By John Q. Adams III
My first ZZ Top concert was at Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium on April 1, 1980. The Aud was hardly an ideal live music venue, but for my third concert ever it was still an exciting experience. My memories of that show were recently revisited when I watched the ZZ Top: Live in Germany 1980 DVD. It’s a good bet that the April 20, 1980 German gig is pretty close to what I saw and perhaps why I enjoyed it so much.
The show — filmed at the Grugahalle in Essen, Germany for the Rockpalast TV series just after the release of their classic Deguello album — captures the band “before sequencers and synthesizers, epitomizing their ‘lil’ ol’ blues band from Texas’ nickname.” In addition to a number of choice Deguello tracks, the set is complemented by tracks drawn predominantly from their Tres Hombres and Fandango! albums.
I think the key here is “...before sequencers and synthesizers....”.
By 1980, these three cats had been at it for 10 years and were a pretty tight little unit. 1979’s Degüello was the first ZZ Top album I purchased in a store (I had the previous LPs but probably ordered them through Goldmine or maybe from a record club) and I was really stoked to learn that they were coming to Buffalo. This would be my third concert — my first two were KISS at the Aud in 1978 and 1979 — and I was wondering what kind of show a band put on without all the blood and fire.
I’ll be darned — seems like this one started with fire after all. Blacked out stage with fiery logo below the drum riser with horns playing over the PA. Did all bands incorporate fire of some sort into their show? (Actually no, as I learned at a Bob Seger show five months later.)
And then they start right into “I Thank You.” Got the choreographed moves going right off the bat and Billy and Dusty are scooting around the stage in some kind of slipper-looking wrestling shoes. But the playing is solid and this is gonna be a real nice time.
Two songs later and we’re at “Jesus Just Left Chicago” — a favorite of mine (I always liked it and not just as the second part of a two-fer) and one of the bluesier things these guys have ever done. But not the bluesiest. No, that’ll come two songs after...
“Manic Mechanic.” Two things about this one. First, the gravelly vocals by Gibbons. In listening to the LP, I always thought there was some kind of Frampton "Do You Feel" voice thing going on but in watching the video, it seems like it’s just Billy growling it out. Makes it even cooler, you ask me. Second, the line “Have mercy Miss Percy, I done put the coon tune on this bet/(vette)”. That always stuck me as a bit racist but I read somewhere that “coon tune” is Hot Rod slang for modifying a car which is keeping with the theme of the song.
OK, “Fool For Your Stockings.” This one stands out to me due to a radio broadcast of the May 4, 1980 show at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NY. Gibbons introduces the song saying “Blues time in the Capitol Theater, right now!” and any time I hear “FFYS,” I say those words to myself. It’s almost like that introduction is a part of the song and is hardwired into my brain. (I’m guessing he probably said “Blues time in Buffalo” or something similar at the show I attended, but if so it’s lost to me, whereas the Capitol Theater line has stuck with me.) I was familiar with the song since it was on Degüello but I had no idea what kind of monster it would turn into live.
When the Reverend Willie G. started into his “Those $15.95 come see me at midnight stockings” sermon, at the 3:10 mark in the clip below, I was slack-jawed. Where did this come from? That ain’t on the album! “The Green Cross. The Black Cross. The Heavy Cross...” What the hell?!... By the time he was finished, I was just about ready to jump up screaming “Testify!!” As I mentioned, I had been to a couple KISS shows so I knew that between song banter was a given (Paul Stanley, right?!...) but this was some little speech right in the middle of a song. Quite a mind blower at the time, I’m here to tell you.
One song after that and then we get “El Diablo.” For me this is a nice little number. Off the Tejas LP, it didn’t really grab me originally but viewing it all these years later it has some nice guitar work and is a pretty decent song. A hidden gem, really.
After three more songs comes La Grange. Is there anyone who doesn’t know the “Hown, hown, hown..” beginning of this beauty? Tho’ to be honest, the intro on this one reminded me of the 1977 Brownsville Station tune “The Martian Boogie.” A nice bit of slide guitar by Billy on this one too, by the way.
At this point the band takes a short break (with backstage footage on the DVD) before returning to the stage and introducing The Lone Wolf Horns to play along on “She Loves My Automobile.” The Lone Wolf Horns is a projection of the band playing horns on a screen behind drummer Frank Beard, who seems especially taken with this technology and continuously looks back at the screen. The Horns stick around for “Hi Fi Mama” and then two songs later we get a spirited rendition of “Jailhouse Rock” which goes into “Tush,” a tune with probably Billy’s best known slide work.
Another short break and the band returns to play a rolicking version of “Tube Snake Boogie” (studio version released a year later on 1981’s El Loco) and finishes with “Just Got Paid” (with more sweet slide and the cool lyric “If you believe in working hard all day, just step in my shoes and take my pay.”)
Including a song that had yet to appear on an album and playing 9/10s of their latest release might seem like a surefire yawner of a show, but being in the audience back then and watching the Rockpalast DVD now, I realize this was one of my favorite shows as a teen.
The 1980 show was originally released in 2009 as part of a two-disc Double Down Live set but is now available separately. The other disc in the DDL set features 11 live numbers shot during their European tour in 2008 along with interview clips and backstage footage.
At the risk of sounding like Grandpa Simpson, they sure knew how to do it back in the day...