There’s a certain maxim that gets tossed around quite a bit in the music industry: “This will be good for your career”. This phrase is only uttered once an artist is about to undertake an endeavour that is either harebrained, ridiculous, or completely antithetical to everything that they’ve established for themselves (or sometimes all three at once).
Sometimes it works out, like when Fleetwood Mac’s turn from blues to pop became a a hugely successful career move. Tony Bennett’s attempt to change from classic crooner to then-modern pop singer on Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today? Less so. But shrewd style stealing and trend hopping is a proud tradition in music, and few bands did it as well as ZZ Top did in the 1980s.
For over a decade, ZZ Top were America’s premiere propagators of Texas boogie blues. Most famous for their song ‘La Grange’ and the extreme excess of their ‘Worldwide Texas Tour’, which brought the sights and sounds of Texas (including live animals) across the US, the trio of Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard, and Dusty Hill were the good ol’ boys of blues based southern rock. Statistically and culturally, they were among the least likely to jump on board the new wave train when it swept over pop culture in the early ’80s.
But Gibbons saw the tides turning, and he was sure that ZZ Top weren’t going to be left behind. 1981’s El Loco featured occasional flourishes of synthesiser to augment the band’s signature boogie blues, but when MTV launched less than two weeks after the album’s release, Gibbons knew a complete overhaul of the band’s sound was necessary in order to compete.
There remains some controversy surrounding just how much Beard and Hill appear on Eliminator, the band’s blockbuster 1983 album that went platinum multiple times over, brought the band worldwide success, and established ZZ Top as forerunners of the MTV era. There are claims that Hill and Beard helped program the machines that quite obviously replaced their own playing on the album. Some say that the album is a mix of live and electronic playing, with the rhythm section simply being reduced in the final mix.
And then there are those that say Hill and Beard rarely even showed up to the album’s sessions. Hill’s involvement allegedly starts and ends with his lead vocal on ‘I Got the Six’. Beard was reduced to tom-tom fills and occasionally an errant cymbal crash. The official album credits make no mention of synthesisers, even though they are unmistakably the backbone of the arrangements.
Years later, a clearer picture began to emerge: engineer Terry Manning was Gibbons’ main partner in crime, playing synths and working on arrangements. “Pre-production engineer” Linden Hudson was responsible for the most prominent synthesisers and co-wrote a number of songs with Gibbons. It was only after a lawsuit that Hudson’s work was acknowledged, although he only officially gets credit on ‘Thug’ (and is completely absent from current Spotify credits).
The only recognisable elements from the old ZZ Top style came from Gibbons’ guitar. Even his voice was changed, with his previously low register bass-baritone frequently reaching high tenor notes in ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’ and ‘Legs’. The radical overhaul of the band’s sound was complete, but something strange happened: despite the obvious changes, the results still sounded distinctly like ZZ Top. Eliminator was an obvious pop record that didn’t explicitly alienate the band’s established audience. It remains perhaps the most successful moment of selling out in the history of popular music, simply because nobody seems to have noticed (or cared) that ZZ Top are barely on the album.