ZZ Top are Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductees, classic rock mainstays, beloved 1980s music video stars and one of the more misunderstood bands in music. Psychedelic survivors who shuffled out of Texas at the dawn of the 1970s with some of the finest and most genuine blues rock ever played they were initially pigeonholed as southern rock also-rans. Despite their roots music pedigree their influence is most keenly felt in the work of hard rockers like Motorhead, who covered them, and Queens Of The Stone Age, with whom guitarist Billy Gibbons has recorded. And while the Eliminator album, their 8th full-length overall, and its iconic music videos increased their audience exponentially, most of these new fans knew nothing about their earlier records.
One major stumbling block was that for years the only way you could properly hear the earlier material was by hunting down the original vinyl. In one of the most ill-advised re-mastering jobs of the digital era, when ZZ Top re-issued their albums on CD in 1987, they replaced the original drum trucks with the sequenced drum machines and slathered everything with tons of reverb and other “state of the art” digital effects. For fans of the original LPs and their down-home production and some of the greatest guitar tones ever put to tape, it was a musical crime. After years of fan requests and several half-measures, The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990 box set finally presents the original recordings in the way they were meant to be heard.
Presented simply but tastefully in miniature cardboard replicas of the original LP artwork (including gatefolds sleeves), the box set is all about the music. Starting out as a stripped down blues power trio, ZZ Top’s take on the 12-bar musical form was more subtle than their English compatriots but when they doubled down on the riffs, usually during one of Gibbons’ countless mind-bending lead guitar breaks, they matched them pound for pound in power. The riffs started getting heavier and the production denser with 1973’s classic Tres Hombres which included their first “hit” song, “La Grange,” a tribute to a house of ill-repute out on the Texas plain and a fine display of their wry sense of humor. Their next album, 1975’s half-live Fandango, included the top 20 single “Tush” and established them as one of rock’s foremost acts.Things took a turn left for the atmospheric desert rock of 1976’s Tejas, which preceded a 3 year break and image overhaul. Their next album, Deguello, was—depending on how you look at it—either the last of their ‘70s classic or their first ‘80s album. The album condensed all that was great about the former, the delicious guitar tones and master-riffing, but also pointed to the future with its nod and a wink lyrics and updated sound. The 10 million plus selling Eliminator and its follow-up Afterburner, both of which are included, saw the band become international superstars thanks to the cheeky videos and computer-enhanced blues rock. Taken in all at once over the course of the box sets’ 10 discs shows a band who were masters of their craft and could take the simplest of musical styles into uncharted and unexpected directions while still keeping it’s innate musical honesty and integrity intact.