Friday, July 16, 2010

July 16: ZZ Top, "La Grange"

Artist: ZZ Top
Song: "La Grange"
Album: Tres Hombres
Year: 1973

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The idea of the "guitar god" is nearly as old as the instrument itself, and over the decades, only the most elite and influential players have become worth of such a status.  From James to Hendrix to Van Halen, each of these iconic figures has their own distinct style that helped to push the art of guitar playing forward, and one can easily argue that music would not exist in its present state without each and every one of these brilliant performers.  Then of course, there is the one band that sported not one, but two legendary guitarists, and they remain today one of the most distinctive and "pure" blues-rock bands in history.  From their signature look to the dirty, yet technically superb sound they have perfected, there are few bands that are worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the pride and joy of the state of Texas: ZZ Top.  Standing as one of the most important bands that bridged the gap between blues and rock and rock (and even heavy metal to a certain extent), ZZ Top's catalog is filled with some of the most famous and unforgettable riffs in music history, and they also sport one of the most instantly recognizable sounds of any band ever.  Though nearly every one of their records is nothing short of fantastic, it is their 1973 album, Tres Hombres, that stands far above their others and is unquestionably one of the greatest albums in history.  Filled with some of the bands' most memorable tunes, there has simply never been another song that even comes close to the power and tone found on ZZ Top's iconic 1973 single, "La Grange."

Even the name of "La Grange" almost instantly brings to mind the feel and sound of the song, as there are few songs in history that have burned their way into the minds of listeners across the decades and across genres.  The core progression on the song is actually based on the main riff that appears on both John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" as well as Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips," and this fact yet again solidifies how closely the music of ZZ Top is tied to the blues roots of rock and roll.  "La Grange" also presents both sides of the persona of the band, as the opening, which is a slower, softer, yet just as sleazy sound gives way to one of the most explosive guitar progressions ever captured on tape.  The energy and passion that burst from the guitar of Billy Gibbons remain largely unrivaled to this day, and his tone has been copied by countless artists since.  Furthermore, the solo on "La Grange" has become one of the most highly sought by guitar players, proving a certain level of mastery of the instrument.  Furthermore, the rhythm section of bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard are also in rare form here, and in many ways, the trios ability to move as a single unit on "La Grange" is what would define them as a band and make them true musical legends.  It is their mastery this slightly sleazy, almost bar-band style blues that makes ZZ Top so extraordinary, and it is moments like all of "La Grange" that show the band at the top of their game.

Looking at the entire history of recorded music, one would be hard pressed to find a more perfectly matched vocalist than one finds with Billy Gibbons and his singing on a majority of ZZ Top's songs.  With his gruff, slightly growling, and often tongue-in-cheek approach, there is almost always a direct connection between the energy and style of his singing and the way in which he approaches his guitar on a particular song.  Case in point, during the opening of "La Grange," Gibbons is far more restrained, and the fantastic sense of mischief he brings to the vocals perfectly mirrors the energy of his guitar during that section.  After the song bursts into its unrestrained "main" section, his vocals bring a similar sense of freedom, as he shifts his singing into high gear both in terms of volume as well as injecting them with a far greater sense of enthusiasm.  Then again, how could one NOT bring both of these distinct emotions on a song with a subject matter such as "La Grange."  It is hardly a secret that the song refers to, or perhaps pays tribute to a "house of ill repute" that was located on the outskirts of the town of La Grange, Texas.  The bordello would go on to become known as "The Chicken Ranch" and served as the subject of the Broadway play and film, "The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas."  Though the lyrics are somewhat muddy (in a good way), there is perhaps no better way to sum up the meaning and attitude behind the song than when Gibbons sings, "...they got a lot of nice girls there, heh..."

While countless bands have attempted the "sleazy-sexy" approach to rock music, there has simply never been another band that pulled it off as perfectly or as consistently as the Texas trio known as ZZ Top.  Keeping their songs firmly rooted in the blues, they furthered the blues-based by writing a majority of their songs about more simple subjects like drinking, women, cars, and the general pursuit of being a badass.  Over the decades, the group have become icons in every sense of the word, and the tone and vibe of their music remains almost immediately recognizable.  Though they have had a number of hit songs, there is perhaps no song in the ZZ Top catalog that is more treasured than "La Grange," and in many ways, it defines everything that makes the group so fantastic.  Built around a classic, yet simple blues progression, the rhythm second of Hill and Beard give the song a sway and swagger that was unlike anything previously recorded.  The blistering guitar work placed over this by Gibbons truly pushes the song to a level all its own, and "La Grange" has become one of the most essential guitar recordings in history.  In every aspect of the song, from the sense of bravado within the vocals to the almost menacing mood of the music, the band achieves nothing short of musical perfection, and nearly four decades later, no song even comes close to the overall power of ZZ Top's iconic 1973 single, "La Grange."

1 comment:

allan said...

Bravo, well said. The perfect take on the most uniquely-perfect band in popular music today La Grange...heh.