How ZZ Top Kept the Synths and Stayed Hot on ‘Afterburner’
Watching the video for ZZ Top's lead single from Afterburner, you might have surmised they were leaving the synthesized blues-rock of Eliminator behind. After all, the central image from their "Sleeping Bag" clip is the destruction of the car associated with ZZ Top's previous blockbuster release.
Listening to the music, however, said something different. If anything, ZZ Top doubled down with Afterburner, released on Oct. 28, 1985. And a new-found fanbase was ready for more of the same, turning "Sleeping Bag" into ZZ Top's highest-charting single ever. It tied the earlier "Legs" at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, but made the trio's first-ever run to No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart.
Subsequent singles like "Stages," "Rough Boys" and "Velcro Fly" made liberal continued use of mechanized drums, stabbing keyboards and various computerized loops — instantly placing Afterburner in a certain time and place. The result: During a time of great upheaval in the music business, when many of their classic-rock brethren were falling by the wayside, ZZ Top remained plugged into the zeitgeist – and lodged well up on the charts. The five-times platinum Afterburner sold about half as many copies in the U.S. as did 1983's Eliminator, but it got five spots higher on the Billboard album list and one higher on the U.K. chart.
"The Eliminator and Afterburner days were actually big changes in every aspect of what we were unexpectedly encountering, both onstage and in the studio," Billy Gibbons told the Quad-City Times. "It was and is experimental 'this and that's' every day. And, of course, at the same time, some things never change as well. Pretty girls and hot rod cars go together, as always. That part doesn't have to change much at all."
In keeping, the deep cut “Woke Up With Wood” – it was all scroungy licks and lecherous intent – connected directly back to ZZ Top at their kinky best. And even at this, the zenith of ZZ Top's experimentation with electronics, hits like "Sleeping Bag" made room for a bit of Gibbons’ patented guitar squall.
"At the root of it all is still the blues – tried and true," Gibbons added. "Just when the effect seems simple, the complexion becomes quite complex. That's the keen mystery of this purely American art form. However, our go-to motto remains, 'You can't lose with the blues.'"
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