ZZ Top's "Eliminator" still catches fire 30 years later

Cover of "The Complete Studio Recordings 1970-1990" by ZZ Top Rhino

How ZZ Top became a mega-popular band in the MTV era 30 years ago -- at a time when Michael Jackson and synth-pop dominated the radio airwaves --  probably remains one of rock's unlikeliest comeback stories.

After releasing its debut album in 1970, the Texas trio churned out gritty blues rock music and built a steady following over the course of the next 10 years. The band had some modest Top 40 success with the singles "La Grange" and "Tush," but that was pretty much the extent of its popularity -- respectable but not stratospheric.

That changed exponentially, however, with ZZ Top's eighth album, 1983's "Eliminator," a pivotal work that elevated the band to superstardom and has since sold 10 million copies and counting. That album -- along with nine others from the band's tenure at Warner Bros. Records -- has been reissued as part of a new boxed set, "The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990." (Each of the 10 CDs in the set is housed in a cardboard sleeve to replicate the original album's vinyl packaging).

A sleek and punchy album, "Eliminator" unleashed a trio of the band's most memorable and beloved songs: "Gimme All Your Lovin," "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Legs," which became ZZ Top's first-ever Top 10 hit. Musically, the album marked a stylistic shift through its use of synthesizers and dance beats to complement Billy Gibbons' signature blues rock guitar playing. Yet those new textures didn't make ZZ Top's blues rock sound gimmicky -- rather, it added an extra punch to the music and proved to be a perfect compromise between traditional blues and New Wave.

Cover of "The Complete Studio Recordings 1970-1990" by ZZ Top
Rhino

The band's popularity in '80s was also due to memorable videos for "Eliminator," cementing the band's public image through visual symbols: Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill's extremely long beards and twirling instruments; the band members' choreographed moves; the Ford Coupe; and the bevy of glamorous female models. ZZ Top meant business when it came to rocking out -- but thanks to those videos, the band also displayed a sly, self-deprecating humorous side, too.

ZZ Top brought the "Eliminator" album's winning formula of blues and synthesizers to subsequent albums, "Afterburner" and "Recycler." But there's more to the ZZ Top story -- even before "Eliminator," as this boxed set indicates: the band's previous records --  from 1970's "ZZ Top's First Album" through 1981's "El Loco" -- are full of pure unadulterated, soulful blues rock without the electronics ("Tres Hombres," "Deguello" and "Fandango," which is actually a half live/half studio effort - represent some of the band's finest moments). More importantly, those early records trace the progression of the band's music that led up to the inevitable accessibility and mainstream popularity of "Eliminator."

As for "Eliminator" -- undoubtedly the definitive ZZ Top record -- it still holds up 30 years after its release and remains a truly dynamic rock album. It's the type of music that should be cranked up while driving down the road with a pair of cheap sunglasses on.

  • David Chiu

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