40 Years Ago: ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ Remakes ZZ Top as Kings of Cool
ZZ Top unlocked a potent, universal truth with their 1983 smash "Sharp Dressed Man": Sharpness isn't a one-size-fits-all aesthetic, but a state of being.
This came as a revelation for trio, who until then had carved out a successful career playing southern-fried blues-rock but were regarded as patently unhip by the critical establishment. ZZ Top struck gold a decade earlier with the Top 10 Tres Hombres, but their fortunes had begun to slip as the '70s bled into the '80s.
They returned from a two-year hiatus with 1979's platinum-selling Deguello, but the synthesized sounds of 1981's El Loco alienated fans and sold half as much as its predecessor. In hindsight, El Loco opened a door through which ZZ Top would boldly charge on their next record, 1983's Eliminator.
"Without question, there's some crazy, interesting-sounding stuff" on El Loco, Billy Gibbons told Classic Rock in 2021. "The intrigue of these newfound contraptions was by then just starting to catch on, but we didn't have a teacher or guide. We didn't even have an instruction manual. I was just pushing buttons and [finding] something that sounded kind of trashy."
ZZ Top needed to adapt to the changing sounds of rock music, where club-ready new wave had superseded their raunchy blues-rock formula. Gibbons "asked me what we could do," recalled ZZ Top's longtime engineer Terry Manning. "I started going to clubs and studying beats. The market had changed quite a bit from blues-based rock 'n' roll. So I came up with some ideas we could implement to make a very different album."
The result was Eliminator, an 11-song tour de force of Texas-sized hooks, uber-slick production and ass-shaking beats that were optimized for the dance floor, with many tempos uniformly in the 125bpm ballpark. ZZ Top's raunchy barroom boogie was still intact, but it was filtered through a futuristic new-wave prism that could go toe-to-toe with the dominant pop forces of the day.
The LP didn't just hold its own; it vanquished the competition.
Watch ZZ Top's 'Sharp Dressed Man' Video
Spurred by a trio of singles — "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Legs" — with connected videos directed by Tim Newman, Eliminator sold a staggering 10 million copies in the United States and endeared ZZ Top to a new, fresh-faced audience.
"Gimme All Your Lovin'" features a lowly gas station attendant who gets taken for a ride in the iconic Eliminator coupe by a trio of bombshell women (including model and actor Daniele Arnaud and former Playboy Playmate Jeana Tomasino). In the "Sharp Dressed Man" video, he ditches his gas-station duds for swanky formal wear — a visual metaphor for ZZ Top's unlikely reinvention as kings of cool.
"Tim was a great director," Gibbons told Classic Rock. "By which I mean to say he told us we weren't much to look at, and so we'd need some pretty girls in the mix to sweeten up the story. He brought along a picture book of models to our first meeting. I said to him: 'Well, slow down here and let's take this page by page.'"
It didn't matter that Gibbons, fellow bearded bassist Dusty Hill and mustachioed drummer Frank Beard lacked supermodel good looks. With their videos in constant MTV rotation, they became avatars of swagger. "Sharp-dressed depends on who you are," Hill told Spin in 1985. "If you're on a motorcycle, really sharp leather is great. If you're a punk rocker, you can get sharp that way. You can be sharp or not sharp in any mode. It's all in your head. If you feel sharp, you be sharp."
Released as a single in July 1988, "Sharp Dressed Man" peaked at No. 8 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Airplay chart and became one of ZZ Top's signature songs. It appeared in the first Guitar Hero video game, served as the theme song for the Duck Dynasty reality show and landed at No. 43 on Guitar World's 2009 list of the 50 greatest guitar solos.
"That song and the whole album really embrace the simplicity of blues and techno music with the complex challenge of how to blend them together," Gibbons told Guitar World. "The track just has a really raucous delivery, which is a good ignition point on stage, sitting on the tailgate out in the middle of nowhere, sipping a cold one, or wherever you may be. It just does something to you."
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