Is the funniest thing about ZZ Top the fact that 2 of its 3 members are famed for their massive signature beards, and the 3rd member who completely lacks one is named – it’s true – Frank Beard? Well if not then it must be their song content. I recently heard ‘Tube Snake Boogie’, the rollicking lead track on 1981’s El Loco, and it got me wondering, ah, what’s that about?¹ Umm, what’s nearly all of ZZ Top’s music about? (‘Tush’, ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’’, ‘Pearl Necklace’, ‘Legs’, ‘(Slip Inside My) Sleeping Bag’, ‘Velcro Fly’…I think we get the idea). But even if they became a bit of a caricature around the mid-‘80’s with the flowing beards and the high gloss videos (who can forget the spinning fuzzy guitars and the shiny keys to the vintage red hot-rod), in their early days they were definitely no joke.
From their first album, understatedly titled ZZ Top’s First Album (I guess they were confident there’d be a second) to their seventh, the aforementioned El Loco, the self-proclaimed “Little Ol’ Band From Texas” practically bludgeoned FM-radio listeners over a crazed 10-year run of barrelhouse blues/rock dominance. So yeah, so what if they went a little Hollywood and churned out a few over-processed records in the MTV decade that followed (including, with apparent lack of irony, 1990’s Recycler). I also saw them in concert around that time where they employed some questionable pre-programmed drums and backing guitar tracks that might’ve made Milli Vanilli blush. Sure. But, they’re still around, still playing their rootsy, bawdy tunes, and they’ve still got the very badass and historically hirsute twosome² of bassist Dusty Hill and guitarist Billy F. Gibbons (the “F” stands both for his actual middle name, Frederick, and for what you thought it did).
Gibbons is deservedly in the pantheon of American guitarists, at least in part due to his mastery of my favorite of his techniques, the pick squeal (or pig squeal, as I’ve alternately heard it called), which is achieved by attacking a string with a combination of guitar pick and thumbnail to create an artificial pinch harmonic – or at least so says Guitar World magazine. It’s probably heard most prominently on their 1973 classic ‘La Grange’ (a song written about the Chicken Ranch, a notorious brothel in La Grange, Texas, that also inspired the Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton-starring musical ‘The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas’). I know, we’ve all heard the song a thousand times, so if you want just jump ahead to 2:36 when Gibbons begins his minute-and-a-half solo through the end fade-out, squealing like a little piggy nearly the entire way home. Who else can play like that?! Well, nobody, again according to my friends at Guitar World, who just last year placed Gibbons #1 on their top-10 pick squealers of all-time list. Seriously. To paraphrase another of their formidable ‘70’s trademark songs: He’s bad. He’s nationwide.
¹In the liner notes for the band’s 1992 Greatest Hits album, it’s explained that “tube snake” is gnarly lingo for a surfboard. Yeah, if you say so, guys.
²Crazy story: After touring for seven straight years, the band went on what was supposed to be a 90-day break – the trio splitting up to travel to Europe, Jamaica and Mexico respectively for what then became two years – during which time Gibbons and Hill each separately grew their chest-length beards, totally unbeknownst to the other.