16 January 1971
This album came out the same year I did and it’s 49 years old today – I’ve still got a few months to go.
ZZ Top’s first album – or ZZ Top’s First Album, if you prefer – didn’t make much of a splash commercially but it certainly established the band’s sound, one that would change little between this first album right up until they added a heavy dollop of synths a decade later on El Loco and even more so on the subsequent release, Eliminator. In 1971 they were a no-frills rock trio – guitar, drums, and bass, with Billy Gibbons’s (and occasionally Dusty Hill’s) vocals added to the mix. And their signature sound is summed up in the album’s opening bars: chugging guitar riff, basic rock kit, workingman’s bass. These were just downhome country boys playing backwoods rock and roll with no pretense, no affectations, and Billy played guitar with confidence and authority, his technique heavily blues-influenced but with an edge and attitude more akin to hard rock acts.
There isn’t a lot of stylistic variety across the ten songs and 33 minutes of this debut record, but there doesn’t need to be. Southern rock and blues have seldom come together so perfectly and though it has become a classic and unmistakable sound now, at the time there was little in the mainstream that sounded anything like this band. There are no ballads here, just four-by-four boogie, simultaneously gritty and raunchy, yet pristine and clear as a bell – nothing fancy or showy, but rock’s pure essence distilled down to three boys in three-minute segments.
Lyrically, the album is almost all blues even if the music isn’t, necessarily. There’s no end of cheating women, lost loves, cheating men, backstabbing friends. Then there’s the outlier, “Squank,” about a The Blob-like horror show that’s just the fellas having a bit of fun. It could be an ecological warning about the dangers of acid-rain destroying the lakes and waterways, but I’m pretty sure it’s just ZZ Top goofiness.
At this point, the band’s name is such an ingrained part of the pop-rock lexicon that it’s hard to imagine a time when they weren’t a classic rock fixture (especially since they arrived on the scene nine months before I did and I wouldn’t be aware of them until I was eleven or twelve years old). This isn’t the music I grew up on, but it is music I’ve grown to love. The blues riffs, the rhythm section alternating between tight and sloppy whenever it suits their needs, Billy’s friendly growl… like Tom Petty’s music, it all combines to form a sound that evokes laidback summertime and barbecue and open roads. And it’s damned hard not to like that.