First Time I Got The Blues…

Dusty Hill ZZ Top IMG_8128

It wasn’t easy to expand one’s musical horizons in the eighties. Napster and Spotify really made life easier for us in the 21st century.
Back then we didn’t have anyone to hold our hands and tell us “these are the good songs, these are the less good ones”. There was no one to advise that if an album has “Richard Clayderman Plays The Blues” it is probably best to put it back in the rack, although his rubbish haircut and clothes were a fairly major clue. These were mistakes you made the hard way. Inventing an excuse to return an unwanted record to the shop became an art form. You had to:

  1. choose a sympathetic sales person (which in record shops was harder than it sounds),
  2. not do it too often and
  3. concoct a convincing story around an almost-invisible skip, click or warp.

Purchases were agonised over. I didn’t have a complicated algorithm to recommend to me what to buy next based on my previous purchases and what other like-minded people had purchased. You know the thing, “Customers who bought Muddy Waters’ “Live at Newport” also bought BB King’s “Live at the Regal”.
Instead, I had a complicated goth/ punk teenage girl sulkily manning the counter at the local Our Price. Judging by her countenance she spent much of her time thinking “I wish I hadn’t pierced my nose a fourth time”. When she wasn’t doing that, she would look at me (and the other customers) with distain as I browsed silently though the half dozen albums that formed the “Blues / Jazz” section. “Other people who purchased “The Best of BB King” had bad body odour and looked just as much of a loser as you do”, I imagined her thinking…
It’s a confusing category is “Blues/Jazz”. I didn’t know whether Charlie Parker was blues or jazz, until the Clint Eastwood directed film “Bird” showed on TV…
I also didn’t have a vast supply of five pound notes to splurge on a random voyage of discovery. Every purchase of a record was a huge decision to be carefully considered, compared and thought through. I think I agonised more over buying my first Aerosmith LP than I did my first house. I know one is more important than the other: clearly you have to live with your LPs for longer than you do mere property…
My first exposure to blues guitar was through a couple of old ZZ Top blues/boogie records, bought by a friend of mine. I taped them. I’m sorry, it’s just what we did back then.
ZZ Top need little introduction, albeit for some they are trapped in eighties amber with synth-heavy guitars and some videos featuring two girls and one car. To the uninitiated that might sound pretty filthy especially if you throw in a key-ring and a few beards, but they really aren’t *those* sort of videos.
After that initial excitement, ZZ Top could have just been an MTV footnote, but the beardy-cartoon band we see in Back To The Future 3 is not the whole story.
Let’s give a potted history through a couple of panels of Rock n Roll Comics:

Billy Gibbons impresses Hendrix:

ZZ Top Jimi Hendrix guitar
Meets Frank and Dusty:

ZZ Top Frank meets Dusty
Release series of Texas blues albums to decent success:

ZZ Top Tush comics
They meet Pink Floyd with disastrous consequences.

ZZ Top meet Pink Floyd Roger Waters
No, I didn’t know about that last incident either. Rock n Roll comics certainly knew how to tell a tale.

The ZZ Top I really love is the one you hear on the likes of Tres Hombres and Deguello. It’s Texas blues, pure and simple. This is a band whose formative musical experiences involved listening to late night Mexican radio from over the Texas border, which played all the blues songs you couldn’t hear on US Top 40 stations. Later, Dusty Hill played with Jimmy Reed and Freddie King before forming ZZ Top. They played with Willie Dixon in 1971 and Muddy Waters opened for ZZ Top on a number of dates in 1976. *

When I built back up my vinyl collection a few years ago, Tres Hombres and Deguello were both early (and inexpensive) additions. This takes me to the crux of this article: The way I have discovered most old blues songs is through hearing more modern versions of old classics. Classics, it should be said, I didn’t know existed. Blues is like that: everyone plays each others’ tunes. Sometimes they even give credit to the writers… The album “Deguello” is a favourite of mine and it has two covers: the Elmore James tune on Chess Records “Dust My Broom” and the RnB of “I Thank You” by Sam and Dave, originally released on the Stax label.

ZZ Top’s version of the latter is true to the original, but somehow sounds less wholesome – in a good way. And whilst I say “the Elmore James tune”,  in fact “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” was recorded by Robert Johnson in 1937, but has roots that go back even earlier than this.** That’s what is great about the blues: the way songs are passed down through the generations, albeit this is not without its controversies.
So the question is, which blues songs have the best originals AND updated versions? And how has a medium such as blues – where there is such a tradition of passing down songs from one singer to the next – dealt with modern day concepts such as copyright? I’ll look at that another time…

 ZZ Top: Thank You

Sam and Dave: Thank You

* Source: Rock Lives by Timothy White
** ZZ Top’s version is based upon James’ electric version rather than Johnson’s country blues.

ZZ Top

Panels credit: Rock n Roll Comics



Categories: Blues

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Love the comic and very well written

    Like

  2. This is as good a time as any to tell this story. I’ll leave out some essential details to protect the innocent.

    After my first girlfriend and I had broken up, I met another girl. She had also just broken up with her first boyfriend, but they had been together for 5 years (she was 19 when we met—young and experienced, which is an ideal combination) and my girlfriend and I had been together for just half a year. So, I was looking for a long-term relationship and she wasn’t. Had we met at another time, I think it quite likely that we would still be together today.

    I’ve liked all my girlfriends, and thought them all beautiful, but this one was one whom practically everyone thought was beautiful. In contrast to my other girlfriends, she was rather thin. (I actually prefer those a bit plumper, but this is the least important criterion and I certainly would never choose my girlfriend based on how she looks, so a thin girl was not a problem.) She wasn’t thin in an anorexic sense, but more like a well trained marathon runner. She was taller than I (wow!) and had long blonde hair and green eyes and just a few freckles. Probably everyone who has seen her has thought that they have never seen a more beautiful woman anywhere. Really. She was that stunning.

    I was wondering when I would wake up from the dream, but it was really happening. This was the 1980s, but she was neither punk nor new-wave but rather a cross between a hippie and a hard rock/heavy metal girl. In other words, ideal. She was also very nice, very intelligent. Did I say perfect? On the one hand I was thinking that she was way out of my league, but on the other hand she had said that in her modelling work (which she did on the side—work a few hours and finance her next two-week overseas holiday, literally) she often met superficial people who didn’t care about her personality but only about her perfect body. Music was one of our main common interests, and she seemed genuinely impressed at my knowledge of bands she liked. And, yes, I would have liked her even if she had looked completely different, so maybe non-superficial admiration really was mutual. At the time, I was visually a hippy (sex: yes, hair and beard: yes, rock music: yes, drugs: no, mysticism: no) with hair as long as hers and I wasn’t in the habit of trimming my beard (hence the tie-in to ZZ Top).

    When we met, she was having a week of final exams at school (not just for the year, but the final exams before graduation). We went to bed early (actually, we spent most of the day and of course all of the night in bed) but didn’t sleep early. Amazingly, she woke up early, went to school to write the exam, then came back to me, who was of course waiting for her. I slept substantially later, then explored her substantial record collection until she came back. It was alphabetical, and I started at the left and worked my way through, looking at the covers (this was just after CDs had come out, so most stuff was vinyl), reading the lyrics, and listening to songs which seemed interesting, mainly ones I wasn’t familiar with. Thus, it wasn’t until the end of the week that I got to the end of the collection, and noticed that she had all albums from ZZ Top, the only such case in her entire collection. It then occurred to me that perhaps she found me as striking visually as I found her, and that I had been fulfilling her ultimate fantasy these past few days. Dust my broom indeed!

    Unfortunately, we lost touch with each other. One day she rang her agent and said she wanted some work; a couple of days later, she put in a few hours in front of the camera and had enough money to go on holiday to celebrate her graduation. While she was away, I met another girl, but it was clear to both that this was just a temporary fling, then another one whom it would have been nice to still have, but it didn’t work out, although we lived together for several years. I did meet the tall blonde girl at a Santana concert a few months later, but that was the last time I saw her.

    One might think that these days it would be easy to find someone on the internet. In her case, it’s not. Her first name is quite common. She might have another last name now. Her last name then was not that common, so one might think there would be hope, but there is someone else with the same first name/last name combination with very many references on the internet, so even if she still has the same last name I could probably never find her. (I can’t be any more specific since this would give her away and she might not want that.)

    Like

  3. Classic, I worked both sides of the music return exchange….as a kid and as a Tower Records employee…I already knew all the tricks cause I invited em.

    Like

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