Billy Gibbons is responsible for many of the more indelible hooks from the 1980s. From the choppy ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’, to the raw purge of ‘Rough Boy’, Gibbons stayed true to the vitality of the riff at a time when other guitarists were abandoning their chosen instrument for the immediacy of the synthesiser.
Formed in Texas, ZZ Top exudes American sensibilities, styles and swagger, it’s hard to imagine ZZ Top coming from the streets of Derry, or the walls of Birmingham. But however much they hang onto their images as wholesome Americans espousing good, upstanding American values, Gibbons influences are unmistakeably English. In an interview from 2018, Gibbons gives an overview of his influences: “There’s the collection of great guitar players from Britain,” Gibbons effused. “Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, Mick Abraham. I’d call all of this the British block in my list”.
In a curious twist of fate, American audiences were being exposed to the virtues of blues-rock, thanks to the British musicians who refashioned the genre. The Beatles put their own spin on the genre, but The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin remained true to the form, framing it in a way that sounded urgent, sophisticated and distinctly American.
But the blues helped captivate burgeoning British musicians aching for a genre or style as a form of expression. Page confirmed this in an interview with Classic Rock when he stated: “If there hadn’t been that sort of movement in Chicago, back in the ’50s, and that sort of riffing, then you wouldn’t have got what came through in various bands later. Certainly for me and how it affected Led Zeppelin.”
Led Zeppelin certainly impacted ZZ Top, as is evident from this excerpt: “Jimmy Page is one of the greatest. I would invite all of you readers to go check out the nightclub scene from the 1966 movie Blowup, where The Yardbirds are playing. They had Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page at the same time! Listening to the band doing ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’… it’s just ferocious. Both of those guys had tone for days.”
The Yardbirds are notable for introducing Beck and Page to the general public, although they would only record a handful of tunes together before Beck quit. He didn’t care to perform with another guitar player, which likely explains why Ronnie Wood – nominally a rhythm player – was asked to play bass in The Jeff Beck Group.
Page too was happier playing by himself, and The Yardbirds continued as a four-piece from that point on. This is more the pity, considering how well they complimented each other on ‘Happenings Ten Years’ Time Ago’, a cut-glass rocker that features John Paul Jones on bass. In 1968, Page invited Jones to join a fledgling outfit that was later christened Led Zeppelin. The rest, as they say, is geography.
Curiously, both Beck and Page were considered for The Rolling Stones, before Wood bagged the role of lead guitarist. Page did perform the blistering guitar solo on ‘One Hit (To The Body)’ in 1986, so he might have satisfied that particular itch.
Gibbons got the chance to perform with Beck in 2010, humbly allowing the former Yardbirds guitarist to tackle the pummelling riff on ‘Foxy Lady’. Performing the Jimi Hendrix standard in front of a crowd at Goodwood House, Beck demonstrates a flair for a solo fashioned from the American soils. For Beck, this was his chance to salute a country that captivated his heart and soul, but for Gibbons, this performance must have stood for something greater still.
Here he was, fulfilling a life dream to perform beside a guitar player from The Yardbirds. He’s having a ball, as is the famously taciturn Beck, and the two plunge into the rocker with tremendous goodwill and gusto.
Which makes the prospect of a Beck-Gibbons-Page team up all the more tempting. Picture it: Page plays the trembling power chords, Beck provides the countermelody, and Gibbons gets to sing over both. They could even rope John Paul Jones in as a bassist. Yes, it sounds like a match made in heavy metal heaven.