands.

Billy Gibbons, the group’s superb guitarist and de facto leader, chuckles when he hears this and replies, “No, I’m afraid not. We had a bunch of posters of great blues players in our apartment back then, people like B.B. King and Arzell Hill, who went by Z.Z. Hill, and we thought we’d combine them into ZZ King, but that was too similar to B.B. King’s name, so we figured, ‘The king is at the top,” so we went with ZZ Top. That’s the true story.”

Hmmm. Well, okay. I can live with that, although I think the first version makes for a more enticing tale. In either case, ZZ Top is certainly a better name than Gibbons’ first band, The Moving Sidewalks. Ultimately, what matters in this group’s story is the music and the remarkable long-term chemistry between the three guys who comprised ZZ Top for all these years. They’ve set a record (51 years) for the rock band with the most years without a change in the band’s lineup.

Dusty Hill, circa 1975

Sadly, though, that has come to an end with the death last week of Dusty Hill, the extraordinary bass player behind ZZ Top’s unique sound. He had suffered from bursitis, a hip replacement and even an accidental gunshot wound in the past, but still, his passing at age 72 was unexpected.

Fans will be pleased to hear that ZZ Top plans to continue touring with Elwood Francis, the band’s long-time guitar tech, on bass. According to Gibbons, “Dusty emphatically grabbed my arm a little while back and said, ‘Give Elwood the bottom end, and take it to the Top.’ That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

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Note: There’s a Spotify playlist at the end of this post that I’ve compiled of ZZ Top’s most noteworthy tunes, if you care to listen along while reading!

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Time for a disclaimer: I’ve never bought a ZZ Top album, and frankly, after listening intently to much of their catalog over the past week, I’m not sure why. Their music — hard-driving, blues-based, boogie rock — is right up my alley. Of course, I knew their radio hits, but I just wasn’t sufficiently motivated to take the time to get to know their albums more fully. My mistake. As of this writing, I have become more of a fan, and I have developed a respect for their work and their achievements in the music business.

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Hill and eventual ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard were both from Dallas, becoming bandmates in a local group called American Blues, which also included Hill’s guitarist brother Rocky. In 1968, Dusty Hill and Beard wanted to broaden their horizons to do more than just straight blues, so they relocated to Houston, where the scene offered more musical options.

Dusty Hill, Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard in 1975

Houston-born Gibbons had built some notoriety there as a hot lead guitarist, singer and songwriter with his band, The Moving Sidewalks, and they even got the chance to be the warmup act for his idol, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, once in Houston. “We had the audacity to play ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘Purple Haze’ in our set, and when we looked offstage, he was standing there, watching and grinning. Afterwards he said, ‘I dig you guys. You’ve got guts.'”

The drummer for The Moving Sidewalks wasn’t working out, so Beard made his move and became the new drummer. The band released a single and was poised to sign a deal with London Records, the American affiliate of British-based Decca Records, but their bass player wouldn’t sign. He was ousted and replaced by Hill at Beard’s recommendation, and the deal with London was inked just as they changed their name to ZZ Top.

Their debut album in 1971 was appropriately titled “ZZ Top’s First Album” because “we wanted everyone to know there would be more,” noted Gibbons. Based on its chart performance, it should’ve also been their last — it went absolutely nowhere, missing the Top 200 album chart and yielding no singles. But when I listened to it last week, I was impressed by the way they took their blues influences and merged them with rock elements to create their own approach. As Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys said last week, “They were a blues band with their own sound, and that’s hard to do.” The tracks weren’t polished, nor was Gibbons’ gruff voice, but there’s solid blues rock there, especially “Brown Sugar” (no relation to the Rolling Stones tune), “Neighbor, Neighbor” and “Backdoor Love Affair.”

Their 1972 follow-up LP, “Rio Grande Mud,” at least reached #104 and spawned the single “Francine,” though it stalled at #69. Gibbons continued to hone his blues-rock songwriting, adding dashes of suggestive humor, innuendo and some taboo subjects here and there into the lyrics just for grins.

By 1973, he came up with a tune that still gets classic rock radio airplay nearly 50 years later: “La Grange,” which uses an infectious riff you may have heard in other blues tunes (“Refried Boogie” by Canned Heat, for example). It’s a tale about a notorious brothel called the Chicken Shack, which became “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” on stage and screen in the ’80s. The album it came from, “Tres Hombres,” recorded in Memphis, peaked at #8, putting ZZ Top on the map in a big way.

My friend Tracie, an Albuquerque native who went to college in Dallas, remembers first seeing and hearing ZZ Top at a free concert on the quad her first week on campus. “ZZ Top will always have a special place in my heart! At that concert, the Texas folk knew who they were, but this ‘little girl from the small mining town in the west’ never heard of them! I knew instantly that if this band was typical of Texas rock, I was gonna love college!” My friend Carl, a native Texan, recalled, “They were a wild-times, rowdy, fun, crank-it-up party band. We memorized every note, every word of tracks like ‘Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers’ until the grooves on the vinyl were gone!”

Hot on its heels in 1975 came “Fandango!,’ a half-live, half-studio release that went Top Ten and included “Tush,” featuring another indelible riff that reached #20 on the singles charts. By this point, the three-piece band was touring virtually non-stop, at first warming up for acts like The Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd but usually as the headliner. Whereas their earlier shows didn’t offer much visually, ZZ Top mounted a mammoth, 300-date tour from mid-1976 to mid-1977 they called the Worldwide Texas Tour, where they used elaborate staging and costumes designed to showcase their Texas roots.

That tour made them one of the nation’s top draws during that period, but it also took its toll. Frank Beard had developed a serious alcohol and drug problem that required rehabilitation, so instead of finding a replacement, the band chose to go on hiatus for a couple of years. For us, there was no other drummer but Frank,” said Hill. “We were tired and needed a break, and we were willing to wait for him to get better.”

Their return to active recording and touring in 1979 was marked by several changes. Gibbons had been paying attention to technological developments and the New Wave music trends, both of which showed up on their albums “Deguello” and “El Loco,” and singles like “Cheap Sunglasses” and the double-entendre classic “Pearl Necklace.” The group made their first appearances in England and the European continent, and time spent in the studio with the British band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark introduced them to how drum machines and synthesizers could became prominent tools in the ZZ Top arsenal. Some of their original fans were none too pleased by this development, but for every old fan they lost, they gained three new ones.

Coincidentally, both Gibbons and Hill, independently and without each other’s knowledge, had grown chest-length beards which, when combined with sunglasses worn more or less permanently, gave them a cartoonish appearance that became part of ZZ Top’s new self-deprecating sense of humor.

The timing of all this was perfect, as Music Television, soon known far and wide as MTV, made its debut and changed the face of pop music. Bands became overnight sensations based just as much (or more) on what their video looked like than what their music sounded like. ZZ Top enlisted videographer Tim Newman, who was keen on shooting “mini-movies” instead of standard concert video. Because Gibbons, Hill and Beard felt they didn’t exactly have matinee movie star looks, they agreed it would be fun to appear only as background observers, watching the gorgeous women and high-octane cars on music videos like “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs.” Said Gibbons, “We knew we weren’t prima donna rock stars, so why not be the guys watching from the background, rooting for the underdog and the misfit?”

How ironic that a trio of unfashionable Texas rockers would end up as superstars in the very fashion-conscious MTV era. “We found it all kind of silly, but it was a fun time,” said Beard. And profitable as hell, too — sales of their 1983 LP “Eliminator” topped 15 million and put them in the Top Ten in the US, UK, Australia and several other European countries. The ZZ Top gravy train continued throughout the ’80s, with 1985’s “Afterburner” and 1990’s “Recycler” also achieving huge chart rankings and sales numbers, thanks in large part to MTV exposure for “Rough Boy,” “Doubleback” and “My Head’s in Mississippi.”

1994’s “Antenna” and its hit single “Pincushion” turned out to be ZZ Top’s last fling with superstardom. After that, the band still made a few LPs and toured periodically, but MTV stopped running music videos and their following dwindled. Through it all, the band was like a sturdy three-legged stool — all three legs were of equal importance to the band’s continued lifespan.

Hill, who started playing bass at age 12 because his older brother insisted on it, said he learned a lot about the instrument and what it could do by listening to virtuosos like Cream’s Jack Bruce and jazz greats like Stanley Clarke and Charles Mingus. “I used to try to come up with all these complex bass lines, kind of showing off, I guess,” he said in a 2014 interview. “But it didn’t take me long to figure out I needed to play to the song. Sometimes you shouldn’t even notice the bass, and I hate that in a way, but I also love that in a way. To not be noticed is a compliment. It means you’ve filled in everything just right for the song, and you’re not standing out where you don’t need to be.”

Gibbons, Hill, Beard (without a beard)

That kind of unassuming, humble approach to their fame has served the group well. “We’re the same three guys playing the same three chords,” said Gibbons in the highly watchable 2019 documentary film, “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.” If you have even a passing interest in this group, I recommend you check it out. It’s on Amazon now.

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Rock music and TV: Strange bedfellows

For decades, and still true today in some ways, rock music and television have had what Keith Richards describes as “a very weird, unnatural marriage.”

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The Beatles’ debut on “Ed Sullivan”

From its inception, rock and roll was rebellious, brazen and controversial.  Television, on the other hand, was mostly bland, familiar and non-threatening.  They had very little in common.

Just as Hollywood and the movie industry ignored, mocked and dismissed rock and roll for many years, television also showed it little respect, at least at first.  Almost everyone in positions of power in TV — the network executives, the program producers and writers, the censors in the “Standards and Practices” department, the established stars and show hosts — all showed a very obvious disdain for rock and roll throughout the ’50s and much of the ’60s.  With only a few exceptions, it would take TV well into the ’70s before they recognized the growing appeal and marketability of rock, and even longer to acknowledge its artistic merits.

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Clark interviews Brian and Carl Wilson and Mike Love

If anyone deserves credit for being a pioneer in bringing rock and roll to the small screen, it would have to be the late Dick Clark, “America’s Oldest Teenager” and host of the hugely popular, long-running American Bandstand.”   Its roots were in Philadelphia, where a radio DJ named Bob Horn played records while local teens danced on camera, interspersed with

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Jim Morrison and Dick Clark size each other up

short music films.  In 1956, Clark took over as host and, later, as producer and owner of the franchise.  It became nationally syndicated with a TV audience of more than 20 million, airing live on weekday afternoons, with teen dancers rating the records, and recording artists lip-synching to the recorded versions of their hits. “American Bandstand” moved operations to LA in 1964, where six shows were pre-taped every six weeks and broadcast in most markets on Saturdays, in color beginning in 1967.   The show evolved as tastes changed, from pioneer rockers (Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley) to California rock (The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean), from hard rock (The Doors) to soul (Stevie Wonder), disco (Gloria Gaynor) to hip-hop (Run-DMC).  Against all odds, on a fleeting medium like television, it lasted for 35 years, its final show airing in 1987.

The legendary Ed Sullivan, that curmudgeonly but savvy impresario who ruled Sunday nights for 23 years (1948-1971) with The Ed Sullivan Show,” gets a nod for bringing

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Elvis’s 1st appearance on “Ed Sullivan”

high-profile rock singers to mainstream audiences before anyone else, beginning with Elvis Presley in 1956.  Granted, he was rather patronizing, and insisted on limiting footage of “Elvis the Pelvis” to above-the-waist shots only.  But in the segregated late 1950s, he also was bold enough to defy the status quo by showcasing both known and unknown black artists like Bo Diddley, Jackie Wilson and Fats Domino.

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Sullivan welcomes The Supremes

Over the years, the list of rock groups who appeared on Sullivan’s show was fairly broad, from Buddy Holly to The Doors, from The Beach Boys to Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, from The Bee Gees to Ike and Tina Turner, from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Janis Joplin.  All these acts performed live, Unknown-454with no lip-sync’ing, as was customary ON TV at that time.

And, of course, Sullivan is best known for being almost exclusively responsible for introducing America to The Beatles by featuring them on his show on three successive shows in February 1964, thereby opening the floodgates known as “The British Invasion” of English rock artists and forever changing the face of popular music and pop culture.

By the mid-’60s, pop/rock started showing up on a number of other traditional variety programs.  Musical variety platforms like ABC’s Hollywood Palace (1964-1970) gave airtime to some of the tamer bands like The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, The Lovin’ Unknown-456Spoonful and the top Motown acts (Supremes, Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder).  Even so, The Rolling Stones’ American TV debut  in June 1964 came on “Hollywood Palace” (as did the debut of The Jackson 5 in October 1969).

Conservative entertainers like Red Skelton and Dean Martin didn’t like rock music, but saw the wisdom in “giving the kids what they want” and

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The Kinks on “Red Skelton”

reluctantly included a few of the more “vanilla” acts on their eponymous variety shows on CBS — The Dave Clark Five, Jan and Dean, Johnny Rivers, Manfred Mann, Dionne Warwick.  The hosts, in their introductions of some bands, couldn’t resist making condescending remarks about their long hair and amplified sounds:  The Kinks, The Stones, The Animals (1965); The Four Seasons, The Fifth Dimension (1967);  Iron Butterfly and Three Dog Night (1968-1969).

41942308_10156780401513023_4827213245481746432_nFor a year or two, the prime-time TV lineup included shows for the teen market exclusively devoted to pop/rock artists.  ABC’s Shindig (1964-1966) and NBC’s Hullabaloo (1965-1966) managed to bring more than 150 different artists to TV audiences:  Sam Cooke, The Who, Sonny & Cher, The Righteous Brothers, James Brown, The Yardbirds.  “Hullabaloo” used safe guest hosts like Petula Clark, Paul Anka and Sammy Davis Jr. to make the program more palatable to parents who sometimes watched with their teenagers. “Shindig” featured dancers called The Shin-Diggers (including notables like Unknown-457Teri Garr) and a house band called The ShinDogs, comprised of future-star session musicians who were members of the “Wrecking Crew” — Glen Campbell, Billy Preston, Larry Knechtel and Leon Russell.  “Shindig” taped some episodes from London, with Beatles manager Brian Epstein as the emcee.  Neither show lasted long; “Hullabaloo” gave up its Monday night time slot in 1966 to a rock and roll comedy, fashioned after The Beatles’ film “A Hard Day’s Night,” about a madcap pop group called The Monkees.

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“Upbeat” host Don Webster with Monkees Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz

And there were other locally based rock/pop programs that eventually were syndicated.  Where the Action Is,” another Dick Clark production filmed on the beaches of Southern California, enjoyed a brief arc of popularity in afternoon TV, with Paul Revere and the Raiders as the house band.  The syndicated showUpbeat,” born as “The Big Five” on WEWS in Cleveland, lasted seven years (1964-1971).  At first it focused on regional talent like The James Gang, Mitch Ryder, The O’Jays and The Raspberries, but eventually featured some of the biggest names in counterculture rock — The Jefferson Airplane,

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Otis Redding on “Upbeat”

Steppenwolf, Love, Pink Floyd, even Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground.  The show also had the dubious distinction of airing Otis Redding’s final performance in December 1967 before he died in a plane crash the next day.

British TV had its own unique relationship with rock music.  “Top of the Pops was a mainstay on the BBC from 1964 until 2006, an amazing 42-year run unmatched in

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Bowie on “Top of the Pops”

television history.  Each show offered performances by bands with that week’s top charting singles, concluding with the week’s #1 single.  Famously, the debut show included both the Beatles and the Stones.  The Old Grey Whistle Test,” which ran on BBC2 from 1971 to 1988prided itself on avoiding chart-topping artists in favor of edgier, lesser known bands — Bob Marley and the Wailers, The New York Dolls, Judas Priest, Meat Loaf, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

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Tommy Smothers helps The Who destroy their instruments

By 1968, as revolution filled the air around the world and down the street, two TV shows attracted attention with hosts clearly sympathetic to the rock music world:  The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Late Night With Dick Cavett.”  CBS didn’t like Tommy Smothers or his leftist politics and soon cancelled the show (“CBS smothers Brothers,” read the headline), but ABC

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Jimi Hendrix chats with Dick Cavett

gave Cavett a lot of leeway as he tried to compete with Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.”  Carson, Merv Griffin and other talk shows very rarely booked rock groups at that time, but Cavett not only gave rock bands a place on TV to perform but also a forum to sit and chat about edgy topics like politics and drug use.  Artists like Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Crosby Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, David Bowie, George Harrison and Paul Simon all sat for articulate, meaningful interviews in addition to their musical performances.

When the Seventies arrived, so did several rock and soul music showcases that lasted for a decade or more, and they offered an important difference:  Lip sync’ing was abolished in favor of live performances.  Rock audiences had complained about the antiseptic nature of rock music on Sixties TV, where it was obvious the bands’ electric guitars

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Denny Dias and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan on “Midnight Special”

weren’t even plugged in and the vocalists weren’t singing into the microphones.

Three late night programs gave a much-needed shot of credibility to television’s treatment of rock music.  In Concert (1972-1975), The Midnight Special (1972-1981) and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (1973-1981) all aired in late-night weekend time slots, hosted by personalities that knew about and appreciated rock music.  These shows featured many excellent performances by major rock and pop artists such as Genesis, Steely Dan, Blondie, Elton John, Rod Stewart, The Doobie Brothers, Aerosmith, Kiss, The Cars, Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton.

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The Stylistics on “Soul Train”

And then there was Soul Train,” the syndicated ratings behemoth that focused on soul and rhythm-and-blues while dabbling in funk, disco, jazz, gospel and hip-hop as well. Born in Chicago in 1970, it found immediate success there and the first few syndicated markets it tried (Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta, Philadelphia) and then relocated its operations to LA in 1972, with nationwide syndication that lasted until 2006.  The show, dubbed “the hippest trip in America,” was a highly influential sounding board for many dozens of urban artists, from The Stylistics to Bill Withers, from Barry White to The Ohio Players, from Gloria Gaynor to The Commodores.  The Philly instrumental band MFSB, with The Three Degrees on vocals, had a huge #1 hit in 1974 with the “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” which served as the theme song for “Soul Train” for three years.

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Devo on “SNL”

The debut of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 brought more edgy, under-the-radar acts to network TV, including such mavericks as Randy Newman, Gil Scott-Heron, Leon Redbone, Frank Zappa, Dr. John, The Talking Heads, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Devo and The Grateful Dead.  Another inroad came with live sports coverage, including “Monday Night Football,” where ever-younger producers started using brief snippets of rock songs when they took breaks for commercials.

The paradigm really shifted dramatically in the early 1980s as cable television spread from the rural valleys to the suburbs to the nation’s largest cities, challenging broadcast TV norms.   A cornucopia of “Narrowcast” channels offered entire networks devoted to cooking, or Congress, or fishing, or Christianity…or rock music.

Unknown-472Music TeleVision, soon known far and wide as MTV, rocked everyone’s boat, rewriting the rules and pumping new life into everything from filmmaking and choreography to fashion and hair styling.  Oh, and incidentally, music.  Rock music fans suddenly had their own channel, a place they could go 24 hours a day to listen to — and watch — rock bands playing rock music.

When MTV went on the air in August 1981 with the symbolic song “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles, there weren’t many music videos out there, so the ones that

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Peter Gabriel’s award-winning “Sledgehammer” video

existed — a strange brew of Rod Stewart, Pat Benatar, Men at Work, REO Speedwagon, Andrew Gold, Devo — were aired ad nauseum.  But it didn’t take long for artists and record companies to grasp the new dynamic, and within months, most major pop single releases were accompanied by down-and-dirty music videos of the band performing its hit in various locations.  Within a year or two, the budgets exploded and the videos involved serious directors (David Fincher, among others), outrageous concepts and huge casts of dancers and extras.

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Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video

Michael Jackson’s iconic 13-minute video for “Thriller” brought MTV’s largest audience ever.  Keith Richards amended his earlier assessment:  “Since the beginning of time, rock and roll and TV have never really hit it off.  But suddenly it’s like they’ve gotten married and can’t leave each other alone.”

 

Interestingly, by 1992, MTV chose to phase out music videos in exchange for more profitable, non-music programming, alienating their music-loving viewers.  “They don’t play music videos anymore,” whined rocker Sammy Hagar.  “How dare they still call themselves MTV!” Cynics said the acronym now stood for Money TeleVision, and they had a point.

These days, rock music has infiltrated TV in multiple ways.  Rock songs play almost continually in the background of drama shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”; rock bands appear regularly on every talk show from Jimmy Fallon to Jimmy Kimmel; rock anthems by The Who are used as theme music for the “CSI” franchise; even most commercials use rock tunes to sell their products.

In recent years, the business models of both television and pop/rock music have been battered and shattered to such a degree that it almost makes this essay seem quaint.  But it’s fascinating to note that TV and rock music, once like oil and water, are now pretty much inseparable.

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Did your living room have one of these in the ’60s?