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‘Eliminator’: How ZZ Top’s Eighth Album Destroyed The Competition
In Depth

‘Eliminator’: How ZZ Top’s Eighth Album Destroyed The Competition

Taking the world by storm, the ‘Eliminator’ album enhanced ZZ Top’s badass boogie with some cutting-edge technology and MTV-friendly videos.

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As they entered the 80s, ZZ Top had already enjoyed nearly a decade of sustained success, with each of their albums from 1973’s Tres Hombres on cracking the US Top 30. Yet, as they began work on their eighth album, Eliminator, the hirsute Texan trio were concerned their trademark blues-rock sound was becoming a touch too formulaic.

Listen to ‘Eliminator’ here.

The problem: “We needed to be played in dance clubs”

The band had started to address the situation on 1981’s El Loco album, which featured frontman Billy Gibbons’ new toy – a prototype Fairlight sampler/synthesiser. The instrument appeared on a couple of atypically leftfield tracks, Groovy Little Hippie Pad and Party On The Patio, yet while Gibbons enjoyed the experimentation (“Without question, there’s some crazy, interesting-sounding stuff on that record,” he told Classic Rock), ZZ Top’s fanbase weren’t sure at first. While it hit the US Top 20 and went gold, El Loco sold less than half the copies than its predecessor, Degüello, had moved.

For Gibbons, the feeling his band were getting stuck in a rut was compounded when ZZ Top toured Europe in support of El Loco. Visiting a nightclub on the continent, the singer/guitarist watched a large throng of young music fans dancing to The Rolling Stones’ funky Emotional Rescue, and it struck him that, if the Stones could successfully reimagine themselves for the new decade, then his band’s badass boogie could also be credibly overhauled.

The solution: “I came up with some ideas to make a very different album”

“To me, Billy is a true genius,” long-term ZZ Top engineer Terry Manning said in a 2021 interview in Classic Rock. “And not only musically, but also as a human being, if there is such a definition. He’s extremely philosophical, a deep thinker and musically very aware. He started to analyse why ZZ Top didn’t get played in dance clubs and concluded they were not up to the required rhythmic capabilities.

“He asked me what we could do,” Manning added. “I started going to clubs and studying beats. The market had changed quite a bit from blues-based rock’n’roll. So I came up with some ideas we could implement to make a very different album.”

The new sound: “We knew the direction we were going in, so we weren’t flying blind”

Broadly, Gibbons wanted Eliminator to incorporate the then fashionable new wave/synth-rock ethic but without sacrificing the band’s trademark sound. However, while ideas about upping the tempo of songs and adding layers of synths and drum machines were explored during pre-production for the album, most of the Eliminator songs still derived from the band’s tried and trusted methodology: lengthy jam sessions in Gibbons’ and drummer Frank Beard’s houses, where the spontaneity often sparked off a rush of creativity.

“We knew the direction we were going in, so we weren’t flying blind,” Beard later told Classic Rock. “The three of us would bash around till we got tired, sometimes by 5pm, others we’d go on to midnight. Billy would set a sheet of paper in the middle of the floor and write out lyrics on the hoof.”

The songs: “She’s got legs and she knows how to use ’em”

For the Eliminator sessions proper, ZZ Top moved to their studio of choice – Ardent, in Memphis – which had famously hot-housed classic titles from the likes of Led Zeppelin, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell and local cult heroes Big Star. The venerable complex had also sired every ZZ Top album since 1973’s Tres Hombres, and the band felt right at home there. “Ardent was such a remarkable place and a great gentlemen’s club,” Billy Gibbons told Classic Rock. “Terry Manning’s name appeared on our records, but they were really the work of the house consortium of Terry, Joe Hardy, John Hampton and the owner, Mr John Fry, rest his soul.”

Memphis – and its colourful locals – also provided inspiration for several of Eliminator’s best songs. On one occasion, the music Gibbons heard in an after-hours club moved him to hare across to Ardent at 3am to add much of the guitar filigree – including two aching solos – to the album’s centrepiece ballad, I Need You Tonight.

On a separate night out, Gibbons recalled holing up in an East Memphis bar where “a young lady walked in, wearing a painter’s white jumpsuit. As she strolled past, I saw she had the words ‘TV Dinners’ emblazoned on the back of the suit. I don’t know to this day why that was such a stimulus, but there the title of the song was.” Again determined to capture an idea the moment it arrived, Gibbons went back to his room at Memphis’ Peabody Hotel and wrote the lyrics to TV Dinners in one night.

Elsewhere, ZZ Top’s past experiences galvanised new material. The time Gibbons spent in London at the height of punk, in 1977, catalysed the high-octane stomp of I Got The Six, while further experiments with his Fairlight synth provoked a brilliantly unlikely musical motif. “We found out we could make it sound like a flat tyre going down a muddy road,” Frank Beard remembered. This new sound would characterise one of Eliminator’s biggest hits, written after the band had spotted a female driver stranded on the road, seeking help from passersby. “She’s got legs and she knows how to use ’em,” Billy Gibbons noted, and one of the best ZZ Top songs of all time was born.

The recording: “Two of us going crazy back and forth, trying out sounds and different instruments”

Giving Legs a run for its money was Eliminator’s breakout single, Gimme All Your Lovin’. Though it was based on a simple yet irresistible Stones-esque guitar riff, the song fell into place when Gibbons and co deployed more of the new electronica at their disposal in the 80s – in this case, the perfect beat of a drum machine.

During an interview with The Guardian’s Michael Hall, the ZZ Top frontman recalled experiencing a revelation when he began playing with this new piece of kit: “The crack in the code was the fact that the drum machine introduced for the first time to the listening ear close-to-perfect time, which had been the aspiration of musicians since the invention of the metronome.”

Indeed, while Eliminator was still very much the work of the Lone Star State’s most badass boogie merchants, it came with a notably more commercial sheen. The polish came from the integration of the band’s traditional analogue sound with the new digital technology – much of which was fine-honed during the album’s latter stages.

“Frank and Dusty [Hill, bassist] assigned me to the task of threading it all together,” Gibbons told Classic Rock. “A sense of importance was placed on timing and tuning. And we spent a lot of productive hours making the most of keeping that record on a good tempo.”

Noting how close he had become with Gibbons and the band’s then manager and producer, Bill Ham, engineer Terry Manning added, “The other two guys in the band played their roles before Eliminator, but in general they would just come, do their parts and go. Billy, Bill and I were involved in most of the production and engineering type things. Working with Billy was always a pleasure, and especially when we got to be just one on one, the two of us going crazy back and forth, trying out sounds and different instruments.”

The release: “We went on and had runaway success”

Released on 23 March 1983, Eliminator had become a painstaking project, its recording and fine-tuning taking the best part of a year. However, when the record finally arrived – appropriately housed in a sleeve depicting Gibbons’ custom-built 1933 red Ford Coupe – it wasn’t just roadworthy, it quickly outstripped most of the competition.

The quality of the album gave ZZ Top a head-start, but the timing of its release also played into their hands. Since the 24-hour music channel MTV had launched in 1981, the landscape had shifted. The new video medium was already starting to turn artists as diverse as Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince and Def Leppard into global stars, and it was about to do the same for that little ol’ band from Texas.

Thanks to director Tim Newman’s brilliant videos for Eliminator’s signature hits, Gimme All Your Lovin’, Legs and the stuttering, bluesy Sharp Dressed Man, ZZ Top were quickly slotted into heavy rotation on MTV. The Gimme All Your Lovin’ clip introduced all the key elements of the promo campaign surrounding Eliminator – Gibbons’ car and the golden “ZZ” keychain on its starter key; the band playing the role of comic observers while the Eliminator girls, dancer and model Danièle Arnaud and Playboy pin-up Jeana Tomasino, took centre stage.

The aftermath: “We went on and had a runaway success”

Coinciding with the Gimme All Your Lovin’ video debuting on MTV, ZZ Top’s Eliminator world tour opened in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on 7 May 1983. By the time it wound down, nine months later, the band had a truly global profile: the Gimme All Your Lovin’ promo clip had won an MTV Video award, and Eliminator had become a fixture on the UK and US charts, on its way to racking up worldwide sales of over 20 million copies. ZZ Top were now a household name.

“There was one very special moment that occurred in the UK not long after Eliminator came out,” Billy Gibbons told Classic Rock in 2021. “The BBC screened a marathon music video night, Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs were broadcast in rapid succession just as the pubs were being let out. Right there, the entire country discovered this band of renegade misfits. We went on and had a runaway success.”

Find out which ‘Eliminator’ tracks raced into the best ZZ Top songs.

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