I have a love / hate relationship with this record. On the one hand, I might not have discovered the joys of early ZZ Top if it weren’t for the global success of this 1983 multi-million seller. On the other hand, the change in approach to recording the album and its overall sound – vastly different to anything they had recorded previously – is sometimes a little too much to absorb.
The first four ZZ Top records – ZZ Top’s First Album, Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres and Fandango! – are, in my eyes, untouchable. Southern-fried, boogie blues, heavily influenced by the three Kings – B.B., Albert, and Freddie – the Texas trio developed their own sound across these records, and by 1979’s Degüello, had complimented this with guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill’s iconic overgrown beards.
Eliminator, taking its cue from New Wave, was recorded with synthesisers, drum machines and sequencers which permeate the record. This wasn’t the first time they had experimented with this sort of technology though. On the band’s previous record, 1981’s El Loco, Gibbons had toyed around with a synth on a couple of tracks, and despite that album selling only half as much as its predecessor, it’s incredible that they utilised synths more, not less, on its follow-up.
Much of Eliminator was recorded at 124bpm, the tempo that considered perfect for dance music by the band’s associate Linden Hudson. An aspiring songwriter, former DJ and – at the time – drummer Frank Beard’s house-sitter, Hudson’s involvement in the recording of the album would come back to haunt them. Despite assisting Gibbons with the pre-production and developing of the material that would end up on both El Loco and Eliminator, his contribution wasn’t credited when either record was released. Not surprisingly, with Eliminator registering such a hit, Hudson sued the band. The case was settled in 1986, awarding $600,000 to Hudson and crediting him the copyright to just one of the record’s eleven songs, Thug.
I’ve written before about whether the approach – and marketing – of Eliminator can be deemed as the band ‘selling out’. When you consider the poor sales of El Loco, it doesn’t actually seem probable that the band were chasing sales by continuing to experiment with technology that was alien to them. Then you see the glossy MTV videos of this era of ZZ Top, and it’s difficult not to judge them on such a 180° change in direction.
Thankfully, the band appears to have left that era well and truly behind them. Over the last couple of decades, they’ve performed yet another u-turn, back in the direction they were originally heading. 2012’s La Futura showed the band returning to the swampy blues of their youth, but complimented by the songwriting maturity that they perfected over their MTV years. Thumbs up, and hitch-hiking thumb out, for this direction of ZZ Top.
Hit: Gimme All Your Lovin’
Hidden Gem: I Need You Tonight