ZZ Top act as a bit of a cautionary tale for me. When Eliminator hit the scene in 1983, I was a scant fourteen years old. And like everyone my age, I went nuts for its perfect blend of rock ‘n’ roll and ‘80s cool. Sure, there were the old-timers, probably pushing 20, who scoffed at the “new” ZZ Top, and how Eliminator sucked beyond belief compared to albums like Tres Hombres, Fandango, or Deguello. But what did they know? They were already out of high school, for god’s sake, and if they wouldn’t buy us beer, what good were they?
Well, obviously, they knew quite a bit, as ZZ Top’s new sound reaped increasingly diminishing returns, and even after the band tried returning to their roots, it seemed like something was irrevocably lost. Despite some good songs along the way, ZZ Top failed to again reach the heights of their early albums. As for those early records, they turned out to be prime examples of blues-boogie, a veritable breeding ground for classic rock hits. Tres Hombres boasts “La Grange” (one of the best John Lee Hooker homages ever recorded) and the one-two punch of “Waitin’ for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago”, and ranks as possibly their best overall album. For its part, Fandango features “Heard it on the X”, “Blue Jean Blues”, and “Tush”, although its odd mix of live and studio cuts kills some of its momentum. On both records, lesser-known tracks like “Have You Heard?”, “Master of Sparks”, “Balinese”, and “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” are far from filler.
The strength of those albums risked being lost, though, because ZZ Top inflicted another injury upon themselves in the ‘80s, with an infamous release: The ZZ Top Six Pack. The Six Pack collected the band’s first five albums in one package, but with added drum and guitar effects to make them sound more hip. It might have sounded OK at the time (barely), but over the years, that little bit of gussyin’ up has sounded increasingly dated, and has plagued ZZ Top’s longtime fans, since those same mixes ended up on the CD releases of albums like Tres Hombres and Fandango!. At the time, I was trying in vain to talk my dad into buying me a CD player, so I ended up buying my early ZZ Top on vinyl, and while I might not have appreciated their unadulterated sound at the time, my appreciation definitely grew over the years for these straightforward recordings , where the guitars and drums didn’t sound like they were recorded inside a trash can in Bon Jovi’s basement. Unfortunately, I foolishly sold off a lot of vinyl, including my ZZ Top, years ago. Man, I could sure use them now.
These reissues of Tres Hombres and Fandango! claim to go back to the original master tapes, but the results don’t jibe in a couple of places with my memory. Billy Gibbons still sounds like he’s being goosed the first time he sings the line “Jesus just left Chicago…” and the drums that kick into “La Grange” sound a lot busier than on the old mixes. Maybe my memory’s faulty, but I don’t think so. And a comparison against The Best of ZZ Top, which has always served as a lone refuge on CD for longtime fans, confirms that the mixes on these remasters still hold differences. Is the warmer, fuller sound simply the result of remastering bringing the full range of instruments out of the original mixes, or is it the same old conscious effort to take the edge off of ZZ Top’s raw Texas boogie?
I wish I could tell you. At this point, I can’t even reassure fans that the almost sacred transition from “Waitin’ for the Bus” to “Jesus Just Left Chicago” is intact. The promos that Rhino sent out are factory-pressed CD-R’s, and they have a solid gap between the two songs. This isn’t a minor concern. Other than Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”/“Livin’ Lovin’ Maid”, ZZ Top’s transition from “Waitin’ for the Bus” to “Jesus Just Left Chicago” is probably the most famous song combo in classic rock. Even the live bonus tracks that close out each disc (whcih are OK, but hardly essential) have gaps where there obviously shouldn’t be any. It’s possible that this will be fixed in the final product—Rhino isn’t known for slack releases—but anyone who’s concerned about such things should definitely find a way to take a listen before buying.
Granted, these do sound like an improvement over the Six Pack; for one thing, the drums finally sound like drums again (although it still sounds like there’s some compression and reverb hanging around). Still, there are questions that can’t be answered just yet. The real value in these rereleases is not only in the prospect of greatly improved sound, but also in a return to the ZZ Top of old. And in this case, that’s not a small thing.