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The most famous beards in rock 'n' roll are back with a new album that's guaranteed synthesiser-free and hotter than a Tex-Mex jalapeno pepper. As ZZ Top do a John Major and return to basics, DUSTY HILL tells STUART CLARK about the danger of eating chili-dogs, what he used to get up to under the bed-clothes as a kid and the nature of his relationship with long-horned steers.
Stuart Clark, 26 Jan 1994
I SWORE. I promised. Shit, I even wrote it in blood on a piece of parchment that I wasn’t going to ask this question but I can’t help myself. Dusty, what’s it like having a beard that goes all the way down to your bellybutton?
“Well,” muses the ZZ Top bassist, “you sure as hell don’t order spaghetti in restaurants. Soup’s also dangerous because it has a habit of dribbling off the spoon but the biggest ‘no no’ are chilli-dogs. Bite into them and you’ve got meat and mustard and onions flying everywhere. If you’re going to eat one of those, you do it in private!”
This brings back a horrendously embarrassing experience I had a couple of years ago in London. The good-natured smiles which accompanied my progress down Oxford Street were beginning to make me think that perhaps the world wasn’t such a crap place after all and then I saw my reflection in a shop-window and realised the reason for this bonhomie was the pickled-gherkin superglued to my luxuriant lip-growth with mayonnaise.
“Yeah,” laughs Dusty, “I can relate to that. Normally, I make a point of checking in the mirror before going out but sometimes you’re in a hurry and you spend half-the-day showing off your lunch. Another thing you gotta do is take special precautions getting on a bike – that’s unless you want to end up splattered all over the freeway because there’s a beard in your face and you can’t see where you’re going!
“There are advantages, though. Women love stroking it and once you’ve got them doing that, who knows what it might lead to.”
Right boys, bin those Phillishaves and in a couple of years you too could have complete strangers wandering up and frolicking with your facial hair. Anyway, before this starts reading like a feature out of Male Grooming Monthly, let’s get down to the meat-and-two-veg of why Dusty’s currently on the trans-Atlantic blower from Houston.
“Well,” he mock sighs, “that time’s rolled round again when we’ve got another record to sell which means sitting in a room with a ‘phone and talking to people from places I’ve never heard of before! Actually, I enjoy doing this stuff. I love shooting the breeze about music the same way I love playing it and, you know, we’ve been at this game 25 years and I can honestly say we enjoyed ourselves more on the last tour than we ever have done before.
“Being in a band is what I do,” he explains. “When you’re not on the road you’re writing songs or making videos – there’s always something going on – and you get into a groove which you feel comfortable with. I enjoy my time off, sure. I ride my motorcycle around and go down to my place on the Gulf of Mexico but I’d rather have a guitar in my hand.”
Dusty’s recreational pursuits seem positively tame compared to drummer Frank Beard who’s done a Nigel Mansell and taken up Indy Car racing. What would ZZ Top do, I wonder, if Frank decided to concentrate on the sport or had a prang that put him out of commission for a while?
“Well, it’s obviously a little on the dangerous side but Frank’s a grown-up, he’s mad keen to do it and myself or Billy wouldn’t dream of trying to persuade him otherwise. It’s something we’ve talked about and the bottom line is that ZZ Top is three people – me, Billy and Frank – and if one of us was to quit or die on the job that’s it, end of band. There are some groups who haven’t got any of the original members in the line-up. They’re still selling records but, I dunno, that wouldn’t appeal to me.”
I’ve never had to spend two months in the back of a Ford Transit with somebody’s Gorgonzola-flavoured feet or noisy bodily functions for company but I can imagine after a while it’s enough to drive you to spectacularly sadistic violence. ZZ Top are more likely to be cooped-up together these days in a Lear Jet than a clapped-out Arthur Daley reject but the principle’s the same. Living in each other’s pockets for the past quarter-of-a-century, there must at least have been a spot of beard pulling.
“Yeah, you get to the point where that annoying habit becomes just a little too annoying to ignore and fists start flying. The way to prevent that is backing-off, finding your own space for a while and letting things cool down. As I was saying, the three of us have our own outside interests and circle of friends and when we are together, we enjoy each other’s company.”
ZZ Top will be doing plenty of co-habiting over the coming months as they switch into promotional overdrive for the release of Antenna, their first album for new label RCA/BMG and a record which sees them reverting to the no-frills Southern Boogie of earlier classics such as Rio Grande Mud and Tres Hombres.
“It was fun using synthesisers on Eliminator and Recycler,” Dusty reflects, “but with hindsight, I think we may have overdone the electronic stuff and gotten away from what we do best which is playing the blues. Those albums sold real well, so getting back to basics wasn’t a commercial decision. Our songs have always been very simple and direct and we felt, maybe, that they were being overpowered by the effects.”
How did the band’s original Wild Turkey-guzzling following react when they suddenly wheeled in the sequencers and samplers and, sin of sins, released dance mixes of ‘Legs’ and ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’’?
“Put it this way,” he laughs again, “we know how Bob Dylan must’ve felt when he went electric. Some of our fans were pretty pissed off with Eliminator and they sure as hell told us about it! You’re going to have people wanting their money back because Antenna is too bluesy but that’s an occupational hazard.:
As hinted at in the title, Antenna pays tribute to the ‘border blaster’ radio stations that set up in Mexico during the late 50’s and pumped the devil’s music into godfearing places like Texas where at the time even Perry Como was considered a trifle risqué.
“When I was a kid, it wasn’t dirty magazines I took under the covers with me but my AM radio. I’d have school the next morning but I’d be sticking matchsticks under my eyelids and listening to Elvis and Buddy Holly and all those original rock ‘n’ rollers who you’ve got to remember were considered outlaws and rebels at the time.
“MTV has revolutionised the music industry and helped a lotta groups but I’m not sure if it’s an entirely good thing. In my day – and I’m gonna to sound real old saying this – all you saw of a band ‘til they came to town was pictures in a magazine and that created a magic and a mystique that simply doesn’t exist when you’re able to punch a button on the TV and, bam, there’s the video, there’s the interview. Music isn’t as special as it used to be and that’s a shame.”
Does this wholesale over-exposure of new artists explain, perhaps, why the Grateful Dead were the world’s biggest grossing live act last year, preparations for Woodstock 2 are at an advanced stage and nostalgia is being touted, not altogether cynically, as the future of rock ‘n’ roll?
“Could be. The Dead coming to town is still a big deal. They’re a massive band but you don’t get them in your face 24-hours-a-day. I’m not so sure about a second Woodstock because that belonged to another generation and no matter how hard you try, this one’s not going to be the same or as good. Jaws was a great movie but Jaws 2 sucked, you know what I’m saying?”
Since we’re delving into the past, has Dusty noticed that old redneck attitude of blues being ‘the black man’s music’ and not worthy of white patronage beginning to soften?
“If you take Texas as a yardstick, it’s gotten better but there are still a few assholes around who can’t – and never will – see beyond the colour of your skin, the length of your hair or the width of your tie. When I started playing, there were ‘black’ clubs and ‘white’ clubs and the two rarely crossed-over.
“The first time I went into a black club, I was the only white face there and it was a little tense until I got my guitar out and then it was fine. My parents used to bring home a load of blues records and I thought, shit, everybody listens to this stuff. It’s only as I grew up and went to friend’s houses and said, ‘where are the blues albums?’, and they hadn’t gotten any, that I realised I was in the minority. Certainly, in the fifties, there was a certain section of the white community who didn’t want to open the door to black culture because they knew it’d break down barriers.
“I was absolutely amazed when I came over to Europe,” Dusty continues, “and discovered that there’s a greater understanding and appreciation of the blues in places like Britain and Germany than there is in the States. And that’s probably the way it’ll always be.”
A new ZZ Top album invariably means a mara-thon ZZ Top tour and this time will be no exception with precious few windows in Dusty’s Filofax between now and Christmas.
“That’s a lot of socks to have to pack in your suitcase but I can’t wait. Ever since we did our Worldwide Texas Tour in the Seventies, we’ve continually tried to outdo ourselves live. The guys who have to put the show together keep saying, ‘shit, we can’t do that’, but they usually find a way.”
For the benefit of the uninitiated, I really think he ought to explain what the Texas trek involved.
“Sure, I’d forgotten we weren’t able to bring it over to Europe because of quarantine restrictions. We wanted to take a bit of home with us wherever we went, so we got ourselves a longhorn steer and a buffalo and brought ‘em up on stage on a hydraulic lift. We didn’t have anything go wrong, though the crew kept complaining there was shit everywhere!”.
With a few vultures and a couple of rattlesnakes thrown in for added effect, that’s one tour that really should have been called Zooropa. At this point, it’s customary for the interviewee to go on about how much they love Ireland but, in Dusty’s case, he appears to have a genuine affection for this green and occasionally pleasant land we live in.
“Like half of America, I guess, my ancestors are Irish and the time we were in Dublin on the Eliminator tour, I got this strange feeling of belonging which I hadn’t expected. Our family history’s a bit hazy but there was definitely a Hill at the Alamo. They probably got transported for stealing a loaf of bread or something.
“The details aren’t sorted out yet but fingers crossed we’ll be back in Dublin again this year and I’m going to make sure we get a day or two off either side, so I can explore the countryside and maybe track down these relatives of mine.”
Who knows, he may wander into a pub in the middle-of-nowhere and find a long-bearded bloke name of Hill cranking-out some 12-bar blues in the corner.
“I tell you what,” enthuses Dusty, “I’ll bring a couple of steers with me and we’ll have a right old Texan party”.
For once, I don’t think anyone would object to the bullshit!