Sharp Dressed Men: ZZ Top’s Eliminator at 40
How the Texas trio learned to stop worrying and love the synthesizer
It wasn’t the first time they’d explored it, but with the release of Eliminator 40 years ago today, ZZ Top learned to stop worrying and love the synthesizer.
ZZ Top was always very model of stability. For over 50 years, until bassist Dusty Hill’s death in July, 2021, they had the same three members — guitarist Billy Gibbons, drummer Frank Beard and Hill.
And musically, they’d been similarly stable throughout the ’70s, churning out reliable blues-based boogie rock, full of material that caught on with audiences (“LaGrange”, “Tush”, “Cheap Sunglasses”, “I Thank You”, “Heard It on the X” and the classic pairing of “Waiting For The Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago”).
Towards the end of the decade, Gibbons had picked up a new plaything — an early version of a Fairlight synthesizer/sampler.
Gibbons had to learn how to play with it on the fly which suited him fine.“The intrigue of these new-found contraptions was by then just starting to catch on, but we didn’t have a teacher or guide, we didn’t even have an instruction manual. I was just pushing buttons and found something that sounded kind of trashy,” he told Louder in 2013.
Those sounds started to appear on 1981’s El Loco, particularly on the experimental “Groovy Little Hippie Pad” and “Heaven, Hell or Houston” back-to-back on the album’s second half.
Despite the presence of album rock standards “Tube Snake Boogie” and “Pearl Necklace”, as well as the uptempo “Party on the Patio”, the new synth touches rankled the purists. The album wound up selling around half of what its predecessor, 1979’s Deguello, did.
This was a time where instruments like the Fairlight were seen as “inauthentic”, an ultimately mistaken and futile position much the same way as the hue and cry over Dylan going electric was. But it did exist in the ’80s and some bands embraced it. Boston’s long-delayed “Third Stage” proudly boasted in its liner notes that it contained no synthesizers when it came out in 1986.
ZZ Top’s response was to embrace the synthesizer more, just in a less experimental way, instead utilizing it in songs that were more straightforward. The challenge being could they incorporate the rhythms of synth pop while keeping it recognizably the work of a little ol’ band from Texas.
“All sorts of crazy sound making machines were coming on line,” Gibbons told the Houston Chronicle in 2018. “We began following the work that both Depeche Mode and Ministry were creating, which started our own ‘lab project’ in the studio and began combining guitar-based blues rock with a modern day feel.”
The album came together in pre-recording sessions at Gibbons’ and Beard’s homes in Texas before the band set off to record it at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis. Bill Ham, the band’s longtime manager and producer, was at the controls. Long-time engineer Terry Manning was back, with help provided by a lot of other Ardent studio regulars.
The synthesizers were used to both augment sounds (such as their ability to play lower than a bass) and to enforce a certain rhythm, as a drum machine was used. Indeed, some of the album was put together without Hill and Beard.
It was a sometimes laborious process, requiring breaking down guitar parts more than usual, for example. But the work was done steadily.
Indeed, the only truly choppy waters came later. Linden Hudson, who’d worked with Gibbons in early pre-production as the material was being put together, later sued, claiming he’d been shut out of receiving credit. Given the legal resource gap between what was available to Hudson and to ZZ Top and its management, the lawsuit’s focus was kept narrow. In the end, there was a settlement and Hudson was acknowledged as the writer of “Thug.” Any contributions he made to other tracks remains unacknowledged in terms of credit (and thus royalties).
Gibbons told Louder, ““Linden was quite an influential, inspirational figure. He was right there with us when some of the material was developed and brought forward some production techniques that were then valuable. I still treasure the moments that he and I spent together. There was quite a bit of time that the two of us sat behind a mixing console discussing new ways to go about making popular music.”
Ham had certainly pushed for certain forms of iconography — the Tex-Mex feast from Leo’s Mexican Restaurant in Houston on the back cover of Tres Hombres, the massive World Wide Texas tour in support of Fandango and Tejas that included living animals (buffalo, rattlesnakes, steers, vultures), Texan plants like cacti to go with other props and a massive painted backdrop.
And if you guessed that live animals provided the tour with some Spinal Tap moments you would be correct. Take one 1976 night in Richmond, Virginia. As Gibbons told Louder in 2014: “This one rather sizeable turkey buzzard decided to take flight. He was making circles around the dome of the arena. And [animal trainer] Ralph Fisher came out. He had trained this buzzard to look for a white hat and land on his head. But in our audience at the time there were a lot of white hats. And this buzzard was swooping and circling. He didn’t know which white hat to land on. Finally we had to stop playing, and Ralph came out in the spotlight and whistled to the bird to land on his head. It made the rest of the evening rather challenging. How do you outdo a bird that knows how to land on a guy’s hat?”
For Eliminator, the iconography wasn’t planned, but born of necessity. Gibbons had commissioned a car in 1976 from a shop in California. Built up from a 1933 Ford Coupe, it took time because no replica parts were used.
As the album was being worked on, the car was finally finished. It was not a low-cost item, but Ham came up with the idea of using it for the cover art. Voila! Tax write-off!
The car inspired ideas for the album title. Top Fuel was considered before Ham suggested Eliminator, another drag racing term.
Ham was reluctant, at first, to use music videos as a marketing tool, as it went against his idea of mystique. But mix in a gorgeous hot rod, the MTV-ready look of Gibbons’ and Hill’s shades and longer beards (then seemingly long enough for Glenn Danzig to hide behind), and lovely video vixens and the formula was set. The videos for “Sharp Dressed Man”, “Legs” and “Gimme All Your Lovin'” all featured those vixens stepping out of the Eliminator car to playfully help men find love as the band looks on like approving sex gurus in beards and black coats.
VIDEO: ZZ Top “Sharp Dressed Man”
The videos weren’t dishonest, considering the album’s content. Oddly enough, for an album marketed with highly identifiable car imagery, there’s nary a song about hitting the open road, about love for a classic car.
Nope. The little old band from Texas is mostly concerned about sex. They’d like to get it. They’re enjoying having it. They’re engaged in it with the wrong woman. They are not about affairs of the heart, but matters of the groin.
Lead single “Gimme All Your Lovin” starts with that instantly recognizable drum part before Gibbons’ riffing kicks in. For all the hand wringing from the purists, it wasn’t as if Gibbons, Hill and Beard were turning into Visage or the Human League.
Lyrically, it’s basically, “I’m horny. You’re horny. Let’s do it”, but it’s got a hook and Gibbons, one of rock’s all-time great guitarists, delivers more-than-worthy soloing.
If the album starts with wishing for the company of a lustful woman, the next song, “Got Me Under Pressure” is a textbook case of “be careful what you wish for.”
In this case, the woman’s lusts aren’t confined to him, as he sings in the third verse: “She don’t like other women/She likes whips and chains/She likes cocaine/And flipping out with Great Danes”.
No wonder he wants to tell her it’s all over, but she’s violent, too, naturally.
Musically, it’s more uptempo, but follows the same synth-and-riffs before extended tasty soloing formula.
“Sharp Dressed Man” was inspired by the band’s previous European tour, seeing all the fashions on display. It’s set to one of the album’s most recognizable riffs with an earworm chorus and a solo that, for all its electronic trappings, is positively caked in Texas dirt.
“Legs” was inspired by seeing a hitchhiker who was using, you can guess what, in order to inspire someone to stop and give her a lift.
VIDEO: ZZ Top “Legs”
The formula is adhered to lyrically (man sees woman owning her sexuality, wants woman and musically, particularly on the superior album version (the single mix made the synths too prominent).
It may be set to a drum machine, but Gibbons’ tone remains as greasy and spicy as a smothered red burrito from the best Tex-Mex dive.
The protagonist in the boogie woogie “If I Could Only Flag Her Down” has seen some legs and would like to be given some lovin’, but he can’t get her attention.
“I Got the Six” contains the most obvious single entendre this side of AC/DC in the chorus, as the second half is “Gimme your nine”. In the end, it’s a coarser “Pictures of Lily” without the dead model twist, with Hill exclaiming “I just heard the rooster crow/I guess I’ll have to spank my monkey!”. Guess he had to settle for five instead of nine.
“Dirty Dog” is the obligatory “You cheat. Me angry” song or, as Gibbons puts it “I dug your jelly and your mighty mind/But you rubbed it on another guy/You’re history and this is why/You’re just a dog”. Which, I don’t know, but maybe being the kind of guy who calls a woman “a scurvy dog” might be the best advertisement other men offering romantic services could ask for.
Although by album’s end, the guy is much more open to non-monagamy in “Bad Girl”, saying, “I’m going back to dig her again!”. It probably doesn’t hurt that he doesn’t fear her beating him with a nightstick in a roadside ditch. It’s more musically restrained, but basically fills the same album-closing rocker duties that “Party on the Patio” did for El Loco.
Mid-tempo “I Need You Night” implies that a man on his own at night might, just maybe, possibly miss more than her sexual companionship. It’s even more of a blatant showcase for Gibbons’ bluesy soloing, stretching out over six minutes with minimal synth intrusion.
Even one of the album’s rare diversions from the topic of sex had its origins in Gibbons noticing a woman when he was out and about in Memphis. He said, “A young lady walked in wearing a painter’s white jumpsuit. As she strolled past I saw that she had the words ‘TV Dinners’ emblazoned on the back of the suit. I don’t know to this day why that was such a stimulus, but there the title of the song was.”
There’s a knowing sense of humor in lines like “Twenty year old turkey/In a thirty year old tin/I can’t wait until tomorrow/And thaw one out again.”
And having been a latchkey kid during part of that period, it’s highly relatable, although I preferred the twenty-year-old salisbury “steak.”
The video even gave the vixens a break, instead having a clay animation alien repeatedly change the channel on a bunch of monitor screens to the band performing, snacking on potato chips and scaring a worker who’d been playing a video game (which gets the car imagery in there).
“Thug”, it should be noted, predates the word’s usage in hip-hop and right-wing media, dating back to movies about mobsters and tough guys, with references to Alcatraz and “that job back in ’56”.
Which, if you want to feel old, the line now would be about a crime being pulled successfully off in 1996.
It’s the most experimental thing here, driven more by a constant bass riff than it is by guitar.
The album was the biggest hit the band ever had, totalling over 11 million in sales in the U.S. alone.
It was produced to an efficient ’80s sheen, punctuated by all those bursts of Gibbons guitar. The lyrics may have veered into cheese at times, but the band kept things tight and catchy.
The tour, by this time without vultures craving white hat perches, was a success.
The impact of the videos for “Gimme All Your Lovin”, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” can’t be understated. This was a period before MTV surgically removed the M, when it could break an act instead of surrendering to “16 and Pregnant” and “Ridiculousness” marathons.
In essence, the videos were part live-action cartoon, and part ’80s slobs-vs-snobs comedies, with the snobs getting their comeuppance as ZZ Top added synchronized standing dance movements, thumbs-up and pink fuzzy guitars.
And for all the monkey spanking and wanting her nine in the album’s lyrics, the video vixens are helpful visitors (like ’70s Incredible Hulk with skimpier outfits). They aren’t there to get with the band. They’re there to give makeovers coated in pastels.
Meanwhile, the Eliminator car became so much in demand that Gibbons had a replica built for public appearances so he could keep (and yes, drive) the original at home for a number of years. The car now resides at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
ZZ Top would continue to embrace the synths through the rest of the eighties with writing that wasn’t as sharp. There were highlights, like “My Head’s In Mississippi”, but Afterburner and the accurately titled Recycler both showed tears in the seams of the formula.
VIDEO: ZZ Top “Gimme All Your Lovin'”
They gradually went back to their old sound, or at least a closer approximation. Their last album to date, 2012’s La Futura, one of Rick Rubin’s most underrated veteran artist rejuvenations, is the best of the bunch.
But even though the synth usage on Eliminator ultimately led the band to a creative dead-end, its songs are still in the band’s setlists. The album isn’t something the band shies away from and why would they? Underneath all the synth and drum machines trappings, this was still the same band with the same chords and the same players.
And with enough tight hooks and enough guitar to slice through the keyboards, it’s no wonder why ZZ Top so willingly embraced its newest musical incarnation.
They had synths and they knew how to use them.
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One thought on “Sharp Dressed Men: ZZ Top’s Eliminator at 40”
I can’t believe that ZZ Top’s Eliminator album is 40 years old this year. In the year 2033 ZZ Top’s Eliminator album will be 50 years old!