Ever have one of those moments when you reflect and say to yourself, “It’s time I try being a better person; it’s time I give [insert thing you’ve never liked] a chance”? I had one of those moment last week, when I decided to give ZZ Top a chance.
Social distancing has opened my mind and heart to all sorts of things I’d normally not watch on Netflix, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Lab series. How much more annoying could a ZZ Top documentary, That Little Ol’ Band From Texas, be than a 6-part series featuring Paltrow and her fellow vocal fry lackeys self-obsessing over touchy-feely subjects that first came into being to make us better people spiritually, not worse?
To my surprise and delight, to my edification as an evolved, better person, the ZZ Top documentary was not bad at all. I realized at least 5 things from watching this program:
- The members of ZZ Top are way more articulate and engaging than I was expecting.
- Billy Gibbons is and always has been much thinner than I realized. (What is with the insertion of the middle initial F, though?)
- The band spend most of its career looking like regular, cowboy dudes, which was a much less annoying Look than their bearded, sharp-dressed man shtick of the MTV age. I barely paid any attention to ZZ Top in their first 10 years, but had I, I would have been much less put off by simply looking at them. Hearing those old songs again, I still don’t get much pleasure out of them, but their instrument tones are sweet. Their surge in popularity thanks to the MTV hits explains so much of what I don’t like about that band. Had it not been for that evolution in their career, I could have happily ignored them through the glory years of RTH and saved Townsman hrrundivbakshi much heartache.
- I still don’t care for Prince.
- Beside some footage of vultures sitting back by drummer Frank Beard, which we’d uncovered years ago in our Bullshit On series regarding the alleged tour featuring livestock, there’s nothing more to prove that bison and bucking broncos and whatnot actually shared the stage with the band. Come on, an entire segment of the doc highlights this part of the band’s mythology, including an interview with a rodeo clown who was supposedly hired to wrangle the animals, and we don’t even get a still image of a bison sharing a mic with Dusty Hill? I smell a page taken from the playbook of that Scorsese doc on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.
Bison trutherism will never die!
When am I ever in a position to be That Person? Ted Nugent, Blue Oyster Cult, ZZ Top triple-header at the spectrum. I, myself, saw the bison and the long-horn steer. Also, for some reason, a tarantula or something under a plastic dome by the front of the stage. Some big-ass cactussy things, and the Sun cam up on one side of the stage, and set on the other at the end. I was 14 or so, and yes, of course I was high. In those days of “festival seating” you couldn’t remain un-high in that space. But it took them so long to set up all that nonsense, that the show didn’t end until 1 a.m., which was pretty much unheard of. We then had to walk to where a friend of a friend’s dad was going to drive us home. We wandered around South Philly, just north of the Spectrum, where every house looks the same and every street is interchangeable. We finally got there, and there was this glowering set of mafioso faces turned stonily toward the door when we stumbled in onto the little plastic pathways where you are allowed to walk. It was an utterly silent ride home in the back of a Cadillac with a seriously pissed-off dad.
In any case, I never knew there was any doubt. I spent a lot of the time weeping inside for these poor critters, whose hearing had probably been mercifully blown out already in Boston and New York. But they were quite real.
Also, there are at least three really top-shelf songs on Tres Hombres that are always in rotation around here…
Did the documentary mention how Lester Bangs visited Austin, TX on Billy Gibbons’ dime in late 1980 in an effort to make ZZ Top “hip” in the eyes of critics?
My equivalent of your searing for bision in that ’76 tour would be seeing a picture of the Buffalo Springfield on tour in 1968 dressed as Confederate soldiers as remember reading somewhere when I was a lad.
general slocum, I do think we have it in the records that you witnessed this as a stoned teenager. Because I know you and have never known you to lie…I’ll accept your story. Still, I felt it was important to note that the documentary didn’t have any further footage. Couldn’t they have delivered that one thing for me, to shut me the hell up? I own that Tres Hombres album. I’ll have to revisit it and see if it make any sense to me yet.
diskojoe, I don’t recall mention of that Lester Bangs story, but there was someone talking about his PR strategy, latching onto the “Little Ol’ Band From Texas” thing, which some writer initially wrote in derision. If Buffalo Springfield actually played dressed as Confederate soldiers, we should tear down our Buffalo Springfield record collections.
I watched this recently and thought it odd that they didn’t cover anything past Eliminator. Billy also seemed way thinner to me than I’d imagine, FWIW, and I do wish they’d have brought up the Lester Bangs period. I read about it many years ago in the great bio that Jim DeRogatis did of him called Let It Blurt.
Here’s a partial confirmation on that Buffalo Springfield thingie, Old Neil himself:
MTV did very strange things to music, some for better, some worse. Along with the ZZ Top makeover think of the J Geils Band. A stinky blues bar band from Boston somehow made over into chart-chasing pin-ups for the small screen. I have a soft spot for their live album but couldn’t imagine putting on the hits. Same with ZZ Top and the early records.
As for Prince, well, a rockstar’s first and only job requirement is to be noticed, and I always felt the late purple one was forever trying way too hard on that score.
Upwards and onwards.
Good point, mikeydread. MTV-era makeovers to the likes of ZZ Top and J Geils Band did call into question that notion that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Mod, enough with this ’70s Top vs. ’80s Top business. You’re stuck in the past, man! Let’s get down to business here – and do what needed to be done years ago on this site to appeal to the vital youth market of today – and talk ’90s ZZ Top.
Please give me your thoughts on their 1990 song “Doubleback” (the theme song from BACK TO THE FUTURE III). Specifically, I am asking you to consider and answer the following:
-Was BTTF3’s status as a (relative) bust due to the (relative) failure of “Doubleback” as a comeback vehicle for The Top or did “Doubleback” itself directly cause BACK TO THE FUTURE III to underperform on the big screen? (“Doubleback”, their first single in four years, hit #1 on the US mainstream rock chart but stalled at #50 on the Billboard 100; similarly, BACK TO THE FUTURE III brought in over $244M at the domestic box office, but that’s still almost $100M less than BACK TO THE FUTURE II brought in just a year earlier)
-“Doubleback” is the best-performing Top song in the history of the Swiss Hitparade, charting 20 full spots ahead of, say, a “Gimme All Your Lovin”. Why do you think “Doubleback” resonated so strongly with the Swiss?
-As we all know, “Doubleback” was a featured song in the classic 1990 Data East “Back To The Future: The Pinball” machine. Was Michael J. Fox right to refuse Data East the rights to likeness on the machine?
-“Doubleback”: better or worse than ’80s Top?
This site is peopled by some troubled folks.
To geo: Thank our maker(s)!
To the magic man, I’m going to have to do some research. I just got done watching 1984’s Red Dawn, which had less evidence of a story than there is evidence of the livestock on that Top tour. When my brain resets, I will take some time to track down that scene in the film, which I did see in the theater. I’ll also take time to revisit the acting chops of Leah Thompson, which were compromised in Red Dawn, thanks to a studio that was too prudish to leave in a love scene between her character and an older character played by Powers Booth.
Red Dawn was directed by John Milius, right? Do you think he studied film under Riefenstahl? In the immortal words of somebody…”What are you, vaping these days?”
John Milius was the director, geo.
Alexmagic, I’m beginning to research my response to your query. So far, I’ve got this to share: https://youtu.be/MfobYtIgkuA
OK, I think this behind-the-scenes look at “Doubleback” and it’s crucial role in BTTF III answers some of your questions, alexmagic.
There is no dropoff in quality from ’80s ZZ Top. As Bob Dylan once predicted about his own musical trajectory, “When you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
I do think that Zemeckis underused Top in his film. Christopher Lloyd’s character was getting stale by this point in the series. For the Old West flashback scenes, the members of ZZ Top should have taken over the role of Michael J Fox’s time-traveling Captain Trips. Imagine how cool it would have been if the camera kept panning to Billy, Dusty, and Frank as they stood in line and did that little hand wave gesture, sending Fox off to his next adventure.
Seriously, a couple of weeks ago my wife asked me, as we revisited the 1995 flick Outbreak via Netflix Party with E Pluribus Gergely and his better half, why I love seeing a monkey show up in a movie. I told her, “They’re like dimestore humans. They’re a commentary on our limitations.” My issue with 1980s ZZ Top is that they’re like dimestore monkeys.
I’ve never got around to listening to ZZ Top, I’ll see if I can find the film and check it out.
Have been trying to be more broadminded about stuff I used to be a bit sniffy about, recently watched the Rush documentary on our daughter’s boyfriend’s Netflix account she signed us into last year before she went off to drama school. Quite enjoyed it, although I don’t think I’ll be listening to them again for pleasure some time yet.
Also rewatched the Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart, and the Wonderful and Frightening World of Mark E Smith, which isn’t likely to convert many townspeople to the Fall, but is a riveting watch and confirmed my suspicions that choosing not to meet him on the many occasions I had the chance to do so was probably the right call. Both on YouTube.
Any other bonkers documentaries out there to help tide us through?
Haven’t seen it yet — but I have a quick personal Billy Gibbons story. A buddy of mine knows him and we got invited back to his bus after a Wolf Trap show (Vienna, VA) a few years ago. I live five minutes away, so I went, but I am no ZZ Top fan. I did enjoy the hits filled 90-minute show and the people watching. The three ZZ Top dudes all travel on their own ultra luxury bus and seem to have their own support staff. I was blown away by these three big buses in the incredibly large staging area behind the Wolf Trap Filene Center.
So we go back to Billy’s bus, which I think will be a five minute how’ya doin’ type of deal. We were there for 90 minutes — he poured us some wine, played us some stuff he was working on, gave us all types of swag, including a CD boxed set of all their albums (which I sent unopened to a real ZZ Top fan I know). When it was time to get the show on the road, his assistant had to break up the party. It’s true, Billy is surprisingly super skinny. I will never say a bad word about ZZ Top ever again.
Great story, Funoka!
That’s so cool, Funoka, I’ve met quite a lot of famous types over the last decade what with one thing and another and it’s so refreshing when they turn out to be not only lovely people, but even nicer than you were expecting.
I haven’t watched this yet, but to mattberlyant, I say: I’m *happy* that it doesn’t cover much past Eliminator.
I’ll put in a thumb’s up for the Linda Ronstadt doc. Uplifting and sad at the same time and it sure does showcase her vocal skills.
Watched the ZZ Top doc a couple nights ago because I saw you posted about it. Nothing special, but I liked hearing about the 60s garage band pasts of all three guys.
I was never all that in to ZZ Top either, but then I saw them at a casino in the middle of nowhere in northern Minnesota five or so years ago, and they provided a solid hour of rock. I was drunkenly singing along to “Tush” and other 70s classics and tolerated the two or three MTV period tunes.
Saw them again in Camden last September as part of double-bill with Cheap Trick. Another thoroughly enjoyable show.