So here we are. ZZ Top’s breakthrough album, 20 million sales and counting. Not bad for a lil’ ole blues’n’boogie trio from Texas.
But Eliminator, released 40 years ago this week, also carries some controversy around with it. As they say: where there’s a hit, there’s a writ.
Along with Sgt. Pepper’s, Roxy’s Flesh & Blood and a few others, it was one of the first albums your correspondent remembers enjoying all the way through. And, if you were a burgeoning drummer, ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’’ was the one all your schoolmates wanted you to play.
It’s a lesser known bit of 1980s muso gossip that ZZ guitarist/chief vocalist Billy Gibbons was one of the first major figures to get hold of a Fairlight synth/sampler. He experimented with it on the band’s 1981 album El Loco, but that was a stiff, selling half as many copies as 1979’s Deguello.
It was time for a rethink. First port of call – the beats. It wasn’t easy to dance to ZZ. Gibbons asked chief engineer Terry Manning to research new grooves, so he hit the discos. Inspired by OMD, Devo, Human League, Depeche Mode et al, Manning bought an Oberheim DMX drum machine and the band started working up new material in their Memphis bolthole.
Moving to drummer Frank Beard’s home studio in Houston, a chap called Lindon Hudson helped a lot with the new technology and songwriting (uncredited on Eliminator, he later won substantial damages after a lawsuit). He also claimed 124 beats-per-minute was the sweetspot.
A move to Memphis’s Ardent Studios saw Gibbons hit the city’s after-hours joints. ‘TV Dinners’ was apparently inspired when a woman entered a club wearing a white jumpsuit with those words emblazoned on the back. He also claimed that ‘I Got The Six’ was inspired by a visit to peak-punk London in 1977.
All in all, Eliminator took about a year to make. It still has many pleasures, Gibbons’ blues soloing and frequent surreal vocal interjections/lyrics chief amongst them. Gibbons and Dusty Hill also play in some strange, unguitar-friendly keys, possibly because some of the material was written on keyboards. Try playing along.
Gibbons’ 1933 Ford coupe on the cover was a tax write-off and helped to make Tim Newman’s vids for ‘Legs’, ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ and ‘Gimme’ bona fide 1980s classics.
The band’s nine-month world tour kicked off in May 1983, aided by Manning’s beefy sound mix courtesy of the album’s four-track masters.
It’s fair to say that Eliminator massively influenced Prince, the Stones, Van Halen and Def Leppard, and arguably changed the way rock artists used technology forever. Happy 40th birthday to a 1980s classic. But hey, don’t forget to credit Manning and Hudson…