Not Fade Away: ZZ Top’s ‘Eliminator’ Turns 30
In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we take a look at ZZ Top‘s 1983 classic Eliminator, which turned 30 last week.
Was ZZ Top’s Eliminator rock’s greatest rebranding? There’s certainly a solid argument it was.
Through the ’70s, the Texan trio had scored a number of rock radio hits — “Just Got Paid,” “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” “La Grange,” “Heard It On The X,” “Tush,” “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” “Cheap Sunglasses” — and had a string of gold albums (i.e. more than 500,000 albums shipped). 1979’s Deguello was their first effort to hit the platinum mark for sales in excess of a million copies sold, but the follow up, 1981’s El Loco failed to reach the 1,000,000 sales mark. However, El Loco did see the band add synthesizers to their guitar/bass/drums setup, and for Eliminator, they decided to move a bit further in that direction, incorporating drum machines and sequencers that were gaining popularity at the time. And while the ’80s saw several rock legends from the ’60s and ’70s adopt modern studio gear, no one could have predicted that the band to get the best return on their synth investment would have been a blues-rock trio from Texas.
Eliminator‘s diamond certification, for sales in excess of 10 million, tells the story. Judging by the sales, the band got 10 times bigger than they’d ever been. Their new direction didn’t simply help them to seem current in a new decade, it led them to exponentially higher record and ticket sales.
Of course, ZZ’s popularity wasn’t just about the sound. You can’t separate Eliminator‘s music from its imagery. Unlike many of their peers, they hadn’t “cleaned up” and adopted a more yuppie-ish “adult” image for the ’80s. In fact, with their cape-length beards, they actually looked more like rock stars ever before. Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill’s insanely long facial growth would become their trademark (along with their new “ZZ” logo). The only member of the band who had no beard? Drummer Frank Beard! These guys always had a sense of humor.
But those beards would been seen very often, and by a very young audience. Eliminator dropped just as a new channel called MTV was emerging on the cable television dial. Only a fool (or someone with bad taste) would deny that Eliminator is an incredible album. But you’d be equally foolish to deny that the band’s image, as seen in their iconic videos, had a big part in bringing them to a much wider audience. The band — and their badass 1933 Ford coupe with the ZZ logo — were portrayed as sort of mystical cool older brothers in a series of videos for the album’s singles, “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and their biggest hit, “Legs.” The plot (each time): The ZZ guys would materialize and give keys to the Ford (on what might be the most famous keychain of all time, sporting the new ZZ logo) to young men in need of help with ladies. Of course, each recipient of the ZZ mojo (always a guy looked like he was a bit out of his league) ended up with hot girls and an awesome car. Adolescent jaws hit the floor from coast to coast… and millions of people bought into ZZ Top, big time.
The band’s longtime publicist, Bob Merlis, worked with the band back then, and is still with them today. He told Radio.com that the idea for the videos came from director Tim Newman. “The band bore witness to the magic of their car for the benefit of mankind insofar as its mere presence attracted a bevy of beautiful women: every guy’s dream come true. Cars+girls= rock’n’roll. The formula worked!”
Merlis adds that the idea of the ZZ Top car used in both the videos and the album cover wasn’t a marketing strategy: “It was all pretty much organic. The car was an outgrowth of Billy’s interest in hot rods and custom cars, the mania for which dates back to the ’50s when he was a kid – and the same is true for ZZ Top’s core audience. It was a great fit, as it turned out. Some of the label execs scratched their heads as far as having the car relate to the music but it worked out quite brilliantly. To use the car as a cypher for the band meant they had more ‘shelf life’ — Billy, Dusty and Frank were protected from being overexposed because nobody could get enough of that little red car.”
Eliminator marked a peak for the band that no one could have anticipated, and the next album, 1985’s Afterburner, saw them repeating a similar formula, to diminishing returns (still selling five million copies).
By the end of the ’70s, the band’s legacy in the rock pantheon was secure. But Eliminator is the album that made them household names, and is the reason they still play in large venues today. And while they’ve since stripped the electronics from their sound over the years, the beards are still there. And so is the mojo.