How ZZ Top Arrived With Their ‘First Album’
Every recording artist has to get their start with a debut LP, but not many go the extra mile and slap First Album right there on the artwork. Here, as in so many other ways, ZZ Top proved themselves an exception to a rule.
On. Jan. 16, 1971 — less than a year after putting an end to a tumultuous first few months by playing their first gig with the lineup that would go on to become one of rock's longest-lasting combos — guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard arrived in record stores with ZZ Top's First Album. Although they'd go on to score plenty of hit singles and sell millions of records along the way, their debut wasn't exactly auspicious.
Though the trio hailed from Texas and were peddling a distinctly American brand of blues-based boogie rock, they encountered a near-total lack of interest from major labels when they started scouting for a record deal. Their only real offer came from London Records, best known as the imprint responsible for distributing the Rolling Stones' early releases in the U.S. — an association definitely not lost on ZZ Top.
"The only thing that kept us going on that first album was the fact that we had the opportunity to release a record on the same label as the Rolling Stones," Gibbons told Guitar World. "I’m serious — that was it! But we remained true to the core: it was 12-bar blues or bust."
If it seems odd that such a thoroughly American band would care about having a Stones-associated logo on their first LP, it's worth noting that in those days, it was really the British rock vanguard — including the Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton — who were responsible for bringing attention to (and, admittedly, occasionally outright stealing from) blues artists who'd been ignored and forgotten by their own record-buying public, and it was through their efforts that the artists of Gibbons' generation were hipped to the treasure trove of music that came to define their own sound.
"It’s no secret that it was the enthusiastic and rather forensic inspection of the blues, by British musicians, down to the genetics, that was the salvation of this rapidly disappearing art form," Gibbons told Uncut. "We were actually re-embracing and re-learning ways to become interpreters of what was in danger of evaporating."
"The blues that influenced us, and that we were part of, was ushered in by the English guys," he told Guitar World. "I think it would be fair to say that we were subliminally influenced throughout by the Animals, the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, Clapton, [Jeff] Beck...maybe a couple more. That’s what got us thinking, 'Hey, we can hot-rod this stuff and make it really fun to play for ZZ Top.' There’s a handful of guys from points around the world that recognized the value of this strain of music that goes all the way back to Africa. And I still dig it."
Listen to ZZ Top's 'Shaking Your Tree'
With ZZ Top's First Album, the band went a fair way toward demonstrating their own growing grasp on — and ability to add to — the blues, serving up a rough-hewn platter of 10 originals that were faithful to the group's obvious influences without being too afraid to add their own stamp to them. They'd go on to write catchier songs, and release more polished recordings, but First Album offered a portrait of a band with a clear idea of who they were and what they wanted to sound like — and a knack for double entendres, too.
"We had been together for about six months and were knocking around the bar scene, playing all the usual funky joints. We took the studio on as an extension of the stage show," Gibbons told Music Radar. "The basics were all of us playing together in one room, but we didn’t want to turn our backs on contemporary recording techniques. To give our sound as much presence and support as possible, we became a little more than a three-piece with the advantages of overdubbing. It was the natural kind of support – some rhythm guitar parts, a little bit of texture. That was about it."
As for that album title? It's keeping with the band's down-to-earth, tongue-in-cheek humor, but as it turns out, it actually came from someone outside the lineup: Bill Narum, the London Records art director who oversaw packaging for the project.
"Well, we were sure hoping that there would be a second album," Gibbons told Music Radar. "Mr. Narum saw the importance of titling ZZ Top’s first album, and he said, ‘Make it known that you’ve provided the world with an offering of what you guys do, and it’s just the first one.’ And we said, ‘Sure. That sounds fine with us.’ And so it became ZZ Top's First Album."
The record didn't land with much of a splash as far as sales went — in fact, it failed to chart — but it put ZZ Top on the map for a growing circle of fans who'd help make the band a renowned live act. And although their first few national tours might have hit more than their share of bumps, by the time they got to their third album, 1973's Tres Hombres, they were a Top 10 phenomenon — one whose sound may have matured over their first few sets (and would continue to evolve), but still offered a clear, solid line back to that little-heard debut record.
"The playing was there, the tempo was good, and it’s very bluesy," mused Gibbons years later. "I listened to it recently for the first time in a while and said, ‘Man, we sure were bluesy.’ It’s a period kind of sound."