This long-distance dedication goes out to Jon Grayson, host of Overnight America, friend of Tha ‘Dose, and all-around cool guy and decent human being. Last time I represented this fine publication on Jon’s show, we engaged in a bit of banter about the power ballad arts, and he singled out one particular song as being the nadir of both the band that created the song, and of the genre in general.
His exact words, more or less, were, “I still point to a lot of those power ballads as ‘Songs that Any Given Band Should Never Have Recorded,’ and my favorite example of that is ZZ Top’s ‘Rough Boy.'” To bolster his point, Jon revealed that he comes from the “Jesus Just Left Chicago” school of ZZ Top fandom, hinting that something as ballady as “Rough Boy” is anathema to such a fan.
I concede that listeners who fly the flag for the band’s early blues/boogie/livestock-on-the-stage work may have a problem with the synthy slow burn of “Rough Boy.” Their vision of ZZ Top was a vision of blues-bustin’ rodeo escapees, chugging around the dusty back roads of Texas’ roadhouse circuit, soaked in mezcal, tuned in to border radio, and exhaling barbeque smoke. Their band is the one that started their recording career with a song called “Somebody Else Been Shakin’ Your Tree” (still my favorite Top track) and loaded albums like Deguello, El Loco, and Tres Hombres with odes to cheap sunglasses, tube snakes, tushes, and ejaculating on prostitutes.
They’re the ones that looked somewhat askance as ZZ Top incorporated synths into their sound, sneakily at first, on El Loco, then more overtly, on the behemoth Eliminator album. Still, who among the fans of the band’s more organic beginnings could argue with tracks as obviously rockin’ as “Gimme All Your Lovin'” or “Party on the Patio?” No one who didn’t want to get a bottle of Shiner cracked over their head, pawtnuh.
El Loco‘s “Leila,” though, bode ill for those who were listening closely—it was a ballad, and a weepy one at that. The boys must’ve liked it a lot, because they essentially remade it on 1985’s Afterburner, albeit with a lot more in the way of drum machines and keyboards, and called it “Rough Boy.”
Now, by ’85, rock bands were no longer scared of putting a synth on their records; in fact, it was becoming rather passé. Arguably the finest American hard rock band of the era, Van Halen, had done it best on their 1984 album, and it had become de rigueur for even the ballsiest, rudest, Satan-loving metal bands to drop a keyboard into the mix.
I can see why Jon and like-minded Top fans might not dig this development. The Top went, well, over the top on Afterburner, throwing layered keyboards, juked-up drum machines, the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, the gutters and downspouts, and the studio toilet all into the oddly sterile soundscape.
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Exhibit A: “Rough Boy.” With its Korg-generated pulse and NASA-approved cloud of spooky keys, virtually anybody could have been playing behind frontman Billy Gibbons; indeed, ol’ Billy’s voice and guitar are the only real Top totems in the song. But any Top is good Top, even with the alien electronics. Gibbons’ vocal is all hushed and vulnerable, almost sleepy, accompanied on occasional harmony by Jimi Jamison, whose band, Survivor, had the keyboard-and-guitar thing down pat.
Ah, the guitar—yes, let’s discuss that. Gibbons’ two solos on the track do battle with the rest of the instruments, pitting those instruments’ calming sheen against a dollop of melt-yo’-backside Texas blues. Guess which one wins? Sure, this is Gibbons dialed back to maybe 6, but it’s more than enough to redeem anything that comes before or after it. Scientists will one day study these solos, looking for the organisms within them that generated life-sustaining energy to “Rough Boy,” resuscitating the track like a couple live defibrillator paddles to the chest.
You can argue that ZZ Top shoulda never left planet Earth for whatever spacey clime on which they recorded “Rough Boy,” but you cannot argue against the rocket-fueled blues essence of Gibbons and his gee-tar, nor of their almost spirit-filled redeeming qualities that rescue “Rough Boy” from the ignominious snoozefest it could have been, turning it into the cool slice of power ballad goodness it became.
So, Jon, my friend, while I understand your point of view, I respectfully disagree. And just to show you there are no hard feelings, I’ll even throw in a live version of “Rough Boy,” for good measure. Enjoy!