“This is our first official live album," says ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons. "Well, our first along with the thousands of bootlegs that exist.”
Yes, after 47 years, ZZ Top have finally put their name to a live record. Greatest Hits Live is more than just your standard live album, though: this is a lovingly put together set recorded across several tours.
“We wanted to pick out a favourite night of the tour, but we realised we had many favourite nights. We wound up sifting through the entire tour - actually, the last two or three tours. All of which, quite fortuitously, had been recorded. If you close your eyes and turn it up loud enough, it’s almost like you’re there.”
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this means the boogie blues trio are winding down. In fact, when MusicRadar speaks to Billy, he is just wrapping up a European press trip and ready to fly home ahead of the band’s forthcoming US tour.
“We’re picking sticks back up, as the saying goes. We’re picking up sticks or picking up chicks... I’m not sure which comes first.”
The Top’s relentless live schedule is nothing new, of course - the touring circuit has always been where they're most at home.
“Going back to the early days, playing live for us, that was the warm-up fields,” Billy says. “Not only did it get warm, we aimed for it to get hot.”
Get it hot they did. So, with a new live record on the shelves and plenty of touring miles left in these old dogs, there's no better time to look back with Billy at some of the key tracks and moments from nearly five decades of the Top.
“I remember driving through the middle of the night on the way to the studio way back in Texas in the early days. We were talking about honky tonks and the great music of the late '40s and '50s.
“We had a couple of friends riding with us that were old enough to remember that period of time. They said, ‘Yeah, you’re talking about houses full of beer drinkers and hellraisers.’ I said, ‘Gee, what a picture; we can go with that, we’ve had to face them!’’
“[Tres Hombres] was our first top 10. It was also the first that had been mixed in Memphis at the famous Ardent Studios. Prior to that, all of the recordings had been mixed in Texas.
“Along the way, the first out-of-town gig ZZ Top was contracted to play was in Memphis. It was for some blues event. At the end of the evening, we got to meet a bunch of Memphis musicians, Jim Dickinson being one of them. He turned out to be a great buddy.
“It was on the insistence of these Memphis guys - they told us we played great and our records could be greater if we brought it to Memphis. I had a sneaking suspicion that they were genuine. Then they said that Led Zeppelin was in town mixing their third record. I said, ‘Gee, it must be something.’
“We took the Texan recordings of what would become Tres Hombres, and the whole experience was so rewarding that Memphis became our second home.”
Tres Hombres saw Billy team up a 1955 Strat with his Marshall Super Lead - a winning combination, as it turned out. “I’ve still got both,” he laughs.
“The Jeff Beck Group - when Rod Stewart was singing - they came through Houston, Texas and were playing on a Friday night, and then were playing Dallas on the Saturday, but they had lost their transport vehicle.
“I stepped forward and volunteered to drive their gear. I was a Jeff Beck roadie for one night. In return, Jeff organised a purchase of Marshall amps. We took delivery of the first Marshalls to come over to the States.
“That’s where it all began for us. I had my trusty 1955 hardtail Strat, no whammy bar on that one. We’ve still got all of that stuff, and it still makes its way into the studio. What started us off is keeping us going.”
Hitting the big time
The success of Tres Hombres was an obvious shot in the arm for Billy and the boys, and more was to follow thanks to tracks like Tush.
“Confidence was building when we were recording Fandango. We were enjoying the rewards. We were thinking most about the free beer and girls that we were enjoying. Then the importance of paying close attention in the studio and getting serious about tuning and timing started to sink in.”
Four years and two albums later, and the classic tracks kept on coming thanks to Cheap Sunglasses from 1979’s Degüello. It’s a song that was built around an ever-so-slightly unorthodox rig.
“On that song, we used a Marshall with a blown tube,” laughs Billy. “We didn’t know what was wrong, but we liked it! What was wrong became right.
“We wrapped up the session that afternoon and the amp went off for repair. When we started the next day, everybody was asking where that broken tube was so we could get that sound back. The ever-elusive tone, as they say.”
Here comes the biggie. In 1983, ZZ Top unleashed Eliminator, a record that would go on to sell by the boatload.
It was undoubtedly full of hits (Sharp Dressed Man, Legs and Gimme All Your Lovin’ to name just three), but it also packed a new sound, as the Top mixed synth-rock in with their trademark barroom blues.
“The major musical instrument manufacturers of that time were experimenting with contraptions that would make new-sounding sonic affair,” Billy explains.
“We starting twisting knobs, and just tried to find sounds that seemed to make sense. That was a turning point.
“We had put a lot of value into getting things in tune and in time, like I said earlier. Playing in good time is quite a challenge. The clock is as close to absolute as you can get.
“Muscle memory plays havoc when you’ve been on the road for 300 nights - certain habits are hard to break. It’s not like a light switch going on and off. It took some dedication for us to get it. Eliminator has a cornerstone of timing and we’ve tried to live up to that ever since. Mr Time is the invisible member of the band.
“The Eliminator writing sessions were unfolding in Houston. We made the usual trek from Texas to Memphis. Those sessions were under the watch of the great engineers Terry Manning and Joe Hardy, who we still work with today.
“We had the music for Gimme All Your Lovin’ and TV Dinners. We had the music, but no clue for the lyrics. I had retired to the hotel, and a Rolling Stones video was playing and that served as a stimulus to start writing.
“Of course, this was in the middle of the night - that is when all of the best things happen. I had to scramble to find pencil and paper. I’ve made a habit of always carrying pen and paper just in case inspiration strikes.
“For TV Dinners, I was out with our guitar technician and we were in the local nightclub. A young lady walked in wearing a white jumpsuit and stencilled across her back were the words TV Dinners. We had no idea what it meant but I said, ‘Well, there’s the song title, at least.’ Then there’s a song like Legs - it doesn’t take too much imagination to know what that one is about.
“The benchmark instruments on that album were the Pearly Gates, that famous '59 Gibson Limited Edition Sunburst. It was that and my Strat - that Strat was never far behind; it was always close to hand. Those two guitars make up so much of what has become a recognisable sound for ZZ Top. They’re still with us.”
Eliminator was given a helping hand by the fact that MTV had now launched. Unsurprisingly, the mix of scantily clad women, fast automobiles and the sight of the distinctive Top hammering out the hits proved to be a winner with audiences.
“We were still a band enjoying the rigours of the road when MTV came along,” Billy says. “[ZZ Top drummer] Frank Beard, the man famously with no beard, rang me up and said there was a concert on TV, he said it had been on for quite some time. We didn’t realise we were watching a 24-hour non-stop music TV station!
“We were persuaded to jump into that, and the fact that you now couldn’t just hear music but you could also see it. In those days, the rules had yet to be written. Tim Newman, the director of our first three videos, he shrugged his shoulders, grinned and said we would make it up as we went along!"
Jammin' with Jeff
Bringing us back to the present day, Greatest Hits Live features two tracks which see Jeff Beck guest with the band. One of which is Ernie Ford classic Sixteen Tons. Billy picks up the story on how that one came to be…
“I accepted an invitation to appear with Jeff Beck for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anniversary years back. It was filmed and later released as a DVD.
“A friend rang me up and said he must have missed us playing Sixteen Tons. I said that we didn’t play it, and he said, 'You did, because it’s on YouTube.' He sent me a link, and there I was on stage, playing a song that we never played.
“It turns out some mysterious soul had chopped up the video clips and made this mash-up with new vocals so it looked like we were doing Sixteen Tons. I brought it to Jeff’s attention and said, ‘Bloody hell, but we didn’t do that! But it’s pretty good, let’s arrange it.’ And now we do it!”
Greatest Hits Live is out on 12 August via Rhino.