“Sharp Dressed Man” — ZZ Top

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Photo by Thomas William on Unsplash

There’s no better soundtrack for driving down the motorway on a crisp, sunny early winter’s morning than ZZ Top. So imagine my delight when, after a particularly early start the other day, the distinctive intro for “Sharp Dressed Man” came on the radio.

I’ve always been a big ZZ Top fan and consider them one of the most underrated groups of musicians you’re ever likely to come across.

Some of that is probably because back in the 1980s they came to the attention of the MTV generation by releasing a series of videos which tended to involve attractive, scantily dressed ladies behaving provocatively.

It was no worse…in fact probably several orders of magnitude more respectful…than a modern rap video, but back in 1983 when “Sharp Dressed Man”, “Legs” and “Gimme All Your Loving” came out, some people were scandalised.

“Sharp Dressed Man”, along with “Legs” and “Gimme All Your Loving”, was one of the tracks on ZZ Top’s 1983 “Eliminator” album. Together, the band’s peerless musicianship, the aforementioned music videos and the distinctive customised Ford Coupe used on the album cover and in the music videos proved irresistible to the record-buying public.

“Eliminator” was a huge commercial success, selling over 10 million copies in the US and going platinum and multi-platinum around the world. And a critical success too, with “Eliminator” one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

I’ve always been intrigued by ZZ Top because I’ve got a thing about three-piece bands.

The Beatles set the template for modern bands as four people — drum, bass, rhythm and lead — and to this day, that remains the standard set up for a rock group.

Some groups have a keyboard player or an extra percussionist or something to bulk the numbers up…occasionally an extra drummer or rhythm guitarist…but nearly 60 years after the Beatles set the template, four people is the basic structure around which people build a band.

I’m intrigued by three-piece bands because their tighter structure means each member has to be both more creative and more talented to fill the void that in another band someone else would have picked up. Every element has to do its share of the heavy lifting and there’s nowhere to hide.

Cream probably set the template for power trios back in the 60s with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker…three of the most legendary musicians ever to have picked up their respective instruments.

I’d also throw The Who in there. Roger Daltrey really only ever sang. All the music you hear on a Who track is courtesy of three musicians, including my all-time favourite drummer Keith Moon.

So ZZ Top is in pretty august company. They’ve got one of the tightest rhythm sections you’re ever likely to hear on a record, in the shape of Dusty Hill on bass and Frank Beard on drums, alongside inspirational guitarist Billy Gibbons on both rhythm guitar and lead, often simultaneously it seems to me. 40 years after I first saw ZZ Top, I’m convinced Billy Gibbons has an extra hand somewhere just to get all the notes out…

In many ways, it’s a shame that people sometimes trivialise ZZ Top on the back of some 40 year-old MTV videos and overlook their musicianship. They’re missing out something special.

ZZ Top’s style is really stripped down. And their lyrics are too. But, like all good lyrics, they get the complete story across in as few words as possible, which is an achievement in itself…

Top coat, top hat
But I don’t worry, ‘cos my wallet’s fat
Black shades, white gloves
Looking sharp, looking for love
They come running just as fast as they can
‘Cause every girl crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man

That handful of words is all you need to form a picture in your own mind. And that’s my definition of great lyrics.

People who know more about these things than I do say Billy Gibbons is perhaps the best blues guitarist alive, which may well be true. Back in the 60s, he was in a previous band which supported Jimi Hendrix on tour and, when an interviewer asked who Hendrix’s favourite guitar players were, the first name out of Jimi Hendrix’s mouth was “Billy Gibbons”.

As a rough rule of thumb, I think if Jimi Hendrix says you’re one of the best guitar players he’s ever heard, you’re probably pretty good.

ZZ Top played Glastonbury a couple of years ago and part of their set was an amazing cover of the Hendrix song “Foxy Lady”. Very few guitar players cover Hendrix…especially not in front of thousands of people at a major music festival…largely because they don’t have the technical skills to do it justice and don’t want to look inept by comparison with one of the 20th Century’s guitar heroes.

But Billy Gibbons just took it on just like any other song and powered through it just like Hendrix would have done…perhaps with a slightly harder edge to his playing than Hendrix, but it was still a tremendous performance. (It’s not the Glastonbury performance, but to give you an idea of how well ZZ Top take on Jimi Hendrix, here’s a different live performance of “Foxy Lady”… https://youtu.be/ZmZS57QfH6E )

And of course, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was also a three-piece band — Jimi himself, plus Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. See, I told you three-piece bands were wonderful…

I wasn’t surprised to see the Glastonbury crowd jumping around to “Foxy Lady” and the other songs in the set.

I saw ZZ Top on tour about 7 or 8 years ago. After touring for 40 years, you’d expect them to be pretty good, but for just three people…no dancers, backing singers or pyrotechnics involved…to play so well that they held the entire arena in the palm of their hands for a couple of hours…well, that takes “old style” musical ability of the highest order.

Much of this in evidence in “Sharp Dressed Man”. With just two verses, one of which is repeated, “Sharp Dressed Man” is amongst other things a wonderful showcase for the musical talents of the band.

While Dusty Hill powers away on the bass and Frank Beard lays down a surprisingly intricate drum track Billy Gibbons entertains us with more licks, fills and solos than you can shake a stick at.

Gold watch, diamond ring
I ain’t missing not a single thing
Cuff links, stick pin
When I step out I’m gonna do you in
They come running just as fast as they can
’Cause every girl crazy about a sharp dressed man

You might not like the sound of the self-obsessed guy concerned only about his appearance, but that’s the point of the song. It’s poking fun at the whole concept of being a “sharp dressed man”…especially when you remember that there are hobos riding the freight cars better dressed than the members of ZZ Top usually are.

When ZZ Top do social commentary, they do it with a smile playing round their lips and a quizzical eyebrow slightly raised.

The don’t take themselves, or life generally, too seriously. But they take their music incredibly seriously which, as a group with their collective talents, they should.

While I’m not sure you’d see the members of ZZ Top in cuff links and stick pins any time soon, you can be reassured that on the back of their “Eliminator” album their wallets are definitely fat.

They might not be sharp dressed men by most definitions. But when you listen to what just three guys on stage can do all by themselves, without backing musicians, dancers and light shows, that won’t matter a bit.

Please enjoy Billy, Frank and Dusty at their very best…rather than link to the original music video, I’ve found a great live performance from a few years ago to give you an idea of what a great band ZZ Top are in front of an audience.

Here’s ZZ Top with “Sharp Dressed Man”…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/1UBQ5GK8JaQjm5VbkBZY66

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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