-ZZ Top, “Brown Sugar”
I hate to play favorites, but from day one, I’ve been a fan of Legacy Recordings’ “complete albums” concept. The slick packaging of an artist’s classic albums in one package, with nicely-crafted mini jackets, replicated label art on disc and the always promising idea of bonus content is often too good to pass up. I’m probably not the typical target buyer – really, when am I ever – but as someone hungry to dive in with a beloved band, these boxes really do the trick.
I’ve often hoped to see other labels follow suit on the concept, and the newest catalogue project from Rhino, ZZ Top’s The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990 (Warner Bros. 8122-79664-2), is exactly what I’m getting at. This little set is the one to buy if you’re looking to cannonball into the Texas trio’s brand of Southern-smoked boogie.
ZZ Top are one of those bands that just know how to keep their fan base. The lineup of lead singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard hasn’t changed in four decades – nor has their commitment to raw, good-time 12-bar blues. With Hill and Beard as a whip-cracking rhythm section, Gibbons allows his six-string skills to shine in a way that few other rock guitarists allow. He’s distinctive without laying it on too thick – just flashy enough to stay ahead of the pack. From rockin’ singles like “La Grange,” “Tush” and “Sharp Dressed Man” to lesser-known cuts like the ballads “Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell” or “I Need You Tonight,” Gibbons – and, by extension, ZZ Top – are a master of their craft.
Keep reading about the “little ol’ band from Texas” after the jump, and find out what else we like about the box, too!
What makes this consistency all the more interesting is that they not only survived but thrived in the ’80s – a time where their overdub-light production style could have easily been laughed off the Warner Bros. Records roster – by embracing current trends. After seven down ‘n’ dirty studio albums, starting on 1981’s El Loco, the trio began adding guitar and drum effects to their already-catchy tunes; follow-up Eliminator (1983) was their most perfect blend of art with artifice, enhancing the songs with synth undercurrents and shooting fun music videos to advertise their singles on the nascent MTV. To see ZZ Top – a trio clad in dusters and sunglasses, with Gibbons and Hill (but not Beard, in one of rock’s greatest ironies) sporting waist-length beards – posing and playing alongside cool cars and gorgeous models remains one of the network’s greatest success stories.
Revisiting Eliminator within this box set (a CD/DVD collector’s edition of the album was released years back), it’s amazing to hear how comparatively natural the record really sounds. The synth pads and splashy drums don’t undermine the band’s songcraft or ability as players; Beard’s drums, to note just a third of ZZ Top, were already that precise. It was post-Eliminator that the band earned any backlash they got: follow-up albums Afterburner (1985) and, to a lesser extent, Recycler (1990) seem far more impressed with studio trickery than some soulful, Texas-style blues.
And then there was The ZZ Top Six Pack. In 1987, Warner reissued six of the band’s albums on a three-CD set, remixing and overdubbing them to sound as if the studio trickery was always part of their sound. It obviously wasn’t – but it was an accidental stroke of revisionist history that really prevented the band from getting their true recognition in the CD era. (All individual CD pressings of the albums – save for the inexorably spared Degüello and the already-overdubbed El Loco – used these inferior masters; before this box set, only Tres Hombres and Fandango had been properly restored on CD.)
Therein lies yet another joy of The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990. Even if you’ve owned these records before – and if you’re the buyer Rhino’s likely looking for, you surely have – you’ve never quite heard them like this on CD, ever. These mixes are well-represented on these discs; although no mastering credits are given, they sound pretty darn good. (Fans have noted disparities in volume between discs; it’s honestly not enough to bother this listener, who’s satisfied that nothing on here is terribly pumped up to play loud on CD.)
This is a box that really lets the music do the talking. Design is strong if a tad minimal: the flip-up box simply collages all ten albums with the familiar Eliminator-era ZZ Top logo, no booklet is included, and the CD wallets, while featuring great scans of the original album sleeves (and, in one case, a gatefold sleeve), are not printed on the same kind of sturdy stock that Legacy uses on their complete boxes. (One humorous packaging detail: disc labels recreate not the original LP art for London and Warner Bros. but the way ’80s, text-based layout for Warner Bros.’ earliest CDs!)
For the absolute completists, The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990 is maybe 90 to 95 percent of everything the band put out for the label. Depending on how literal you take our phrasing, you’re missing the two tracks from 1992’s Greatest Hits, the ’80s-era single mixes (some of which were included on Rhino’s Chrome Smoke and BBQ box set and the bonus live tracks from reissues of Tres Hombres, Fandango and Eliminator. But (outside, perhaps, the great single mix of “Legs”) those are minor quibbles.
I’m still not sure of the type of buyers who are snapping up boxes like these, but if future sets are made with the kind of quality and collectible factor ZZ Top’s The Complete Albums 1970-199o – well, then it’s an idea that can only grow in viability over time.
Order your copy of this great box from Amazon right here!