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Sitting on ZZ Top of ZZ World : En Route to O.C., the Boogie Band from Texas Looks to the Future

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Empires can crumble, hunger, pestilence and pollution can sweep the continents, changes can rearrange our minds until they ache.

But one constant remains: ZZ Top, cranking loudly, crunching rudely, singing randily about the uncontrollable urge to slip inside someone’s sleeping bag.

Through the past two decades of accelerating world tumult, the Texas blues-rock band has been serving up raunch on a spit, basted with the sauce of tongue-in-cheek, double-entendre humor. This much, at least, is impervious to change.

Ain’t that right, Billy Gibbons?

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But even Gibbons, the singer-guitarist who is the key architect of ZZ Top’s sound, isn’t quite sure.

Speaking with him over the phone recently from a backstage office at a tour stop in Salt Lake City, one could almost see Gibbons furrowing his brow behind cheap sunglasses or stroking his titanic beard as he contemplated how ZZ Top might proceed after the current order of business--a yearlong tour to promote its “Recycler” album--is finished.

“We’re gonna be hard-pressed to write about the next sexual encounter,” Gibbons said. “It’s getting harder to be coy about it. You’ve got AIDS dominating the headlines. We’re living in a time when it seems directionless. . . . There’s a seriousness to it all. Attitudinally, you’ve got to be from another planet not to be sensitive to what’s happening on the Earth. It’s all swirling in this kind of ominous cloud.”

This sense of world uncertainty, said Gibbons, has been showing up in the music ZZ Top has been working on during pre-show warm-up jams as it plows toward the finishing stretch of a tour that began in October.

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“It’s affecting us already. We’re not quite so humor-esque as times in the past. I’m not speaking of (composing) some schmaltzy cry for the ecology,” he added. But Gibbons said that expanding possibilities in computerized music technology, and encounters with world music during the band’s recent European tour have him looking toward the possibility of change.

“I would say just now is a time of curiosity,” said Gibbons, whose low-key, urbane speaking tone contrasted with ZZ Top’s image as a ribald, beer-drinker’s band. “It’s a little flexing of musical muscles.”

Flexing, maybe, but not contortions. Gibbons figures there will always be some raunch in ZZ Top, if only because bassist Dusty Hill likes it like that. “It’s under Dusty’s hand that these obscene sounds will emanate,” Gibbons said wryly. “As long as he’s around, I’m sure there will be a trace element left. I don’t think we could eradicate it, even by choice.”

If the world is changing even for ZZ Top, at least the band has a strong anchor to latch onto: a style grounded in blues and boogie. A lot of what you hear from ZZ Top is steeped in Muddy Waters.

If Gibbons has his way, his sense of musical restlessness will lead to “freshness, minus insult"--meaning that the next ZZ Top offering will allow for change, but not so much as to alienate fans who, going back to the band’s 1970 debut album, have looked to ZZ Top for extra-reinforced raunch ‘n’ boogie, comical videos, and extravagant staging effects.

“What we are is this kind of blues-rock band,” Gibbons said. “I’m sure that rankles a lot of blues purists, because we’re a far cry from the traditional blues. But if you strip away a lot of the fancy stuff, that’s about what it is, anyway. That’s where it’s stuck, and probably where we’ll always live.”

Actually, Gibbons’ playing does get respect among blues aficionados.

“The guy can play the blues. He can play all of it,” said blues traditionalist James Harman, the Huntington Beach bandleader who has a long-running friendship with Gibbons.

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Harman says he and his band got fired from a steady early-'80s gig at the Red Onion in Newport Beach when they tried to bring spectator Gibbons on stage to jam. According to Harman, the club’s management was horrified by the resulting pandemonium, pulled the plug before Gibbons could play, and told Harman he was being dumped in favor of a more polite form of entertainment: “They said, ‘Take your damn rock star friends and your fans and don’t come back here.’ ”

Icons of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf decorate Gibbons’ home recording studio in Houston, according to Harman, who has been a house guest there. A spectacularly lit portrait of Waters adorns the studio, Harman said, and it flickers on last, after all the other lights in the room.

“He goes, ‘OK, Muddy’s here--now we can get to work,” Harman said. “It’s like a shrine to the blues. If he ain’t about the blues, nobody is. He knows how to make a fortune and sell records, but in the man’s heart is a true understanding.”

The fortune ZZ Top has made is due not only to a musical understanding of the blues, but to the mythic understanding that one might expect from a keeper of shrines. Just as blues originators liked to spread tall tales in which their talent was said to be enhanced by demonic possession, ZZ Top has woven its own cannily shifting mythology.

At first, there was the Western myth, which reached its peak during a 1976 tour dubbed “Worldwide Texas.” Live buzzards, steers and snakes shared the stage set with the three band members.

In the ‘80s, ZZ Top came up with a new, high-tech blues sound, and re-created itself with a whole new set of imagery, just in time for the MTV age.

First came the beards, the epic growths that make Gibbons and Hill look like a couple of mountain men armed with guitars instead of rifles. The beards arrived, Gibbons said, during a long, late-'70s hiatus for the band (ZZ Top typically has followed a schedule of feverish recording and touring, followed by two or three years of recuperation).

Gibbons, Hill, and drummer Frank Beard (all now 41 years old) didn’t see each other for about a year. When they regrouped, Gibbons said, “I had quit shaving, Dusty had quit shaving. Even Frank (who confines himself to a mustache) had started a Freudian look. We had a year’s head start on a finely honed doormat hanging from our chins.” Taking coincidence for an omen, Gibbons and Hill decided to keep on growing.

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When MTV arrived, they were better equipped than most over-30 rockers to create a striking visual impact. ZZ Top merged its look (heavily bearded), its three members’ prevailing extra-musical passion (hot rods) and its primary musical theme (women who have legs and know how to use them) in videos that mixed the humorous, the mythic and the bawdy.

The band members themselves came off like a cross between Cupid and the ghost of Hamlet’s father, materializing from thin air to counsel young proteges in the ways of hot romance and cool cars.

The cool car in question was a vintage hot rod, a red Ford coupe dubbed the Eliminator. ZZ Top’s “Eliminator” album, released in 1983, sold more than 5 million copies. It didn’t hurt that the band’s new sound matched its new imagery. Crackling synthesizers sizzled like downed power lines underneath Gibbons’ throbbing guitar. The band not only took a supernatural hot rod for its icon, but managed to sound like one.

The cover of the next ZZ Top album, “Afterburner” (1985), showed the Eliminator coupe transformed into an orbiting space rocket. In keeping with that, the music took the ZZ boogie into space, setting it to an even more heavily synthesized pulse.

“Recycler,” released in 1990, appears to complete a circle. The band reined in (but did not dispense with) the synths, and concentrated on basics. Instead of showing cars in flight, the cover depicted them heaped up in an eerie junkyard.

The album’s rougher, more basic approach wasn’t entirely planned, Gibbons said.

As ZZ Top prepared to record, “Our songwriting efforts were geared toward a continuation of where we were going” with the “Afterburner” sound. “But when we arrived in Memphis for the (recording) sessions, we were without our gear for two days because the drivers took a detour.” The band scrounged up some basic amplifiers and drums, and “started jamming the same three chords we always use. It felt so good, it redirected our angle.”

Recording at a studio in Memphis’ Beale Street blues district reinforced the album’s raw, backward-looking design. “At any given hour, you could walk out and get an earful of the cotton fields. The street singers are always there, so it’s like constant input.”

If ZZ Top repeats its customary pattern, when it finishes its tour this fall it will probably take a few years off to contemplate sources of musical and mythic input. Perhaps it’s those long incubation periods that have helped ZZ stay so constant: a career of more than 20 years without a lineup change, without even a change in management (ZZ Top did switch record companies once, going from the London label to Warner Bros. in the late ‘70s).

Gibbons said that the breaks between records aren’t part of some thought-out strategy to avoid internal upheavals. “To be honest, there hasn’t been much of a plan, ever,” he said. “The bottom line is we still enjoy playing together.”

With its streak of million-selling albums, ZZ Top presumably is long past the point where it needs to keep touring. But Gibbons, acknowledging some fatigue as the “Recycler” extravaganza heads into its last two months, said the road still holds some surprises that make it fresh.

“We had a 300-pound woman sit on our guitar technician the other day and force-feed him Oreos until he promised to get her our autographs,” Gibbons said. “We watched from the bus window. She got her way. We honored her request, in light of the fact we were about to lose a roadie.”

ZZ Top and Extreme play Sunday at 8 p.m. at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Tickets: $17.50 to $25. Information: (714) 740-2000.


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