Blues, boogie and sleazy swing = the greatest half-live album ever
Long before “Legs” or “Sharp Dressed Man,” before the chest-length beards or the goofy videos, three blues-obsessed Texans made one of the greatest live rock ‘n’ roll records ever.
The irony is that it was actually only half live. Released in 1975, Fandango! is ZZ Top’s fourth album, and while its first side contained a blistering selection of live cuts from the previous year, the second side premiered six new studio tracks. But even though it’s half as long as most great live recordings (and a quarter the length of many), the first side of Fandango! is an indelible reminder of the greasy, gritty, Texas-fried fury the trio was capable of unleashing. And that second side is none too shabby either.
In 1974, ZZ Top was touring in support of their third album, Tres Hombres, which was their big national breakout, largely due to the gloriously grimy, amped-up boogie of “La Grange.” On April 12th of that year, the band played a barnstormer of a show at The Warehouse in New Orleans, from which the live half of Fandango! was taken. For the last 45 years the faithful have clamored for the release of the full concert, but the cherry-picked selections spotlighted here are plenty explosive all on their own.
It’s lucky that guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill, as noted above, weren’t yet sporting their famously fulsome facial hair as we’ve come to know it, because the set-opening “Thunderbird” might have seriously singed those dangling beards. For all its force and fire, though, the hard-charging blues burner is actually a longtime source of controversy in ZZ Top lore.
The song was previously released by Dallas band The Nightcaps in 1961, but being better at music than business, that band neglected to copyright it. This cleared the way for the Top to do so in 1975 and claim it as their own composition. The Nightcaps eventually sued to no avail due to the copyright being owned by ZZ Top. But before you start feeling too bad for The Nightcaps, you should know that the song’s full story is something of a snake-eating-its-own-tale situation.
AUDIO: ZZ Top “Thunderbird”
Though The Nightcaps credited themselves as the writers of “Thunderbird” on their ’61 single, they had in fact blatantly plagiarized the song from bluesman Dossie Terry’s 1957 single of the same name. So that makes Terry the real “Thunderbird” originator and injured party here, right? Well, that’s not so simple either. Following the trail back one step further, we find that even Terry’s version sounds suspiciously similar to a tune called “Get High Everybody,” released by another blues singer, Texas musician Melvin “Lil’ Son” Jackson, previous to Terry’s single. And the odds seem good that if you did even more detective work, you’d probably learn where Jackson picked it up. In a nutshell, it’s impossible to paint the Top as the bad guys here, and more sensible to chalk the whole thing up to an example of “oral tradition.”
There are no attribution issues with the next track, “Jailhouse Rock,” but ZZ Top turns it into such a guttural get-down as to make even The King’s original version seem positively polite by comparison, especially when Gibbons’ searing slide guitar leaps in. Amazingly, even this is only an aperitif for the 10-minute medley that makes up the real meat of Fandango’s live side.
The unrelentingly blazing “Backdoor Medley” ties together Willie Dixon’s “Mellow Down Easy,” John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” (here listed as “Long Distance Boogie”), and the band’s own “Backdoor Love Affair.” And between Dusty and Billy’s auctioneer-on-speed vocals on the Dixon tune and the trio’s unique combination of muscle and motion throughout — they manage to simultaneously pummel and swing — the result is enough to make you leap on top of the nearest table and boogie like a beast. With the exception of the J. Geils Band’s Full House album, you’d be hard pressed to find a more exciting slab of live rock ‘n’ roll from the era.
If Fandango! were an EP that ended right there, it would still be hailed as an immortal aural document. But the studio side doesn’t drop the ball for a minute. When the Top cut these six tunes in late ’74 and early ’75 they were positively peaking. The sleazy swing of Frank Beard’s drums, the drunken slide and razor-toothed riffs of Billy Gibbons, and the primal throb of Dusty Hill’s bass all come together for a boozy, bluesy blast of longhorn rock.
Dig the down-in-the-bottom-of-the-bottom “Blue Jean Blues,” the razor-toting attack of “I Heard It on the X” (a tribute to the Mexican radio broadcasts Texans could hear coming across the border), and especially the unapologetically lewd “Tush.” The last-named track is the one that really changed things for the band in a big way. The chunky monkey of a shuffling blues rocker would be the trio’s biggest hit until their mid-’80s makeover, and it still kicks the dust up on classic-rock radio to this day.
ZZ Top would obviously go on to greater renown than the attention they received for Fandango, but the record’s neither-fish-nor-fowl format notwithstanding, it just might be the most exciting moment in their entire discography.