I was 9 years old when I first heard ZZ Top.
It was 1983. I saw the music videos for Gimme All Your Lovin’, Legs and Sharp Dressed Man on MuchMusic in Canada, and was mystified but what I saw: The band appeared as three oddball, coverall-clad dudes standing roadside with spinning fuzzy guitars and giant beards. They had a bizarre, ghost-like presence. It was like an alien rock band had landed in my living room. I wondered: Who are these guys? Are they even a real band? What’s with the beards?
In my 30s, I became a documentary filmmaker and got the opportunity to interview some of the biggest names in rock music: Alice Cooper, Geddy Lee, Bruce Dickinson, Tony Iommi, Rob Halford, Lars Ulrich. These were my music idols, and I was able to develop a rapport with them through telling their stories on screen. But when it came to directing the first feature documentary on ZZ Top and establishing a connection with band leader/guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard, it didn’t come easy.
My initial encounters with ZZ Top were peculiar. The first meeting was on a frigid winter night in Orillia, Ontario, at Casino Rama, where the band was performing. Billy, Dusty and Frank sat around a large table in their green room. They were cordial and funny, but also a bit elusive when it came to talking about the film. I shared my thoughts on the process of finding “the ZZ Top story,” referencing my experience making a documentary on another legendary power trio, Rush (which I co-directed with Scot McFadyen). Billy exclaimed “We’re not Rush!” and described – in rather frank terms – how ZZ Top should not be compared with any other band. He didn’t elaborate and I struggled to interpret what he meant. After the meeting, I left the room worried that I had somehow offended Billy. Building trust with ZZ Top would clearly take time.
My next meeting with Billy was in Lubbock, a mid-sized city on the high plains of West Texas, where the band was continuing their tour. This time he was less elusive, but no less quirky. On the afternoon of the show, Billy invited me and my writer Ralph Chapman to accompany him on a field trip to the Buddy Holly Museum, a performance and visual arts center dedicated to Lubbock’s hometown music hero. Wearing silk pajamas, slippers, and his trademark Cameroonian beanie-hat, Billy gave us a comprehensive tour of the museum and talked enthusiastically about Buddy’s legacy. Later, in the wee hours of the morning after the band’s performance, Ralph and I hung out on his tour bus and watched him host a virtual who’s-who of West Texan eccentrics: vintage car enthusiasts, bespoke jewelers, salsa chefs, local bluesmen. Although I didn’t feel like I knew Billy yet, it seemed like this was the beginning of establishing some kind of rapport. But I was still faced with a fundamental question: What’s the ZZ Top story?
I began researching ZZ Top’s background and discovered that there was very little documentation on the band besides the usual magazine articles, press releases, promo photographs etc. There wasn’t much to build a story around. During this process, I realized that my perception of ZZ Top had remained unchanged since I saw the band’s music videos as a 9 year old: I still viewed them as three strange rockers whose career was largely unremarkable until the hit songs from their Diamond-selling album Eliminator catapulted them (for a brief moment) into pop rock superstardom. To me, ZZ Top was a band without a meaningful history.
But as I started interviewing the band, pieces of the ZZ Top story emerged: As a young boy, Dusty was inspired to play music because Elvis frequented his mom’s Memphis malt shop; Frank was a jock from Irving, Texas, whose life was transformed after seeing the Beatles perform on Ed Sullivan; Billy’s pre-ZZ band, Moving Sidewalks, was a pioneer of Houston’s underground psychedelic rock scene; ZZ Top’s breakthrough moment was opening for The Rolling Stones in front of a hippie crowd in Honolulu; the band’s Worldwide Texas Tour, a rodeo-meets-circus-meets-rock show extravaganza, was one of the most ambitious tours in music history, and a middle-finger to critics dismissing ZZ Top as a redneck-blues act; and the synth-driven, pop-tinged sound of the Eliminator album was inspired by Billy’s field research on dance floors in clubs across America in the early 80s.
It felt like the story was starting to come together. Throughout their career, ZZ Top consistently found ways to morph their sound by drawing on diverse musical styles and storytelling traditions, thereby challenging preconceptions of what it meant to be an allwhite Texas rock band. Was ZZ Top’s music a subtle critique of the stereotype of Texas culture as a conservative, monolithic backwater? I’m not sure. But regardless, this narrative still felt too academic, too PBS. The film needed a hook, something that would pull it all together and elevate the story beyond a Wikipedia-page in documentary form.
At this moment I had a flashback to the ghost-like appearances in music videos, the elusive behavior in meetings, the bizarre encounters on the road, the quirky tales about their past – I realized that ZZ Top actually lives their mystique, and it was right in front of me all along.
And, writing this in 2019, as ZZ Top celebrates their 50th anniversary, making them the longest surviving original rock line-up of all-time, I wonder if it’s their mystique that ultimately got them here.
But one thing’s for sure, only ZZ Top will ever know the answer.
Toronto June 13, 2019