50 Years Later: Revisiting ZZ Top’s Smokin’ Debut LP – ‘ZZ Top’s First Album’

With fifty years having elapsed since ZZ Top’s debut studio album (released 1/16/71), the wide fame the group garnered via Eliminator in the early Eighties seems to exist in a time warp. But the trio curried incremental favor with the public in the interim between those two aforementioned milestones: their first top-ten album, 1973’s Tres Hombres, gained extensive radio airplay largely via the singles “La Grange” and “Tush”, so that, by the mid-1970s, ‘that little ol’ band from Texas” (also the title of a 2019 video documentary) had become national stars in terms both critical and commercial. Reinvigorated via a self-imposed hiatus, subsequent LPs Degüello and El Loco furthered the group’s slow but sure musical maturation as well as the nurturing of their often-caricatured image so useful in the MTV video age.

At the root of it all, however, is the blues-oriented approach upon which all of the band’s attributes rest and that concept dominated ZZ Top’s First Album. Produced by manager Bill Ham and released on London Records, the LP represented America’s answer to the power trios of England, Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Equally importantly, however, it allowed the Texans to follow in the footsteps of the most rabid British devotees of the genre such as John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the original Fleetwood Mac, and make sure the yeoman’s work performed by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band before them was hardly for naught. ZZ Top fortified the roots of this elemental form with their initial studio effort—including most especially the sense of humor intrinsic to the blues– and, along with Free, their second-generation counterparts across the water, the Americans established a template for the burgeoning hard rock/heavy metal community of its time.

Theirs was a brave move to say the least, one all the more courageous as the band authored all-original material to fill the record. Bereft of stock phrases instrumental or otherwise, songs like “(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree” recall the vintage likes of Elmore James and T-Bone Walker even as the grinding riff of “Goin Down to Mexico” (bassist Dusty Hill takes the place of primary lead vocalist Billy Gibbons here) predated the simplistic hairbands yet to evolve. But ZZ Top could really play, as the truncated jam in the latter track suggested the mechanics of the threesome honed by their own roadwork as well as the experience they brought to the group before their formation in 1969.

“Old Man” foreshadows the band’s willingness and ability to broaden their sound in later years. R&b and soul strains mix with latter-day Beatlesque touches (the Leslie speaker effect on the rhythm guitar), a simultaneous hearkening to the past and a nod to contemporary style: even this early on, ZZ Top was making an artistic statement by which the band would not be confined to expectation(s). What may be most impressive hearing this record in hindsight is how, even without virtually any prior studio experience, the threesome sound fully and completely at ease..

Given their outlandish persona as it eventually blossomed the during music video era, their pragmatic savvy is all the more laudable. But even as self-discipline permeates each of the ten tracks, it comes most prominently to the fore in  “Bedroom Thang,” particularly during a blistering rideout driven by Frank Beard’s drumming: that interval lasts only long enough to grab attention before the cut fades out in its slightly less than four-minute duration. “Just Got Back From Baby’s” is the closest the group gets to unadulterated twelve-bar or a shuffle—and, tellingly, it arrives as the penultimate cut.

Following in quick succession to bring this First Album to a close, “Backdoor Love Affair” reiterates the point of authenticity. Clearly, these three Houstonians had fully mastered their main influences when they made their first long-player and, as a result, by the time that conclusion itself ends, ZZ Top had made sure listeners not only knew where were they coming from, but had also provided more than a little inkling of where they planned to go.

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One Response

  1. This is, of course, very unbelievable. I hope their music will be very high quality and relevant. Thanks to the author for such a cool post. It made me very happy. Keep on writing such information in the future.

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