Deep Dive: ZZ Top, ELIMINATOR
By 1982, ZZ Top was ready for change. They'd gotten experimental with 1981 release, El Loco, to a muted response. It only sold about half as many copies as the band's previous full-length, Deguello.
Where many groups would turn tail and return to their signature sound to get things back on track, ZZ Top rolled the dice and leaned into their newfound love of high-end studio technology. It was during a European tour when guitarist Billy Gibbons found himself in a nightclub with a packed dance-floor moving to the sounds of the Rolling Stones' 1980 single, "Emotional Rescue." That's when the light bulb went off.
"He's extremely philosophical, a deep thinker and musically very aware. He started to analyze why ZZ didn't get played in dance clubs, and concluded that they were not up to the required rhythmic capabilities," explained the band's long-time engineer, Terry Manning, years later. "He asked me what we could do. I started going to clubs and studying beats. The market had changed quite a bit from blues-based rock 'n' roll. So I came up with some ideas we could implement to make a very different album."
In a case of timing really being everything, ZZ Top released Eliminator on March 23, 1983, which is when fledgling cable channel MTV was exploding onto pop culture. The album's mix of dirty blues riffs and dance-floor-friendly drum machine rhythms was just the ticket. Using Gibbons' own custom red 1933 Ford coupe with a Corvette engine from the album cover as the centerpiece of the music videos, the clips went on to become synonymous with the fledgling network.
Blasting out of the gate with lead single "Gimme All Your Lovin,'" ZZ Top's first Eliminator single crashed the top 40 to peak at #37 for the week of May 21, 1983. But those countless spins on MTV helped sear the band's new image of hi-tech hot-rods, headless guitars and turbo-charged blues-rocker onto public consciousness.
"Tim was a great director," Gibbons said of Tim Newman, who handled the band's video's for "Gimme All Your Lovin,'" "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Legs." "By which I mean to say he told us we weren't much to look at, and so we'd need some pretty girls in the mix to sweeten up the story. He brought along a picture book of models to our first meeting. I said to him: 'Well, slow down here, and let's take this page by page.'"
"Sharp Dressed Man" served as the second track in the Eliminator video trilogy. While the song stalled at #56 on the Hot 100, the video was a massive hit, propelling it to #8 on the Mainstream Rock Songs chart. "Legs" completed the visual trilogy, with the track cruising up the charts to peak at #8 on the Hot 100 for the week of July 21, 1983. It's also the video where the band debuted the legendary spinning fuzzy guitars.
"When Legs popped, everything went kind of fast and furious," revealed bass player Dusty Hill. "As Billy likes to say, some people put on a false beard as a disguise, but we couldn't do that. Frank pretty much stopped hanging with me, because I would draw crowds wherever I went. But you can either enjoy a thing like that or let it eat you up. We decided to enjoy it. And it was a hell of a ride."
Eliminator was the change--and hit--that ZZ Top was looking for, peaking at #9 on the Billboard 200 for the week of November 11,1983. The #1 album in America that week: The Police's Synchronicity.