The iconic nature of a musical act can be judged by the speed with which you can draw a cartoon of them. The Beatles: four dark circles with offshoot side burns and maybe a pair of granny glasses. Madonna: conical bra. David Bowie: lightning bolt across a forehead and cheek. Grace Jones: black rectangle with wide eyes and big bared teeth. Slash: big hat, big sunglasses, cigarette dangling precariously from lips. Freddie Mercury: crew cut, moustache.
ZZTop are perhaps the easiest of all to draw: three faces all with sunglasses, two with rectangles of beard and hats, one with a moustache and curly hair. Like AC/DC, whose image has been defined since the beginning by Angus Young’s schoolboy uniform, the Top’s cartoonish look has given them instant brand recognition and also helped to deflect attention away from their personal lives. In the likeable documentary ‘That Little Ol’ Band from Texas’, the only dip into this area is the disclosure that drummer Frank Beard had been in rehab in the mid-seventies. There is absolutely no information about the non-Top lives of other bandmembers Billy Gibbons or Dusty Hill, a refreshing anomaly in an era when we are constantly being served the most mundane information about anyone who’s been on the telly.
According to the film, in the band’s early years, manager Bill Ham had insisted that they avoid appearing on TV as a way of developing a sense of mystery. It’s possible that Ham’s decision may have had more to do with the fact that the band consisted of three very ordinary looking men. If so, it was a good move: during a two-year hiatus from recording and touring, Gibbons and Hill grew their now trademark ultra-long beards and later adopted the sunglasses that completely masked their faces and turned them into the most instantly recognisable band in the world.
The documentary is mostly about the early years, and while that is almost always the best part of any such film, I was surprised by the speed with which the MTV mega-stardom years were glossed over. There was a little bit about discovering a new, turbo-charged, processed sound and a bit about the making of the unforgettable video for ‘Gimme All Your Loving’, which looked incredibly slick at the time, and a clip of the follow-up ‘Legs’ and then a blank. Nothing about the global success that followed, the sudden jump to stadium concerts and life at the top table, no clips from the videos of subsequent hits. Was this the result of a contractual obligation? Was the recent death of Bill Ham a factor? It reminded me of the Dolly Parton doc that omitted any mention of ‘Islands in the Stream’.
Despite this puzzling omission, the film is worth a look. The three bandmembers make for genial, self-effacing interviewees and they remain a curious rarity as 1960s garage band also-rans who became superstars in the 1980s.