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Fandango!: How ZZ Top Got Fans Up Off Their Tush
In Depth

Fandango!: How ZZ Top Got Fans Up Off Their Tush

Establishing ZZ Top’s live credentials while giving them their true-grit hit, the ‘Fandango!’ album took the Lone Star heroes to the world.

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Best-known for their oversized beards, sleazy guitar riffs and those iconic 80s music videos, ZZ Top were once just a little ol’ band from Texas carving out a name for themselves on the national circuit. Their aptly named debut, ZZ Top’s First Album, established their unimpeachable blues-rock credentials, but it wasn’t until their breakthrough third record, 1973’s Tres Hombres, that the trio began to hint at the stadium-filling juggernaut they would be come. It’s follow-up, Fandango!, a half-live, half-studio release, provides evidence not only of some of those early legend-building performances, but of ZZ Top’s first true leap towards classic-rock immportality.

Listen to Fandango! here.

“A hurricane took the roof off our heads!”

Deep into the tour for Tres Hombres, ZZ Top’s manager and producer, Bill Ham, pushed for a follow-up record that would keep momentum going. The demands of touring had, however, limited the band’s songwriting opportunities. With only a handful of new tracks under their belts, Ham came up with a creative solution: the hybrid Fandango!, which took up the torch from Tres Hombres while showing two sides of the Lone Star State threesome.

Released on 18 April 1975, the first half of the album dives into ZZ Top’s roots with a snapshot from a 1974 set from The Warehouse, New Orleans. Having played host to bands like Grateful Dead and Fleetwood Mac plus Jim Morrison’s final live appearance with The Doors, the 30,000 square foot music venue on Tchoupitoulas Street had seen more than its share of rock’n’roll history by the time ZZ Top took the stage. Though the building was demolished in 1989, the group’s appearance – which took place, fittingly, during Mardi Gras – was auspicious.

“A hurricane had come through New Orleans and took the roof off our heads,” ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons recalled. “We knew we had found the right place to play!”

Bassist Dusty Hill was more succinct in his assessment: “We thought we did it!”

True-grit form

ZZ Top didn’t blow the roof off the sucker, but they did show up in true-grit form. Fandango! opens with a high-octane rendition of an original number, Thunderbird, before slipping into a guttural reinterpretation of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock. As if suddenly being taken hold by a drug trip, the live set then flies off the rails with Backdoor Medley, a nine-minute workout that includes a song apiece from blues legends Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker – Mellow Down Easy and Long Distance Lover, respectively. The former is anything but mellow: as drummer Frank Beard tests the limits of his kick pedal, Hill slips into a hazy, trance-like ramble before handing it back to Gibbons for Long Distance Lover.

Scant as it may have been, the new material that made up Fandango!’s second half was worth the wait. Nasty Dogs And Funky Kings kicks it all off with sonic precision, Hill and Beard’s rhythm grooving just underneath Gibbons’ snarling vocals and sizzling guitar, while Balinese’s 4/4 stomp serves as a perfect vehicle for Dusty Hill’s throwback lyrics. But none of these quite prepares the listener for what continue to stand as two of ZZ Top’s finest moments on record.

“It would bury everything else”

An homage to the glory days of outlaw radio along the US-Mexican border, Heard It On The X channels a time when renegade broadcasters built and operated super-powered “Border Blaster” stations whose signals were powerful enough to beam from Mexico right into the States. Before ZZ Top even met, they were in thrall to the music spun on the likes of Ciudad Acuña’s XERF and Rosarito Beach’s XERB – radio stations whose leading call letters inspired Heard It On The X’s title. “It was just outrageous,” Gibbons later said of XERF’s reach. “You could pick it up everywhere… And it would bury everything else.”

Fandango! saves its own super-powered best for last. Delivering one of rock’n’roll’s most recognisable guitar riffs, Tush closed out the album while catapulting the band to new heights. ZZ Top’s first US Top 40, it was, in Dusty Hill’s estimation, proof that bands should always keep recording.

“We used to record all of our soundchecks on a little cassette, just in case we came up with something,” Hill recalled. “We’d just be farting around, doing old songs or new songs, whatever. Billy started playing that riff and I started singing. What came off the top of my head, to show you how demented I am, I mean, they’re not exactly Bob Dylan-type lyrics. Only a couple of words were ever changed before we recorded it. It’s just like we did it at that soundcheck.”

“Bringing Texas to the people”

As unorthodox as Fandango! was, it showcases the swagger and style of ZZ Top in their flamboyant “Nudie Suited” element. While the album’s live half added an extra dimension to a band that felt largely misunderstood, the studio recordings offered a taste of what would come, as the trio sought to break out from the “just another Southern blues-rock band” mould the critics had cast them in.

Having asserted their live prowess on record, it was time to go back out and surpass themselves on the road. The Worldwide Texas Tour pledged to “bring Texas to the people” – quite literally, thanks to a 35-tonne stage built in the shape of their home state. Trucked into the stadiums and arenas ZZ Top were now commanding, their set included a real-life Longhorn steer, along with a range of Texas critters – buzzards, rattlesnakes, tarantulas and vultures – which prowled the stage as the band unleashed their latest roof-raising riffs upon audiences across the US.

Both the answer to negative criticism surrounding Texas, and a tongue-in-cheek response to the outlandish productions that had become a hallmark of 70s rock, the Worldwide Texas Tour took in almost 100 shows across 18 months, topping out as one of the highest-grossing US tours of the 1976. Though the shows never made it across the Atlantic, word about the band had started to travel. ZZ Top would soon eliminate all competition.

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