Day 20 of the #mayvinylchallenge asks for an unpopular album by a popular band. It’s crazy that as popular as ZZ Top, are there’s not a lot of talk about their debut, wonderfully titled ZZ Top’s First Album, as if they were certain there would be more. One listen to that singular guitar tone and I can understand why. There may not have been a huge hit on the album (their second, Rio Grande Mud, would kick off with “Francine” and “Just Got Paid”) but you can already hear that Gibbons’s tone is there, and the rough and tumble electric blues they would come to dominate for decades was fleshed out if not fully formed from a songwriting perspective from the get-go.
After the fun but familiar opener of “(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree” Gibbons lets loose with “Brown Sugar” and it’s immediately apparent that the trio of Gibbons, Hill, and Beard have no intention of toning anything down. It’s the definition of a barn burner, just crazy groove and dirt and grind, every solos feeling like it’s poured from lava. “Squank” lays it back a little but those licks and solos, man…you can’t mistake them for anyone else.
“Goin’ Down to Mexico” gives us our first taste of Dusty Hill fully taking on lead vocal duties (he’s a co-lead on “Squank”) and as much as I love the grit of Billy Gibbons, there’s something about the clearer, open throat soar of Hill that feels like a refreshing drink of water. Side A ends with the slow blues of “Old Man” and it’s familiar 70s blues rock ballad is saved by the requisite guitar playing. Also those brief moments of harmonized vocals – few things sound so sweet.
That’s what I love about ZZ Top’s First Album: it feels more like a pure blues album than any of their other releases. When Side B kicks in with “Neighbor Neighbor” you can hear in the opening riff the kernels of what would soon become classic ZZ Top songs. The same can be said for the boogie of “Certified Blues” – and that’s kind of why I think the debut gets left behind a bit: everything sounds like it’s almost what ZZ Top became. In other words, yeah – it’s a formative album. But that’s exactly what I love about it, I love hearing a band work through some ripping early tunes and finding the small pieces that would eventually temper and punch in to the hardened steel of their signature sound. By the time “Backdoor Love Affair” closes the album it feels like ZZ Top did what they needed to do. You can hear how close they got, and it’s exciting to know what would come next.