ZZ Top - Grandfathers of Electronica and Electroclash

ZZ Top are criminally underrated. Seriously.

The 3 Texans have had careers longer than most musicians have lives - they started playing together in 1869. They've been savvy enough to get way rich without selling out - they turned down $1 million each from Gillette to shave their beards. They've been doing exactly what they want longer than anyone can remember and people love them for it.

Everyone knows they're cool. But they don't get the respect they deserve, especially these days. Yeah, yeah, they're in the Rock n'Roll Hall of Fame. Don't hold that against them - it doesn't count for anything, and the kids today haven't managed to pick up on how awesome they are. They're too busy listening to Journey and Duran Duran.

ZZ Top never cared what anyone else thought and still doesn't. They played their blues-roots rock for something like 100 years. They wrote great, slightly dirty songs like "I'm Bad...I'm Nationwide", "Tush", and "La Grange".

And then they started getting weird.

They made an album called "Eliminator". Maybe they were bored after making several dozen solid blues-rock records, each with super-solid singles. Perhaps they were savvy enough to understand what tastes were changing to in the 1980s. I like to think it was instinctual rather than calculated.

For "Eliminator", drummer Frank Beard played to a click track and synced and mixed his live drums with a Linn Drum. They took their buzzing distorted guitars and mixed buzzing sawtooth synthesizers in, chugging sequences augmenting the chugging guitars and bass. It's a breathtaking combo, which sounds both raw and polished, timeless and modern.

"Eliminator" sold over 10 million copies, becoming one of the first albums to be certified "Diamond" by the RIAA. Also one of the last, because since the music business threw itself out a window and genres splintered into a million shards, nobody buys records like that anymore.

A big portion of the album's success came from the fantastic videos they made to go along with it. "Gimme All Your Lovin'", "Sharp Dressed Man", and "Legs" were the quintessential MTV videos. The band appeared, driving the car on the cover of the album. There were (by 80s standards) high production values, short stories of the band turning ordinary losers into cool people, and of course, hot chicks.

These videos, for all intents and purposes, were the 80s. You wanted to be one of the people in the video. Or grew up looking to find people like the ones in the video to sleep with. The videos supported rather than upstaged or ignored the music. They kept similar cast and stories so the videos all felt part of a piece.

They managed to parlay their success into a song on the hottest movie series of the 80s - the Back To The Future trilogy. And they followed up "Eliminator" with an even more synthesized album, "Afterburner".

Not as charming as the previous record, "Afterburner" sort of sounded like the band on autopilot. But that was also perfect for the 80s zeitgeist. It had more of everything, and some big hits as well. "Rough Boy" is particularly nice, with a clear influence from Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" video, and an icy take on a pop blues ballad.

So what's so special about ZZ Top? Well, since their big breakthrough on "Eliminator", countless other rock bands have tried to combine drum machines, synthesizers, and guitars. The bands who have tried to duplicate ZZ Top's brilliant sound include:
  • Def Leppard. Their albums with "Mutt" Lange actually surpassed ZZ Top's in technological achievement and sales, but without any of the quirky fun.
  • Jesus Jones. They don't know it, but they owe a debt to ZZ Top
  • Nine Inch Nails. Trent acts like he's the first guy to think a drum machine and a distorted guitar would go great together, or that a clever video would help sell a record. Sorry, man. ZZ Top FTW.
I could go on, but I don't need to shame anyone else. They know who they are. Stealing from the greats without paying respect. But not Sid. I love ZZ Top. I owe them.

I ran into Billy Gibbons at a party I crashed in the Hollywood hills in 1991. He did not look well, but I suspect he had probably crashed the party, too. I wanted to tell him how much I liked his music, but he was just so cool and there...I couldn't bring myself to get close enough to say anything.

If I could have said anything, I would have said "I want to ride in the car. I want the hot chicks in the animal prints to do unspeakable things with me. I want to be transformed by the power of rock into the cooler version of me I know is in there. I want to drive down a dusty road to a brick loft with neon and Nagel prints on the walls and an old refrigerator full of beer. And thanks for the music."

Alas, it was not to be. Should I be fortunate enough to be graced with the opportunity again, I will not fail. I will tell him that I, too, am bad...and nationwide.

ZZ Top still around, they're still playing. I suspect they'll be rocking in another hundred years. Rick Rubin is producing their new album. Despite Rick's continuing self-cartoonification, I look forward to hearing what ZZ Top sounds like in AC/DC drag.

Until then, check out this short playlist for an example of their unmitigated awesomeness.

Sharp Dressed Man
I Need You Tonight
Rough Boy
I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide
Tube Snake Boogie
La Grange

The tortured genius of Adam Ant

My friend and bandmate Rich "Foxx" Trott says he enjoys when I write about my musical influences, so here's some more in that vein...

The only thing worse than "not making it" as a star is "making it for a little while".

I've never met Adam Ant (a.k.a. Stuart Goddard) but I feel like I know him well. Yeah, he ripped us off a bit (hint: the song was originally called "Pantmusic"), but then again, who didn't rip us off?

To be fair, I stole from him, too - in obvious ways (What's my band called?) and less obvious ways.

Adam Ant not only worked with Malcom McLaren (better known for a less-talented, less-successful one-off band called The Sex Pistols), Adam got screwed over by him in truly spectacular fashion! McLaren helped shape Adam's pop star vision...and then more or less stole The Ants from Adam and refashioned them into Bow Wow Wow, replacing Adam with teenager Annabella Lwin (there are stories to be told here soon, too). Like the Pants, Adam was forced to rush to get an album out with "his sound" before Bow Wow Wow released theirs. Bow Wow Wow is primarily known today for covers - both their retread of "I Want Candy" and the (at the time) under age Lwin posing nude on the sleeve. (This is not to knock Bow Wow Wow - they are awesome, too)
The Devil take your stereo and your record collection

Ant was so punk he decided he wanted to make both pop music and money, not just smash everything - at the time, that was seriously radical. He wrote clever, hooky songs, teamed up with a fantastic guitar player (the underrated Marco Pirroni), and developed one of the most distinctive visual styles of the 80s (or any decade), right down to typography. Like Billy Idol, he often played (uncredited) bass guitar on his albums, and is much smarter musically and in other ways than his cartoonish image would have one believe. (However, unlike Billy Idol, one of my ex-girlfriends did not date Adam Ant.)

Trent Reznor says the backwards "N" in the Nine Inch Nails logo was inspired by Adam Ant's backwards "D" and NIN covered "You're So Physical" on their breakthrough "Broken" album.

Close personal friend Roxy Epoxy covered "Beat My Guest", and her vocal stylings and the music of her band, The Epoxies, owes a clear debt to Adam Ant as well.

As a kid in the 80s, Adam Ant was unlike any other singer, celebrity, or person I knew. He wasn't as polished, smooth, or awesome as Duran Duran...but he was oddly scary/threatening, raw, sensual, and human, receding hairline and all.

My first real girlfriend was head-over-heels for him, and thought he was sexy as hell (she also broke my heart, so her judgment is somewhat questionable). I saw his videos and wondered what he was thinking. Was he serious? How could he be in that get-up? But he couldn't possibly be joking because he seemed like he meant it...His songs were funny, sexy, and sometimes creepy.

Eventually I realized that part of what made Adam Ant's whole thing work was what actors strive for - that sense of "commitment" to the role, to the part, to the song, to the look. Adam Ant is fearless when he sings. He throws himself into his music completely, and that abandon is what makes it and him powerful.
We went on "Top of the Pops" for 3 minutes - "Dog Eat Dog", that was it - and the next day 200,000 people went out and bought the record. That 3.5 minutes took 3.5 years to prepare for...
He sent copies of his records to a teacher who had been supportive of his artistic tendencies. And he was "the most written-about celebrity [in the UK] in 1981 except for Princess Diana". He had a slew of hit singles before flaming out in 1989 with an album produced by one of Prince's understudies. Took up acting, got some b-movie and TV roles. Did commercials for Honda scooters with Grace Jones. Carefully, obsessively managing and plotting his career.

The whole time he was grappling with serious mental illness: depression.
Did I tell you I didn't cry?
Well I lied
The music lifestyle is demanding and fatiguing in every way. You work so hard to "live up to your potential" and to "make it". And then what? Even if (to quote Mr. Ant and others) there's always room at the top, you're always just renting that room. You will be evicted.

Once that happens...well, there's nothing worse than watching something you've worked so hard for - your fame, fortune, fans - slip away from you. To go from playing rooms packed with screaming girls to being harassed and called a "has-been" everywhere you's tough to take.

Adam Ant went through all that and more. Dated Heather Graham! Yet he still came back and put out "Wonderful" in 1995. It's not a crazy, wild record - it's a grown-up album about dealing with all this stuff. I was skeptical then and am still not crazy about it, but the stellar "Won't Take That Talk" opens the album, and I still get a thrill and a smile on my face when Marco busts out that Jazz Chorus-fueled guitar part on "Wonderful".

At some point Stuart/Adam wrote an autobiography - why am I only finding out about it now?

Here's the first part of a great, long-overdue documentary "The Madness of Prince Charming" on YouTube. The whole thing has some surprising moments, both funny and extremely dark:

Mr. Goddard, I raise my hotel bourbon to you. You helped make me who I am today. You can steal from me any time, and I hope to someday shake your hand and thank you for your words of wisdom, and your music.
Ridicule is nothing to be scared of
Don't you ever
Don't you ever stop being dandy
Showing us you're handsome
Don't you ever
Don't you ever lower yourself
Forgetting all your standards
Adam Ant Sampler:
Car Trouble
Beat My Guest
You're So Physical
Stand and Deliver
Prince Charming
Desperate But Not Serious

El Rincon Rocked!

Last night at the El Rincon was fantastic! It's hard to pick just one top moment, but the highlights include:
  • 5 bands, including an all-too-brief set by my new favorite SF band The HiWatters - they put the "SF" in "surf".
  • The look on the faces of the 25 or so folks who came for some sort of dinner party only to find the added "bonus" of a free rock show
  • T What's disappearing acoustic guitar
  • Some dude showing off his iPhone. Of course.
  • All the cute girls who showed up - some were even there to see us play!
  • Tyler and Wendy!
Thanks again to Psychokitty for hosting. Special thanks to "Foxx" Trott for covering guitar at this show. We'll get some photos up shortly.

Watch this space for our next big gig!