Next up, ZZ Top Rio Grande Mud, from way back in 1972. Please don’t expect any proper criticism of this LP, I have no real objectivity where ZZ Top are concerned.
I first heard this LP when we stayed with some friends of my parents en route for a holiday in Scotland (Glen Coe and Edinburgh, mostly, since you ask), I was sleeping in their lounge and already loved Eliminator, but took the chance to spin Rio Grande Mud and a copy of West, Bruce & Laing Why Dontcha? I loved both immediately and taped them straight away and putting this LP on takes me straight back to sitting there in a sleeping bag listening to this for the first time on big, big headphones. I got around to eBaying a copy of this LP in December 2003, I must have listened to this LP quite literally thousands of times in the intervening years.
Kicking off with the sly, lusty ‘Francine’ which is a great boogie track elevated into genius by the female backing vocalists going ‘woooo’ at the end (about 2:30 in, to be precise), you can just tell this is going to be an amazing LP from the get-go. ‘Just Got Paid’ is possibly my favourite ever ZZ Top song, straddling the thin line between thuggish and cuddly, sneering and cute, this song just ROCKS. I have heard more cover versions than I care to name, but no one I have heard out there has ZZ Top’s instinctive grasp of heavy and humorous. I mean, a man’s wages are a serious, serious thing,
It’s the root of evil and you know the rest
But it’s way ahead of what’s second best
I mean just listen to the guitaring going on in this tune, it is absolute perfection. You are left wondering how a three-piece could possibly make so much noise; which is what every great trio makes me think (I never learn). The appropriately hazy ‘Mushmouth Shoutin” is up next, a heavy lysergic blues where the amps sound full of mud, from whatever source, which kicks straight into the drive and melody of ‘Ko Ko Blue’.
My next favourite is ‘Apologies to Pearly’ a sprightly blues-boogie instrumental which leaves everyone trailing in the wake, whilst vaguely sounding like they’re taking the piss. I do love this element of ZZ Top, they were clearly having so much fun throughout, making music which seems so simple, but which no band I can think of has ever come close to equalling. I mean have you ever heard a half-decent ZZ Top cover? Countless bands, some great ones too, have tried to ‘do a ZZ Top’ and just ended up sounding clumsy, lazy and crass. My view is that this is down not to Billy Gibbons’ heroics, but to Dusty Hill and Frank Beard’s awesome rhythm section which just swing and kick like no other.
The tear-strewn ballad, ‘Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell’, is just sung and played beautifully, managing to resonate with some proper emotion. The two rocking finales hit next, ‘ Whisky ‘n’ Mama’ and ‘ Down Brownie’; the latter which features a guitar tone so dirty you really should shower immediatly after hearing. Looking back, if you were looking for evidence that this band would ever break big, I would say you would pick ‘…Rain’, to prove your point that here were a gang who could do a lot more than play amped-up blues to clubs full of hairies, they had a change of gear.
Rio Grande Mud is, I think an excellent and much underrated LP. like all of ZZ Top’s best LPs it is deceptively simple. Also like all of ZZ Top’s first 6 LPs, it is just recorded so perfectly, I often think that Bill Ham is never really talked about as a great producer, but probably should have been on the evidence here and elsewhere. I’m technically ignorant enough not to know whether great guitar tone is the preserve of the guitarist, the producer or a combo of both (which seems most likely to me) but every instrument here is recorded and separated so beautifully. The man knew what he was doing.