Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top says he thinks a lot of people have the wrong idea about the blues. “It’s been mistaken for the sound of sadness,” he said. “That’s definitely not us.”
In fact, in a new documentary, the man who helped the band focus their sound in the studio, engineer Robin Hood Brians, said, “ZZ Top turns the blues into party music.”
Apparently, it’s a rousing enough party to have now lasted half a century. The documentary which celebrates that achievement, titled — what else? — “That Little Ole’ Band from Texas” — will make its local debut at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington Sept. 26th, and the band itself will perform at the Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater on Thursday, Sept. 19 as part of its 50th anniversary tour.
In fine detail, the documentary shows how this rowdy trio from the Lone Star State managed to reinvent the blues twice. Starting in 1969, ZZ Top tightened the excessive psychedelic blues of the day, shortening its song lengths while reconnecting the music to the thrilling churn of a boogie beat, fortified by a hint of heavy metal. In the ‘80s, ZZ Top made another radical move by introducing the synthesized innovations of new wave to the blues, modernizing the genre without losing its soul. As Gibbons put it, “we just put a little icing on the cake here and there.”
ZZ Top’s innovations went beyond the music to also affect the marketing. When the trio began in Texas, bands that wanted to get big were based on either the east or the west coast. ZZ Top were perhaps the first American rock band to regionally launch a gigantic career, a feat mirrored several years later by Bob Seger in the Midwest. “We didn’t know we were breaking ground,” Gibbons said. “We just got in the car and went to the nearest town.”
While the power trio format of Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience greatly influenced ZZ Top’s early records, they never went for their brand of long jamming, preferring to stress the core of the song. “It would be fair to say we were aiming for a collection of singles,” the singer/guitarist said. “Three to four minutes was about the end of the line for us.”
To match the terseness, ZZ Top packed their lyrics with tart sexual double entendres, making them as much jokesters as rockers. “Early on, we discovered that we were not soon to become the next Bob Dylans,” Gibbons said, with a laugh.
As raucous and raw as the band’s words and music have always been, they’ve also long displayed a slick sense of showmanship. By the time the “Fandango” album appeared in 1976, the trio sported brightly spangled suits. “A lot of that came from my dear old dad,” Gibbons said. “In the late ‘30s, my dad moved to California and joined up as one of the musical directors of MGM Pictures. Those aspects of entertainment were never overlooked, by him or by me.”
Not that all of the band’s show biz ideas made financial sense. In the mid-70s, they decided to truck an entire Texas-theme’d menagerie of critters around on tour, including a rattlesnake, buzzards and a buffalo. The bloated show lost money and in one memorable incident, after a concert at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, the buffalo got loose. “Here was this animal trainer running like a wild man chasing the buffalo all over the field,” Gibbons said. “There was a baseball game the next say and the players were curious about why they were tripping all over the field. There were divots everywhere left by this charging bull!”
Around the same time, the group members fell victim to personal excesses. Drummer Frank Beard went the furthest, developing a serious heroin habit. In the film, he fliply explains that he chose to shoot up, rather than snort the drug, because snorting “isn’t cost efficient. You have to do too much of it” — which may be the first example ever of someone mainlining for the sake of frugality.
After the guys got clean, and took a long break, they came back stronger than ever in the 1980s with a souped-up sound, a new look (including beards of Smith Brothers’ length) and clever enough videos to make them fixtures on the new medium of MTV. Of their iconic videos, Gibbons said, “I brought the pretty car, and the director, Tim Newman, brought the pretty girls and all we had do was be bystanders.”
Not only did ZZ Top adapt to the new visual medium, they warmly embraced the machine-like beats of the era. In the last decade, however, they returned to their raw old sound, especially on their last release, “Futura,” in 2012. “It was like returning home to Texas,” Gibbons said. “But, in a way, I don’t think Texas is a place you ever really leave.”
As to why the three members have never left each other, after an astounding 50 years — a possible record for an intact rock band — Gibbons joked, “separate tour buses.”
With that proviso in place, he sees no end to the band’s story. “Muddy Waters once said, ‘you should do it until you don’t want to do it,’” he said. “I think that’s a good rule of thumb.”
LONE STAR BLUES-ROCK STARS
ZZ Top’s beloved Texas gave the world a wealth of foundational blues artists, from Lightning Hopkins to T-Bone Walker to Blind Lemon Jefferson. But it also launched many later, blues-rock stars of ZZ’s ilk, including these:
Janis Joplin (from Port Arthur) Next month, the first woman of rock-blues will be toasted with the most thorough book ever written about her, penned by Holly George-Warren and titled simply “Janis.”
Johnny Winter (eaumont) Winter’s lightning-fingered style made him perhaps the world’s fastest blues guitarist.
Stevie Ray Vaughn (Dallas) A natural heir to Jimi Hendrix, Stevie’s playing had a mania and range like no other player.
Gary Clark Jr. (Austin) He’s the guy most responsible for putting blues-rock back on the pop charts.
Doyle Bramhall (Dallas) Contemporary blues-rock’s most forward-thinking star.
— JIM FARBER
ZZ Top's 50th Anniversary Tour
WHEN|WHERE Thursday, Sept. 19 at 7 p.m., Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater, Wantagh