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…
By summer 1984, Frank Zappa was already decrying MTV clichés in his ‘Be In My Video’ single (‘Pretend to be Chinese/I’ll make you wear red shoes’!).
But, away from the familiar tropes, there were trailblazing videos that set MTV on its way during the formative years. Either technically or thematically, these clips laid the groundwork right up until the end of the 1980s.
Of course they are kind of familiar, but watching them all the way through brought some interesting surprises, and even an unexpected lump in the throat area during the denouement of ‘Take On Me’…
9. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (Dir. Don Letts, released September 1982)
The first ever video shown on MTV by a Black artist. This was a huge bone of contention in MTV’s early days, not helped by their regular, disingenuous rebuttal: ‘We only play rock’n’roll’. Don Letts’ joyful film put a spanner in the works, placing the lads in front of the Houses Of Parliament, the supposed ‘postcard’ vision of London, a tribute to the influence of Black culture in the UK and a stark message to the powers that be. Letts also created a huge hit in the process, reaching #1 in the UK and #10 in the USA.
8. The Police: ‘Every Breath You Take’ (Dirs. Kevin Godley & Lol Creme, released 20 May 1983)
Strongly influenced by Gjon Mili’s 1944 short ‘Jammin’ The Blues’, this was the video that catapulted Synchronicity‘s album sales into the stratosphere and gave the band a UK and US #1. Apparently directors Godley and Creme were pretty blitzed throughout most of the filming – according to the latter, ‘The first thing we’d do when we arrived on set was roll a reefer.’ Sting was reportedly no shrinking violet either, pointing to himself and telling the directors, ‘Keep the camera on the money’!
7. ZZ Top: ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’ (Dir. Tim Newman, released August 1983)
Randy Newman’s cousin Tim helmed all of ZZ’s key videos (and Randy’s excellent ‘I Love LA’) and he masterminded this much-imitated, endlessly-rewatchable classic, giving the band a new lease of life and a lasting image as kind of ‘mythical rockers’ (apparently influenced by his reading of Joseph Campbell). But it was ZZ manager Bill Ham who laid down the law to Newman, offering two directives: ‘Use the car (Billy Gibbons’ 1933 Ford coupe) and put some girls in it.’
6. Cyndi Lauper: ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ (Dir.Edd Griles, released 6 September 1983)
Cyndi’s thing was inclusivity, and she delighted in showing a woman of every race in the video. It has echoes of John Waters’ aesthetic and the early Devo and B-52s videos, but this had a whole different vibe, apparently inspired by Lauper’s love of Jacques Tati’s 1958 film ‘Mon Oncle’.
5. Michael Jackson: ‘Thriller’ (Dir. John Landis, premiered December 1983)
‘Billie Jean’ opened the door for so many Black artists but this was pure box office and a delicious comedy/horror. Famously Michael headhunted director John Landis after watching ‘An American Werewolf In London’, giving him just one brief: ‘Can I turn into a monster?’ Landis was not interested in music videos but did like the idea of making a theatrical short. The video changed the game completely, and it’s arguable whether the dance routines have ever been bettered. It premiered on MTV on 2 December 1983 and reportedly doubled Thriller’s album sales within a few weeks of its first showing. It’s still absolutely thrilling.
4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’ (Dir. Pete Angelus, released December 1983)
Of course Metal acts were starting to make waves before this, with impactful videos by Twister Sister and Def Leppard, but ‘Jump’ laid down all the future ‘live on stage’ clichés, with balls on. Hair Metal became huge after this, and MTV adored the likes of Warrant, Winger and Bon Jovi, but none could ever match this song or Diamond Dave’s natural showmanship.
3. Madonna: ‘Borderline’ (Dir. Mary Lambert, released February 1984)
Lambert had only directed one video (Tom Tom Club’s ‘As Above So Below’) before getting her dream job on this breakout Madonna single. Madonna and Lambert discussed the video’s plot for two days in the former’s minimalist bolthole on the Upper East Side with Madonna insisting there be a Hispanic influence, necessitating moving the shoot to downtown Los Angeles. This is reportedly the first video to use black-and-white footage combined with colour; Madonna’s manager Freddy DeMann supposedly went ballistic on viewing the final cut but of course it became a video cliché, gave Lambert a successful career and Madonna her breakthrough song.
2. Lionel Richie: ‘Hello’ (Dir. Bob Giraldi, released February 1984)
Apparently director/scenarist Bob Giraldi was driven half mad by Lionel’s terminal lateness onto the set. For his part, Lionel was very sceptical about the bust. Apparently he finally plucked up the courage to approach Giraldi about it: ‘Bob, that bust does not look like me.’ There was a pregnant pause. Finally, Bob said, ‘Lionel…she’s blind.’
1. A-ha: ‘Take On Me’ (Dir. Steve Barron, released September 1985)
The song had completely flopped on its original release, so WEA gave Steve Barron a blank cheque to make a memorable video and get a hit. Working alongside rotoscope animator Michael Patterson, who did 1,800 drawings for the shoot, Barron was heavily influenced by Ken Russell’s 1981 movie ‘Altered States’. Barron knew it would work when the memorable image of an animated hand reaching out of a comic book popped into his head whilst he was bored shooting a Toto video. Apparently singer Morten Harket and lead actress Bunty Bailey fell in love during filming, becoming almost inseparable. ‘By take four, they would carry on holding hands even when we’d cut,’ remembered Barron. Aided by the video, ‘Take On Me’ became the band’s only US #1.
Further reading: ‘I Want My MTV’ by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.