ZZ Top

Machine metal music

To the average rock fan, Billy Gibbons probably isn't a name that rings any bells. To the pop anorak, he's the guitar player and lead singer in ZZ Top, a Texas bar band who achieved a remarkably sudden commercial breakthrough with this album, Eliminator, its singles and the three made-for-MTV videos that went with them. But in rock guitarist circles, Billy Gibbons is, simply, a legend, known for his creamy tones and the fact that he (and his Les Paul) inspired one of the first artist-endorsed after market pickups (Seymour Duncan's "Pearly Gates").

I guess I need to hand my rock guitarist badge back then, because this is the first ZZ Top album I have ever listened to, and that only in the last few months. It's not quite what I expected. From a guitar perspective, there is some excellent playing and some fantastic tones, but what's really taken me by surprise is that this is, fundamentally, a pop album. Shorn of the rock colouring, most of these songs would have served perfectly well on any contemporary pop album.

In fact, in some respects they are fairly ground-breaking - for pop. There's clearly some early computer-based tools involved here; the music is too clean and too precise, the repeated riffs too identical, to be anything else. You could replace the guitar with keyboards and not lose the essence of the song. Yet the best of them have clearly grown out of the bar-boogie ZZ Top were known for.

The singles - "Gimme All Your Lovin'", "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Legs" - are classics and the best tracks here, of course, but I also rather like "I Need You Tonight", which has a wonderfully liquid guitar tone, heavy on the echo, effortlessly sustaining and fading into upper harmonics. It's the tone I aspire to when I play. The song is OK. The other album tracks kind of blend into one - good music, but not standing out much. Interestingly, possibly of most influence was the kind of guitar tone we hear on "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Dirty Dog", a heavily distorted, heavily phased sound much imitated through the 80s.

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