THE LONG HIATUS: ZZ TOP EXPLORE THE GLOBE

Shortly after the release of Tejas, ZZ Top decided it was time for a break. They’d been touring hard and heavy since 1970, and the logistical rigors of the Worldwide Texas Tour would’ve been enough to kill lesser men. “It started out that we were going to take a 90-day hiatus from public appearances,” Billy says. “That allowed us to enjoy a little getaway. Frank went to Jamaica, Dusty went to Mexico, and I was off to Europe. Well, three months became six months, which became a year, which became two years. We were still in touch, but it was kind of a long-distance love affair.”

Asked what brought him to Europe, Billy promptly answers, “The first Fripp and Eno album, No Pussyfooting.” Gibbons had become intrigued with the European art rock movement of the Seventies. Former King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and Roxy Music vet Brian Eno had become part of a scene that also included players like Pink Floyd associate Robert Wyatt and guitarists Fred Frith and Kevin Ayers, playing in bands like the Art Bears and Henry Cow. It was all a mighty long way from Texas, but it did involve making noises with guitars. So Billy was down.

“Granted, during the Moving Sidewalks days, we got to know Robert Wyatt from the Soft Machine,” Billy says. “Talk about headtrip, way-out-there art rock. And in the Seventies there was a lot of that scene going on in England. And if you check out the liner notes to some of those early Fripp and Eno releases, they go to great lengths to reveal their studio system: ‘You have to go through an echo unit here, then run the signal through this…’ It becomes quite fascinating, not only as an insight to what they’re doing; it also stimulates one’s own curiosity: Wow, if they can do that, I wonder if I can do this. But some of the really obtuse art rock was coming out of Paris, France. So I spent some time there, too.”

Billy also got interested in reggae music. The Jamaican musical idiom was at a high point in the Seventies and very much a part of the decade’s “alternative” musical Zeitgeist. Billy got to know both Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, spending some time in Trinidad with Marley.

“Bob was an intense kind of guy,” Billy says of the reggae icon: “very set on doing things his way. He was a great leader for that outfit [the Wailers]. He had an incredible rhythm section behind him: [drummer] Carly and [bassist] Aston Barrett. Carly Barrett’s treatment of the beat was so unique. There isn’t a two or a four in early reggae. There was a name given to that beat: “the one drop.” The reggae sound coming out of Jamaica in that glorious period from 1971–77 is to this day considered the real essence of when reggae ruled.”

THE WARNER YEARS, PHASE ONE (1979–81): NEW STYLES IN MUSIC AND FACIAL HAIR

So when ZZ Top finally reconvened in 1979, Billy’s musical perspective had been stretched in several new directions. Frank had picked up some Jamaican influence as well. It was the start of a new era for the group in many ways. They had also left London Records and signed a deal with Warner Bros.

All these paradigm shifts are reflected on the band’s first album for their new label, Deguello (1979). There is a greater emphasis on clean chorusy guitar tones than ever before, and an arch sense of postmodern irony in songs like “Cheap Sunglasses” and “Fool for Your Stockings.” It all very much reflects the impact of new wave, the postpunk musical style that rubbed shoulders with art rock in the late Seventies. (Eno had gone on to produce Devo and the Talking Heads; Fripp had formed the League of Gentlemen with a trio of new wave musicians.) In true DIY punk/new wave fashion, the members of ZZ Top even taught themselves to play saxophone in order to add some horn charts to the disc.

“One of the highest compliments at the time,” Billy recalls, “came from the late rock critic Lester Bangs, who said that ‘Cheap Sunglasses’ was chosen as a favorite by someone wearing purple hair who did not realize who they were listening to. Thank you Lester, thank you purple hair, thank you cheap sunglasses, thank you Ray Charles.”

The cowboy hats all but disappeared around this time. But there was plenty on Deguello for old-time fans to dig, like the bluesy fave “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” with its searing lead tones. The guitar solo in “She Loves My Automobile” quotes the Freddie King blues instrumental classic “The Stumble,” popularized by Peter Green in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. A double-entendre lyric to “She Loves My Automobile” is very much in the risqué R&B style of Forties great Louis Jordan. ZZ Top had managed to reinvent themselves for a new era while remaining firmly grounded in their blues roots.

But just to help smooth the way into this new era of ZZ Top, the band unleashed the greatest and most protracted PR stunt of its career: the beards. While on hiatus, Billy and Dusty had gotten out of the habit of shaving. Hanging with the Rasta men, Billy must have received extra encouragement to throw away the razor. And when they got back together Gibbons and Hill decided to keep the beard thing going. Despite his name, Frank Beard refused to participate. He does however, sport the occasional moustache and/or goatee.

The ZZ Top beards are rock’s greatest Mac- Guffin. A MacGuffin is a cinematic trick invented by the great director Alfred Hitchcock. It’s an object that captures the audience’s attention (a mysterious box, which may or may not contain a bomb, for instance) while key plot developments are snuck past the viewer in order to prepare a surprise ending. So here ZZ Top had appreciably changed their musical style and signed with a new label, but all anyone could talk about were the beards. Press for the album tended to revolve around beard jokes, beard cartoons, funny fake beards on people who weren’t in the band… From this moment forward, ZZ Top would be “those guys with the beards.”

And in growing those whiskers, they’d written themselves an unlimited musical license. They could decide to become a classical string trio or a trad jazz outfit and they’d still be “those guys with the beards.” As with the Worldwide Texas Tour, they’d taken some natural aspect of their lives and found a way to put it to creative use.

ZZ Top’s next album, El Loco (1981), continued in the vein of Deguello: clean, chorused/ phased/flanged guitar tones and rampant double entendres. You don’t have to be a lit major to catch the phallic references in “Tube Snake Boogie” and “It’s So Hard.” “I Wanna Drive You Home,” could be an answer song to “She Loves My Automobile.” And “Pearl Necklace” is their famous poetic euphemism for fellatio.